8-legged essay example

8-legged essay example

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Baguwen 八股文, the eight-legged essay

The «eight-legged essay» (Baguwen 八股文, also called Babiwen 八比文, Zhiyi 制義, Zhiyi 制藝 «systematic skill», Shiyi 時藝 or Shiwen 時文 «modern essay», or Juye 舉業 «achievement for promotion») was a type of essay to be written as part of the state examinations. It required particular skills of composition and was therefore known as notoriously demanding. The centre of the text was to be divided into four parts each of which was composed of two antagonistic yet corresponding parts (Dui’ou paibi 對偶排比). This made out a whole of eight parts («legs»)—every two of which formed a pair of sentences—which gave the essay its name. The whole essay required at least 6 pairs of sentences (Gu 股 or Bi 比), and up to 12.

In spite of the great number of paired sentences, the eight-legged essay was written in regular prose. It was not bound to a certain number of syllables per phrase, nor did it use rhymes or methods of textual embellishment (Zaoshi 藻飾) like parables or allegories.

The eight-legged essay took shape during the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126) in the time of the reform project under Wang Anshi 王安石. The adaption of the parallel sentences of the essay was believed to be a way to bring a better structure into argumentation, which still followed the old-style (Guwen 古文) type of Tang period 唐 (618-907) essays. Is regular form found entrance into the practice of the state examinations only during the Chenghua reign 成化 (1465-1487) of the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), as promoted by Wang Ao 王鏊 (1450-1524), Xie Qian 謝遷 (1449-1531) and Zhang Mao 章懋 (1437-1522).

The themes of the essay hailed exclusively from statements in the Confucian Classics, and among these, mainly the Four Books (Sishu 四書), and to a lesser extent from the Five Classics (Wujing 五經). The essay was therefore also known with the name Sishu wen 四書文 or Wujing wen 五經文. Examiners discerned «great themes» (Dati 大題) used for the questions in the provincial and capital examinations, and «lesser themes» (Xiaoti 小題, exclusively from the Four Books), used for the *apprentice examination (Tongshi 童試). The former required the interpretation of whole sentences or several sentences from the Classics, the lesser that of shorter phrases.

Other designations for certain modes of the eight-legged essay were therefore concerned with the structure of the topic to be interpreted, like «questions about joined paragraphs» (Lianzhang ti 連章題), about «full paragraphs» (Quanzhang ti 全章題), about «several phrases» (Shujie ti 數節題), about «a single phrase» (Yijie ti 一節題), about «several sentences» (Shuju ti 數句題) or about «single sentences» (Danju ti 單句題).

The statements forming the core of the questions were to be answered by applying the interpretation of Neo-Confucian masters, such as those of the brothers Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107, or from Zhu Xi’s 朱熹 (1130-1200) Sishu zhangju jizhu 四書集注 or his commentary on the Shijing 詩經 «Book of Poetry», Shi jizhuan 詩集傳. It was not allowed to embed interpretations of other schools or an own exegis.

Apart from the strict pattern of argumentation, each «leg» had a restricted amount of words or characters. In the early Ming, the provincial and metropolitan examinations essays foresaw a length of 500 characters for a question on the Five Classics, and 300 for such on the Four Books. During the early Qing period 清 (1644-1911) the length of the former was expanded to 550 characters, and in the mid-Qing to 700.

Outside of the state examinations, the eight-legged essay had no practical use, yet without mastering this type of essay, no examinee had the chance to pass. The restricted use of the essay was also an influence of its sterile content, which focused only on the interpretation of statements and concrete events with the help of quotations from the Confucian Classics. Its regular shape with strict rules of composition nevertheless gave it a certain status, and some of the best examples found entrance into publications like the imperially endorsed Qinding sishu wen 欽定四書文, compiled by Fang Bao 方苞 (1668-1749), a collection of essays of the Ming period master Wang Ao, Shouxi wengao 守溪文稿. Liang Zhangju 梁章鉅 (1775-1849) compiled a book, Zhiyi conghua 制藝叢話, in which he praised the artistic and cultural levels the eight-legged essay brought about in Chinese life.

Some examiners even expected the use of certain argumentative expressions, like Jin fu 今夫 («Now, regarding. «), Chang si 嘗思 («if considering this») or Gou qi ran 苟其然 («if it is like this»). The structure of the whole essay was to be composed in such a way that the examiners were able to clearly discern the paragraphs. Calligraphy was expected to be of high quality. In case characters were corrected or deleted, the exact number of altered places was to be noted down at the end of the essay. Of course it was demanded that posthumous titles (Hui 諱) of venerable persons were used, and the personal name of the emperor or high-standing persons were avoided.

As early as the mid-17th century, Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613-1682) in his collection Rizhilu 日知錄 (ch. Niti 擬題) criticized the sterility and destructive character of the eight-legged essay. Yet the eight-legged essay was only abolished in 1901.

After several hundred years of use, the most important themes were of course used up, and examiners looked for ever more complex, difficult and absurd themes, or brought together phrases of very divergent contexts.

8-legged essay example

Welcome to Learning Today. I come across a huge number of facts in my daily procrastinating, and I thought—why not share those facts with the world? Or at least with the tiny number of humans and web-bots that read this blog?

Our inaugural bit of wisdom comes today from China’s imperial examination system. Civil servants in Imperial China were chosen on the basis of their performance on a test. Hooray meritocracy, you say! Not so fast. This wasn’t a test of actual practical things. This was a test of the Chinese classics. It was horrifically difficult. The leader of the Taiping Rebellion, Hong Xiuquan, failed his examinations over four times—despite scoring in the top one percent of applicants. People would spend their lives taking the exams. Makes GRE test prep look peachy, no?

Why were the exams so hard? For an example, look at the dreaded eight-legged essay. Not only did the eight-legged essay give strict limits on the word count, structure and expression, but it demanded that writers not mention anything that happened after the death of Mencius in 298 B. C. From Wiki:

Words, phraseology, or references to events that occurred after the death of Mencius in 298 BC were not allowed, since the essay was supposed to explain a quote from one of the Confucian classics by «speaking for the sage»; and Confucius or his disciples could not have referred to events that occurred after their deaths. [ 1 ]