Ouyang Xiu was a scholar-official, essayist, historian, poet, calligrapher, and epigrapher of the Song dynasty. He is considered the central figure of the Eight Masters of the Tang and Song. 

Ouyang led the commission compiling the New Book of Tang Dynasty History, completed in 1060. He wrote New History of the Five Dynasties on his own following his official service. The book was not discovered until after his death.

Ouyang retired from politics in 1071, after he opposed and refused to carry out economic reforms advocated by Wang Anshi.

Ouyang Xiu was born in Sichuan, where his father was a judge, though his family comes from Jiangxi. His family was relatively poor, when he lost his father at the age of three. As his mother was unable to afford traditional tutoring, Ouyang was largely self-taught. The writings of Han Yu were particularly influential in his development.

Ouyang passed the jinshi degree exam in 1030 on his third attempt at the age of 22. His highest official title was assistant councilor of the state and magistrate in Shandong province.

As a historian, according to Carpenter Bruce, Ouyang has been criticised as overly didactic, but he played an important role in establishing the use of epigraphy as a historiographic technique. Epigraphy, as well as the practice of calligraphy, figured in Ouyang’s contributions to Confucian aesthetics. In his Record of the Eastern Study he states how literary minded gentlemen might utilize their leisure to nourish their mental state. The practice of calligraphy and the appreciation of associated art objects were integral to this Daoist-like transformation of intellectual life. 

Literally, Ouyang was famous for his prose works. He followed the example of Han Yu, promoting the Classical Prose Movement. While posted in Luoyang, Ouyang founded a group who made his “ancient prose” style a public cause. He is listed as one of the Eight Masters of the Tang and Song.

Among his most famous prose works is the Zuiweng Tingji (literally, An Account of the Old Toper’s Pavilion). The Zuiweng Pavilion near Chuzhou is named in his honor whilst the poem is a description of his pastoral lifestyle among the mountains, rivers and people of Chuzhou. The work is lyrical in its quality and acclaimed as one of the highest achievements of Chinese travel writing. 

Generally relaxed, humorous and often self-deprecatory, his poetry interacts with friends, family life, food and beverages, antiques, and political themes.

He is best known, however, for his ci – poetry-like prose. In particular, his series of ten poems entitled West Lake is Good set to the tune Picking Mulberries helped to popularise the genre as a vehicle for serious poetry.

Ouyang died in 1072 in present-day Fuyang, Anhui. His influence was so great, even opponents like Wang Anshi wrote moving tributes on his behalf. Wang referred to him as the greatest literary figure of his age.

During the Ming Dynasty, Li Dongyang, who rose to be the highest official in the Hanlin Academy, was an admirer of Ouyang Xiu. He regarded Ouyang Xiu as “an ideal example of the scholar-official committed to both public service and literary art”, praising his writings for their tranquility and propriety.

By staff translator

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