Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Wang Shih-chên

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WANG Shih-chên 王士禛 (T. 子貞, 貽上, H. 阮亭, 漁洋山人), Oct. 19, 1634–1711, June 26, poet and official, came from a family of note in Hsin-ch'êng, Shantung. He was born at Kaifeng, Honan, where his grandfather, Wang Hsiang-chin [q. v.], was then serving as provincial judge. A precocious child, he is said to have composed poetry at the age of eight (sui). By 1648, when he was fifteen (sui), his first volume of verse was published, under the title 落箋堂初稿 Lo-chien t'ang ch'u-kao. He passed the metropolitan examination in 1655, becoming a chin-shih three years later. In 1659 he was named police magistrate of Yangchow, assuming that office the following year. In this capacity he served for five years (1660–65), during which he cleared up a number of difficult cases and passed out just sentences which won the applause of many people. Always busily occupied with official duties, he yet found time to become acquainted with many poets of Kiangsu and to attend their gatherings; he received in particular the encouragement of Ch'ien Ch'ien-i and Mao Hsiang [qq. v.]. Recommended highly by his superiors, he was promoted in 1664 to be a secretary in the Board of Ceremonies, an office which he assumed in September 1665. Two years later he was raised to an assistant department director and from 1669 to 1670 he served as superintendent of customs at Ch'ing-chiang-p'u, Kiangsu. In 1671 he was transferred to the Board of Revenue. A year later he was sent to Szechwan to direct the provincial examination, but on his way back he learned of the death of his mother and hurried home. In 1676 he returned to Peking to resume his post in the Board of Revenue.

Having then only light official duties, Wang Shih-chên spent much of his time in the company of scholars and poets who were gathered in the capital from many parts of the country. He came to be recognized as one of the leading poets of his day and his name was mentioned to Emperor Shêng-tsu. Although he had failed to enter the Hanlin Academy when he became a chin-shih (1658), he was favored in 1678 with an imperial audience and was appointed a subreader in the Academy. Early in 1681 he was promoted to be libationer of the Imperial Academy, and three years later was named junior director of the Supervisorate of Instruction. Early in 1685 he was sent to Kwangtung to offer sacrifices to the Spirit of the South Seas. Later in that year his father died; he returned home to observe the period of mourning. Thereafter he served as: a vice-president of the Censorate (1690), of the Board of War (1690–92), and of the Board of Revenue (1692–98); and as president of the Censorate (1698–99), and of the Board of Punishments (1699–1704). He officiated concurrently as a director of the State Historiographer's Office and in the compilation of the classified dictionary, 淵鑑類函 Yüan-chien lei-han, 454 chüan (completed in 1702, printed in 1710). In 1696 he served as commissioner to offer sacrifices to the Spirit of the Mountains of the West.

In 1704 it was found that Wang Shih-chên and other officials of the Board of Punishments had meted out to a murderer a very light sentence. For his part in the mistrial, Wang was deprived of all his ranks and offices. This was his forty-fifth year in official life, and he was seventy-one (sui). Though he might have cleared himself and remained in office, he took the opportunity to retire, living quietly at his home for the remaining seven years of his life. But half a year before his death his former titles were restored to him by special decree. According to Chao-lien [q. v.], Wang was not accorded any posthumous honors because Emperor Shêngtsu did not approve of his close relations with the one-time Heir Apparent, Yin-jêng [q. v.]. Not until fifty-four years after Wang's death did Emperor Kao-tsung, in recognition of his standing as the foremost poet of the Dynasty, confer on him the posthumous name, Wên-chien 文簡. After 1722 the third character of his name (禛) was written 正 chêng, to avoid the personal name of Emperor Shih-tsung, but early in 1775 Emperor Kao-tsung ordered it to be written in 禎 chên, which differs only slightly from the original writing.

Wang Shih-chên was a prolific writer, having to his credit, as author or editor, about a hundred titles. He is best remembered, however, for his poems which appeared in about twenty collections printed during his lifetime, and in various anthologies. Shortly before his death he edited a complete collection of his poems and essays, under the title 帶經堂集 Tai-ching t'ang chi, 92 chüan, printed in 1711 by his disciple, Ch'êng Chê 程哲 (T. 聖跂). But the most popular collection is the 漁洋山人精華錄 Yü-yang shan-jên ching-hua lu, 10 chüan, edited by himself. It was copied by hand by Lin Chi [q. v.] and printed in facsimile about the year 1700 at Yangchow. There are a number of editions of this work, with annotations by various scholars, but the one most prized was printed in the 1720s and reprinted in 1767, with annotations by Hui Tung [q. v.].

Wang also edited a number of anthologies of poetry, among them the following: 古詩選 Ku-Shih hsüan, 32 chüan, printed in 1697 (also known as 五七言詩鈔 Wu-ch'i-yen-shih ch'ao); 唐賢三昧集 T'ang-hsien san-mei chi, 3 chüan, printed in 1688; Yü-yang shan-jên kan-chiu chi (感舊集), 16 chüan, printed in 1752 by Lu Chien-tsêng [q. v.] and Ma Yüeh-lu (see under Ma Yüeh-kuan); and 倚聲初集 I-shêng ch'u-chi, 24 chüan, printed in 1660. The last mentioned is an anthology of verse in irregular metre (known as tz'ŭ), in which Wang was interested carly in his career.

Wang Shih-chên was one of the noted critics of poetry in his day; his views on this subject appearing, among others, in the following collections: Yü-yang shih-hua (詩話), 3 chüan (1710) and Wu-tai (五代) shih-hua, 12 chüan, both edited by Huang Shu-lin [q. v.]. The most complete collection of his criticisms of earlier and contemporary poets is one edited by Chang Tsung-nan 張宗柟 (T. 汝棟, H. 含厂, 1704–1765) with the title, Tai-ching t'ang shih-hua, 30 chüan, printed in 1760. Several short works on the technique of writing poetry are attributed to Wang, four of them containing notes taken down by his disciples. They are: 詩問 Shih-wên, 4 chüan (1676); 燃燈紀聞 Jan-têng chi-wên; 律詩定體 Lü-shih ting-t'i; and 古詩平仄論 Ku-shih p'ing-tsê lun. These were reprinted in 1793, with annotations by Wêng Fang-kang [q. v.], and can be found in the latter's Hsiao-shih-fan t'ing chu-lu. Wang's poetic theories are also recorded in the writings of his critic, Chao Chih-hsin [q. v.].

According to Wang Shih-chên, the essence of poetry is a mysterious spiritual harmony (called by him shên-yün 神韻) which lies behind and beyond the words. By this he apparently meant that the appeal of poetry is to the imagination and the feelings rather than to the reason. Some critics attempted to dispute the view that he originated the theory, maintaining that earlier writers had advanced it as part of the conception of sudden enlightenment held by Ch'an Buddhists. As to the technique of writing poetry, Wang laid down, in the introduction to a collection of his poems (written about 1661), the following four basic principles: (1) 典 tien, employing words and expressions which have previously appeared in classical works; (2) 遠 yüan, choosing words, not with a view to asserting explicitly the meaning of the poem, but to suggest it "from a distance"; (3) 諧音律 hsieh yin-lü, composing the poem with special regard to rhythm and rhyme; and (4) 麗以則 li i-tsê, bringing out all the beauty that is possible within the bounds of convention. These principles are well illustrated in a poem of four stanzas, entitled 秋柳 Ch'iu-liu (Willows in Autumn), which Wang composed at a gathering of poets in Tsinan, Shantung, in 1657. The poem won him immediate nation-wide recognition and soon became a popular piece for recitation. It is safe to say, however, that most of those who profess to enjoy it really enjoy its musical effect, for though the phrases and idioms allude to willows, the references are meaningless without extensive research. There are at least six works annotating the words of this poem and attempting to expose the hidden meanings of the author. The annotators seem to agree that the author's "distant" intention was to lament the fall of the Ming Court at Nanking in 1645. Indeed, a censor in the Ch'ien-lung period attempted to have all of Wang's works suppressed on the strength of the hidden meaning in this poem; but he failed, owing to Emperor Kao-tsung's personal appreciation of Wang's poetry. Recent promoters of vernacular literature have criticized his elaborate poetic puzzles on the ground that they appeal only to the privileged few who can afford the time or the works of reference necessary to understand them. Wang, however, did not always cultivate this recondite style; some of his verses are plain, comprehensible and moving. Moreover, his stress on the musical effect makes them always pleasant to recite.

Wang Shih-chên wrote several accounts of his travels to Szechwan, Kwangtung, and elsewhere. The following works contain miscellaneous notes, comments, and criticisms: 池北偶談 Ch'ih-pei ou-t'an, 26 chüan (1691); 居易錄 Chü-i lu, 34 chüan (1701); 香祖筆記 Hsiang-tsu pi-chi, 12 chüan (1702); 古夫于亭雜錄 Ku-fu-yü-t'ing tsa-lu, 6 chüan (1706); and 分甘餘話 Fên-kan yü-hua, 4 chüan (1709). He also compiled a list of posthumous names of the early Ch'ing period, entitled 國朝諡法考 Kuo-ch'ao shih-fa k'ao. He was the owner of a large collection of books. So ardent was he as a bibliophile that when he was granted a short leave from Peking in 1701, he is reported to have brought back with him, not the usual valuables that officials accumulated in his day, but several cart-loads of books. This episode was the theme of a painting by Yü Chih-ting [q. v.] and of several poems by Wang's friends. The painting and the poems were reproduced in a volume entitled Yü-yang tsai-shu t'u shih (載書圖詩). This devotion to book-collecting gave rise to the legend that one of his young admirers who, after several calls, had failed to find him at home, was finally advised by Hsü Ch'ien-hsüeh [q. v.] to look for him, not at his home, but in the monastery, Tz'ŭ-jên ssŭ (see under Ku Yen-wu), in the South City, Peking, where booksellers displayed their treasures in those days. On following this advice the young man actually found the poet there.

Wang Shih-chên was the youngest of four brothers. His eldest brother, Wang Shih-lu 王士祿 (T. 子底, H. 西樵, 1626–1673), a chin-shih of 1652, left a collection of verse entitled 十笏草堂詩選 Shih-hu ts'ao-t'ang shih-hsüan, 11 chüan. The third brother, Wang Shih-hu 王士祜 (T. 叔子, 子側, H. 東亭, Jan. 7, 1633–1681), was a chin-shih of 1670. The writings of these and other members of the family were included in a collectanea, entitled Yü-yang san-shih-liu chung (三十六種), which comprises for the most part works by Wang Shih-chên. It was printed from time to time during the years 1669–1710.


[Yü-yang shan-jên nien-p'u (年譜); 1/272/6a; 3/51/1a; 20/1/00, with portrait; Tsinan fu-chih (1840); Chao Chih-hsin, T'an-lung lu; Lun Ming, "Bibliography of Wang Shih-chên" (in Chinese), Yenching hsüeh-pao (Yenching Journal of Chinese Studies), no. 5, pp. 934–64; Chu Tung-jun, "Wang Shih-chên on the Principles of Poetry" (in Chinese), Wu-han Journal of Liberal Arts, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 435–76; Wêng Fang-kang, Fu-ch'u chai chi, 8/6a.]

Fang Chao-ying