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Biography of Xu Qian1

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Biography of Xu Qian1

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 and Dong. 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, 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 , 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

1 Yuan shi 189. 4318-20. The primary source for this biography was the “Tomb Biography” by Huang Jin (1277-1357) 黃 溍 from Yiwu in Wu-zhou. Huang was the first in the first class of jinshi (in 1315), when the Yuan reopened the civil service examination and was the most famous literary figure from Wu-zhou in his generation. However, he was not himself a student of Xu Qian.

2 Jingzhao circuit was located in the southeast corner of modern day Shanxi province. In his funerary biography entitled A Funerary Biography of Mr. Xu Baiyun, Huang Jin notes that Xu’s ancestors resided in the area of Jingzhao known as Xingping, which was about seventy kilometers northwest of Changan.

3 Xu Dong’s zi was Yuanfu and he was from Wu. He obtained the jinshi degree in the Xianping reign period (998-1004). He served as an administrative assistant to the foot soldier contingent of the Imperial Guards. He gained an exemption from his service obligation and returned to his hometown where he reportedly focused his attention on drinking. Later he obtained the position of Vice-Magistrate (zhubu) in Wujiang. In his scholarship, he was a specialist in the Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals.

4 Hu Yuan (993-1059) was a classical scholar who wrote commentaries on the Hongfan chapter of the Book of Documents, the Book of Change, and the Analects. As a teacher at the National University he promoted an influential style of teaching which emphasized thinking about the significance of the Classics for the present. Hu came from Hailing ( in present day Jiangsu).

5 Pingjiang was located in Jinghubei circuit, which was roughly coterminous with modern Hubei province. It was located about 100 kilometers northeast of Changsha. Jinhua is located in present day Zhejiang.

6 According to Huang Jin’s funerary biography of Xu Qian, Gong served as a Court Gentleman of Instruction and an Archivist for the Song Cabinet before his death.

7 According to Huang Jin, Lady Tao was Xu Qian’s biological mother. Xu Gong did not have any children and so he adopted Qian from his father’s older brother, Gongshi. Lady Tao was Gongshi’s wife. 世母陶氏 考異云:「案黃溍撰墓誌云:考諱觥,無子,以從父兄貢士日宣之次子嗣,即先生也。先生甫能言,貢士君之夫人陶氏授以孝經、論語。則陶氏實謙之本生母。傳云世母者,考之未審爾。」

8 Huang Jin mentions that because his family was poor, Xu Qian had to borrow books from other people.

9 Jin Lyuxiang (1232-1303) was one of the prominent supporters of daoxue philosophy in the Jinhua area. He taught in Lanxi county on Renshan mountain and so his students referred to him as Master Renshan.

10 Huang Jin notes that it was not until sometime after this exchange that Xu began to study earnestly with Jin. Renshan mountain, where Jin taught, was some distance from Xu’s residence. He did not become a disciple of Jin until Jin began to teach at Lyu Zuqian’s shrine. At that time Jin was seventy and Xu thirty-one years old. These dates indicate that Xu would have had only two years to study with Jin before Jin’s death.

11 The profundity of Jin’s transmission of the teaching is expressed in Xu’s tomb biography by the following passages: “the study of ru is ‘principle is one but its manifestations are many.’ As for li, do not worry about its being disunited. Its difficulty lies in its many manifestations.” The second profound point was “the dao of the sage is zhong (equilibrium) and that is all.” The first of these passages represents a major tenet of Jinhua Daoxue theory and practice. In the Song Yuan xuean, Huang Zongxi notes that this expression was probably employed by Jinhua thinkers as an antidote to the Cihu school’s (whose main representative was Yang Jian) emphasis on seeking li in its unified aspect. Huang notes that this phrase was originally coined by Zhu Xi’s teacher Li Tong in order to cure him of his tendencies towards vagueness. He also indicates that this “cure” resulted in a new illness among later members of the Jinhua school. They focused on the manifestations and lost the unified substance.

12 The Collected Commentaries on the Four Books by Paragraph and Sentence, by Zhu Xi, contains his and others explications of the Analects, the Mencius, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Great Learning. According to both Huang Jin’s tomb inscription for Xu and the Yuan dynastic history, Xu’s Sishu Congshuo originally contained twenty juan, however the work is listed as only possessing four juan in the table of contents of the Siku Quanshu. This may indicate that the work was already in danger of being completely lost by the early Qing. Fortunately, the Sishu Congshuo was recovered from a Yuan era woodblock printed copy of the text. This version, which is contained in the Sibu Congkan Xupian, is purportedly a complete edition. According to the contemporary scholar, He Shuzhen, it is listed in eight juan because the people who printed this later edition combined many of the originally distinct juan together. Xu’s purpose in writing the text seems to have been to elucidate Zhu Xi’s commentary as well as gloss the names and things that Zhu Xi overlooked.

13 This comment may be a critique of those who focused on Zhu’s deficiencies when reading his commentary on the Four Books. It is important to note that Xu was not as critical of Zhu’s commentaries on the classics as Jin Lyuxiang and Wang Bo. Although there were several areas where Xu disagreed with Zhu’s interpretations, he did not go as far as Jin and Wang in attacking Zhu for following Han exegetical traditions too closely.

14 The Shiji Zhuan was Zhu Xi’s commentary on the Shijing (Book of Poetry). Despite the important role played by Zhu’s commentary, Xu also drew on other sources in his compilation of the Mingwu Chao, such as Ouyang Xiu’s Shi Benyi, Lyu Zuqian’s Dushi Ji, Lu Deming’s Jingdian Shiwen, and Kong Yingda’s Shijing Zhengyi. The Shiji Zhuan Mingwu Chao can be found in the Siku Quanshu in its entirety.

15 The Shuji Zhuan was a commentary on the Shujing (Book of Documents) written by one of Zhu Xi’s students, Cai Chen (1167-1230). Cai completed the book in 1209, nine years after Zhu Xi’s death. The text of Xu’s Dushu Congshuo includes Xu’s personal views on the text of the Shujing along with the comments of Cai Chen, Jin Lyuxiang, and Wang Bo. The entire text can be found in the Siku Quanshu.

16 The Zhiwu Jiwei is no longer extant. Xu consulted with his childhood friend and fellow Jinhua native, Zhang Shu, in the writing of this text. He also purportedly collaborated with Zhang on another of his works that is no longer extant entitled the Wengu Guangui (Reviewing Antiquity by Peering Through a Tube). This work was devoted to explaining the Spring and Autumn Annals. Zhang was well known for his knowledge of history. He was purportedly summoned by the court to work under Tuotuo as a senior historian on the dynastic history of the Song, but he declined.

17 Sima Guang (1019-1086) was famous for writing the Zizhi Tongjian (Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government), which ended with the founding of the Song in 959. Xu’s text may have been intended to extend Sima’s work to include the period of high antiquity and the more recent developments that occurred between 959 and 1086. A parallel to this passage concerning the Zhiwu Jiwei is not found in either his Record of Conduct or his funerary biography.

18 The Zixing bian is lost.

19 Xu did not complete another text on the three commentarial traditions associated with the Spring and Autumn Annals, entitled the Moral Principles in the Three Commentary (San zhuan yili).

20 Dongyang is a county in Wuzhou. The Daoguang edition of the Dongyang Xianzhi states that Bahuashan was located forty li southwest of the county seat. The mountain is 300 zhang high and ten li in circumference. The academy that Xu established on the mountain was called the White Cloud Academy or the Baiyun Shuyuan.

21 That is, from all parts of the nation. You refers to the area in the extreme northeast; Ji to the area around Beijing; Qi to the northern section of Shandong and the southern portion of Hubei; and Lu to the inland area adjacent to the Shandong peninsula. Jing is located in the area of modern day Hubei and Hunan, immediately to the west of Yang; Yang refers to the large tract of land from Shanghai down to Guangdong; Wu denotes the area of Suzhou and Yue the area of Zhejiang.

22 Huang Jin notes that Xu emphasized ethics and the innate moral tendencies in his teaching. He gave priority to transforming the endowment of qi and the essentials of establishing the mind. He also stressed the need to distinguish between profit and righteousness when handling affairs.

23 Huang Jin notes that the figure of over one thousand represents the total number of students he instructed over his forty-year teaching career.

24 The Tianwen section of the Yuan dynastic history notes that this aberrant astronomical phenomenon occurred in the seventh month of the eleventh year of the Dade reign period (1307).

25 Huang Jin maintains that Xu’s fame spread throughout local officialdom because of his upright behavior during the famine.

26 Zhao Hongwei (1244-1326) was also one of Xu Qian’s students. His biography in the Yuan history states how Zhao deeply admired Xu’s knowledge and conduct.

27 Huang Jin states that these invitations to government service occurred during the first year of the second Zhiyuan reign period (1335/36). Unlike his teacher, Jin Lyuxiang, Xu Qian’s choice not to serve in government was not based on a strong sense of loyalty to the fallen Song dynasty. He often gave the excuse of ill health for his refusal to take the government positions that were offered to him. He also maintained that he was dedicated to advancing Neo-Confucianism and that government service remained peripheral to his immediate concerns.

28 Huang Jin recounts the circumstances surrounding Xu’s death in his funerary biography. On the day of his death, Xu purportedly took care to wear correct clothing and sit up straight. He called his son, Yuan, into the room so that he could impart to him his final instructions. He told Yuan to be filial to his mother and fraternal to his younger brother. Yuan asked him to continue and Xu answered that he had been admonishing him his whole life and did not have any more to say. After speaking these words, one of Xu’s disciples entered the room and commented that Xu did not look well. Xu then straightened his appearance, assumed a solemn expression and promptly passed away.

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