An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Weishu 魏書

Jul 15, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Weishu 魏書 "Book of the (Northern) Wei" is the official dynastic history (zhengshi 正史) of the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534), the most important of the Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386~581), as well as of the two successing dynasties of the Eastern Wei 東魏 (534-550; ch. 12) and Western Wei 西魏 (535-556; ch. 22). It was written by Wei Shou 魏收 (507–572, courtesy name Boqi 伯起), who lived under the Eastern Wei dynasty.

The book is 124-juan long, of which 12 juan are imperial annals-biographies (benji 本紀), 92 juan normal and collective biographies (liezhuan 列傳), and 20 juan treatises (zhi 志). The original text contained 131 juan, of which a part was lost during the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126).

The biography of Emperor Taizong 魏太宗 (r. 409–423; 3 Taizong Mingyuandi Si ji 太宗明元帝嗣紀) and two parts of the treatise on astronomy (105 Tianxiang zhi 天象志) were reconstruced from Wei Dan's 魏澹 Weishu that was written during the Sui period, and Zhang Taisu's 張太素 Weishu from the Tang period 唐 (618-907). Other chapters were reconstructed from the parallel history of the Northern Dynasties, Beishi 北史, as well as Gao Jun's 高峻 Xiaoshi 小史 (Gaoshi xiaoshi 高氏小史, lost) and the encyclopaedia Xiuwendian yulan 修文殿御覽. These are the juan 12-15, 17-20, 22, 25, 33-34, 81-83, 85-87, 89, and 101-104. Juan 84 and 91 could not be fully reconstructed.

The ten first juan of treatises are lost. Unlike in most other dynastic histories the treatises are found at the end of the book, which is actually more reasonable than to interrupt the flow of biographies between the section of the imperial annals and the normal and collective biographies.

Wei Shou was an official in the historiographic bureau of the Wei dynasty and therefore had access to primary sources. Also under the Eastern Wei dynasty he continued working in the imperial archives. The next, short-lived dynasty, the Northern Qi 北齊 (550-577), entrusted him with the compilation of the official history of the Northern Wei. Wei Shou willingly took over this task although he concurrently occupied the post of the capital magistrate.

He had an assisting staff with members like Fang Yanyou 房延祐, Xin Yuanzhi 辛元植, Diao Rou 刁柔, Pei Angzhi 裴昂之, Gao Xiaogan 高孝干, Qiwu Huaiwen 綦毋懷文 and Sui Zhongrang 眭仲讓, but as an experienced historiographer most of the work must have been done by himself. In 554 the book was submitted to the throne. The quick completion of the Weishu was only possible because the imperial diaries (qijuzhu 起居注) of the Wei dynasty were complete through all reign eras. The only parts not covered with such a rich source material were the years after the division of the Wei empire in east and west.

Information about the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) and the time of the Sixteen Barbarian States 五胡十六國 (300~430) was taken from older histories, like Cui Hong's 崔鴻 Shiliuguo chunqiu 十六國春秋, Sun Sheng's 孫盛 Jinyang qiu 晉陽秋, or Tan Daoluan's 檀道鸞 Xu Jinyang qiu 續晉陽秋. Wei had surely consulted Shen Yue's 沈約 Songshu 宋書, the official history of the Liu-Song dynasty 劉宋 (420-479), and Xiao Zixian's Nanqishu 南齊書, that of the Southern Qi dynasty 南齊 (479-502), but the times of these two dynasties were not too far away so that it was easier to obtain information about those two dynasties that ruled over southern China. Compared with other dynastic histories the Weishu contains an extremely low amount of literary sources, like quotations from prose writings or poetry.

As a northerner, Wei Shou supported the Northern Dynasties' claim for legitimacy and despised the southern rulers of the Song, Qi, and Liang 梁 (502-557) as "barbarian" usurpers—which is all the more surprising because the founders of the Wei dynasty themselves were not Chinese, but came from the proto-Türkish people of the Taɣbač. The Weishu calls the rulers of the southern dynasties daoyi 島夷 "barbarians from the (southern) islands" (ch. 97-98), while the Eastern Jin dynasty is termed wei 偽 "false, illegal" (96). The Chen dynasty is not mentioned at all because it was founded in 557, after the Weishu was finished.

Buddhism and Daoism are granted a very eminent position by writing a separate treatise for these two religions (114 Shi-Lao zhi 釋老志). This is unique among all dynastic histories (the only exception being the history Yuanshi 元史). During the sinification process of the Northern Wei it was common to replace the traditional tribal and family names of the Türkic and other Non-Chinese peoples living in the Wei state with Chinese family names. A list for those conversions is preserved in the treatise on state offices (113 Guanshi zhi 官氏志).

The collective biographies cover the themes imperial consorts (13 Huanghou liezhuan 皇后列傳), the imperial house (14-22), kinsmen of imperial consorts (83 Waiqi liezhuan 外戚列傳), Confucian scholars (84 Rulin liezhuan 儒林列傳), writers (85 Wenyuan liezhuan 文苑列傳), persons of filial conduct (86 Xiaogan liezhuan 孝感列傳), persons of modest character (87 Jieyi liezhuan 節義列傳), benevolent officials (88 Liangli liezhuan 良吏列傳), cruel officials (89 Kuli liezhuan 酷吏列傳), scholars living in seclusion (90 Yishi liezhuan 逸士列傳), magicians and diviners (91 Shuyi liezhuan 術藝列傳), outstanding women (92 Lienü liezhuan 列女列傳), imperial favourites (93 Enxing liezhuan 恩倖列傳), members of eunuch factions (94 Yanguan liezhuan 閹官列傳), the Sixteen Barbarian States, the Jin and the Southern Dynasties (95-99), and "barbarians" (100-103). Chapter 104 is a postface (Zixu 自序) written by the author.

The treatises are concerned with astronomy (105 Tianxiang zhi 天象志), administrative geography (106 Dixing zhi 地形志), musical tuning and calendar (107 Lüli zhi 律曆志), state rituals (108 Li zhi 禮志), court music (109 Yue zhi 樂志), food and commodities (110 Shihuo zhi 食貨志), penal law (111 Xingfa zhi 刑罰志), numinous omens (112 Lingzheng zhi 靈徵志), state offices and family names (113), and Buddhism and Daoism (114).

There are two weak points in the Weishu, inspite of its overall quality: It is a very one-sided source concerning the history of the years following the downfall of the Northern Wei. As an official of the Eastern Wei, Wei Shou neglected the economically and culturally more important western part of northern China. There are, therefore, no imperial annals for the three rulers of the Western Wei. Yuan Baoju 元寶炬, Emperor Wen 西魏文帝 (r. 535-551), is only mentioned very briefly in the biographies of ch. 22, and is through the whole text called the "usurpatorious" Prince of Nanyang 南陽王. The second problem is Wei Shou's biased attitude towards some of his collegues and contemporaries, with the result that their biographies are not written very favourable. The Weishu was therefore sometimes also dubbed as weishu 穢書 "evil (or false) book".

In the bibliographic chapter Jingji zhi 經籍志 in the dynastic history Suishu 隋書 - and still in Song period bibliographies — the Weishu is called Houweishu 後魏書, in order to discern it from history books about the Cao-Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265), one of the Three Empires 三國 (220~280 CE).

A book with the same title, but only 100-juan long (the Jiutangshu 舊唐書 bibliography says, 107 juan), was written by Wei Yanshen 魏彥深 (Yanshen was the courtesy name of Wei Dan 魏澹, 580–645). It was still available in fragmentary form (1 juan, probably from the imperial annals) in the early Song period, when it was called Houweishu ji 後魏書紀.

Zhang Dasu 張大素 (fl. 667, also called Zhang Taisu 張太素) wrote another Houweishu (100 juan), of which only the treatise on astronomy survived into the Song period. A further history book on the Northern Wei was Pei Anshi's 裴安時 (courtesy name Shizhi 適之) Yuan-Wei shu 元魏書 (30 juan), called so because the foreign dynasty of the Wei, founded by the Taɣbač people, adopted the Chinese family name Yuan 元.

Zheng Qiao's 鄭樵 bibliography in his history Tongzhi 通志 lists three further books on the Northern Wei period, namely Lu Yanqing's 盧彦卿 Houweiji 後魏紀 (33 juan), Yuan Xingchong's 元行冲 Weidian 魏典 and Sanguo dianlüe 三國典略 by Qiu Yue 邱悦.

Klein, Kenneth (2015). "Wei shu", in Cynthia L. Chennault, et al., eds. Early Medieval Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley), 368-372.
Zhou Yiliang 周一良 (1992). "Weishu 魏書", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1211.