Dragon-Carving for Writers
Literature, pattern and what we can learn from an obscure medieval Chinese writing manual
On Bell Mountain with Liu Xie
It is still early in the morning, but Purple Mountain on the outskirts of Nanjing is already busy with visitors. Troops of schoolchildren are heading up the hill to pay homage at the Mausoleum of the father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen. They laugh and joke as they climb. Families on day-trips take photographs with their mobile phones. Women by the side of the path sell peeled cucumbers and crowns of plastic flowers. And tour parties head towards the World Heritage site tomb of Emperor Hongwu, founder of the Ming dynasty. But I am not here to pay homage to Dr. Sun, nor to see the impressive Ming architecture. Instead, I have come to search out a more obscure figure.
His name is Liu Xie, and he lived between the fifth and sixth centuries in the period of Chinese history known as the Six Dynasties. Liu was a writer, a literary critic, a philosopher, a scholar and — at the very end of his life — a Buddhist monk. Today he is most famous for being the author of a book with the enigmatic title, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, or Wenxin diaolong.
The Wenxin diaolong is an extraordinary book: it is at one and the same time a history of earlier Chinese literature, a profound reflection on the art of writing, and a far-reaching and thoroughgoing philosophy of creativity. I have long been under its spell, and over the years, Liu has become a close companion on the way as I have gone about my own work as a writer. When I’m thinking through questions about what it means to write — this curious conjuring of patterns on the page, patterns that reflect the larger patterns of the world in all kinds of intricate ways — the Wenxin diaolong has become a resource to which I have returned repeatedly. So I have come to Purple Mountain to search out Liu and his book, and to pay my respects.
Fifteen hundred years ago here on Purple Mountain — or Bell Mountain as it was then called — there was a Buddhist temple called Dinglin. The name means calm, settled, or well-established, forest. It was in Dinglin temple that Liu first trained as a scholar, working as a cataloguer and editor of the books…