An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Wei Yuan 魏源

May 6, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Wei Yuan 魏源 (1794-1857), original name Yuanda 遠達, courtesy name Wei Moshen 魏默深, was a late Qing period 清 (1644-1911) philosopher and writer. He hailed from Shaoyang 邵陽, Hunan, and studied in a very traditional way the philosophy of the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Shouren 王守仁 (Wang Yangming 王陽明), as well as historiography. With the age of 14 sui he passed the local state examination as the best and was allowed to enter the Yuelu Academy 岳麓書院, where he studied the Confucian Classics under the guidance of Liu Fenglu 劉逢禄 (1776-1829), a representative of the Changzhou School 常州學派.

In 1826, Wei Yuan participated in the metropolitan examination and became an official under the governors He Changling 賀長齡 (1785-1848), Tao Shu 陶澍 (1779-1839), Lin Zexu 林則徐 (1785-1850) and Yuqian/Yoikiyan 裕謙 (1793-1841). During the First Opium War he participated in the fights in Zhejiang. In 1845 he passed the jinshi examination and subsequently was appointed to several posts in local governments.

Wei Yuan is a famous historian and often mentioned together with his colleague Gong Zizhen 龔自珍 (1792-1841). He was, under the impression of the Opium War, very interested in the world beyond China, especially Europe, that had until then only scarcely attracted the attention of Chinese scholars. He participated in the translation of Hugh Murray's (1779-1846) Encyclopaedia of Geography, Comprising a Complete Description of the Earth [...] that was published by Lin Zexu as Sizhouzhi 四洲志 "The Four Continents". Wei Yuan also compiled an own geographic treatise, the Haiguo tuzhi 海國圖志. Wei Yuan stressed that it was important to learn from the West and to adopt the newest developments in military technology (modern firearms, steamboats). He is so a forerunner of the self-strengthening movement of the second half of the 19th century.

As a philosopher, Wei Yuan was interested in Liu Fenglu's studies of the new-text classics, especially the Gongyang Commentary 公羊傳 to the Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals". He analyzed Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) writings and came to the conclusion that the interpretation of "small words with a great meaning" (wei yan da yi 微言大義) was correct, and better than other commentaries to the Chunqiu, especially the Guliang Commentary 榖梁傳. Wei Yuan wrote an analysis (Dongzi Chunqiu fawei 董子春秋發微) of the Chunqiu fanlu 春秋繁露, a cosmological interpretation of the Chunqiu by the Han period philosopher Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (179-104 BCE).

The interpretations of the Confucian Classics by the Han period new-text school were in Wei Yuan's eyes an ideal method to learn more about a more effective government. The Zhouyi 周易 "Book of Changes" would help to dispel doubts, the chapter Hongfan 洪範 "The Great Plan" in the Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" would predict changes, the Chunqiu would help deciding politics, and the Classics of rites and music would help educating scholars, officials and the people at large. The offices described in the Zhouli 周禮 "Rites of the Zhou" would make sure a peaceful administration, and the chapter Yugong 禹貢 "The Tribute of Yu" in the Shangshu would contribute to better river conservancy measures. The changes described in the Chunqiu and the associated Gongyang Commentary showed, as Wei Yuan argued, that change is a permanent matter of history, and the contemporary government therefore had also to adapt to circumstances.

He therefore suggested changing the traditional way of delivering tribute grain along the Grand Canal, to change the salt distribution politics and to reduce taxes. He also stressed that the government had to see to it that merchants were not oppressed but were supported by the state to help the nation prospering. Wei Yuan can thus be seen as a forerunner of the reformers of the late 19th century that also based their arguments for reform on traditional writings.

Wei Yuan compiled many books, including his geography Haiguo tuzhi, the military history Shengwuji 聖武記, as well as numerous commentaries on various Confucian writings. He also participated in the compilation of He Changlin's Huangchao jingshi wenbian 皇朝經世文編, a collection including memorials on statecraft.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 270.