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History of thought revealed in family instructions of Han, Wei and Six Dynasties

By CHEN SHUANG | 2016-12-22 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Dou Yanshan (872-954) was a scholar and educator during the Five Dynasties period (907-960). He was epitomized as the ideal parent who raised five outstanding sons who all passed the civil service examination with high honors. Dou’s example was used in the Three Character Classic as a rhyme “Dou Yanshan, had the right plan; Taught his five sons, each came a great man.”


A unique form of written records, family instructions are invaluable resources for historians who study the development of ideas.

Writing family instructions was a tradition for scholar-officials in ancient China. They contain admonitions and exhortations for offspring about conducting properly, enriching one’s scholarship and establishing a foothold in society.

Unlike the various family instruction texts that had a formulaic style and rich content in the period after the Tang Dynasty (618-907), instruction writing in Han, Wei and the Six Dynasties (202 BC-AD 589) was still in an embryonic stage. Most instruction texts in this period were written in the form of family letters, which were short and haphazardly preserved.

These early family instructions utilized plain content and sincere language in contrast to the overly polished ones in the later period, which comparatively more visually and authentically reflected the social ideas of their time.

Family letters, instruction books
One of the most prominent family instruction works in this period was Yan Family Instructions by Yan Zhitui (531-c.591) in the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577), which was the first instruction book with a mature stylistic system. Regarded as “the ancestor of all family instructions” by Chen Zhensun, a bibliophile in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), its writing style was followed by many family instruction writers since the Tang Dynasty. 

However, the development of family instruction writing before the Yan Family Instructions experienced a long embryonic stage. The family instructions gradually evolved from oral admonitions to written texts after the Han Dynasty (202BC-220AD).

Mostly without a title, family instructions at that time primarily took the form of family letters, which were short in length, ranging from dozens of Chinese characters to about 2,000. Most instructions, with few exceptions, were not compiled into personal publications, but rather preserved in official history books and compiled reference books in the form of excerpts.

Family instructions at this time covered such topics as self-narration of the author’s life experience, admonition and exhortation for his offspring as well as his will regarding his funeral and asset arrangements.

Yan Family Instruction can be considered a book rather than mere instructions. With 20 articles covering childhood education, family governance, exegesis and other topics, the book carried the development of Chinese family instructions into a new stage.

Yan Family Instruction marked the maturation of the development of family instructions in the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties. Family instruction books replaced family letters as the dominant style of instruction writing ever since. The increasing attempt to “expand one’s instructions to the world and set an example for offspring” compromised the privacy of family instructions, and personal feelings were rarely found in later instructions.


Setting aspiration, cultivating morality
The development of social thought in the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties underwent profound changes. The main lines of the development of thought in this period included the transition from a Confucian-dominated paradigm to the rise of metaphysics, which was followed by the changing from the edification of Taoism, which was a Chinese approach to metaphysics, to the impact of Buddhism.

Advocacy of Confucian and Taoist codes of conduct was a prominent feature of the family instructions in this era. Wang Chang in Wei Dynasty (220-266) educated his offspring by saying, “I wish you to establish a foothold and conduct yourselves properly in society by following Confucian instructions and Taoist words, and that is why I named you Xuan (profound), Mo (silent) Chong (modest) and Xu (simple).”

Wang Bao in Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581) said to his offspring that “I began by reading books for children, and when I was about 50, I respected the theories of Duke of Zhou (who established the system of Rites of the Zhou) and Confucius as well as those of Lao Tzu and Buddha. Even when we migrated to the eastern side of the Yangtze River, the theories of these sages never were eclipsed, and it’s my hope that you continue to study them.”


A close inspection of the content about moral cultivation in the family instructions in this period will reveal the inner conflicts between the scholar-officials’ ideas and codes of conduct.

Ming Ji in the Sixteen Kingdoms (304-439) even said “The reason I am here in the imperial court is not for wealth and honor but simply to avoid misfortune and protect myself.” Yan Zhitui also educated his offspring with the warning, “To be safe when you serve as an official, you just need to be in the middle grade, neither in the high grade nor the low grade. In this way, you will be able to avoid disgrace and collapse.”

In regard to serving as an official and proper behavior in society, almost all family instructions in this period emphasize “discretion in speech” as the most important virtue. Yang Hu in Western Jin Dynasty (266-316) said, “Respect prioritizes in virtue cultivation, and discretion lays the foundation for actions. Do not just promise something to others without actual actions. Do not spread rumors and do not listen to those who pass judgment on others.”

Surprisingly, the famous figure Ji Kang (224-263) in this period, who was known for his outright speech against hypocrites and bold opposition to the ethical code of distorted Confucianism, was thorough in his warnings to his offspring, providing them all kinds of measures to avoid misfortune and protect themselves.

“When dealing with your superiors, showing respect is enough. Do not be too close to them, and do not communicate with them too frequently. Carefully select the opportunity,” Ji wrote. “And when there are other people present when you meet with your superior officials, do not stay at their homes, because superior officials like to discuss the secrets of others, and sometimes what they say is leaked. If you were there when he told those secrets, you might be suspected of leaking it, and there is no way you can clear yourself. Therefore, if you are silent and cautious when you talk, you will be able to avoid the dilemma of being resented and blamed.”

However, all these instructions regarding discretion in speech should not be simply viewed as reflections of the individual personalities of the authors. Underlying the collective consciousness of “discretion in speech” was the ancient Chinese autocratic monarchy and its influences on the political ideas of the scholar-officials class. The authoritativeness and legitimacy of political power came from the official posts appointed by the royal authority rather than from pedigree or individual status.

Under such social circumstances, there are gaps between the thoughts and the words, the knowledge and the actions, and the beliefs and the code of conducts, of the scholar-officials. Seemingly mediocre, trivial and fragmented compared with the classic works of traditional history of thoughts, the instructions reveal to us important codes of conducts for the scholar-official class in ancient China.


Historical materials, methodology
Family instructions include family ethics and educational ideas beyond political thought, which, despite of its fragmentation, are still worthy of exploring from the perspective of the history of thought.

First, we should systematically study the course and source of the family instruction contexts, using traditional textual research methods such as compilation and collation of scattered writings.

Take the Family Instructions by Yan Yanzhi as an example. Most scholars take the excerpts in the Biography of Yan Yanzhi in Song Annals as the complete edition. However, scholars in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) already found some additional excerpts in the Taiping Imperial Encyclopedia of the Song Dynasty and other materials.

Second, we should accurately analyze the political ideas and social mentality of scholar-officials at that time, using modern text analysis approaches. Most texts of family instructions in the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties had shown homogeneity, making it possible for text analyses and comparative studies. Through a quantitative analysis of certain important concepts, we may be able to reveal the true ideas of those authors by eliminating stylized words.

Last, we should explore the spirit and thinking structure of the times in which these family instructions were issued by carrying out a combined review of the personal experiences and backgrounds of the authors.

Take the instructions of Southern Dynasties and Northern Dynasties as an example. Family instructions in Southern Dynasties were predominantly rhythmical prose characterized by parallelism and ornateness, and showed an obvious inclination toward hermit life. Instructions in the Northern Dynasties showed more concern about the destiny of the families (because the Northern Dynasties were frequently engaged in wars). The great differences of imperial governance and bureaucracy in all dynasties formed the basis for the different attitudes of scholar-officials toward life in the Southern Dynasties and Northern Dynasties.

Chen Shuang is from the Institute of History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.