Eight Ways of Looking at a Spider: An Eight-Legged Essay

We write the way spiders spin webs. Thoughts on the medieval Chinese writer Liu Xie — and spiders!

Will Buckingham
5 min readJul 22

Image: Zoological illustrations of spiders made by A. T. Hollick (c. 1900) for the Biologia Centrali-Americana, an encyclopedia of the natural history of Mexico and Central America. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

1. Spider

Liu Xie’s fifth century masterpiece on the art of writing, the Wenxin diaolong, or The Heart of Literature and the Carving of Dragons, makes no mention of spiders. But late one spring, I go to the park close to where I live — by the exercise machines nobody uses, within earshot of a busy road — to think about Liu Xie. And as I lie beside the long grasses the municipal authorities have left untended to encourage wildlife, I see something move: a spider tending its web.

She is a garden spider, Araneus diadematus, her brown back mottled yellow and white. The web stretches between a wide blade of grass, and the buttress of a nearby bush. The web has been torn by an insect that has broken free, and the tiny spider is meticulously drawing threads across the gaps, liquid meeting air to become silk.

I watch her go about her work, and think of the opening line of Liu’s text:

Pattern is a very great power indeed — Is it not born alongside heaven and earth?

2. Hyphology

How is the world knitted together? What does it mean to weave a text? What does it mean to weave a life? Liu draws together the threads of his treatise on the warp and weft of questions such as these.

“Emotion,” Liu writes, “is the warp of literature, and words are the weft: if the warp is correct then the weft will follow, if the inner logic is clear, the words will flow: this is how one establishes the source of literature.”

Barthes calls it hyphology, from the Greek hyphos ὕφος. “The text is made, is worked out in a perpetual interweaving,” Barthes writes. “Lost in this tissue — this texture — the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web.”

Liu Xi builds his web meticulously. He has read everything. An obsessive hyphologist, he knits together his learning to ask how patterned language can reflect the patterned brocade of the world.

Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham