Ouyang was one of the major players in the Qingli Reforms of the 1040s and was in charge of creating the New History of the Tang Dynasty. He was also regarded as one of the great masters of prose of the Tang and Song era. He was also a noted writer of both shi and ci poetry.
He was born in Jishui, Jiangxi where his father was a judge, though his family comes from present day Jishui (then known as Luling), Jiangxi. His family was relatively poor, not coming from one of the old great lineages of Chinese society. Losing his father when he was three, his literate mother was responsible for much of his early education. He was unable to afford traditional tutoring and was largely self-taught. The writings of Han Yu, a literatus from the late Tang Dynasty were particularly influential in his development. He passed the jinshi degree exam in 1030 on his third attempt at the age of 22.
In his youth, be became somewhat notorious for an undisciplined personal life, including frequenting pleasure quarters and keeping the company of courtesans. At the same time, he also associated with like-minded scholar officials, with whom he regularly exchanged ideas on philosophy and literary modes. He preferred guwen (Ancient Prose) from an early age. By the age of thirty, he gave up the impulses of his youth and expressed regret at coming to an understanding of the Way rather late.
After passing the jinshi exam, he was appointed to a judgeship in Luoyang, the old Tang Dynasty eastern capital. While there, he found others with his interest in the ancient prose of Han Yu. Politically, he was an early patron of the political reformer Wang Anshi, but later became one of his strongest opponents. At court, he was both much loved and deeply resented at the same time.
In 1034 he was appointed to be a collator of texts at the Imperial Academy in Kaifeng where he was associated with Fan Zhongyan, who was the prefect of Kaifeng. Fan was demoted, however, after criticizing the Chief Councillor and submitting proposals for reform in promoting and demoting officials. Ouyang then submitted a critique of Fan’s principle critic at court. While he earned a demotion to Western Hubei for his troubles, he won praise as a principled official and led to his being a central figure in the growing reform faction.
Threats from the Liao Dynasty and Xi Xia in the north in 1040 caused Fan Zhongyan to come back into favor. He brought Ouyang with him by offering him a choice position on his staff. Ouyang’s refusal won him further praise as a principled public servant who was not willing to take advantage of connections. Instead, Ouyang was brought to the court in 1041 to prepare an annotated catalogue of the Imperial Library.
1043 was the high point in the first half of the eleventh century for reformers. Ouyang and Fan spurred the Qingli Reforms. Fan submitted a ten-point proposal addressing government organization. Among other things, these included increasing official salaries, enforcement of laws, eliminating favoritism, and reform exams to focus on practical statecraft. The reformers, however, were only in ascendancy for two years as the emperor rescinded these decrees of what also became known as the Minor Reform of 1043. Ouyang was a victim who was then demoted to a succession of magistracies in the provinces. Fan and Ouyang were considered to have formed a faction, which by definition was deemed subversive to the government, though Ouyang countered that Confucius himself said that good persons in society would naturally flock together in furtherance of their own goals.
After serving briefly in Chuzhou, Anhui in 1049, he was recalled to the court to serve in an advisory capacity. However, the death of his mother in 1052 forced him to retire for more than two years to carry out his filial obligations.
After returning from his mandatory retirement, he was recalled to court and appointed to be a Hanlin Academy academician. He was also charged with heading the commission compiling the New Tang History, a task not completed until 1060. He also served as Song ambassador to the Liao on annual visits and served as examiner of the jinshi examinations, working on improving them in the process.
In the early 1060s, he was one of the most powerful men in court, holding the positions of Hanlin Academician, Vice Commissioner of Military Affairs, Vice Minister of Revenues and Assistant Chief Councillor concurrently.
Ouyang’s power aroused jealousy. Upon the ascension of the Shenzong emperor in 1067, the name of Wang Anshi came to the attention of the emperor. Ouyang’s enemies had him charged with several crimes, including incest with his daughter. Though no one believed this charge credible, it still had to be investigated, causing him irreparable harm. Consequently, the emperor sent him to magistrate positions in Anhui, Shandong, and Anhui. While a magistrate in Shandong, he opposed and refused to carry out reforms advocated by Wang Anshi, particularly a system of low-interest loans to farmers.
In 1071, formal retirement was granted five years before the standard retirement age.
In his prose works, he followed the example of Han Yu, promoting the Classical Prose Movement. While posted in Luoyang, Ouyang founded a group who made his “ancient prose” style a public cause. He was traditionally classed as one of the Eight Great Prose Masters of the Tang and Song. He is said to be more responsible than any other single writer for developing a new expressiveness in expository prose in a variety of genres.
Among his most famous prose works is the Zuiweng Tingji (literally, An Account of the Old Toper's Pavilion). The Zuiweng Pavilion near Chuzhou is named in his honor whilst the poem is a description of his pastoral lifestyle among the mountains, rivers and people of Chuzhou. The work is lyrical in its quality and acclaimed as one of the highest achievements of Chinese travel writing. Chinese commentators in the centuries immediately following the work's composition focused on the nature of the writing. Huang Zhen said that the essay is an example of "using writing to play around," and Cui Xian was reminded of the spirit of the Jin Dynasty. It was agreed that the essay was about fengyue, the elegant enjoyment of leisure. During the Qing Dynasty, however, commentators began to see past the playfulness of the piece to the thorough and sincere joy that the author found in the joy of others.
Ouyang led the commission compiling the New Tang History, which completed its work in 1060. He also wrote a New History of the Five Dynasties on his own following his official service. The book was not discovered until after his death. His style resembled that of the great Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian. He also focused on ethical considerations in historical analysis.
As a historian, he has been criticised as overly didactic, but he played an important role in establishing the use of epigraphy as a historiographic technique. Epigraphy, as well as the practice of calligraphy, figured in Ouyang's contributions to Confucian aesthetics. In his Record of the Eastern Study he states how literary minded gentlemen might utilize their leisure to nourish their mental state. The practice of calligraphy and the appreciation of associated art objects were integral to this Daoist-like transformation of intellectual life.
The Ming dynasty writer Feng Menglong recorded a possibly apocryphal anecdote regarding Ouyang's writing style in his collection of short stories Gujin Tan'gai. As the story goes, during one of Ouyang's trips outside the Hanlin Academy with his associates, they witnessed an unusual event: a horse became spooked, galloped down a busy street, and kicked to death a dog sleeping there. Ouyang challenged his two associates to express this event in writing. One wrote: "A dog was lying in the thoroughfare and was kicked to death by a galloping horse," while the other wrote: "A horse galloped down a thoroughfare. A lying dog encountered it and was killed." Ouyang teased his junior colleagues, "A history book in your hands would remain incomplete after ten thousand volumes." When asked for his own rendering, Ouyang, replying with a smile, wrote: "Galloping horse killed dog in street （Chinese: 逸馬殺犬於道）."
His poems are generally relaxed, humorous and often self-deprecatory; he gave himself the title The Old Drunkard. He wrote both shi and ci. His shi are stripped-down to the essentials emphasised in the early Tang period, eschewing the ornate style of the late Tang. He is best known, however, for his ci, which he was instrumental in raising to the level of being an important and widespread Song poetic style. In particular, his series of ten poems entitled West Lake is Good set to the tune Picking Mulberries helped to popularise the genre as a vehicle for serious poetry.
Ouyang's poetry, especially the mature works of the 1050s, dealt with new themes that previous poets had avoided. These include interactions with friends, family life, food and beverages, antiques, and political themes. He also used an innovative style containing elements that he had learned from his prose writing. This includes his use of self-caricature and exaggeration. Ouyang's poetry bears the characteristic of literary playfulness common to Northern Song poetry. For example, many poems have titles that indicate that they originated in rhyme games, and feature extensive rhyming schemes throughout. Below is one of the many poems Ouyang Xiu wrote about the famed West Lake in Hangzhou.
|“||Deep in Spring, the Rain's Passed (Picking Mulberries) 
Deep in spring, the rain's passed- West Lake is good.
Oars in lilies, a painted barge moving without haste.
Despite his success in his various endeavors, he did not accumulate great landholdings and wealth and only his third son attained the highest jinshi degree.
He died in 1072 in present-day Fuyang, Anhui. His influence was so great, even opponents like Wang Anshi wrote moving tributes on his behalf. Wang referred to him as the greatest literary figure of his age.
During the Ming Dynasty, Li Dongyang, who rose to be the highest official in the Hanlin Academy, was an admirer of Ouyang Xiu, regarding him as "an ideal example of the scholar-official committed to both public service and literary art", and praising his writings for their tranquility and propriety.