Emperor Cao Pi breaks his own rules of writing all the time. Cao writes to bury himself. He carefully puts each piece of his bones into a shallow hole in a disorderly way that violates codes of a pure and elegant burial. Bones seem unrelated to one another, diverging from literature critiques to mystic arts, from inscriptions of swords to food studies; on the other hand, every bone belongs to Cao’s own body. In his will, Cao orders a plain burial without treasures or human sacrifices; the imperial mausoleum shall look like a wasteland with no trees nor memorials over it. Cao makes every endeavor to avoid the attention that could lead to grave robbery prevailing at his time. In contrast, the will is the last layer of soil sprayed onto the mental grave, so thin that it hardly covers pale bones. Cao yearns for later generations to dig into his grave and pick up his ideas buried in his writings, the grave of himself where he becomes complete. A good grave would not be useful for anyone but the dead at the moment of burying the body, yet what will the useless grave become in the future? The standard of literature keeps changing through time. How can we, both as gravediggers of our time and grave robbers of the past, recognize the true value of this grave of writers?
Cao holds writing in high regard as a way to surpass death, which deeply troubles him. The shadow of death can be attributed to the turbulent situation of Cao’s era, the Split of Three Kingdoms when China fell into chaos. In “The Discourse of Literature,” Cao respects theinevitable death while proposing an alternative: writing. Cao criticizes the habit of literati to disparage each other because writers all have distinct “literary pneuma,” the sense of innate idiosyncrasy (“Discourse” 252). Therefore, writers naturally will be good at different kinds of writing, which remains “essentially the same” despite all apparent difference (“Discourse” 252). Cao ends his essay with the discussion about the far-reaching significance of literature because either flesh or pleasure “cannot compare with the unending permanence of the literary work” (“Discourse” 254). The physical grave will corrupt with time, but writings will live as long as the idea remains valuable and inspiring for later generations who dig into the intellectual grave. Thus, literature becomes the continuation of limited life and surpasses the destination of death.
In order to transcend the limit of the natural law, literature needs to draw energy from purity, the highest value for Cao. In “The Discourse of Literature,” Cao categorizes all writings into four types: official documents, argumentative essays, eulogies and epitaphs, and creative writings. Cao gives rubrics about each type of writings so that writers can polish works to reach perfectness, and “creative writings [specifically referring to poems and songs] should be beautiful” (“Discourse” 252). Concrete standards proposed by Cao indicates that only works consistent with his principles have the power to challenge death. For Cao, the prerequisite for beauty is purity in both forms and content, to express one’s thought without tainted motivations for political flattery or cultivating preach. Before Cao, formal writing in ancient China was hyper-political, and elites viewed any writing about casual topics of life as inelegant and insignificant. Still, Cao believes that the virtue of purity also applies to non-political writings, which are equally important as political writings for him. In critiques of his friends’ writings, Cao praises a unified and balanced whole, in which all components such as “rhetorical methods,”“argumentation,” and even “literary pneuma” all serve the sole purpose of each essay (“Discourse” 250). Because best literature focuses on only one aim, purity maximizes its power as a sharp arrow that can hit the bull’s eye without any deviation.
In his standard of purity, Cao focuses on words themselves to popularizes literature as a daily thing that writers “shouldn’t stop writing when in a tight fix and shouldn’t only start writing when in favorable circumstances” (“Discourse” 254). Thus, writing becomes nothing special or sacred but one of many means to express one’s self. The beauty of writing, in this case, no longer equals usefulness in politics. Though Cao still holds on to the value standard of a unified whole, he expands the potential value to multiple dimensions including the personal level.
But classic forms of writing based on political mechanism limit the potential space for daily themes, Cao turns to explore experimental methods. Besides practicing all existing forms of poetry, Cao writes the first seven-word poem “A Song From Yan,” a poem that depicts a woman missing her husband who goes on a long journey. Seven-word poem as brand-new structure increases the capacity of poetry with just one word more than the popular six-word poem so that writers can fully convey emotion through an assortment of artistic means. The popularity of seven-word poems in Chinese literature history after Cao’s invention suggests the success of this form. Moreover, Cao makes bold attempts in adopting oral language into formal writings. In Cao’s imperial edict “Reply to Meng Da,” the language is so pleasantly casual that more like talking to a friend in private letters than an emperor giving orders. Cao does not stick to “Zhen,” the archaic self-pronoun of emperors to show the monarchic authority, but frequently adopts the casual “I” in “Reply to Meng Da” and “Reply to Marquis of Lingzi” to twist the tone to suit his purposes such as showing friendliness. In pursuit of free expression with sharpness, Cao breaks rigid lines of demarcation between serious writings and popular words, mingling them together to illustrate his mind, half political and half offhand.
Despite that unique method such as colloquialization and seven-word poems finally enable Cao to express himself fully, hybridization of characteristics traditionally belonging to different kinds of writing makes his intellectual grave neither fish nor fowl. Thus, the impurity makes Cao’s writings ineligible for his standard of success. By writing in a casual tone about formal topics such as imperial edicts, Cao violates his own rule about pure writing, in which official documents need to be “dignified” (“Discourse” 252). While trying to avoid his identity as emperor in letters with close friends to preserve the sense of friendship, he fails to protect the uncontaminated friendship by regretting that he has not promoted friends after becoming the emperor. Thus, the private sphere of personal emotion is messed up with the public sphere of politics in Cao’s writings. Ideas are still the bones of his essays, yet he fills the blank space between bones with the soil of personal emotion. The sensitive nuance of a whole person overshadows a specific characteristic of one isolated role. To express oneself sacrifices the purity embedded in objectivity and indifference.
However, such failures are beautiful. In “The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons,” Liu Xie considers previous Chinese essays to build a literature hierarchy based on the degree of emotions in writings. In the chapter of literary talents, Liu weights Cao’s idiosyncrasy as “vastly refreshing and beautiful” (Liu 333). With such comment, Liu highly values the scattering emotion within works, not solid but light, floating between lines. For example, Cao’s autobiography has no specific argument, and the language appears relaxing and nostalgic. Still, details such as “my brother and cousin died, but I was ten and escaped by riding a horse” reflects a faint sorrow about the tension between life and death (Autobiography 233). Cao tries to give a calm account of his life in the autobiography; on the other hand, personal feelings keep coming up and he cannot get rid of them. What is not overtly said becomes a more touching idea in a subtle way. Indeed, Liu defends Cao as being “thorough in deliberation and slow in execution” to convey his thoughts (Liu 333). Cao does not have pure forms or tones, yet it is exactly the failed effort that produces a cherished and regretful beauty. How does the failure to achieve purity become beautiful and meaningful? What kind of purity is the shared essence of various standards of writing?
Though Cao asserts that beauty must be the true expression of one’s mind, the expression can never be pure because one’s thought is shaped by too many events. Cao admits the complication of life in his autobiography with how diverse factors shape his own experience. Cao was once satisfied with his talent for martial arts, practicing it as entertainment in hunting and duels; yet as he gradually inherited his father’s wish to end wars, Cao became more humble in individual fighting skills and turned to philosophical works that “no book [he] would not read” (Autobiography 240). One has roles to play at different stages of life, yet a unique soul is so solid to split into parts and fit each role. None of a single bone can be Cao, and all distinctive bones together constitute a man. Maybe the beauty of failed purity lies in the attempt to express per se.
As a new creature, expression in writing has a different life outside the control of writers. Cao predicts that if writers devote themselves to writing, their works’ “reputations [will] hand down to posterity on their own force” without help from outside forces (“Discourse” 254). Therefore, Cao divides the value of literature into two phases; one for writer’s purpose of expressing, one for literature’s own social life. When Cao quotes from classic works, he tends to not just paraphrase but assign new meanings and implications to ancient words, a change that happens to the literature itself as an independent stuff. For example, Cao quotes from “The Book of Rites” that “once he ascends the throne, a king needs to prepare the coffin” as the opening of his will; while the original meaning of this sentence literarily refers to the ritual problem caused by hasty preparation of funeral if the king suddenly dies, Cao extends the meaning to that one “cannot forget death while alive” (Will 76). Cao puts quotations into a new context to create ideas that are suitable for his tension concerning death and life. The independent life of ancient words quoted by Cao becomes a new form of life, which does not equal the writer’s life but derives from it. Therefore, the destiny of literature depends on its potential value for later context, a future that writers can hardly predict. When Cao buried himself, no matter how hard he tried to avoid attention, he could not imagine that people of modern age want to find his grave not to rob it but to study it for archeological and historic reasons. What do ever-changing contexts including literature standards mean to writers?
Because works have a separate life in history, writers can and need only be sincere to their own hearts. Although understandable, it is futile to write for attention, another new standard for literature value of our time, because standards and contexts keep changing through time. Carrying the burden of rigid standards limits the potential of writers to explore the purity of oneself and deprives writers of simple joy. Avoiding any interference in the pure expression, writers need to free themselves from standards. The essence of literature shifts from outside languages to inner individuals. In “WeiJin Style and Literature and The Relation Between Drugs and Alcohol” about the literature transformation in Cao’s age, Lu Xun views on Cao’s argument that the purpose for literature should not be cultivation as the beginning of “the era for self-conscious literature,” namely the notion that “art for art’s sake” (Lu). Lu argues that although literature creation cannot escape the discourse of life and, in emperor Cao’s case, remains somehow political, it serves the purpose of expressing one’s self instead of “writing for others to read” (Lu). The core of writing moves from a compassed community without individuality to distinctive souls. Indeed, Cao argues that each writer has a unique “literary pneuma,” the innate gift that “cannot be imposed on children even if fathers and brothers have it” (“Discourse” 252). While such a claim seems determinist, Cao admits the importance of individual presence in writing as the leading role. Cao suggests that the inborn nature of one writer determines the type of writing that he is good at, and it is more effective to focus on themselves as the start to produce authentic ideas.
Words are tools, and people are the spirit of literature. In his experiments of literary forms, Cao fills up old forms of poetry, namely folk songs, with new contents, and makes ancient words serve his ideas. To fulfill the individuality, Cao controls forms, instead of letting forms decide what content and emotion will appear. The self-conscious literature means writers are intentional to adopt certain strategies for the expression of their minds on their own initiative.
When individuals fully control writing as a personal activity without desires implanted by external standards, there occurs a new kind of purity, the purity of the writer himself. In the production of independent works, Cao affirms his own individuality. Cao reconciles with split parts of himself by expressing honesty in writing. In his will, Cao begins with a formal tone with quotations from the Book of Rites to argue why he prefers a simple burial from the perspective of ritual appropriation. The beginning shows his official role as the emperor. But his emphasis on the purpose of “preventing later generations from knowing my mausoleum location after dynastic changes” indicates that his true fear is rooted in the grave robbery which prevails in his era (Will 76). Indeed, Cao turns emotional when he then talks about historical cases of grave robbery due to luxurious burial objects and demonstrates his personal experience growing up in wars and chaos. At the end of his will, he even threatens to “slaughter traitor’s body again and again” in the hell if someone dares to disobey his will, a childish menace that suggests his born status as a highly privileged man (Will 80). The whole will as a well-organized essay with examples from both historical and contemporary cases combines well with a rhythm in sentence length and the symmetric sentence structure, a sign of Cao’s writer identity. In one will, as well as his other works, Cao incorporates all his roles together, though he does not intentionally view such a strategy as a path to pure beauty. Because Cao has a variety of roles, yet he is not only playing roles in writing, he manages to unify a sense of self through drawing from all roles. The self-conscious writing ultimately separates from the outside environment.
The purity of expression then is a unified self in hybridized forms. Human, as irrational, impure and mixed as Cao shows, gains a special value from those characteristics. Sincerity towards human nature produces knowledge that will always remain useful and valuable for later generations who also possess the same human nature. Changing standards of words are out of the control of writers, and rigid principles defining the value of writing discourages writers from exploring the infinite humanity, the infinity of themselves. Therefore, by writing honestly about themselves, writers put bones together to construct a sense of complete individuality.
Cao, Pi. The Collection of Emperor Wen of Wei. E d. Yi Jianxian, 2009.
“The Discourse of Literature.” 249-255 “Autobiography.” 231-241
“A Song From Yan.” 301-305
“Reply to Meng Da.” 109-110
“Reply to Marquis of Lingzi.” 87-88
Liu, Xie & Shih, Yu-chung. The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2018. Project MUSE.
Lu, Xun. “WeiJin Style and Literature and The Relation Between Drugs and Alcohol.” Chinese Marxist Library, www.marxists.org/chinese/reference-books/luxun/11/029.htm.