Starting during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and continuing for hundreds of years, the “Eight-Legged Essay” was the required eight-part response to civil service examination questions based on Confucian thought. The extremely formulaic essay, which had both critics and defenders over the years, evolved as a way for official examiners to impartially evaluate the work of tens of thousands of candidates.
Most accounts of the development of the late imperial examination essay begin with modernist apologies. The twentieth-century cultural assault on the infamous Eight-Legged Essay (bagu wen)—as the classical essay on the Confucian texts, the Four Books and Five Classics, was called since the fifteenth century—has included accusations that the essay became a byword for petrifaction in Chinese literature or that the essay itself was one of the reasons for China’s cultural stagnation and economic backwardness in the nineteenth century.
Origins of the Eight-Legged Essay “Grid”
Whatever the literary verdict, the late imperial examination essay had its most immediate roots conceptually in the epochal transition from medieval belles-lettres (literature that is an end in itself and not merely informative) to the classical essay (jingyi) championed by Wang Anshi (1021–1086) in the eleventh century. The classical essay, however, was not firmly in place empire-wide in civil examinations as the key literary form until the early Ming dynasty (1368–1644). When the Eight-Legged Essay was still the rage, before 1850, many efforts were made to trace a history of ideas about its literary pedigree. In fact, when it was still fashionable to do so, champions of both parallel-prose and ancient-style prose essays each claimed the Eight-Legged Essay as a kindred genre to legitimate their competing literary traditions in the late nineteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The eight “legs” (ku, bones) of the classical essay referred to the parallel and balanced lines that made up its structure.
The examination essay style that was specifically called the “Eight-Legged” style appeared for the first time in the early years of the Chenghua reign, 1465–1487. Consequently, the tendency to construct the historical genealogy of the Eight-Legged Essay from the earlier dynasties tends to elide its sudden appearance in the 1480s as the accepted form for an examination essay. Later claims that the form derived from earlier styles served to legitimate the Eight-Legged Essay as the harvest of past literature and classical learning. As in earlier such cases the literati themselves, not the imperial court, initially produced this new trend in classical writing.
Although detractors of the Eight-Legged Essay genre have received a more sympathetic hearing in the twentieth century, its late imperial advocates were numerous and came from a broad spectrum of literati. Li Zhi (1527–1602), a late Ming iconoclast on so many issues, saw in intensified. The sixteenth-century increase in private, commercial collections of examination essays can be attributed to the formalization of the Eight-Legged Essay during the last half of the fifteenth century into the official essay style. The expansion of the examination market, which during the Ming and Qing dynasties added a third tier of 1,300 local county and 140 prefectural examinations, thus dramatically increased the empire-wide pool of candidates who would be interested in such collections.
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