From the Yuan History
Xu Qian’s 許謙(1270-1337 zi – Yizhi 益之) ancestors were originally from Jingzhao.2 Xu’s ninth generation ancestor, Yanshou 延壽, served as Minister of Justice. His eighth generation ancestor, Zhongrong 仲容, was Librarian to the Heir Apparent 太子洗馬. Zhongrong had two sons, Guang 洸and Dong洞. Dong established his family by obtaining a jinshi degree. He became well known in his day for his writings and his handling of government affairs.3 Guang’s son, Shi寔, served Hu Yuan 胡瑗of Hailing, and he managed to model his conduct on that of his teacher throughout his life.4 He moved from Pingjiang 平江to Jinhua county in Wu prefecture.5 For the next five generations, up to and including Xu Qian, the family made Jinhua their home. Xu Qian’s father, Gong 觥, received the jinshi degree in the seventh year of the Chunyou reign period (1247). Before he could make his mark in government service, he passed away.6
A few years after Xu Qian was born, he lost his father. As soon as he was able to talk, his aunt, Lady Tao, orally instructed him in the Classic of Filial Piety and the Analects.7 He memorized them as she spoke. As he got older, he directed all of his efforts towards learning, establishing a curriculum to pace himself. He gathered the books from the four categories of literature and read them day and night.8 Even when he was ill, he did not cease.
After a time he received instruction under Jin Lyuxiang.9 Lyuxiang spoke to him saying: “The way a literatus (shi) learns is comparable to harmonizing the five flavors – when vinegar or soy sauce are added, then [the food’s] degree of sourness or saltiness is immediately different. You have already been in my presence for three days and you are still like a commoner (i.e. you have not improved). How is it that my learning is unable to stimulate you!” Xu Qian heard this and was somewhat intimidated.10 He studied with Jin for several years and eventually obtained completely the profound aspects of what he was transmitting.11
Concerning books, there were none that he did not read. He exhaustively investigated the subtleties of the sages, even to the point of not daring to ignore incomplete texts and the extraneous comments [associated with particular texts]. If there were passages that he could not make sense of, then he did not dare to force [their meaning]. If there were items in the interpretations of former ru that he did not feel comfortable with, then he did not uncritically agree with them.
Xu Qian read the Collected Commentaries on the Four Books by Paragraph and Sentence (Sishu zhangju jizhu) and wrote a work in twenty juan entitled the Sishu congshuo (Collected Explanations on the Four Books).12 Concerning the Four Books, he would tell his students: “In learning take the sage as the target. However, one must obtain the mind of the sage before one can study the affairs of the sage. The mind of sages and worthies is completely contained within the Four Books and the meaning of the Four Books is complete in [the writings] of Master Zhu. But his expression is brief and his purport vast. How can readers seek it with a easygoing attitude!”13 He read the Shi jizhuan (Collected Commentaries on the Book of Odes) and wrote a work in eight juan entitled the [Shi jizhuan] mingwu chao (Transcription of Names and Things in the Book of Odes).14 [In this text], he corrected the pronunciation of characters and investigated the names of the things and the institutions [contained in the text] in order to make up for the inadequacies of earlier ru. He still kept [items whose] meaning had been lost, for which he gathered a wide array of materials and concluded with his own ideas. He read the Shu jizhuan (Collected Commentaries of the Documents) and wrote the [Du Shu] Congshuo (Collected Explanations on the Book of Documents) in six juan.15
His views on history are contained in the Zhiwu jiwei (The Unapparent Sources of Proper and Neglectful Governance), in which he imitated the historians’ method of using dates as the warp and events of various states as the woof.16 The book begins with Taihao [the legendary emperor Fu Xi] and ends with the death of Vice Director of the Left of State Affairs Sima Guang in the ninth month of the first year of the Yuanyou reign period (October-November of 1086).17 [In the book], Xu worked out the complete chronology and the total the number of years [of each reign], located the origins of their rise and fall, and made clear their good and evil. He felt that with Sima Guang’s death, it was not possible for order to be reestablished in the Central State [i.e. China]; [Sima’s death] was the turning point from order to disorder. He appended this to a section on continuing the classics and wrote of the significance of the death of Confucius in order to convey his idea.
There is also the Zixing bian (Record of Self-Observation) – what Xu did during the day he would definitely write about at night.18 If there was anything that could not be written (i.e. would feel ashamed of writing about), then he would not do it. As for other [categories of learning], such as astronomy, geography, laws, institutions, the economy, the penal code, philology, phonology, medical classics, and numerology, there were none in which he did not comprehend coherently. On the side, he also studied the words of Buddhism and Daoism, deeply investigating their profound aspects. He would always say: “Among scholars, who does not say that one should critique heterodox theories? [But] if we do not deeply investigate their most abstruse [doctrines] and recognize how they came into being, then few will be able to make valid distinctions [between us and them] and determine what is correct.”
Xu also frequently punctuated (and read critically) the Nine Classic, the Ceremonial (Yi li), and the three commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals.19 The broad outline and main purport [of these texts] and out of order sentences and interpolations were all distinguished through careful proofreading and comments made in red ink. If his ideas [concerning a specific point or passage] had that which clarified [the text], then he made it clear. His younger contemporary, Wu Shidao (1283-1344), purchased a copy of Lyu Zuqian’s (1137-1181) annotated edition of the Ceremonial. He compared it with Xu Qian’s version of the text and discovered that there were only thirteen items that were not the same. Xu Qian did not like to boast and when it came to writing occasional poetry and prose his view was that one should not lightly pick up his brush to write unless his composition supported the meaning of the classics and promoted moral instruction for society.
At the beginning of the Yanyou reign period (1314-1321), Xu Qian took up residence on Bahua shan (Eight Flower Mountain) in Dongyang county. 20 Scholars followed him there in droves. When he opened his gate and discoursed on learning, people from as far away as You, Ji, Qi, and Lu and nearby places such as Jing, Yang, Wu, and Yue came to hear him lecture.21 All undaunted by the long journey, they came to receive instruction there.22 When he taught others, Xu was extremely sincere and patient and he exhausted the internal and the external. He would always say: “Is it not a pleasure to get others to know what I know!” When a student had a question about a particular difficulty and could not adequately express his point, Xu would formulate what the student wanted to say and then dispel his confusion. Xu could engage in discussion and instruction throughout the whole day without becoming tired. He would gather together coarse and dispersed [ideas] and turn them into the fine and subtle. When those listening were listening attentively and [really] hearing him he would become ever more to the point. In dealing with lazy students, Xu would make them work; in dealing with clever students, he would control them; in dealing with inflexible students, he would open them up; and in dealing with dissolute students, he would restrain them. Of the literati who arrived at his gate to study, those that were recorded exceeded a thousand in number.23 [In his teaching], Xu accorded with his students’ different capacities and all of them managed to obtain something.
However, he would not under any circumstances instruct people in writing essays for the examinations. He said: “This principle is the point at which morality divides from self-interest.” Xu Qian earnestly practiced the virtues of filial piety and friendship and his conduct surpassed that of others. His behavior in life did not adhere rigidly to the ancient but neither did it drift into common custom. He did not leave his village for forty years. Scholars from the four quarters considered it a shame not to have reached his gate. When gentlemen of rank passed by his locale, they would consider it a necessity to go to his house and leave their greetings. Some called on him [to ask about] ritual norms and political affairs; Xu Qian would observe the situation and context and then propose a compromise. All who heard him were convinced [of its appropriateness].
In the middle of the Dade reign period (1297-1308), Mars entered the handle of the big dipper and continued to move.24 Xu Qian interpreted this [as a sign] that a disaster would soon occur in Wu and Chu and he personally was very worried about it. The harvest during this year was terrible and Xu Qian’s appearance became increasingly emaciated. Someone asked him: “How is it that you do not have enough to eat?” Xu Qian responded: “Now public and private (storehouses) are exhausted. On both sides of the road starving people stare at one another. How could I alone eat my fill!”25 This was the way in which expressed his concerns.
The Surveillance Commissioner Liu Tingzhi and the Vice-Surveillance Commissioner Zhao Hongwei were both officials of spotless reputation from the north (zhong zhou).26 Both of them deeply admired Xu Qian and recommended him to the court. Famous ministers from inside and outside the capital listed the instances of his righteous conduct—from beginning to end several tens of memorials were submitted. The prefecture also [recommended him] in response to the edict [calling for recruitment of] overlooked [talent]. At the local examinations they asked him to oversee the evaluation of writings; no one was able to get him to do it.27 Arriving at the twilight of his life, he only took upon himself heavy responsibility for orthodox learning [i.e. Neo-Confucianism]. Scholars from near and far associated the condition of his person with the rise and fall of Our Way. Xu Qian died in the thirteenth year of the Zhiyuan reign period (1337) at the age of sixty-eight.28 In the past, Xu took the sobriquet “Man of White Cloud Mountain” (baiyun shan ren). The people of the age called him Mr. White Cloud. The court bestowed on him with the posthumous title Wenyi.
When Xu’s predecessors – He Ji, Wang Bo, and Jin Lyuxiang – passed away, their learning was not yet well known. With Xu Qian, their way was made increasingly manifest. Thus when scholars traced the origin of his lineage, they concluded that he was the legitimate successor of Zhu Xi. The Zhejiang Branch Secretariat asked permission from the court to establish an Academy of the Four Worthies that would be responsible for offering sacrifices to him and listed his name by the education official [for sacrificial offerings in the Confucian temple].
Translated by Douglas Skonicki, 2001