An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Qian Daxin 錢大昕

May 6, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Qian Daxin 錢大昕 (1728-1804), courtesy name Xiaozheng 曉徵 or Xinmei 辛楣, style Zhuding 竹汀, was a philosopher, historian and writer of the mid-Qing period 清 (1644-1911). He hailed from Jiading 嘉定 (near modern Shanghai 上海) and obtained the jinshi degree in 1754 and was appointed bachelor (shujishi 庶吉士) of the Hanlin Academy 翰林院 and then rose to the position of junior compiler (bianxiu 編修) and then academician reader-in-waiting (shidu xueshi 侍讀學士). In this function he regularly traveled to Shandong, Hubei, Zhejiang and Hunan as provincial examiner (xiangshi zhengkao guan 鄉試主考官).

He participated in the compilation of the imperial geography Da-Qing yitong zhi 大清一統志 and the so-called Santong 三通 (Huangchao tongdian 皇朝通典, Huangchao tongzhi 皇朝通志 and Huangchao wenxian tongkao 皇朝文獻通考). Highly appreciated by the Qianlong Emperor 乾隆 (r. 1735-1795), he was appointed vice supervisor of the household of the Heir Apparent (shaozhanshi 少詹事) and then provincial education commissioner (tudu xuezheng 提督學政) of Guangdong. In the age of 47 sui he retired and became a teacher in the private academies of Zhongshan 鍾山書院, Loudong 婁東書院 and Ziyang 紫陽書院.

Qian Daxin had a profound knowledge of all fields of literature and was especially interested in historiography, phonetics, etymology, calendar and epigraphy. He was, like many Qing period philosophers, of the opinion that the original writings of the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) Confucians had to be relied upon to learn and interprete Confucianism because they were closer to the time of antiquity. Han period scholars therefore had a better understanding of the correct meaning of words and the correlation of sound and meaning in each character.

Qian Daxin was of the opinion that the purpose of research was to find out the thruth and to eliminate errors, yet not with the intention to praise or blame older scholars, but in order to produce reliable facts for those to come. Research had therefore to be done in a fair and just way. He said that a single error does mean that a whole book was to be condemned. With the help of these methods he investigated the Confucian Classic Zuozhuan 左傳 and pointed at errors in this interpretation of the past. Qian Daxin was very interested in phonology of the ancient Chinese characters, but his approach differed from that of the Wu School 吳派 (see Qian-Jia School 乾嘉學派) in so far as that he did not only use a phonetic method to explain the meaning of single words, but brought his interpretation into the larger context of all Classics. This method helped him to demonstrate that the traditional character dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字, written as a handbook to read the Classics, included substantial errors and was in many places falsified by the Five Dynasties period 五代 (907-960) editors Xu Xuan 徐鉉 (916-991) and Xu Kai 徐鍇 (920-974). Qian Daxin also compiled a small dictionary on phonetic borrowings, the book Shenglei 聲類.

Qian Daxin was very critical towards the traditional field of research ancient books. Older scholars like Hui Dong 惠棟 (1697-1758) and Dai Zhen 戴震 (1723-1777) had exclusively studied the ancient classics and totally neglected books of a younger age and had preferred commenting the Confucian Classics instead of historiographical books. It took him fifteen years to compile a critical commentary on the official dynastic histories (at that time still twenty-two books), the Ershi'er shi kaoyi 二十二史考異. This book imitated the text-critical method of Sima Guang's 司馬光 (1019-1086) critical book Tongjian kaoyi 通鑒考異 and provided a careful analysis of the wording in the official histories and their sources. Qian paid particular attention to the field of etymology, geography, state offices, family relation and terminology in general. His book is a very important research tool for the study of the official dynastic histories, together with Wang Mingsheng's 王鳴盛 (1722-1797) Shiqishi shangque 十七史商榷 and Zhao Yi's 趙翼 (1727-1814) Nian'ershi zhaji 廿二史札記.

Qian Daxin wrote a large amount of other books investigating older histories. The most important are his books Shijiazhai yangxin lu 十駕齋養新錄, Sanshi shiyi 三史拾遺, Zhushi shiyi 諸史拾遺, Tongjian zhubian zheng 通鑒注辨正, Song-Liao-Jin-Yuan sishi shuorun biao 宋遼金元四史朔閏表 and Yinianlu 疑年錄. The last two investigate questions of dating and calendar.

Apart from these scholary books, Qian Daxin also wrote many poems and prose essays that are collected in the Qianyantang wenji 潛研堂文集, as well as the catalogue Jinshi wenzi mulu 金石文字目錄, which is a kind of character dictionaries for bronze inscriptions and stone inscriptions. It is included in the collection Qianyantang quanshu 潛研堂全書, the collected works of Qian Daxin.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 238.