An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Yulizi 郁離子

Jan 21, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Yulizi 郁離子 is a philosophical treatise written by the early Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) master Liu Ji 劉基 (1311-1375), courtesy name Bowen 伯溫, from Qingtian 青田, Zhejiang. The 2-juan long book was already finished under the rule of the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368). The title is derived from the trigram li ☲ 離 ("Fire"), which is identified with the fire, one of the Five Agents (according to the preface by Xu Yikui 徐一夔). Liu wished that his writing would "enlighten" (yu 郁) the world and its rulers, and the founder of the Ming, Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 (Emperor Taizu 明太祖, r. 1368-1398), in particular. He also used this image as his own style: Yulizi, the "Master of the bright trigram Li", or "Master of a Clear Writing".

Liu Ji served the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) as vice magistrate of Gao'an 高安, Jiangxi, and vice educational commissioner (ruxue fu tiju 儒學副提舉) of Jiang-Zhe 江浙, but soon retired. Afterwards, he entered officialdom again and was appointed office manager (dushi 都事) in the Branch Secretariat (xingsheng 行省 of Jiang-Zhe), but was dismissed because of alleged cooperation with the rebel Fang Guozhen 方國珍 (1319-1374). Emperor Taizu was impressed by his helpful book Yulizi and made him 御史中丞兼太史令 and gave him the title of Earl of Chengyi 誠意伯. In 1371 he finally retired, but was slandered at the court and is said to have died out of sorrow. Some sources say he was poisoned on order of Counsellor-in-chief Hu Weiyong 胡惟庸 (d. 1380). Liu's posthumous title was Earl Wencheng 文成伯. His collected writings are called Chengyibo Liu Wenchenggong ji 誠意伯劉文成公集. Apart from the Yulizi, Liu Ji also wrote the books Qimen dunjia 奇門遁甲 (a book on divination), Duoneng bishi 多能鄙事, Maiganzhe yan 賣柑者言, Baizhan qilüe 百戰奇略 (a book on strategy and tactics), and many other books.

The Yuilizi consists of 182 short chapters most of which consist of a proverb and an allegory. It was originally arranged in 10 juan and 18 chapters with 159 articles. The text delivers not only examples for an excellent rule or economic and diplomatic policy, but also shows Liu Ji's philosophical standpoints.

Like most Neo-Confucian thinkers, Liu was of the opinion that the universe was based on "primordial breath" (yuanqi 元氣), i.e. a kind of matter. Heaven consisted of a turbid and undifferentiated mixture of "breath", and the earth, located in-midst Heaven, was characterized by a steady flow of qi. Heaven and Earth produced the ten thousand objects and creatures, among which man would follow the "Way" (dao 道) of Heaven and Earth. Man had thus a superior position and was able to transform objects if he strictly followed the rules of Heaven and the primordial qi.

The human body and the character of a person were given to him by Heaven and could thus not change is the course of a life. Nonetheless, all human character was bound to the dao or the universal order (li 理), which was intrinsically good. All men had thus the potential to be good persons. Just like the dao could not be separated from matter (or qi), the human character could not be separated from emotions and desires (qing yu 情欲), which could be good or evil. Liu maintained that even if there might be a difference between knowing and action, man would not be able to change objective circumstances – nonetheless, man was not wholly powerless in this respect.

Liu Ji criticized the widespread belief in ghosts, spectres, Daoist immortals and the Buddhist theory of retribution in a later existence.

In the field of politics, Liu Ji used the analogy of a physician who inspected the veins in order to find out problems and only so would be able to apply a type of medicine. The ruler had to do everything to support the common people and to make himself free from the pursuit of own profit. Yet the people was like sand. Lacquer or water would not help to bind it together, and not even a tight fist would be able to keep it for a long time: once opened, the hand would loose all grains of sand. For an effectual government, a ruler had to prevent corruption and to clarify reward and punishment, i.e. to have a law code compiled. Liu's examples and analogies came out of experience, and rarely draw from images in the Confucian Classics.

Quotation 1. A story from the Yulizi 郁離子
《良桐》The excellent tong tree
工之僑得良桐焉,斲而為琴,弦而鼓之,金聲而玉應,自以為天下之美也,獻之太常。使國工視之,曰:「弗古。」還之。 A vagrant craftsmen found an excellent tong tree. He cut it and made a zither from the wood, strung and played it — it had a metallic sound with the resonance of jade. He thought, this was a very outstanding piece, and presented it to the Chamberlain for Ceremonials [who was responsible for court music]. The latter had imperial craftsmen inspect it, but they turned it back with the argument that it was not of antique origins.
工之僑以歸,謀諸漆工,作斷紋焉;又謀諸篆工,作古窾焉;匣而埋諸土,期年出之,抱以適市。貴人過而見之,易之以百金。獻諸朝,樂官傳視,皆曰:「希世之珍也。」 The craftsman returned and devised lacquer work to decorate the zither and carving work to incise traces on it. He put it into a box and buried it in the earth, dug it out a year later, and took it to the market. A nobleman came by, admired it, and bought the instrument for a hundred pieces of gold. He presented it to the court, where the music masters inspected it, and said: "This is indeed a rare piece on earth."
工之僑聞之歎曰:「悲哉世也!豈獨一琴哉,莫不然矣。而不早圖之。其與亡矣!」遂去,入於宕冥之山,不知其所終。 When the craftsman heard of this, he sighed: "How sad is this world! It is not just like with this single zither—everything is like this. If not taking precautions earlier, everything will be lost!" He withdrew to Mount Dangming, never to be heard of again.

The earliest print of the Yulizi was published by Master Zhang 章氏 from Longquan 龍泉. Another one was published in 1470 in Liu's collected writings with the title Chengyibo Liu xiansheng wenji 誠意伯劉先生文集 (the Chenghua edition 成化本). During the Ming period, four more editions were published, three of them in Liu's collected works (Chengyibo wenji 誠意伯文集), and one stand-alone edition (the Jiajing edition 嘉靖). The most important Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) edition is found in the series Sibu congkan 四部叢刊, Xuejin taoyuan 學津討原 and Baizi quanshu 百子全書 (very abridged). In 1981 the Shanghai guji Press published a modern edition commented by Wei Jianyou 魏建猷 and Xiao Shanbang 蕭善邦 (series Ming-Qing biji congshu 明清筆記叢書). In 1983, the Huacheng Press 花城出版社 published Zhang Xuezhong's 張學忠 commented version. The same year saw the publication of Bao Yanyi's 鮑延毅 edition in the Beijing Press.

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Zheng Yunbo 鄭雲波, ed. (1992). Zhongguo gudai xiaoshuo cidian 中國古代小說辭典 (Nanjing: Nanjing daxue chubanshe), 445.