An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Wang Niansun 王念孫

May 6, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Wang Niansun 王念孫 (1744-1832), courtesy name Huaizu 懷祖, style Shuqu xiansheng 石臞先生, was a mid-Qing period 清 (1644-1911) Confucian philosopher. He hailed from Gaoyou 高郵, Jiangsu, and was an expert in the Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" that he studied in his early youth. He later became a disciple of Dai Zhen 戴震 (1723-1777) and professed in phonetic and etymologic studies. In 1775 he earned his jinshi degree and was appointed Director-General of the Grand Canal (hedao 河道) at Yongding 永定 and bachelor (shujishi 庶吉士) in the Hanlin Academy 翰林院, later to secretary (zhushi 主事) and then director (langzhong 郎中) in the Ministry of Works (gongbu 工部). Wang Niansun was known as a honest and incorrutible official. Besides his offices, he had always time to dedicate himself to the study of the Confucian Classics and became one of the representatives of the so-called Yangzhou School 揚州學派.

He was of the opinion that the Confucian Classics could only be understood when knowing the correct meaning and pronouncement of the characters used in the ancient texts. This was important because in earlier ages, characters of a similar or equal pronunciation were often borrowed (jiajie 假借) for such with a very different meaning, if taken literally (from the meaning of the character). The meaning of a word had therefore to be determined from the phonetical side and not from the graphical aspect of a character. A serious scholar was therefore to be an expert in the oftenly neglected "lesser teachings" (xiaoxue 小學) that mainly included what is commonly perceived as dictionaries. The "lesser teachings" included etymology of characters (zixue 字學), semantics (xungu 訓詁), and phonetic studies (yinsheng 音聲).

One of Wang Niansun's most prominent studies was that of the ancient gloss book Guangya 廣雅 (Guangya shuzheng 廣雅疏證), in which he rectified many errors on characters and their meaning. He also added characters that were preserved in fragments quoting from the Guangya but were not preserved in the received version of the book. Wang Niansun's study was highly praised by Duan Yucai 段玉裁 (1735-1815), an expert on ancient dictionaries.

Wang Niansun compiled the book Dushu zazhi 讀書雜志, in which he provides crucial text-critical studies of a wide range of important ancient texts. For the book Huainanzi 淮南子, for instance, he combed various editions and was able to eliminate more than five hundred textual errors in the received version. He also demonstrated that these errors had come into being because earlier editors had neglected text-critical research. Other important books by Wang Niansun are Shida 釋大, Fangyan shuzheng bu 方言疏證補, Yunjing zilei 群經字類, and Yizhoushu zazhi 逸周書雜志.<

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 249.