An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Shuoyuan 說苑

Oct 23, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Shuoyuan 說苑 "Garden of persuasions" is a collection of short stories of persons from antiquity to the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE). It was compiled by the imperial librarian Liu Xiang 劉向 (79-8 or 77-6 BCE). The original title of the book was Xinyuan 新苑 "New garden", and it contained 748 stories arranged in 20 chapters.

The stories center on Confucian scholars and other persons belonging to philosophical schools or political advisors. They are arranged according to the theme of discussion, from the relationship between ruler and minister, estimating worthies and competent counsellors, to plans for strengthening the state and government or how to conquer inimical territory. The largest part of the stories are dialogues between an advisor and a ruler. Many of them are also preserved in other books, like the Guoyu 國語 and Zhanguoce 戰國策, but there are also some stories not to be found there. 16 stories date from the Han period, all others from the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent-221 BCE).

The book was originally and is still classified as a Confucian treatise, but Liu Xie 劉勰 (c. 465-522) from the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420~589), author of the literary critique Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍, interpreted the stories as of more literary character. The Shuoyuan was therefore in later ages often classified as collection of short stories, ins spite of its rather historiographical content.

The stories were so famous that authors of later ages regularly quote from the Shuoyuan. The imperial bibliography Jingjizhi 經籍志 of the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書 speaks of a length of 20 juan , while the bibliographical chapters in the two history books Jiutangshu 舊唐書 and Xintangshu 新唐書 indicate at a content of 30 chapters (if juan and chapter are corresponding). The last version might include the 10-juan long supplement Xu Shuoyuan 續說苑, which was written by Liu Kuang 劉貺 (early 8th cent.) during the Tang period 唐 (618-907).

During the Song period 宋 (960-1279), the original version was already lost, but the scholar Zeng Gong 曾鞏 (1019-1083) reconstructed most of the missing parts on the base of quotations in other books. His reconstruction is 20-juan long and includes 678 stories. This is the received version.

The Shuoyuan is included in the series Han-Wei congshu 漢魏叢書, Siku quanshu 四庫全書, Baizi quanshu 百子全書, Sibu congkan 四部叢刊, Congshu jicheng 叢書集成 and Sibu beiyao 四部備要. The edition in the Sibu congkan was reprinted by the Shanghai guji chubanshe 上海古籍出版社 in 1990. There are modern commentaries compiled by Zhao Shanyi 趙善詒 (Shuoyuan shuzheng 說苑疏證) and by Liu Wendian 劉文典 (Shuoyuan jiaobu 說苑斠補).

There is a complete translation by Eric Henry (2022), Garden of Eloquence / Shuoyuan 說苑 (Seattle: University of Washington Press).

Table 1. Contents of the Shuoyuan 說苑
1. 君道 Jundao The way of the ruler
2. 臣術 Chenshu The craft of ministers
3. 建本 Jianben Building the roots
4. 立節 Lijie Establishing integrity
5. 貴德 Guide Esteeming virtue
6. 復恩 Fuen Repaying favours
7. 政理 Zhengli The principles of government
8. 尊賢 Zunxian Honouring the worthies
9. 正諫 Zhengjian Upright remonstrance
10. 敬慎 Jingshen Diligent prudence
11. 善說 Shanshuo Skill in argument
12. 奉使 Fengshi The performance of missions
13. 權謀 Quanmou Judgment and strategy
14. 至公 Zhigong Impartiality
15. 指武 Zhiwu Military affairs
16. 談叢 Tancong Aphorisms
17. 雜言 Zayan Miscellaneous discourses
18. 辨物 Bianwu Discrimination of issues
19. 脩文 Youwen The cultivation of civil order
20. 反質 Fanzhi Returning to the essence
Knechtges, David R. (1993). "Shuo yüan", in Michael Loewe, ed. Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China/Institute of East Asian Studies), 443-445.
Liu Zhaoyun 劉兆雲 (1991). "Shuoyuan 說苑", in Ma Liangchun 馬良春, Li Futian 李福田, ed. Zhongguo wenxue da cidian 中國文學大辭典 (Tianjin: Tianjin renmin chubanshe), Vol. 6, 4577.
Zhao Hankun 趙含坤 (2005). Zhongguo leishu 中國類書 (Shijiazhuang: Hebei renmin chubanshe), 22.