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Yuanshi 元史


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The Yuanshi 元史 "The history of the Yuan dynasty" is the official dynastic history (zhengshi 正史) of the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368). It was compiled under the supervision of the early Ming period 明 (1368-1644) scholars Song Lian 宋濂 and Wang Yi 王禕 and comprises 210 juan "scrolls", of which 47 juan are imperial biographies (benji 本紀), 58 juan treatises (zhi 志), 8 juan tables (biao 表), and 97 juan normal and collective biographies (liezhuan 列傳).
Already in 1368, immediately after the foundation of the Ming dynasty, Emperor Taizu 明太祖 (r. 1368-1398) decreed the compilation of the official dynastic history of the Mongol dynasty of the Yuan. The compilation was undertaken in the Tianjie Monastery 天界寺 in Nanjing and after less than a year 70 percent of the draft were finished. The other thirty percent could only be finished when an official dispatched to Beijing, the old capital of the Yuan dynasty, to collect archival material from the last emperor of the Yuan. The whole book was submitted to the throne in the same year.
The high velocity of the compilation caused many problems. The book had been virtually submitted as a draft and was never revised. One of the results is that reports are contradicting each other, that one event is reported several times in the imperial biographies, or even that some persons were written two biographies. The transcription of Mongolian names and terms are not consistant so that it is hard to identify persons. Some translations from sources written in Mongolian are also not very good and often render the opposite of the original meaning. Not only biographies but also the treatises and tables suffer from a negligent or even dilettantish treatment of terms and names by the compilers. In the biographies irrelevant paragraphs are quoted from the sources. In some places the year cycles are confused with catastrophic results for the dating of the events. Event the temple names of the emperors are rendered wrongly in many places. At least a part of those errors can be traced back to the fact that the historians were not accustomed to the political system and customs of the Mongols. They were, for instance, not aware of the importance an empress dowager played as a temporary ruler after the death of a khan. The hatred against the alien rule of the Mongols might also have played a role for the missing diligence with which the Yuanshi was compiled.
Nevertheless the Yuanshi is an important source for the study of the Yuan period. It preserves a lot of original sources which have been lost, namely the veritable records (shilu 實錄) of the emperors and the institutional treatises (Jingshi dadian 經世大典). The argument of some scholars that the Yuanshi is written to discursive and should be shortened in many places, is therefore not justified: Without the Yuanshi preserving those sources they would not have survived. The number of Mongolian officeholders, like generals, princes and prime ministers, is not very high, compared with their importance. The reason for this is that the compilers of the Yuanshi lacked sufficient sources from the dynasty's archives (the compilation took place in Nanjing, while the Yuan archives were far away in Beijing) but instead liked making use of easily available sources on Chinese persons, like tomb stone inscriptions. A less important point of critique is the overall composition of the book which contradicts long-established principles, for example, the order of the treatises and the collective biographies. At least many information on the Mongolian customs and habits as well as on the western territories and Annam is preserved in the treatises.
The many shortcomings of the Yuanshi caused a whole wave of emendation supplements, like Zhu You's 朱右 Yuanshi shiyi 元史拾遺, or Xie Jin's 解縉 Yuanshi zhengwu 元史正誤, both written during the Ming period. The Qing period 清 (1644-1911) literature is: Shao Yuanping's 邵遠平 Yuanshi leibian 元史類編, Wei Yuan's 魏源 Yuanshi xinbian 元史新編, Zeng Lian's 曾廉 Yuanshu 元書, Ke Shaomin's 柯卲忞 Xin Yuanshi 新元史, and Tu Ji's 屠寄 Mengwur shiji 蒙兀兒史記. Bot none of those book is able to replace the Yuanshi. Ke Shaomin's Xin Yuanshi has been incorporated into the canon of the dynastic histories, as the twenty-sixth.
Already in 1370 the Yuanshi was printed in Nanjing, in the mid-16th century a second time. In 1935 the Shangwu yinshuguan press 商務印書館 published the so-called Bona 百衲 edition which was based on both Ming period printings but suffers from numerous printing errors. The Zhonghua shuju press 中華書局 published a punctated edition in 1976 which took into consideration the older prints, corrected errors and added a textcritical apparatus.


Source: Weng Dujian 翁獨健, Zhou Qingshu 周清澍 (1992), "Yuanshi 元史", 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, p. 1457.

July 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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