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Persons in Chinese History - Wang Su 王肅

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Wang Su 王肅 (195-256), courtesy name Wang Ziyong 王子雍, was a Confucian scholar in the empire of Wei 曹魏 (220-265) during the Three Kingdoms period 三國 (220-280). His school of interpretation is known as the Wang school (Wangxue 王學). His family came from Donghai 東海 (modern Tancheng 郯城, Shandong), but he was born in Guiji 會稽 (in modern Zhejiang province).
His father Wang Lang 王朗 had already been a Confucian scholar and had compiled a comprehensive treatise on the Confucian Classics, the Tongjing 通經. During the time of Emperor Xian 漢獻帝 (r. 189-220) of the Later Han dynasty 後漢 (25-220 CE) he was governor (taishou 太守) of the commandery of Guiji. The local potentate Sun Ce 孫策 called him a "distinguished scholar" (yaru 雅儒). Wang Lang later became a follower of the warlord Cao Cao 曹操. Under Emperor Wen 魏文帝 (r. 220-226) of the Wei dynasty he was appointed Minister of Works (sikong 司空), later Minister of Education (situ 司徒). Wang Lang died in 228 CE. The philosophical work of Wang Lang had a great influence on his son Wang Su.
Wang Su was instructed by Song Zhong 宋衷 in Yang Xiong's 揚雄 book Taixuan 太玄經, a kind of parallel to the Confucian Classic Yijing. He also knew the commentaries of the old and new text schools on all Confucian Classics. He esteemed the old text interpretations of Jia Kui 賈逵 and Ma Rong 馬融 but refused the interpretation of the Classics by the most distinguished Confucian scholar of that time, Zheng Xuan 鄭玄. Wang Su was appointed Cavalier attendant-in-ordinary (sanji changshi 散騎常侍), Director of the Palace Library (bishujian 秘書監) and chancellor of the Institute for the Veneration of Literature (Chongwenguan jijiu 崇文觀祭酒) at the court of Emperor Ming 曹明帝 (r. 226-239). During that time he wrote commentaries to the Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents", Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs", Lunyu 論語 "Confucian Analects", the three ritual classics Sanli 三禮, and the history Zuozhuan 左氏傳, and made his father's book Yizhuan 易傳 ready for publication.
During the reign of Cao Fang 曹芳 (r. 240-248), the Prince of Qi 齊, Wang Su was involved in the power struggles of the Cao dynasty, especially of Great general (da jiangjun 大將軍) and regent Cao Shuang 曹爽 with the mighty Sima 司馬 family. Wang Su's daughter was married to general Sima Zhao 司馬昭, whose father Sima Yi 司馬懿 finally killed Cao Shuang. As an ally of the Sima family, Wang Su was involved in the government of regent Sima Shi 司馬師, the older brother of Sima Zhao. In 254 he was appointed Chamberlain for ceremonials (taichang 太常) of the nominal emperor Cao Mao 曹髦, the Duke of Gaoguixiang 高貴鄉公. Yet he also supervised the Confucian professors (boshi 博士 "erudites") of the National University (taixue 太學). This position allowed him to promote his own commentaries and interpretations.
As a Confucian scholar Wang Su on the one hand stood in the tradition of Jia Kui, Ma Rong and Zheng Xuan. It was especially the latter who had reconciled the differences between the old text school and the new text school and founded the "comprehensive school" (tongxue 通學) that used and merged the ideas of both contending schools. Wang Su also decided that it was not correct to follow either the old text or the new text school. On the other hand, he interpreted many contents of the Confucian Classics different than Zheng Xuan had done. An older contemporarian of Wang Su, Yu Fan 虞翻 (164-233) who lived in the empire of Wu 吳 (222-280), stressed that there were important shortcomings and errors in the commentaries of Zheng Xuan to the Shangshu. Wang Su's father Wang Lang had been befriended with Yu Fan and shared his critical view towards Zheng's interpretation. In his reinterpretation of the core text, Wang Su used to instrumentalize the interpretation of the opposite school to challenge Zheng's explanations. If Zheng's commentary derived from an old text view, Wang contered with a new text approach, and vice versa. Wang's attacks on Zheng’s commentary were so systematic that they seem to have originated in a categorical enmity and not in scholarly reason. Wang's school was therefore later harshly criticized as not substantial enough for serious consideration.
Wang Su even relied on improper methods to attack Zheng Xuan. In imitation of the Lunyu "Confucian Analects" he forged two books with quotations of Confucius, the Kongzi jiayu 孔子家語 and the Kongcongzi 孔叢子. A book named Kongzi jiayu had existed before, but it was lost before the end of the Han period. Wang Su therefore collected fragments of Confucius' sayings from the Zuozhuan 左傳, Guoyu 國語, Xunzi 荀子 and Liji 禮記 and compiled a new book. He was especially interested in the topics of marriage and mourning rites, state offerings and such at the ancestral altars, in order to contradict Zheng Xuan's commentaries to the Classics. The Kongcongzi is a totally new book that came into being in a similar manner than the Kongzi jiayu but included discourses of Confucius' disciples. Wang Su even alleged that Kong Fu 孔鮒, a descenant of Confucius, had compiled the Kongcongzi. Openly, Wang Su attacked the adherents of the Zheng school with his forged book Shengzhenglun 聖證論 "Proves from the Saint (i.e. Confucius)", a kind of excerpt of the Kongzi jiayu. An adherent of the Zheng school, Sun Yan 孫炎, sharply contered Wang's arguments as forgeries. This was only possible because at that time Wang Su did not any more have a post in the central government, so that the whole debate remained of a purely academic nature.
Wang's accusations towards the interpretation of the Classics did not deeply influence the general tendency of exegesis. He had only a shallow impact on the landscape of Confucian studies, and the school of Zheng Xuan prevailed in the long run. During that time there were at the National University two professors or each of the Classics Yijing, Shangshu, Shijing and Liji, one following the Wang school, one the Zheng school. The studies of the Zuozhuan were shared by a chair for the Wang school and one for Fu Qian's 服虔 school, the studies of the Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳 were dominated by He Xiu and Yan Anle 顏安樂, the Guliangzhuan 穀梁傳 studies were represented by a professor for the interpretation of Yi Gengshi 尹更始, the Lunyu by a Wang school professor, and the Xiaojing 孝經 by a Zheng school professor. In total, there were 8 professors following the interpetation of Wang Su, and 7 that of Zheng Xuan. That was the situation during the mid-3rd century. The founder of the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420), Sima Yan 司馬炎, was a brother-in-law of Wang Su, so that the Wang school was heavily promoted during that tim, with 19 chairs at the National University that were only reduced to 1 chair of a total of 9 under the Eastern Jin dynasty 東晉 (317-420). The Wang school thereafter fell into oblivion.


Source: Pang Pu 龐樸 (1997), Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, pp. 78, 370.


December 30, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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