An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

baguwen 八股文, the eight-legged essay

Apr 18, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

The "eight-legged essay" (baguwen 八股文, also called babiwen 八比文, zhiyi 制義, zhiyi 制藝 "systematic skill", shiyi 時藝 or shiwen 時文 "modern essay", or juye 舉業 "achievement for promotion") was a type of essay to be written as part of the state examinations. It required particular skills of composition and was therefore known as notoriously demanding. The centre of the text was to be divided into four parts each of which was composed of two antagonistic yet corresponding parts (dui'ou paibi 對偶排比). This made out a whole of eight parts ("legs")—every two of which formed a pair of sentences—which gave the essay its name. The whole essay required at least 6 pairs of sentences (gu 股 or bi 比), and up to 12.

In spite of the great number of paired sentences, the eight-legged essay was written in regular prose. It was not bound to a certain number of syllables per phrase, nor did it use rhymes or methods of textual embellishment (zaoshi 藻飾) like parables or allegories.

Table 1. The parts of the baguwen 八股文
破題 poti "Breaking open the topic" / Apertura Two phrases in prose exhibiting the topic according to the literal meaning of the Classics fragment. Method variable: mingpo 明破, shunpo 順破, fenpo 分破 or duipo 對破.
承題 chengti "Receiving the topic" / Continuatio Several phrases in prose further developing the topic, making the issue clearer to the reader.
"Beginning the discussion" / Exordium Several phrases fixing and shaping the topic, in a method called hunxue tiyi 渾寫題意, longzhao quanju 籠罩全局. Use of "sacred words" from the Classics (shengren kouqi 聖人口氣) was obligatory, a method called "establish words on behalf of the sages and worthies" (dai shengren li yan 代聖人立言).
Several phrases in prose merging into the discussion.
1-2 起股
"Initial legs" / Propositio Several paired phrases beginning with the discussion of the topic.
續股 xugu "extended legs"
3-4 中股
"Middle legs" / Media pars Core of the discussion, in paired sentences.
5-6 後股
"Later legs" / Posterior pars Extension of the main argument, in paired sentences. Length depending on that of the previous one.
7-8 束股
"Closing legs" Review and conclusion of the discussion, in paired phrases.
Conclusion / Conclusio Prose or paired sentences. Use of own opinion allowed.

The eight-legged essay took shape during the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126) in the time of the reform project under Wang Anshi 王安石. The adaption of the parallel sentences of the essay was believed to be a way to bring a better structure into argumentation, which still followed the old-style (guwen 古文) type of Tang period 唐 (618-907) essays. Is regular form found entrance into the practice of the state examinations only during the Chenghua reign 成化 (1465-1487) of the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), as promoted by Wang Ao 王鏊 (1450-1524), Xie Qian 謝遷 (1449-1531) and Zhang Mao 章懋 (1437-1522).

The themes of the essay hailed exclusively from statements in the Confucian Classics, and among these, mainly the Four Books (sishu 四書), and to a lesser extent from the Five Classics (wujing 五經). The essay was therefore also known with the name Sishu wen 四書文 or Wujing wen 五經文. Examiners discerned "great themes" (dati 大題) used for the questions in the provincial and capital examinations, and "lesser themes" (xiaoti 小題, exclusively from the Four Books), used for the *apprentice examination (tongshi 童試). The former required the interpretation of whole sentences or several sentences from the Classics, the lesser that of shorter phrases.

Other designations for certain modes of the eight-legged essay were therefore concerned with the structure of the topic to be interpreted, like "questions about joined paragraphs" (lianzhang ti 連章題), about "full paragraphs" (quanzhang ti 全章題), about "several phrases" (shujie ti 數節題), about "a single phrase" (yijie ti 一節題), about "several sentences" (shuju ti 數句題) or about "single sentences" (danju ti 單句題).

The statements forming the core of the questions were to be answered by applying the interpretation of Neo-Confucian masters, such as those of the brothers Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107, or from Zhu Xi's 朱熹 (1130-1200) Sishu zhangju jizhu 四書集注 or his commentary on the Shijing 詩經 "Book of Poetry", Shi jizhuan 詩集傳. It was not allowed to embed interpretations of other schools or an own exegis.

Apart from the strict pattern of argumentation, each "leg" had a restricted amount of words or characters. In the early Ming, the provincial and metropolitan examinations essays foresaw a length of 500 characters for a question on the Five Classics, and 300 for such on the Four Books. During the early Qing period 清 (1644-1911) the length of the former was expanded to 550 characters, and in the mid-Qing to 700.

Outside of the state examinations, the eight-legged essay had no practical use, yet without mastering this type of essay, no examinee had the chance to pass. The restricted use of the essay was also an influence of its sterile content, which focused only on the interpretation of statements and concrete events with the help of quotations from the Confucian Classics. Its regular shape with strict rules of composition nevertheless gave it a certain status, and some of the best examples found entrance into publications like the imperially endorsed Qinding sishu wen 欽定四書文, compiled by Fang Bao 方苞 (1668-1749), a collection of essays of the Ming period master Wang Ao, Shouxi wengao 守溪文稿. Liang Zhangju 梁章鉅 (1775-1849) compiled a book, Zhiyi conghua 制藝叢話, in which he praised the artistic and cultural levels the eight-legged essay brought about in Chinese life.

Some examiners even expected the use of certain argumentative expressions, like jin fu 今夫 ("Now, regarding..."), chang si 嘗思 ("if considering this") or gou qi ran 苟其然 ("if it is like this"). The structure of the whole essay was to be composed in such a way that the examiners were able to clearly discern the paragraphs. Calligraphy was expected to be of high quality. In case characters were corrected or deleted, the exact number of altered places was to be noted down at the end of the essay. Of course it was demanded that posthumous titles (hui 諱) of venerable persons were used, and the personal name of the emperor or high-standing persons were avoided.

As early as the mid-17th century, Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613-1682) in his collection Rizhilu 日知錄 (ch. Niti 擬題) criticized the sterility and destructive character of the eight-legged essay. Yet the eight-legged essay was only abolished in 1901.

After several hundred years of use, the most important themes were of course used up, and examiners looked for ever more complex, difficult and absurd themes, or brought together phrases of very divergent contexts.

Quotation 1. Wang Ao's Essay on a Phrase from the Analects
題注:「百姓足,君孰與不足」。 Topic: If the people have plenty, their lord will not be left to want alone. (Lunyu 論語, ch. Yan Yuan 顏淵)
民既富於下,君自富於上。(破題) When the people at the bottom [of society] are prosperous, the ruler above will be prosperous [too].
蓋君之富,藏於民者也;民既富矣,君豈有獨貧之理哉?(承題) This is because the prosperity of the ruler is something that is stored among the people; if the people are prosperous, why should there be any reason that the ruler alone is poor?
有若深言君民一體之意以告哀公。蓋謂:公之加賦,以用之不足也;欲足其用,蓋先足其民乎? Youruo [a disciple of Confucius] profoundly gave advice to Duke Ai [of Lu] on the unity of the ruler and the people. He explained that the Duke had raised taxes because [the state] lacked revenues; in order to yield sufficient revenues, shouldn't he first take care for that the people might have enough [to live off]?
誠能百畝而徹,恆存節用愛人之心; / 什一而征,不為厲民自養之計,則 / 民力所出,不困於征求; / 民財所有,不盡於聚斂。(起講) Sincerely [carrying out the method of] thorough [tithing] a hundred mu of land (comp. Mengzi, ch. Teng Wengong A), with sparingness in mind and love for the people in the heart, / this means that when levying the tithe, this happens with the intention not to harm [the ability of] the people to nourish themselves; / and that what the labour of the people brings about, would not be brought to distress by taxation; / and what the people owns, would not be exhausted by aggregate levies.
閭閻之内,乃積乃倉, / 而所謂仰事俯有者,無憂矣。(第一股) In the villages there would be accumulation and [sufficient] storage [of grain], / and there would be no worries for what is called "serving those above [i.e. parents]" and "supporting those below [i.e. wives and children]" (according to Mengzi, ch. Liang Huiwang A).
里野之間,如茨如粱, / 而所謂養生送死者,無憾矣。(第二股。以上起二股) In the settlements and fields, there would be an abundance of millet, / and there would be no sorrows about what is called "nourishing the living" and "seeing off the dead" (comp. Mengzi, ch. Li Lou B).
百姓既足,君何謂而獨貧乎?(出題) If the people have enough, why should the ruler alone be poor?
吾知藏諸诸閭閻者,君皆得而有之,不必歸之府庫,而後為吾財也。(第三股) Knowing that "I, as a ruler, could dispose at will of everything that is stored in the villages", it would not be necessary to bring it into the state warehouses, later [claiming] they were "my [i.e. the ruler's] own resources".
蓄諸田野者,君皆得而用之,不必積之倉廪,而後為吾有也。(第四股。以上中二股) The ruler could freely use everything what is accumulated in the fields, and it would not be necessary to amass it in the state granaries, later [claiming] that they were "my possessions".
取之無窮,何憂乎有求而不得?(第五股) Having unlimited potential [to use resources], why should [a ruler] be worried not to obtain what he requires?
用之不竭,何患乎有事而無備?(第六股。以上中二小股) Having boundless access [to everything], why should [a ruler] fear to be unprepared in case of need?
牺牲粢盛,足以為祭祀之供;玉帛筐篚,足以資朝聘之費。 / 借曰不足,百姓自有以給之也,其孰與不足乎?(第七股) Sacrificial animals and grains for offerings are abundant for the supply of offering ceremonies. Jades and silks, and square and round vessels are abundant for the need of the court audiences. / And even if not sufficient, the people would give [their ruler] what they have, so what shortage could there be?
饔飧牢醴,足以供宾客之需;車馬器械,足以備征伐之用。 / 借曰不足,百姓自有以應之也,又孰與不足乎?(第八股。以上后二股) Delicate dishes, meats and wines suffice for guests [at the court]; carriages and horses, weapons and armour suffice to carry out military expeditions. / And even if not sufficient, the people would respond with what they have themslves, so what shortage could there be?
吁!徹法之立,本以為民,而國用之足,乃由于此,何必加賦以求富哉!(收結) Oh! The introduction of the tithing method was originally for [the benefit] of the people, and it sufficed [to meet] the state expenditure. Why therefore should one raise taxes to achieve [more] prosperity?
Note: Translation following that of Elman (2013).
Lin Fei 林非, ed. (1997). Zhongguo sanwen da cidian 中國散文大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 326.
Liu Jinghua 劉經華 (1998). "Baguwen 八股文", in Tang Jiahong 唐嘉弘, ed. Zhongguo gudai dianzhang zhidu da cidian 中國古代典章制度大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 9.
Jiaoyu da cidian bianzuan weiyuanhui 《教育大辭典》編纂委員會, ed. (1991). Jiaoyu da cidian 教育大辭典, Part VIII, Zhongguo gudai jiaoyu shi 中國古代教育史 (Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 186.
Pi Chunxie 皮純協, Xu Liming 徐理明, Cao Wenguang 曹文光, ed. (1986). Jianming zhengzhixue cidian 簡明政治學辭典 (Zhengzhou: Henan renmin chubanshe), 8.
Tan Jiajian 譚家健 (1986). "Baguwen 八股文", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 12.
Zhang Liangcai 張良才 (1997). "Baguwen 八股文", in Men Kui 門巋, Zhang Yanjin 張燕瑾, ed. Zhonghua guocui da cidian 中華國粹大辭典 (Xianggang: GUoji wenhua chubanshe), 254.
Zhou Fazeng 周發增, Chen Longtao 陳隆濤, Qi Jixiang 齊吉祥, ed. (1998). Zhongguo gudai zhengzhi zhidu shi cidian 中國古代政治制度史辭典 (Beijing: Shoudu shifan daxue chubanshe), 98.

Further reading:
Deng Yunxiang 鄧雲鄉 (2015). Qingdai baguwen 清代八股文 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju [and other editions]).
Durand, Pierre-Henri (1999). "L'homme bon et la montagne: petite contribution en trois temps à l'étude de la prose moderne", Études chinoises, 18/1-2: 223-288.
Elman, Benjamin (2000). A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).
Elman, Benjamin A. (2009). "Eight-Legged Essay", in Cheng Linsun, et al., eds. Berkshire Encyclopedia of China: Modern and Historic Views of the World's Newest and Oldest Global Power (Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire), 695-698.
Elman, Benjamin A. (2013). "Eight-legged Essay", in Zha Qiang, ed. Education in China: Educational History, Models, and Initiatives (Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire), 58-62.
Fang Bao 方苞. Qinding benchao sishu wen 欽定本朝四書文, from (Siku quanshu 四庫全書 edition).
Ge, Liangyan (2015). The Scholar and the State: Fiction as Political Discourse in Late Imperial China (Seattle:University of Washington Press), ch. 4.
Gong Duqing 龔篤清 (2015). Ming-Qing baguwen shi 明代八股文史 (Changsha: Yuelu shushe).
Liang Zhangju 梁章鉅. Zhiyi conghua 制藝叢話, from (Zhizuzhibuzuzhai 知足知不足齋 edition).
Lo, Andrew trans. (1990). "Four examination essays of the Ming dynasty", Renditions, 33- 34: 167-181.
Lui, Adam Yuen-Chung (1974). "Syllabus of the Provincial Examination (hsiang-shih) under the Early Ch'ing (1644-1795)", Modern Asian Studies, 8/3: 391-396.
Plaks, Andrew H. (1986). "Pa-gu wen", in William H. Nienhauser, ed. Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 641-643.
Tu Ching. "The Chinese Examination Essay: Some Literary Considerations”, Monumenta Serica, 31: 393-406.
Wang Wei 王煒 (2015). Mingdai baguwen xuanjia kaolun 明代八股文選家考論 (Wuhan: Wuhan daxue chubanshe).
Zhao Jiyao 趙基耀 (2011). Qingdai baguwen yizhu 清代八股文譯注 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe).
Zhou Xinshu 周新曙 (2008). Ming-Qing baguwen jianshang 明清八股文鑑賞 (Wuhan: Hubei renmin chubanshe).