Ouyang Xiu Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: A political figure and innovative writer of prose and poetry, Ouyang Xiu substantially shaped the Confucian tradition which dominated China for almost a thousand years.

Early Life

Ouyang Xiu’s father held an office in the Chinese civil service system. When Ouyang Xiu (also known as Ou-yang Hsiu) was a very young child, his father died. His mother undertook his education. As he grew to young adulthood, the Chinese society of the Song period (960-1279) was undergoing marked change. The previous dynasty, the Tang (618-907), had been dominated by aristocratic families and influenced by the military. During this period, however, the economy had expanded rapidly, and the gentry, steeped in Confucian learning, were becoming more powerful. To increase their influence, they sought to regularize the civil service system, entrance to which was gained increasingly through a series of examinations in Confucian writings. Because Confucian learning was a step to political power, writing style and the careful selection of classical models in prose and poetry were of utmost importance. The model style of the late Tang and early Song, known as “parallel prose,” had grown rigid and formalistic, enforcing conventions of length, grammar, and diction upon writers.

Ouyang Xiu, studying alone, discovered the works of an influential Tang period writer, Han Yu (768-824). Believing Han Yu’s style, called guwen (ancient style), to be a much better vehicle for expressing ideas than parallel prose, Ouyang began to practice it. Because he wrote in the unconventional guwen style, he failed his first two attempts at the examinations, in 1023 and 1027. The resourceful young man thereupon presented an established scholar, Yan Shu, with samples of his writings in the ku-wen style. Yan Shu was so impressed that he began to sponsor Ouyang, who rose rapidly, gaining his doctorate in 1030 with very high marks.

Life’s Work

Ouyang Xiu began his career as a prefectural level (county) judge from 1031 to 1034 in Luoyang, formerly the capital city. Confucian bureaucrats led lives of studied leisure, with minimal official duties. They vied in writing poetry and prose and engaged in rounds of banquets. Ouyang wrote many ci (songs), poems meant to be sung to popular tunes. His ci were lively songs of love and romance, often performed by the singing girls who attended the fetes. During this period, Ouyang married, but his wife died in childbirth.

In 1034, his reputation as a writer came to the attention of the court. He was promoted to the position of collator of texts at the capital, Kaifeng, where he compiled an annotated catalog of the Imperial Libraries. He increasingly distinguished himself as a prose writer in both the guwen style and the wooden parallel style in which court documents were still written. He remarried, but he lost his second wife to childbirth in 1035.

Ouyang was drawn into a battle between conservatives and reformers, triggered by an official, Fan Zhongyen, who attempted to make the court and the emperor more responsible to the opinions of the Confucian bureaucrats. The Confucian political system had many merits, such as the great stability and continuity that it provided Chinese society, but it also had many defects. The system was, like Confucianism itself, rigidly hierarchical, based upon differences in gender, age, education, and social status. It was difficult to challenge established authority, and political quarrels often involved vituperative personal attacks. In the increasingly bitter conflict between reformers and conservatives, Ouyang’s patron, Fan Zhongyen, was demoted. Ou-yang courageously came to Fan’s defense and was exiled in 1036, as he had expected. In 1037, Ouyang married his third wife, with whom he would live the rest of his days.

Posted to a remote region of Hubei Province, Ouyang wrote a history of the interregnum states (907-960) between the Tang and Song dynasties, Hsin Wu-tai shih (1036; the new history of the Five Dynasties), which eventually became part of the official corpus of dynastic histories, an unusual honor for a work that was not produced under court direction. Confucians value historical studies as the highest form of intellectual work, believing that history reveals models for human behavior.

The tide at court turned in favor of the reformers, and in 1040 Ouyang Xiu was invited back, under the patronage of Fan Chung-yen, but he declined. Henceforth he came to be known as a man who would not trade upon friendship for personal advantage, a rare stand within the Confucian world. He was soon recalled to his former post as collator of texts. By 1042, the reformers were dominant, and Ouyang became policy critic, then drafting official, both influential...

(The entire section is 1996 words.)