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Ouyang Xiu

    Ouyang Xiu (1007 – 1072 AD) (pronounced ‘oh-yang show’) was one of the greatest intellectuals in Chinese history.

    He came from poverty to become a high government official and celebrated:

    • Writer
    • Poet
    • Classicist
    • Art theorist and connoisseur
    • Calligrapher
    • Historian

    In 1056, Su Xun (the father of Ouyang’s greatest protégé Su Shi) wrote to Ouyang:

    There is not a man in the entire empire, sir, who does not know of your writing.

    – Su Xun

    Despite this eminence, he was dogged by awful rumours (and bawdy songs about those rumours)…

    Let’s look at his life, career, writing, and those rumours.

    Life and career

    Ouyang’s ancestral home: Luling

    Ancestral homes were an important concept for many Chinese people throughout the centuries. 

    Ouyang Xiu’s (欧阳修 [Ōuyáng Xiū]) family’s ancestral home was Luling (today’s Ji’an, Jiangxi Province), about 900 miles (or 1,500km) south-west of where he grew up in Mianzhou.

    Ouyang only ever travelled to Luling once, to intern his mother’s remains in the family’s ancestral tombs.

    However, he still often referred to himself as ‘Ouyang of Luling’ (庐陵欧阳修 [Lúlíng Ōuyáng Xiū]) in his writing.

    Early life

    Portrait of Zhenzong Emperor Seated by unknown painter
    Portrait of Zhenzong Emperor Seated (Song dynasty) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 175.4x 116 cm. (National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Ouyang was born in Mianzhou (today’s Mianyang, Sichuan Province) during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD).

    His father, Ouyang Kuan, was a relatively minor official who died when Ouyang was only four years old. 

    Ouyang and his mother then moved to Suizhou (in today’s Hubei Province) to live with Ouyang’s uncle, Ouyang Ye.

    He recounts his family’s difficult circumstances in his essay ‘The Seven Sages Painting’ (七贤画序 [Qī xián huà xù]):

    卒于任比某十许岁时,家益贫,每岁时,设席祭祀,则张此图于壁,先妣必指某曰:“吾家故物也。” […]又以见吾母少寡而子幼,能克成其家,不失旧物。
    I remember that after I turned ten, our family became even poorer. But on festival days, as we held feasts and made sacrifices, we would hang [my late father’s] painting on the wall. My mother would point to it and say: ‘That is our family heirloom.’
    […] Although my mother was widowed at an early age and was left with an infant son, she still managed to keep the family intact and preserve its heirloom.

    – Ouyang Xiu, ‘The Seven Sages Painting’

    Ouyang lived in Suizhou until he was twenty-one years old. Reflecting on his youth here he later wrote:

    予少家汉东,汉东僻陋无学者,吾家又贫无藏书。州南有大姓李氏者,其子尧辅颇好学。予为儿童时,多游其家。见其弊筐贮故书在壁间,发而视之 […] 因乞李氏以归。读之,见其言深厚而雄博…
    In my youth I lived east of the Han River. It was a remote and desolate, with no scholars. My family was poor and didn’t have books.

    – Ouyang Xiu, ‘Recalling Old Books by Han Wang’ (记旧本韩王后)

    However, there was enough culture to capture his attention…

    州南有大姓李氏者,其子尧辅颇好学,予为儿童时,多游其家, 见有弊筐贮故书,在壁间,发而视之,得唐《昌黎先生文集》六卷, 脱落颠倒无次序。因乞李氏以归,读之,见其言深厚而雄博。
    South of the river, there lived the prominent Li family. Their son Yaofu was devoted to learning. As a boy I often went to their house to play. 
      One day, I found a tattered basket full of old books lodged in the hollow of a wall. I examined them and found six volumes of The Works of Chang Li 
    [Han Yu] […] I asked the Li’s for permission to take them home with me. I read them and found that they were rich and profound, forceful and erudite

    – Ibid.

    Han Yu (768 – 824 AD) was one of the most important influences on Ouyang’s life.

    年十有七, 试于州,为有司所黜。因取所藏韩氏文复阅之, 则喟然叹曰:“学者当至于是而止尔!”
    At the age of seventeen, I sat for the district exams, but was rejected by exam officials. I turned to my copy of Han Yu and re-read it. Overcome with admiration, I exclaimed aloud: “Scholars need look no further than this for a model!


    The Song dynasties’ meritocracy

    Fortunately for Ouyang, Society during the Song dynasty was relatively meritocratic

    Talent could rise through the ranks based on performance in imperial exams or a good impression made on mentor officials.

    This was markedly different from the military aristocratic structure that had dominated during the Tang dynasty (618 – 906 AD) and before.

    Furthermore, the emphasis for Song dynasty officials was highly literary. This favoured people like Ouyang. As he put it himself in 1037:

    All under heaven is stable. Generals’ have no use for their martial valour. Gentlemen now compete to get ahead on the basis of their literary skill and learning.

    – Ouyang Xiu, ‘Farewell to the Degree Candidate Tian Hua Upon his Departure to his Parents in Wanzhou‘ (送田画秀才宁亲万州序)

    Imperial exams and early career

    Ouyang failed the imperial exams in Suizhou in 1023 (aged seventeen) and 1027 (aged twenty). But in 1030 (aged twenty-three), he passed. 

    His first government job was as Prefectural Judge for a Governor of Luoyang (today’s Henan Province). This was then the second (eastern) capital of the Song dynasty. 

    Unlike Suizhou, Luoyang was one of the largest and most developed cities in the world at the time. Ouyang later recalled his three years there fondly.

    He was then sent to work in the first capital, Kaifeng (also in today’s Henan Province). Here he was appointed the collator of texts in the Imperial Library for approximately two years.

    Trouble at court

    In Kaifeng, Ouyang was associated with the politician and scholar Fan Zhongyan (989 – 1052 AD). 

    Along with several others, Ouyang and Fan were seen as part of a reformist faction within the government.

    In 1035, Fan wrote a series of essays to try and persuade the Renzhong Emperor (r. 1022 – 1063 AD) to implement government bureaucracy reforms. 

    In the essays, he levelled charges against the government’s Chief Minister, accusing him of placing his friends in high positions. Fan was demoted as a result of this. Some of his associates expressed their dissatisfaction at this. 

    Ouyang protested it by writing an insulting letter to the Chief Minister’s associate, Gao Ruona (997 – 1055 AD).

    He accused Gao of failing to denounce the Chief Minister. He then challenged Gao to publish his letter if he was unafraid of his (Gao’s) behaviour.

    Gao presented the letter to the government. It showed Ouyang to be in breach of the conduct expected from officials…

    He was demoted and sent to Yiling, over 400 miles (approximated 670 km) south east from Kaifeng in 1036.

    First exile (1036 – 1043): Yiling and Guanghua (Hubei Province)

    Ouyang found Yiling (today’s Yichang, Hubei Province) to be a remote, uncultured place. He was completely unable to understand the local dialect.

    However, his workload was relatively light in comparison to life in the capital. He used his time to write and travel to the nearby three gorges region.

    Two years later, in 1038, he was reassigned to work in Guanghua (also in today’s Hubei province), which was less remote. It was relatively near Suizhou, where he had grown up. 

    Declining favouritism and return to court

    In 1040, Ouyang’s mentor Fan Chengyan had reconciled with the Chief Minister he had criticised a few years before.

    This led to Fan being promoted to Military Intendent of Shaanxi Province and many of his previously recommended reforms being implemented. 

    Fan invited Ouyang to work under him. But Ouyang famously declined Fan’s offer. He felt that it would be taking advantage of Fan as a connection. In other words, he did not want to behave in the same way he and Fan had criticised others for.

    Either way, the emperor soon invited Ouyang back to the capital and appointed him Drafting Official (i.e., the official in charge of drafting policies for the emperor).

    In 1044, Fan Chengyan managed to get himself embroiled in new controversies. This led to his (and other reformists’) demotion and exile. Ouyang avoided getting caught up in this. 

    However, he found himself dealing with a much more personally damaging scandal…

    Niece Zhang’s accusations of ‘incest’

    Niece Zhang was the stepdaughter of Ouyang’s sister. When Ouyang’s brother-in-law died, Ouyang’s sister and Niece Zhang came to live with Ouyang in the capital.

    Chang eventually married and – as was the custom – moved into her husband’s household. But sometime later she was accused of having relations with a servant. During her trial, she claimed to having previously also had relations with Ouyang…

    So, in 1045, Ouyang was imprisoned and then put on trial three times, charged with incest.

    This was a serious charge that could result in execution. Chinese society had strict rules about marriage, relations between in-laws, and relations between the sexes. 

    Marrying a brother’s widow, for example, was considered incestuous. And a Confucian philosopher had once famously stated to Mencius (372–289 BC) that if one’s sister-in-law was drowning, it would be better to leave her rather that touch her hand.

    Ouyang denied the charges and there was no evidence against him. However, during the proceedings a technicality was found (land purchased under Ouyang’s name with Niece Zhang’s dowry).

    Mocking bawdy song (词 []) poems were circulated about Ouyang and anonymously, some falsely in his name.

    This was particularly painful for Ouyang because he had written poems about ‘singing girls’ himself in the past (as had many other poets of the time). 

    …Last night, in a dream, I made love to her. 
    Just like old times.

    Then, just as I was happy, 
    The cock next door woke me up. 
    Everything was quiet

    But I could not get fall back asleep…

    – Liu Yong, quoted in Hightower, James R., ‘The Songwriter Liu Yung: Part I’ Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Dec., 1981), pp. 323-376 

    This greatly damaged his reputation and career. He was sent into exile once again.

    Second exile (1045 – 1054 AD)

    Chuzhou (1045 – 1048 AD)

    Ouyang was in Chuzhou (in today’s Anhui Province) between the years 1045 and 1048. Like Yiling, it was a remote, quiet place where he felt isolated from culture and the affairs of the day.

    Whilst here, he built a pavilion. He wrote about it 1046, in an essay entitled ‘The Old Drunkard’s Pavilion’ (醉翁亭记 [zuì wēng tíng jì]):

    The road winds around the mountain peaks, then a pavilion appears beside the spring – The Old Drunkard’s Pavilion. 
      Who built it? A monk from the mountains named Zhi Xian.
      Who named it? The Governor named it after himself. 
      The Governor likes to gather here with his friends to drink. It only takes a little drink to get the Governor drunk and he is the eldest of the group, that’s why he calls himself The Old Drunkard.
      However, the Governor’s interest isn’t really in alcohol, it’s in the surrounding landscape – the joy of which he uses wine to lodge in his heart.

    – Ouyang Xiu ‘The Old Drunkard’s Pavilion’

    The Governor, is described as ‘an old man with a wrinkled face who and white hair who sprawls on the ground’. He is, Ouyang directly states at the end of this piece, ‘Ouyang Xiu of Luling’.

    This description has similarities with Ouyang’s comments in a preface of poems by the Buddhist monk Bi Yan in 1043. 

    The poet, Ouyang says, ‘had no outlet for his energy’, so he spent his time socializing and ‘drinking and amusing himself until he was soaked with wine, not minding if he tripped and stumbled on the ground.’

    Yangzhou (1048 – 1049 AD)

    Yangzhou (in today’s Jiangsu Province) lies at the end of the Yangtze River. Ouyang was made governor there in 1048.

    During the Song, the Grand Canal (a network of canals connecting Northern and Southern China) had been extended to Yangzhou. This made it a bustling, wealthy and cultured city. 

    This meant Ouyang’s work and social lives were very different from what they had been in Chuzhou.

    Yingzhou (1049 – 1052 AD)

    Ouyang was made governor of Yingzhou (today’s Fuyang, Anhui Province) in 1049. 

    Yingzhou made a deep impression on Ouyang. After leaving here in 1052, he returned several times in the coming decades. During this time, he had decided he would eventually retire there.

    At the end of his time in Yingzhou, Ouyang’s mother – who had accompanied him throughout his career – passed away. This was when he visited their ancestral hometown, Luling, to intern her body in the family’s tomb.

    He was invited to return to the capital in the same year. However, as was traditional for Confucian scholars of the time, he had to spend a set period of time in morning for his mother before resuming public life.

    Return to Kaifeng (1054 – 1068 AD) 

    Over the next thirteen years, Ouyang worked in several different positions. These include:

    • Administrator of imperial exams. In 1057, he famously failed all examination candidates who wrote in the current (or Imperial Academy) style of writing. Angry unsuccessful candidates waited for him after and had to be held back by bodyguards as they cursed him.
    • Co-compiler of the New Tang History (along with Song Qi). It was an important political task of everydynasty to write an official history of the dynasties before them. It enabled them to set precedents for their own policies.

    Shorty before the Renzhong Emperor’s death in 1063, Ouyang played an important role in ensuring the emperor’s son, Yingzhong (r. 1063 – 1067 AD) was named heir apparent.

    Second ‘incest’ charge

    Unfortunately for Ouyang (and Yingzhong himself), Yinzhong did not live long. His death left Ouyang somewhat exposed and in the same year Ouyang’s former Jiang Zhiqi accused Ouyang of having relations with his (Ouyang’s) daughter-in-law.

    This charge was also considered ‘incest’ by the law. However, again no evidence was brought forth. Ouyang denied the charges. The accuser and one co-conspirator were demoted and Ouyang was cleared of the charges.

    Ouyang requested to be posted away from the court.

    Death in Yingzhou (1071 AD)

    After brief stints as an envoy to Taiyuan (in today’s Shanxi Province) and as a magistrate in Caizhou (today’s Runan County in Zhumadian, Henan Province), he retired to Yinzhou in 1070.

    When the Retired Scholar of Six Ones was first banished to the Chu mountains he named himself The Old Drunkard. But now that he is aged, weak, and sickly, and about to retire to the banks of the Ying River. So he has changed his name to the Retired Scholar of Six Ones.
    A visitor asked: “What does ‘six ones’ mean?’
    The Retired Scholar answered: In my house I have a large collection of books, a compendium of bronze and stone inscriptions dating to the ancient dynasties, a zither, a chessboard, and a jug of wine that is always set out in front of me.’
    The visitor remarked: “That only makes ‘five ones’.”
    The scholar replied: “I am a single man growing old amongst these five possessions. Doesn’t that add up to six?”

    – Ouyang Xiu, ‘The Retired Scholar of Six Things’ (六一居士传)

    Ouyang passed away in 1071.

    Ouyang’s calligraphy

    Letter to Zhuo Ai (1058) by Ouyang Xiu
    Letter to Zhuo Ai (1058) by Ouyang Xiu, running script, ink on paper, 25 x 18cm. The Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Alamy)

    Calligraphy was an important part of Ouyang’s life. He practised and wrote about it a lot. And it was a popular part of life in Song dynasty intellectual and artistic circles.

    However, he was not (and still isn’t) known as a great calligrapher. He wrote in his piece Calligraphy Exercises (试笔):

    […] 明窗净几,笔砚纸墨皆极精良,亦自是人生一乐事。能得此乐者甚稀,其不为外物移其好者 […] 余晚知此趣,恨字体不工,不能到古人佳处。若以为乐,则自给有余。
    […] to have a clean desk beside a bright window with a brush, inkstone, paper and ink, all of high quality, is one of life’s great pleasures. But few men are able to appreciate this pleasure 
    […] It was late in my life that I understood its charm, and unfortunately my calligraphy is not skilful and I shall never reach the heights of the ancient masters. But if it gives me pleasure, that’s enough.

    – Ouyang Xiu, ‘Calligraphy Exercises

    He had about one thousand ink rubbings of ancient inscriptions. Copies of this collection were published as A Record of The Collection of Antiquities (集古录). 

    This contained many of his colophons that commented on the pieces. And it was the first academic work on China’s stone and bronze inscriptions

    There were two calligraphers whose work he collected the most. The first was the Tang dynasty official Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD)who was unjustly executed by a political rival. Ouyang remarked of him:

    Yan was loyal and had integrity, this shone as brightly as the sun or the moon. And his character was reverent, strict, steadfast, and forceful, just like his calligraphy.

    – Ouyang Xiu

    The other was Yan Zhenqing’s calligraphic follower/heirLiu Gongquan (778 – 865 AD). As with Yan, Liu’s refined and upright style was interpreted by many to be a reflection of his personality.

    Ouyang also admired the great calligrapher Cai Xiang, who like him came from a humble background to reach the heights of government.

    He remarked that he felt Cai’s best writing was done in running script (followed by small-standard script and then cursive script).