Be clear: From Confucius to contemporary composition

Andy KIRKPATRICK, Zhichang Marc XU

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


It is commonly asserted that Chinese rhetoric is characterised by a hanxu (含蓄) style a term which Francois Jullien has called ‗obliquity‘. While agreeing that the concept of hanxu is important, in this paper we argue that clarity in speech and ‘logical‘ argument are also fundamental principles of Chinese rhetoric and are therefore not borrowed from Western rhetorical traditions. We shall draw on the writing and advice from a number of key figures and texts starting with Confucius and ending with contemporary handbooks on writing. The orthodox Confucian style can be classified as being both plain and clear. Pu and Wei (1983) summarise Confucian advice in the phrase ―explaining things plainly and simply is good enough‖. During the Southern Song, Chen Kui (陳騤) wrote the Wen Ze (文則),a text which has been described as ‗China‘s first systematic account of rhetoric‘. In this he takes great pains to stress the importance of being succinct and clear. In arguing for the adoption of the Confucian style or guwen (古文), he states, ―To be good, things need to be simple and easy; to be appropriate, language needs to be simple and clear. While it is hard to trace exactly how influential Chen Kui was with later rhetoricians, there is evidence that he was read in later dynasties. For example, we shall argue that his influence upon Gui Youguang‘s (1506-1571) Guide to Composition Writing (文章指南) is clear. A much more recent text which shows apparent influence from Chen Kui – although we are currently unable to verify whether Hu Shi actually read Chen Kui – is the twentieth century reformer Hu Shi‘s promotion of the vernacular as the medium of educated discourse. Hu Shi formulated eight famous rules, which bear a striking similarity to Chen Kui‘s advice. The paper will conclude with illustrations of advice from contemporary Chinese handbooks on yingyong wen (應用文), or practical writing, to demonstrate that Chinese writing is maintaining the long rhetorical tradition of stressing the importance of clarity and ‗logical‘ argument.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2010


Kirkpatrick, A., & Xu, Z. (2010, July). Be clear: From Confucius to contemporary composition. Paper presented at The Second Biennial Conference of the Chinese Rhetoric Society of the World & International Conference on Rhetorics = 世界漢語修辭學會第二屆年會暨修辭學國際學術研討會, The Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong, China.


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