This Eight Paragraph Essay Is Divided A Term

(1)The Topic Sentence Paragraph presents and develops a point or thought within the paragraph, defines or limits the reader's thoughts, and provides the reader with a feeling of completeness;
(2) A group of related sentences that are connected one to the other to cause the reader to know some particular point the writer is making;
(3) the smallest unit of writing that a writer can use to get a developed message over to the reader.

In studying the etymology of the word paragraph , we find that it origin- ated in Greece. The term paragraphos meant a mark in the margin of a manuscript to set off part of a text. (Para = "beside"; graph = "mark"). As scholars have pointed out, since these early writers didn't indent the way we do today, or actually write in paragraphs as we know them, they used these marks in the margins to draw the reader's eyes to certain points. The contemporary use of paragraphs is very closely related to this practice.

There are two (2) kinds of paragraphs: the Topic Sentence Paragraph and the Function Paragraph. As pointed out by Neeld (1980), the "Topic Sentence Paragraph takes one main idea and develops it. The topic sentence (sometimes stated, sometimes implied) tells the readers what you are about to discuss, focuses the reader's mind on that particular thing, and then provides enough information to prove or explain or illustrate or otherwise develop that main idea." The author of Writing/2nd Edition, Dr. Neeld adds that "thus it is possible to break a Topic Sentence Paragraph down into two parts: the topic sentence itself (the main idea, either stated or implied) and the additional sentences (directly related to the topic sentence and developing it)."

Any essay must have several good Topic Sentence Paragraphs; it is these paragraphs that allow you, the writer, to focus and define the reader's attention to the particular message or unit of information that you want the reader to think about. In addition, the Topic Sentence Paragraph provides your reader with that all important sense of value . This comes from the substance of that particular message you are communicating. To do this effectively, it is important that one be aware of certain guiding principles with respect to exactly where the Topic Sentence can or should be placed in a Topic Sentence Paragraph.

The Topic Sentence can go in any one of three (3) places in a paragraph:

    At the beginning (a form of Deductive Order , that is, going from the General or Main Idea to the Specific Support Sentences of that Main Idea in your organizing the paragraph);

    At the end (a form of Inductive Order , that is, going from Specific Supporting Sentences that provides examples, details, illurations, statistics, and other forms of information to the General or Main Idea); or

    Nowhere -- it's just "understood" (this is only done when you believe that the reader will know the main idea in the paragraph without being told and doing so renders your paragraph artificial and stiff. But please understand the difference between a paragraph with an implied or understood topic sentence and a paragraph that is simply a collection of unconnected, unrelated sentences!).

In writing Topic Sentence Paragraphs, you want to always make certain that (1) you tell the reader clearly what the paragraph is about; (2) you make certain that every sentence in the Topic Sentence Paragraph is related to the Topic Sentence, even if it is "implied;" and (3) that you always give your reader enough information to cognate your message. This final admonition is especially important given that the Topic Sentence Paragraph is the smallest unit of writing in which one can disseminate a complete message.

There are several ways by which one can insure that your Topic Sentence Paragraphs are, in fact, giving the reader enough information to understand your message.

    Illustrations, Examples, and Details. Your textbooks are excellent references for this type of writing. You may choose virtually any section of a textbook to find where the author, following an overview or Introduction to the subject matter, then follows with illustrations and examples for the readers to follow. Description. This particular method for adding information is certain to get the reader directly involved as it appeals to the five senses. When one uses description, it is usually to answer questions for the reader such as "What did it sound like?" "What did it smell like?" In describing, the writer works to develop word pictures, to image the scene for the reader whether it be an object, person, or event.

    Develop a Topic Sentence Paragraph based upon the issue of AIDS by using a combination of illustrations, examples, and details. Develop a Topic Sentence Paragraph that uses description as the primary method of development. Choose one of the following subjects on which to do so: (a) A Special Gift; (b) Your First Day of School; or (c) A Funny Television Commerical. Definition. There will be occasion when you wish to define a term or process so as to add information in a Topic Sentence Paragraph. This can prove to be an especially effective way of giving the reader enough information. Explanation and Analysis. The following is a paragraph taken from Effective Writing: Choices and Conventions by Karen Greenberg where she explains what can take place when the student writer fails to understand what the writing process is about.

    "Students who have misunderstandings about the process of writing often become overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to produce a 'perfect' piece of writing in one draft. They become convinced that they cannot write well and may develop negative attitudes toward writing -- fear, anxiety, contempt. These negative attitudes make it even more difficult for them to produce and to shape ideas. Regardless of whther you think that you write well or poorly, you may have some attitudes about writing that are interfering with your ability to express or to revise these ideas. In order to change these attitudes, first you need to understand them. This chapter is designed to help you examine your feelings and beliefs about writing and explore your writing habits."

    Facts and Figures. Crucial with writing of any type is the effort to convince or persuade your reader with respect to your main idea. This is one good reason for you to use facts and figures , statistical data where necessary and appropriate. What statistics and factual data do is lend credibility to your assertion(s), many times the type of weight that will bring the reader around to agreeing with you. Here is an example of that type of writing taken from Dr. Bruce Hare's article "Black Youth at Risk" as published in The State of Black America 1988:

    "The March 1986 issue of Crisis presents a series of dire statistics on black youth. For example, it was reported that '86% of Black youth live in poverty..., 1 out of every 22 Black American males will be killed by violent crime...,51% of violent crime in the U.S. is committed by Black youth..., 40% of Black children are being raised in fatherless homes.' The magazine also puts the current high school drop-out rate at 72 percent. Given the structural issues presented, and the already known precarious state of the adults, one might wonder specifically how a people of equal innate childhood potential arrive a such a disadvantaged youth status."

    Repetition. One factor to keep in mind is that the reader does not have a long memory for the message you are attempting to get across. With this in mind, what you must do is employ one of the clarifying devices used to achieve coherence -- repetition of key terms -- at consistent intervals. That is to say, the writer in a conscious act deliberately repeats the key points or themes of the work. This is very different from redundancy , wherein one simply repeats oneself for lack of anything better to offer (a direct outgrowth of not doing the necessary background preparation so as to deliver a well-developed message!). In addition, repetion of those key themes enables one to avoid the error of excessive pronoun usage which brings on the quality of incoherence.

    Comparison and Contrast. One of the very best ways to help your reading audience to "see" what you mean is to compare it to something else. In doing this, you are showing how the two things are similar. Or, you can contrast it to something else showing how the two are dissimilar. By putting two items together, you can really bring out the point that you want to get across. Journalist and author Nat Hentoff does this exceptionally well in his article "When Nice People Burn Books." Hentoff's subject is the First Amendment and how its basic provisions should be recognized by liberals and conservatives alike. He uses the award of $1,000 by an all-white jury to a black high school student after the student had charged the Battle Ground School District (including Prairie High School) with discrimination. One of the claims was that the school had discriminated against the youth by permitting white students to wear Ku Klux Klan costumes to a Halloween assembly. Using a comparison and contrast mode, Hentoff writes "School administrators might say the best approach is to have no costumes at all. That way, there'll be no danger of disruption. But if there were real danger of physical confrontation in the school when a student wears a Klan costume, is the school so powerless that it can't prevent a fight? And indeed, what a compelling opportunity the costumes present to teach about the Klan, to ask those white kids who wore the Klan costumes what they know of the history of the Klan. To get black kids and white kids talking about what the Klan represents, in history -- and right now.

    Such teaching is too late for Prairie High School. After that $1,000 award to the black student, the white kids who have been infected by Klan demonology will circulate their poison only among themselves, intensifying their sickness of the spirit. There will be no more Klan costumes in that school, and so no more Klan costumes to stimulate class discussion.

    ...That's the thing about censorship, whether good liberals or bad companions engage in it. Censorship is like a greased pig. Hard to confine. You start trying to deal with offensive costumes and you wind up with a blank space in the yearbook. Isn't that just like the Klan? Causing people to do dumb things."

    Can you see how Hentoff, a noted liberal writer, is able to get the reader actively involved by using examples which one can immediately identify? The First Amendment gauranteeing freedom of expression is one of those "inalienable rights" that every American believes in. Costumes and costume parties is another event the great majority are familiar with. Most certainly this is true for that one night in the year that America goes into costume, Halloween. And against this he holds up the opportunity to teach, but much more than the 3 R's, Hentoff posits the lost opportunity to teach about a dark page in our history, and in a way that all races can benefit. Of course, to do this kind of writing one has to do some critical thinking of one's own with regard to the issue but this is part-and-parcel of the good writer's makeup, that willingness to probe for creative ideas rather than repeat the commonplace and cliche.

    Narrative. Everyone likes a good story , and when you tell one more than likely you are going to draw attention right away. But equally important for the writer who chooses the narrative as a form of adding information to the Topic Sentence Paragraph, one can do so with confid- ence because it allows you a wonderful opportunity to explain or illustrate the point you want to make in that paragraph. In the paragraph below taken from his classic "I Have a Dream" sermon delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to more than 200,000 people who came to Washington, D.C., in 1963 to show their support of civil rights as an issue, one finds an oustanding example of the narrative voice (done in the first person but extended to include the audience as a participant)

    "But there is something I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to staisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into bitter violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone."

The basis of every composition is the Topic Sentence Paragraph. It is the smallest unit of writing that allows the writer to present a complete message or thought. In writing the Topic Sentence Paragraph, you want to do three things: (1) Tell the Reader Clearly What the Paragraph Is About; (2) Make Sure That Every Sentence in the Topic Sentence Paragraph Is Related to the Topic Sentence; and (3) Always Give the Reader Enough Information. With respect to the topic sentence, it can go in one of three places: (1) at the beginning of the paragraph as a form of deductive order going from your main idea to the supporting sentences; (2) at the ending of the paragraph as a form of inductive order where you begin with your support sentences that lead to the main idea; or (3) have it "nowhere," with the understanding that the reader will understand what your main idea is so that the topic sentence is implicit in the writing.

There are eight ways by which you as the writer can make certain that the reader will get enough information in developing the Topic Sentence Paragraph: (1) Illustrations, Examples, and Details; (2) Description; (3) Definition; (4) Explanation and Analysis; (5) Facts and Figures; (6) Repetition; (7) Comparison and Contrast; and (8) Narrative. In concluding, one might make special note that these eight ways hold true for the entire composition as, once mastered, the student writer gains confidence and competence.

    The following paragraph violates all three principles about writing good Topic Sentence Paragraphs. Explain how it does so and then explain how each error might be corrected.
     Minorities are going to have to wake up and smell the coffee. We have all been brainwashed into thinking we are inferior. Motion pictures and television stand out as the biggest contributor of the propaganda, followed by the government, the schools, the belief that "Money Is Everything and Those Without Money Don't Count," your friends and neighbors, private industry and the labor unions, and maybe even your own family.

Define the following:

    Admonition Competence Credibility Deductive Order Disseminate Etymology Excessive Pronoun Usage Inductive Order Paragraph Paragraphos Redundancy Topic Sentence Paragraph

For assistance in developing this presentation, special credit must be given to the following: Elizabeth Cowan-Neeld (Writing/2nd Edition), Karen L. Greenberg (Effective Writing), National Urban League (The State of Black America 1988), Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan (Popular Writing In America). Dr. Cowan-Neeld is the pioneer insofar as developing work centered around the Topic Sentence Paragraph while Professor Greenberg's comments on attitude and its relationship to effective writing provide seminal insights on the process. The timely work by the National Urban League has indirectly made it possible to feature this presentation which attempts in a small way to present an alternative, multicultural and multiethnic approach to the subject matter. It is to Professors McQuade and Atwan that I was able to obtain the article by Nat Hentoff entitled "When Nice People Burn Books."

Special thanks are in order to the Pan African Studies Department at California State University, Northridge for providing the material support and technical assistance without which it would have been impossible to develop this presentation. Finally, I wish to given special due to my students at CSUN over the years without whose input and hard work, the inspiration would not have come to develop this particular work. All errors in this document are my own for which I accept the responsibility.

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The eight-legged essay (Chinese: 八股文; pinyin: bāgǔwén) was a style of essay writing that had to be mastered[clarify] to pass the imperial examinations during the Ming and Qing dynasties.


The eight-legged essay is named so because it was divided into eight sections.[1]

The term "essay" itself originates with Michel de Montaigne in 1580, when he published Essays. The term "essay" then described a genera of literary endeavor. Montaigne's essays demonstrated a narrative deductive rather than inductive approach to examining and explaining experience. The eight-legged Confucian examination response is more an example of a prescribed organizational pattern than it is an essay in the broader understanding of the term, something more akin to the modern five-paragraph essay in that conforming to the criteria demonstrated an aspiring scholar's ability to explain ideas within the confines of an authorized or expected pattern. Accordingly, we must use the term "essay" loosely in this instance.

Structure and content[edit]

The eight-legged essay was formulated around a rigid, artificial structure. It tested, among other things, the examinees' knowledge of the Four Books and Five Classics and ability to insert classical allusions and idioms at the places deemed appropriate. The structure of much of the essay included heavy parallelism and redundancy, rhetorical features that survive in modern Chinese expository writing.

The eight "legs" or sections were as follows:

Opening破題 pòtí
"break topic"
Two sentences of prose whose function is to broach the topic.
Amplification承題 chéngtí
"carry topic"
Five sentences of prose, elaborating upon and clarifying the theme.
Preliminary exposition起講 qǐjiǎng
"begin speak"
Prose text
Initial argument起股 qǐgǔ
"begin section"
A specified number (4, 5, 8 or 9) of sentence pairs written in parallel, developing the initial argument. The parallel sentences address the topic and convey similar meanings, with similar structure but different words.
Central argument中股zhōnggǔ
"middle portion"
Sentences written in parallel, with no limit as to their number, in which the central points of the essay are expounded freely.
Latter argument後股 hòugǔ
"after portion"
Sentences written in parallel, with no limit as to their number. Here, points not addressed in the previous section are discussed; otherwise, the writer may continue padding the ideas in the central argument. It is to be written in a serious tone rooted in realism.
Final argument束股 shùgǔ
"tying-up section"
Parallel sentence groups, each one consisting of either two to three, or else four to five, lines. Here, the main theme is revisited and loose ends are tied up.
Conclusion大結 dàjié'
"big knot"
Prose text where free expression and creativity are allowed. The concluding remarks are made here.

In addition to the rules governing the number of sentences for a particular section, there were also strict limits on the total number of words in the essay.[2] Certain offensive words and words prone to reveal the candidate’s identity or status were also to be avoided.[2]

Words, phraseology, or references to events that occurred after the death of Mencius in 298 BC were not allowed, since the essay was supposed to explain a quote from one of the Confucian classics by "speaking for the sage"; and Confucius or his disciples could not have referred to events that occurred after their deaths.[2]


The eight-legged essay format was invented by the Song Dynasty reformer Wang Anshi.[3] However, it is not certain exactly when the form became the standard for the civil service examinations. A model form for essay writing issued by Emperor Taizu of Ming in 1370 is much less rigid and precise than eight-legged essays eventually became. It specifies only the topics to be tested in the examinations and the minimum length of the candidates' essays. According to Gu Yanwu, the form of the essay became more standardized during the 15th century. The term "eight-legged essay" first appeared during the period from 1465 to 1487, and the essay form was first required in the examinations of 1487 and 1496.[4]

Since mastery of the form was a requirement for success in the examinations, commercial printers during the Ming Dynasty began to print successful examination essays as guides for aspiring candidates. The first of these appeared in pirated form during the 16th century. However, the practice gained official approval in 1587, when the government suggested that the best papers of the previous century be reprinted as examples.[5]

A sample essay[edit]

The following is a translation of an original eight-legged essay, written by Wang Ao (1450–1524), who was considered to be a master of the form.[6] This essay's format is slightly different from the one described above; Xugu is added while Shùgǔ is omitted. Xugu acts as a prelude to the main theme.

Essay Topic:

"If the people enjoy sufficiency how could the ruler suffer from insufficiency?"

1. Pòtí:

When the people below are rich, the ruler at the top will naturally be rich.

2. Chéngtí:

This is so because the wealth of the ruler is something kept by the people. If the people are already rich, how can it stand to reason that the ruler alone is poor?

3. Qǐjiǎng:

You Ruo spoke from profundity the idea of the oneness of the ruler and the people in his advice to Duke Ai. The implication was that the Duke's proposal to increase the taxation was due to the insufficiency of his revenues for state expenditure; to insure the sufficiency of state expenditure, then, what could take precedence over measures to insure sufficiency for his people?

4. Qǐgǔ:

If, indeed,

the farming lands were tithed with a sincere wish to be thrifty in expenditure and to be considerate in showing love to the people,
the one-tenth tax on the agricultural produce were levied with no scheme to exploit the people and to seek extravagance for the person of the ruler himself;


the exertions of the people would not be burdened with excessive taxations,
the accumulation of the people's property would not be exhausted by undue demands;
within common households there would be enough savings and accumulation, leaving little worry over caring for parents and raising the young,
in the ordinary farms there would be abundant grains and millets, warding off the anxieties of nurturing the living and of honoring the dead.

5. Xugu:

If the people are enjoying sufficiency, for what conceivable reason should the ruler be left alone in poverty?

6. Zhōnggǔ:

I know that

what was kept in the common households would all be available to the ruler, without its being hoarded in the treasury to enable the ruler to claim, "This is my wealth";
what is stored in the farm and fields would all be accessible to the ruler, without its being accumulated in the vaults to enable the ruler to claim, "These are my possessions."

With inexhaustible availability, what worry is there for failure to respond to demand?

With inexhaustible supplies, what anxiety is there for lack of preparedness in emergency?

7. Hòugǔ:

The sacrificial animals and ritual cereals are plentiful to be used in religious offerings; and the jades and silks are abundant to be used as tributes and diplomatic gifts. Even if these were insufficient, the people will naturally supply them in full. Wherein will there be a shortage?

Food and delicacies, beefs and drinks are abundant for entertainment of state guests; carriages and horses, arms and equipment are enough for the preparation of wars and defense. Even if these were insufficient, the people will take care of the needs. Wherein again will there be insufficiency?

8. Dàjié:

Oh! The establishment of the tithe was originally for the good of the people, but in this very usage lies the sufficiency of national expenditure. Where then is there any need to increase taxation to attain national wealth?


The eight-legged essay was praised by some and was maintained as an integral part of the examination tradition. This is illustrated by an attempt to abolish it during the Qing Dynasty. The government at that time viewed Wang Anshi as having been a bad official. For this reason, an attempt was made in 1663 to abolish the form. However, the weight of tradition made such a change impossible. Candidates in the examinations had been trained in the form, and abolishing it threatened their livelihoods. Examiners could also mark papers written in the form in a uniform manner. Supporters of the form also argued that only the truly skilled could write eight-legged essays of high quality, so the form assisted in seeking out talent. For these reasons, the attempted change did not last, and the form was reintroduced in 1668.[7]Yuan Hongdao (1568–1610) praised the form effusively: "Its style is unprecedented; its diction reaches the limits of a talented writer; its tune changes with the passage of years and months. [Every writer] is able to demonstrate his unique talent with different techniques". He later declared that "the variety and liveliness of the eight-legged essay is a hundred times more than that of poetry."[8]

In contrast, the eight-legged format is "generally considered pedantic and trite by modern-day scholars",[2] and it had its critics during the time of its dominance as well. As early as the 17th century, the form's adoption was blamed for the decline of classical poetry and prose during the Ming Dynasty. The critic Wu Qiao wrote that "people exhausted themselves on the eight-legged essay, and poetry was only composed with their spare energy". Writing at the same time, the political theorist and philosopher Huang Zongxi echoed these sentiments.[9] Its use has been criticized as the reason that many successful examination candidates later found themselves unprepared for the more practical requirements of government positions.[10] In his unfinished autobiography, Chen Duxiu, the co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, called the form "lifeless".[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^"Leg" is a mistranslation of 股 (gǔ) which literally means leg, but is used primarily as a derived metaphor meaning "section." The stock market for example is 股市 "leg market" in Chinese.
  2. ^ abcdHoi K. Suen: (2005) The hidden cost of education fever: Consequences of the Keju-driven education fever in ancient China. In: Jong-gak Lee (ed.), 한국의 교육열, 세계의 교육열: 해부와 대책 (Education fever in Korea, Education fever in the world: Analyses and policies.) (pp. 299–334) Seoul, Korea: Ha-woo Publishing Co. (English version, translated by Ki-soo Kim)
  3. ^Lui, Adam Yuen-Chung (1974). "Syllabus of the Provincial Examination (hsiang-shih) under the Early Ch'ing (1644–1795)". Modern Asian Studies. Cambridge University Press. 8 (3): 391–396. doi:10.1017/S0026749X00014694. JSTOR 311740. 
  4. ^Wilson, Thomas A. (1995). Genealogy of the Way: The Construction and Uses of the Confucian Tradition in Late Imperial China. Stanford University Press. p. 53. ISBN 0-8047-2425-3. 
  5. ^Wu, K. T.; Wu Kuang-Ch'ing (February 1943). "Ming Printing and Printers". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Harvard-Yenching Institute. 7 (3): 203–260. doi:10.2307/2718015. JSTOR 2718015. 
  6. ^Ching-I, Tu (1974–1975). "The Chinese Examination Essay: Some Literary Considerations". Monumenta Serica. Monumenta Serica Institute. 31: 393–406. JSTOR 40726178. 
  7. ^Lui (1974), 392.
  8. ^Chou, Chih P'Ing; Patrick Hannan; Denis Twitchett (2006). Yüan Hung-tao and the Kung-an School. Cambridge University Press. pp. 42–43. ISBN 0-521-02765-9. 
  9. ^Chou (2006), 1–2.
  10. ^Lui (1974), 395.
  11. ^Kagan, Richard C. (April–June 1972). "Ch'en Tu-hsiu's Unfinished Autobiography". The China Quarterly. Cambridge University Press on behalf of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 50 (50): 295–314. doi:10.1017/S0305741000050323. JSTOR 651911. 

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