Pattern is a Very Great Power Indeed

Pattern Is A Very Great Power Indeed

On Bell Mountain with Liu Xie

It is still early in the morning, but Purple Mountain on the outskirts of Nanjing is already busy with visitors. Troops of schoolchildren are heading up the hill to pay homage at the Mausoleum of the father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen. They laugh and joke as they climb. Families on day-trips take photographs with their mobile phones. Women by the side of the path sell peeled cucumbers and crowns of plastic flowers. And tour parties head towards the World Heritage site tomb of Emperor Hongwu, founder of the Ming dynasty. But I am not here to pay homage to Dr. Sun, nor to see the impressive Ming architecture. Instead, I have come to search out a more obscure figure.

His name is Liu Xie, and he lived between the fifth and sixth centuries in the period of Chinese history known as the Six Dynasties. Liu was a writer, a literary critic, a philosopher, a scholar and — at the very end of his life — a Buddhist monk. Today he is most famous for being the author of a book with the enigmatic title, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, or Wenxin diaolong.

The Wenxin diaolong is an extraordinary book: it is at one and the same time a history of earlier Chinese literature, a profound reflection on the art of writing, and a far-reaching and thoroughgoing philosophy of creativity. I have long been under its spell, and over the years, Liu has become a close companion on the way as I have gone about my own work as a writer. When I’m thinking through questions about what it means to write – this curious conjuring of patterns on the page, patterns that reflect the larger patterns of the world in all kinds of intricate ways – the Wenxin diaolong has become a resource to which I have returned repeatedly. So I have come to Purple Mountain to search out Liu and his book, and to pay my respects.

Fifteen hundred years ago here on Purple Mountain — or Bell Mountain as it was then called — there was a Buddhist temple called Dinglin. The name means calm, settled, or well-established, forest. It was in Dinglin temple that Liu first trained as a scholar, working as a cataloguer and editor of the books in the temple library under the supervision of the monk Sengyou; and it was to Dinglin that he returned later in life, to continue his work in the library, eventually taking the robe of a Buddhist monk. The Dinglin temple has now long gone. But close to where it once stood, there is today a small memorial hall dedicated to Liu Xie and to his work.

When I arrive at Purple Mountain, it turns out that the Liu Xie memorial hall is harder to find than I had anticipated. Nobody seems to know where the hall is, nor have they heard of the name Liu Xie. I am not wholly unprepared for this: the evening before when I checked online, the only information I could find about the memorial hall was from Chinese netizens complaining about how difficult the place was to find, and one enthusiastic blog post in Chinese about how the memorial hall had been recently upgraded and installed with fire-extinguishers (a fuzzy photograph of somebody operating a fire extinguisher in situ accompanied the blog). But eventually, after a good deal of asking around — and with the help of the somewhat erratic geolocation on my phone — I find myself at the entrance to the Ming tombs World Heritage site. The woman in the ticket booth says she thinks the hall may be inside the compound, but she is not entirely sure. I take a chance and buy a ticket.

It takes another hour of wandering before I stumble across the memorial hall. It is tucked away, signposted only as the “Dinglin Mountain Villa”, a little way apart from the main attractions. The low cluster of buildings is set beside a small stream, and when I step through the door.

I am the only visitor. Inside the memorial hall are three small, well-kept exhibition halls, dedicated to Liu, his work and the history of Bell Mountain. I pass through the exhibition, and then emerge into the innermost, cloistered courtyard. It is lush with vegetation, and a small stream runs through the middle. In a clump of bamboo, a flock of warblers chatters. Spiders go about their business, augmenting the architecture with their own creations. I sit down and take out some dried mango strips and bottled water from my bag. I have come prepared.

I chew on the mango and swig at the water, catching my breath. My body starts to relax and my attention drifts. I look at the layerings of green as the sun comes through the bamboo. I watch the clouds overhead, the fluttering of the warblers, the processions of ants across the pavings, the spiders hanging in their webs. And when I close my eyes and listen, I can hear the sound of running water, a distant voice singing, somebody chopping wood.

I think of the opening line of Liu’s book.


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


These days in China, scholarship on the Wenxin diaolong is a growth industry. In academic circles, the study of Liu and his work is referred to as ‘longxue’ (龍學), meaning ‘Dragon Studies’ or sometimes even more excitingly, ‘Dragonology’. Every year sees a steady stream of Dragonology conferences, symposia, learned journals, and books.

Nevertheless, the peace of the memorial hall brings home to me that Liu and his work do not figure strongly in the popular imagination in China. Dragonology remains a niche pursuit. Few know the name Liu Xie, whilst even fewer have read his book. Outside of China, Liu remains an even more obscure figure. His book has been translated into a number of other languages, including several times into English; but where he is known at all, it is mainly to China scholars and those working in the field of comparative literature.

When I stumbled across Liu for the first time, it was not as a scholar, but instead as a writer and as a teacher of writing. I was browsing in a second-hand bookstore over a decade and a half ago when I found a collection of essays on Liu’s work.[i] It was a serious scholarly work, with long and rather intimidating passages in Chinese; but the text was studded with astonishing flashes of insight into the nature and practice of writing. It was as if Liu was articulating things I had only half-sensed, or things that I had hitherto been unable to articulate myself. I bought the book and took it home. Occasionally, I dipped into it for those flashes and glimpses of insight, but it was not until several years until I got hold of Liu’s entire text in translation.

The copy was donated to me by my friend Dave Bonta — a man as close to a contemporary Daoist sage as anybody I know. I exchanged it for a copy of my book Finding Our Sea-Legs, which seemed a fair trade. The book had some of Dave’s annotations in the margin, in pencil (Dave is not, after all, a barbarian). Meanwhile, a previous reader had scribbled Chinese text annotations in red pen next to key passages, in small, well-formed script.

I read the book straight through; and from that point onwards, Liu became a constant reference point for me as a writer and teacher of writing.

Philosophy and writing

For much of the last two decades, I have taught both philosophy and creative writing, in one form or another. And all the time, I have been aware that between the two, there is something of a gulf. On the one hand, as a discipline, creative writing — at least, reflection on creative writing — tends to lack philosophical depth.[ii] More often than not, creative writing pedagogy and theory avoid anything like systematic philosophical enquiry into the nature of writing, to become more like a kind of folk-medicine: a rag-bag of remedies — some effective and some ineffective — for ailments that may or may not exist, peddled by healers of sometimes dubious worth (among whom I too am numbered). And maybe it’s okay that this is the case. Who needs systems, anyway? But still, I have sometimes craved something to get my philosophical teeth into when thinking about writing.

On the other hand, philosophy is often not known for its beauty of writing style (I’m looking at you, Immanuel Kant). Indeed, there are some schools of philosophy in which writing with beauty and elegance is seen as an indulgence or a moral flaw: a regrettable lapse in the austere tastes that properly belong to the philosopher.

So coming to Liu’s Wenxin diaolong was revelatory. Because it managed to do both things: to be philosophically deep, and also exquisitely beautiful.

Liu’s book is, of course, a product of his time. We do not write as Liu wrote, nor would any of us we want to. But it’s clear that what Liu is doing in his book is offering much more than folk remedies, or a series of ungrounded claims about what makes for good writing. Instead, he is setting out a systematic philosophy of writing, and at the same time he is doing so in prose that—if you can pick your way through the dense classical allusions—is often scintillatingly beautiful.

The whys and wherefores of wen

Liu’s philosophy of writing is grounded in his claim that literature is about pattern, or wen (文). The term wen can simply mean “literature”; but Liu’s opening chapter makes clear that his view of wen is much broader than this. It is so broad, in fact, that it reaches out to encompass pretty much everything.

Hall and Ames, in their book Thinking from the Han, give a good sense of the range of the term:

Just as the firmament displays elegance as a celestial pattern (tianwen 天文), so the human world as the ‘heart-mind of heaven and earth’ expresses its accomplished patterns as culture (wenhua 文化). Wen is ‘pattern’ where aesthetic value and meaning are co-present. Wen is writing, both in the sense of literature (wenxue 文學) and the written word (wenzi 文字). It is elegance (wenti 文體) and style (wenfeng 文風); it is education in the humanities (wenjiao 文教); it is civilization (wenming 文明). Wen are the wrinkles on an older person’s face that reflect character and experience…’ [iii]

For Liu, then, the patterning in which we might indulge when writing a poem or an essay is a part of the much broader patterning of the world. The opening line of the book — “Pattern is a very great power indeed. Is it not born alongside heaven and earth?” — reminds us that we should not overlook the force of pattern. Because ultimately, everything is patterned: the stripes of tigers, the streaks of the clouds as the sun sets, the sounds of the forest, the spots of leopards. From these examples , you might think that pattern is just about external adornment, that it doesn’t go deep. But Liu rejects this idea outright. “How could this be only about external adornment?” he writes. “These things are nothing more than way of nature” (夫豈外飾,蓋自然耳). Pattern, in other words, permeates everything. It goes all the way down, to the very heart of things. Perhaps there is nothing deeper.

Writing is interesting to Liu because our human capacity to create patterns — or human culture — brings something new to the world. Human beings are inveterate pattern-makers. We play with the patterns of the world, and we create patterns of our own. Patterns upon patterns, or meta-patterns. What is writing, what is culture, if not this?

However, human writing and human culture do not set us apart from the natural processes, or from the endlessly shifting patterns that make up this changeable world. As Liu puts it, “The mind and heart come into being, and language is established, language is established and the writing/pattern/culture shines forth — this is the dao of nature.” (心生而言立,言立而文明,自然之道也). For Liu, there is no gap between culture and nature. Through writing, and through human culture more generally, we do not find ourselves departing nature. But once these things exist, nature has suddenly got a whole load more interesting.

Reeling in the Mind

There is much more I could say about Liu, about why I find him such a compelling thinker, and such a compelling writer. I could talk more about his advice on balancing “wind” (feng 風) and “bone” (gu 骨) in the weaving of literary patterns — this section of Liu’s book being the source of the name of our social enterprise Wind&Bones. I could talk about his insights into writing and timeliness, or his entertaining skewering of the flaws of writers, or his perceptive refusal to equate writing with suffering, or his insistence that as writers, we need first and foremost to nurture our vitality. But I have written enough for one day, and it’s probably time, as Liu puts it, to “put down my brush, and reel in the mind” (理伏則投筆以卷懷).

To end, then, I will just say this: that Liu’s book is an extraordinary repository of insights and provocative ideas. It is a book I’m glad I stumbled across all those years ago. Because Liu has become so very important to me, and to how I write. I don’t really know what I’d do without him. So I’m delighted to be exploring his Wenxin diaolong with my fellow writers, as our Dragon-Carving for Writers project takes shape. And I look forward to seeing what patterns emerge as we work together, weaving new and intriguing things.


[1] The book in question was Cai, 2001.

[2] This is not just my opinion — honest! See Jordan-Baker, 2015 for some interesting reflections on the philosophical thinness of creative writing as a discipline.

[2] Hall and Ames 1998, p. 33.


Cai, Z.-Q. (2001) A Chinese Literary Mind: Culture, Creativity and Rhetoric in Wenxin Diaolong. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

D.L. & Ames, R.T. (1998) Thinking from the Han: self, truth, and transcendence in Chinese and Western culture. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Jordan-Baker, C. (2015) The Philosophy of Creative Writing. New Writing, 12, 238-248.