Bense (Original Character)
The term originally referred to true colors and has been extended to mean true appearance. As a term of literary critique, bense (本色) has three meanings: 1) the artistic style and literary features that are compatible with a given genre; 2) the style and literary features that remain true to the writer’s individual character; and 3) the style that makes it possible for the writing to remain true to the author’s own experience and that gives truthful expression to his thoughts and feelings. Bense is not only a requirement for the writer but also for his works. In the literary criticism of the Song Dynasty, bense was often used to describe and evaluate the special qualities of different genres. In the literary criticism of the Ming and Qing dynasties, bense usually referred to the individual style of poets and writers and also those styles of writing that remained true to life experience and eschewed literary embellishment. Bense is often used together with danghang (当行) to mean “original and genuine”; it is often associated with the Dao of nature in classical Daoist philosophy, in opposition to the attitude and styles that stress literary embellishment.
Poems written by Han Yu read like essays and ci lyrics by Su Shi read like poems. This is like Master Dancer Lei of the Song Palace Music School performing dances choreographed for women. Although they were good writers, what they wrote was incompatible with the original characters of the genres. (Chen Shidao: Houshan’s Understanding of Poetry)
Recently I have come to realize that in writing poetry or prose, all that is needed is to write what I have in mind. This is like the Chinese saying, “When you open the mouth, others can see your throat.” When readers read such works, they will come to know what the author is actually like. Without hiding either strengths or weaknesses, the author makes his true character fully apparent. The writing that best embodies the author’s original character is most desirable. (Tang Shunzhi: Letter to Hong Fangzhou)
Everything in the world has its true appearance and its surrogate. True appearance is what I am, while a surrogate is a substitute. (Xu Wei: Foreword to Romance of the West Chamber)