The greatest prose writers of the Tang and Song dynasties are Han Yu, Liu Zongyuan, Ouyang Xiu, Su Xun, Su Shi, Su Zhe (also known as Su Che), Zeng Gong, and Wang Anshi. They are known collectively as the "eight great prose masters of the Tang and Song." They were the leading promoters of the Ancient Style Prose Movement during the Tang and Song, who produced an integral theory of classical Chinese prose. They composed many outstanding prose writings, and led the development of prose to a new stage. Ancient style prose is prose writing that is the opposite of parallel prose, an ornate prose form that flourished from the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) through the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589). Ancient style prose is a much freer, looser form, and is written in a more concise language.
Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan were the two proponents of the Ancient Style Prose Movement in the Tang period (618–907). Han Yu (courtesy name Tuizhi, 768–824) was a vice-director in the Ministry of Personnel. He composed in many different prose forms. His expository, satirical, narrative, lyrical, and utilitarian pieces are all well written. He experimented with diverse modes, ranging from epitaphs, historical writings, prefaces, to mural inscriptions. Han Yu’s innovations are mainly seen in the realm of literary form and language. In literary form, Han Yu boldly introduced new ways of writing grave memoirs, historical writings, prefaces presented to a person who was leaving on a journey, and mural inscriptions. Han Yu’s language is noted for its individual character, vivid expression, conciseness, and precision, all of which became a model for later generations. The later Su Shi praised him for “starting a literary resurgence after eight dynasties of decline.” The other forbearer of the Ancient Style Prose Movement in the Tang period was Liu Zongyuan (courtesy name Zihou, 773–819), who served as the governor of Liuzhou in Guangxi. Along with Han Yu, Liu Zongyuan, influenced by the Shi ji (Records of the historian), ushered in a second climax of writing literary biographies. In addition to biographies, his outstanding literary legacy includes political essays, travelogues, and fables. His experiments in writing fables resulted not only in an increase in the production of fables after the pre-Qin era, but also in the establishment of the form as an independent literary genre. Liu is also considered an early founder of travel literature, as exemplified in his “Yongzhou ba ji” (Eight accounts of Yongzhou), a reflective travelogue that has served as a model for later travel writings.
Ouyang Xiu (courtesy name Yongshu, 1007–1072) was the leading exponent of the Ancient Style Prose Movement in the subsequent Song dynasty (960–1279). His highest official position was that of vice grand councilor. He excelled in writing argumentative, narrative, and lyrical essays, as well as diaries. Ouyang Xiu became the backbone of keeping the Ancient Style Prose Movement alive in the Song period by training and promoting numerous talented young writers. He is generally acknowledged as the leading men of letters in the Northern Song (960–1127).
The remaining five great masters of prose in the Song period are Zeng Gong, Wang Anshi, and the “Three Sus,” namely Su Xun, Su Shi, and Su Zhe. Zeng Gong (courtesy name Zigu, 1019–1083), a drafting official in the Secretariat in the Song imperial court, was the favorite disciple of Ouyang Xiu, and his literary ideas and writing style were deeply influenced by the older master. However, Zeng put more emphasis on the “Way of the Sages,” and his writings have a strong Confucian flavor. He produced hundreds of poems and numerous argumentative and narrative essays in a unique style that is graceful, relaxed, and balanced. Like his contemporary Ouyang Xiu, Wang Anshi (courtesy name Jiefu, 1021–1086) was a high-ranking scholar-official who served as grand chancellor in the court of Emperor Shenzong (1048–1085). He was a great statesman and writer noted for his argumentative and narrative essays. Most of his prose works are political essays that served to expound on his political, military, and socioeconomic reforms in a clear, succinct, and straight-forward language. But he also did not forget the importance of good rhetorical skills in advancing his political views. The modern political reformer Liang Qichao (1873–1929) has acclaimed Wang Anshi’s “Shang Renzong huangdi yanshi shu” (Petition discussing affairs presented to Emperor Renzhong) “the premier piece of prose writing after the Qin and the Han dynasties.”
The “Three Sus” or “Three Eminences of the Su family,” Su Xun and his sons Su Shi and Su Zhe, were distinguished Northern Song scholar-officials. Su Xun (courtesy name, Mingyun 1009–1066) was famous for his expository prose and letters. He focused on the main issues of his time with the aim of finding practical solutions to them based on precedents from history. His style was profoundly influenced by the Zhanguo ce (Intrigues of the Warring States) and the Han prose writer Jia Yi (201–168 BCE). His writings have something of the style of the rhetorical prose of the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). Su Shi (courtesy name Zizhan, 1037–1101) is the most accomplished and widely known of the “Three Sus.” He held high imperial positions such as Academician in the Hanlin Academy and Minister of the Ministry of Rites. But he was also imprisoned once, demoted many times, and exiled twice. The vicissitudes of his life experiences enriched the topic and content of his literary works. He was able to combine the benevolent and progressive elements of Ruist thought, the detachment of Daoism, and the resiliency of Buddhism to form his natural and unconstrained literary style. Su Shi’s poetry and prose represent the highest literary achievement of the Northern Song. Su Zhe (courtesy name Ziyou, 1039–1112) rose to the position of vice minister in the Ministry of Revenue. He was a skilled writer of narrative and expository essays as well as letters. The Qing scholar Liu Xizai (1813–1881) has remarked that in contrast to the unrestrained style of his elder brother Su Shi, “the younger Su’s writing twists three times in one wave.” This observation encapsulates the intricate nature of Su Xun’s writings.
In the historical developmental of Chinese language and literature, the eight great prose masters of the Tang and Song inherited the forms and styles of the past, opened up new ground with them, and served as future role models down to the present.