When analyzing Chinese speeches or essays, I often have difficulty understanding how their the authors organized their ideas.

In North America, for example, a common template for writing an essay is the five-paragraph essay. This organizes the paragraphs and the sentences within each paragraph. Most English-language writing in academia follows a somewhat similar structure to this.

Do Chinese follow any particular structures when planning speeches or essays? Are there any ancient scholars who heavily influenced this structure?

  • whoa, nice question. i really hope someone can dig up some information about this. – magnetar Dec 25 '11 at 21:13
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    You might want to provide some examples. It might be that the authors really didn't follow any specific structures, either because they are very good at their job, or because they are utterly incompetent. – Wang Dingwei Dec 30 '14 at 0:58
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    I have never seen a five-paragraph essay in English-speaking media. It's more like training wheels for high school writers. – K Man Nov 16 '19 at 13:31

The Chinese have a device called 起承转合. First you start(起) narrating on some topic. Then you continue(承) to develop the topic with added material. Then you turn(转) the narrative, either by seeking different aspects, or creating conflicts and resolving them. Finally you conclude(合) the topic.

Often it goes like this:

(起) New study shows that spanking is bad for children...
(承) The study is conducted by Harvard and it goes like... 
(转) Some may say "I was spanked as a child, and I turn out to be fine." They are wrong because...
(合) So it's better not to spank our children...

It also work in poems and songs. Here is a modern example, a song by by 张玮玮, titled 《织毛衣》


This idea has its classic roots, so we can see it being used in classical poems as well. For example, 《登高》 by 杜甫, my all time favorite:


It's rather akin to the Hollywood three-act structure, where you plan the plot, develop the plot, reach the climax, then draw the happy ending.

Note that it's just one of the common devices that could be used on any type of writing. As for scientific theses, I think most of them try to follow western standards.

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  • also interesting to consider possible influence of 八股文 /时文 on this kind of organization... – Master Sparkles Dec 29 '14 at 22:00
  • @MasterSparkles Yeah how can we forget 八股文? Though it's almost certainly dead, it did have served its time. – Wang Dingwei Dec 30 '14 at 0:23
  • yup, it has a largely deserved bad rep, but it's hard to imagine that baguwen training didn't strongly influence late Qing reformers' ideas about what to replace the form with. The Wikipedia article weirdly fails to mention Dr Benjamin Elman's "A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China" - late chapters of which detail baguwen's downfall. I don't know if anyone has gone back and studied if/how that influence played out regarding teaching Chinese composition. – Master Sparkles Dec 30 '14 at 1:02

In university I had to write quite a few essays in Chinese, they follow the same basic structure of introduction, point 1, point 2, point... conculusion.

I have also spent time correcting thesis and academic writing and it's pretty much identical to in the West.

One point about learning to write better in Chinese that my wife taught me; don't get hung up on how to write something properly in Chinese. Thing about exactly what you want to say in your native tongue (English etc.) and then think about how to translate that into Chinese rather than going for the tricky approach of trying to get your point across in Chinese.

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