An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Sicunbian 四存編

Sep 23, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Sicunbian 四存編 "The four treatises on preservation" is a collection of four different philosophical writings compiled by the early Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Yan Yuan 顔元 (1635-1704). The collection consists of the books Cunxingbian 存性編 "On the preservation of the character", Cunxuebian 存學編 "On the preservation of the (correct) teachings", Cunzhibian 存治編 "On the preservation of the (correct) government", and Cunrenbian 存人編 "On the preservation of humaneness" that are partially treatises, and partially collections of various documents.

Table 1. The Four Treatises Sicunbian 四存編
存性編 Cunxingbian On the preservation of the character
存學編 Cunxuebian On the preservation of the teachings
存治編 Cunzhibian On the preservation of the government
存人編 Cunrenbian On the preservation of humaneness

Yan Yuan hailed from Boye 博野, Hebei, and became a servant of the Buddhist monk Wu Chiming 吳持明, but also learned how to use bow and arrow. His father had been captured by the Manchus and was brought to their homeland beyond the Great Wall. In 1684, Yan Yuan decided to search the remains of his father to bring them back home. Later he became a teacher in the Zhangnan Academy 漳南書院, where he specialized in teaching the practical art of conduct and so deviated from the traditional teaching methods of the Neo-Confucians who concentrated on the study of writings and "vainly discussed the mind and the character" (kong tan xin xing 空談心性). He wrote a commentary on the discussions of master Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200), Zhuzi yulei ping朱子語類評, and the biji "brush notes"-style book Xizhai jiyu 習齋記餘.

Cunxingbian 存性編

In his 2-juan long book Cunxingbian Yan Yuan discusses the various interpretations of the human character. While Mengzi 孟子 simply had said that the human character was good (xing shan 性善), Confucius had suggested that the character of each man was similar to that of others, but they differed as a consequence of their education and environment (xing xiang jin, xi xiang yuan 性相近,習相遠). The Neo-Confucians of the Song period 宋 (960-1279) had explained Confucius' proposition with the assumption that the human character was generally an inherited part of the universally good Heavenly principle, while the dissimilarity was the consequence of the "substance" or matter of the body (qizhi 氣質). All evilness could therefore be led back to a bad disposition because of the body.

Yet Yan Yuan argued that all matter was part of the universal principle and therefore universally good, too, regardless of its "purity" or "density". He compared the human character with the eyesight, the quality of which is a consequence of the substance of the eye and its parts, and not caused by a moral goodness or badness in the eye. The character of each individual could be compared to gold which is gold in any case, regardless of its size or weight. This means that all humans have the potential to become a saint like the sage rulers Yao 堯 and Shun 舜. These theories are also explained in illustrations in the latter part of the Cunxingbian.

Cunxuebian 存學編

In his book Cunxuebian 存學編, Yan Yuan explains the difference between the vain theories of the Neo-Confucians and the original meaning of the teachings of the Duke of Zhou 周公 and Confucius. While the former were more theoreticians of learning (xue 學), Yan Yuan said that Confucius had always preferred practice (xing 行) to become accustomed (xi 習) to the meaning of his teachings. This book is also to be found in the collection of Yan's "remnant books" Yan Xizhai yishu 顏習齋遺書. It consists of various miscellaneous texts in which Yan Yuan explains his exegesis of the concept of learning in Confucianism as a matter of practical experience (shen shi 身實). These texts include, for instance, the essays Zonglun zhuru jiangxue 總論諸儒講學 "General discussion of the lectures and teachings of all Confucians", Xuebian 學辨 "Discourse on learning", 性理評 "Critique on the character and the Heavenly order", or his letter to Lu Shiyi 陸世儀 (1611-1672), Shang Taicang Lu Futing xiangsheng shu 上太倉陸桴亭先生書.

Cunzhibian 存治編

The Cunzhibian 存治編 was originally called Wangdaolun 王道論 "On the Way of a King". It describes the ideal state as it was believed to have existed during antiquity, with the so-called well-field system (jingtian 井田), the system of regional rulers, and the ancient school system of private teachers. Yan Yuan wrote this text to express his discontent with the contemporary circumstances, especially the acquisition of huge estates by the local elites (see gentry). In his political concepts, Yan Yuan adheres to the traditional methods of opening new fields (kenhuang 墾荒) in hilly regions, the equal-field system (juntian 均田) and the duty of the state or the local communities to engage in river conservancy works.

Cunrenbian 存人編

The 4 juan-long Cunrenbian 存人編 is divided into two parts, of which the first is also called Huanmitu 喚迷途 "Calling at the wrong path". It criticizes the "evil beliefs" (xiejiao 邪教) of Buddhism and Daoism for their tendency to deceive the common people with their misbeliefs. The third juan is a critique of a praise poem of Emperor Taizu 明太祖 (r. 1368-1398) of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) for Buddhism, and the last part deals with some persons who openly attacked Buddhist institutions.

The Sicunbian are to be found in the series Jifu congshu 畿輔叢書 and Congshu jicheng chubian 叢書集成初編, as well as in the Yan-Li congshu 顏李叢書 (including writings of Yan Yuan and Li Gong 李塨) and the collected writings Yan Yuan ji 顔元集. In 1957, the Shanghai guji Press 上海古籍出版社 published a modern edition annotated by Wang Xingxian 王星賢.

Jiaoyu da cidian bianzuan weiyuanhui 教育大辭典編纂委員會, ed. (1991). Jiaoyu da cidian 教育大辭典, part 8, Zhongguo gudai jiaoyu shi 中國古代教育史 (Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 329.
Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰, eds. (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典 (Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe), Vol. 2, 1592.
Shanghai tushuguan 上海圖書館, ed. (1982). Zhongguo congshu zonglu 中國叢書綜錄 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe), Vol 1, 702.