An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Wang Yan 王衍

Feb 28, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Wang Yan 王衍 (256-311), courtesy name Yifu 夷甫, was a high state official and scholar of the Western Jin period 西晉 (265-316). He hailed from Linyi 臨沂 (modern Linyi, Shandong) in the princedom of Langya 琅琊. His talents were soon appreciated and in the age of no less than 17 sui, he was appointed governor (taishou 太守) of Liaodong 遼東, and later became secretary of the Heir Apparent (taizi sheren 太子舍人) and secretarial court gentleman (shangshu lang 尚書郎).

His ladder of career included the positions of gentleman attendant at the palace gate (huangmen shilang 黃門侍郎), Director of the Imperial Secretariat (shangshuling 尚書令), the honorific titles of Minister of Works (sikong 司空) and Minister of Education (situ 司徒); Wang finally held the prestigious position of Defender-in-chief (taiwei 太尉).

During the Rebellion of the Eight Princes, Wang Yan made use of the "strategy of the three rabbit holes" (jiao tu san ku 狡兔三窟), with himself protecting the capital, his younger brother Wang Cheng 王澄 (269-312) central China as regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of the province of Jingzhou 荊州, and another younger relative, Wang Dun 王敦 (266-324), east China as regional inspector of Qingzhou 青州.

When the imperial house fell apart by internecine struggles among the princes, the Xiongnu 匈奴 leader Liu Yuan 劉淵 (c. 252-310) rose in rebellion and founded the Former Zhao Dynasty 前趙 (304-329). At that moment Wang Yan was appointed Counsellor-in-chief (zaixiang 宰相) and given the command over the metropolitan troops. He recommended that the court care for its own defense. He stayed and was captured by the Xiongnu leader Shi Le 石勒 (274-333), founder of the Later Zhao Dynasty 後趙 (319-351). Wang denied that he would have use in serving the invader, yet because Shi Le well knew that Wang had been a high statesmen of the Jin, he had Wang secretly killed.

Even if Wang Yan occupied some of the highest state offices, it is said that he never took the political business serious, until shortly before his death. Historiographers say he only cared for his own safety (zhuan mou zi bai 專謀自保). Just before he died, Wang Yan said: "If I wouldn't have dedicated my life to floating vanities, and instead used my forces to make the empire stronger, it wouldn't have come so far!"

Wang Yan was one of the foremost masters of the "pure talks" (qingtan 清談) of the teachings of the "School of the Mystery" (xuanxue 玄學), a contemporary branch of intellectual Daoism that venerated the "voidness" (wu 無, i. e. the Dao) as the fundament of all things. Wang was one of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove (Zhulin qixian 竹林七賢).

Yet Wang also followed the teachings of the Confucian masters He Yan 何晏 (190-249) and Wang Bi 王弼 (226-249) and vehemently attacked Pei Wei 裴頠 (267-300), who had developed the theory of the you 有 "existence" based on matter, and not on the "void" Dao (see his Chongyoulun 崇有論). The actual practice of the School of Mysteries was sometimes a life of indulgence in pleasures, "free and easy wandering", and disregard for political matters.

In his early years, Wang Yan was not able to express his thoughts appropriately, so that people said he had "a relgar stone in his mouth" (kouzhong zihuang 口中雌黃), i.e. his word were full of errors and contradictions. According to a famous story, Wang as a moral person did shy away from touching money or even using the word. Instead, he used the word "obstructive objects" (aduwu 阿堵物).

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