T’ao Ch’ien’s “The Biography of Mr. Five-Willows” & Li Shang-Yin’s “Miscellany”

Tao_yuanming_by_chen_hongshou-2

 

The Lost Origins of the Essay

I don’t think either of these qualify entirely as essays and therefore fall into inferior category for this collection. Ch’ien’s essay is thoughtful and poignant, causing me to underline and re-read entire portions (especially, “He loved to read books, and yet never puzzled over their profound insights”). The piece has a healthy doze of subtle sarcasm as well as irony but it reads more like a prose poem than an actually essay. Nevertheless, Ch’ien’s piece qualifies more for the category than Shang-Yin’s “Miscellany.” This essay disguised as a list is organized into categories with headings like “Incongruities,” “Shameful,”Dismaying” and “Desecration of Scenery.” It is brevity at its best and I found myself laughing out loud (Indications of Prosperity–> The sound of reading aloud). Yet I again can’t quite put it in the category of a superior essay in that I don’t really see it as an essay. As a prose poem and a list of aphorisms both pieces are great but I cannot go as far as to call either an essay. Perhaps, I am being too conservative in my thinking. Any thoughts?

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