suí wù fù xínɡ 随物赋形
Writing That Flows like Water
This term originally referred to water, which, without a fixed shape, flows along the contours of objects or land. Song Dynasty writer Su Shi (1037-1101) used it to describe literary writing that was smooth and free like water, showing both the writer’s creative power and his adherence to the laws of nature and human society. This style of writing endeavors to achieve harmony between a motif and expressive techniques and to merge emotion, landscapes, events and moral lessons into an aesthetic whole. This term may have been influenced by the Daoist beliefs that “the highest virtue is like water” and that “water is the most exact equivalent of the Way” as well as the Buddhist faith in following karma. It also gives expression to an artist’s personality, artistic attainment and capability.
The most admirable thing in the world is definitely water. The mightiness of a river and the depth of a sea can be envisaged through imagination. As water has no fixed shape of its own, it assumes different shapes when passing over various landforms. So, though the flow of water varies miraculously, it follows an inherent law of nature. (Su Shi: Ode to the Yanyu Rock at the Qutang Gorge of the Yangtze River)
When I write, words keep pouring forth like springs come from numerous sources. They will flow in from everywhere in the mountains without having to choose a commanding height to do so – words that like water flow so profusely over flat ground that they travel a long distance a day with perfect ease. Then rocks of all kinds appear, but words flow around them, taking on shapes as determined by various terrain. It is hard to predict what will emerge eventually, but I do know that I will pause or move on as necessary. (Su Shi: A Commentary on My Own Writing)