An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Renwuzhi 人物志

Jul 17, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Renwuzhi 人物志 "About human character" is China's oldest book on psychology. It was written by the Three-Empires-period 三國 (220-280) scholar Liu Shao 劉卲 (182-245 CE).

Liu Shao, courtesy name Kongcai 孔才, hailed from Handan 邯鄲 (modern Handan, Hebei) and was a secretary of the Heir Apparent during the Jian'an reign-period 建安 (196-219). In the early Huangchu reign-period 黃初 (220-226) he was promoted to gentleman in the Department of State Affairs (shangshu lang 尚書郎), and then gentleman cavalier attendant (sanji shilang 散騎侍郎). Under the reign of Emperor Ming 魏明帝 (r. 226-239 CE) of the Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265), he was appointed governor (taishou 太守) of the commandery of Chenliu 陳留. Called back into the central government, he was made commandant of cavalry (jiduwei 騎都尉) and then rose to the post of cavalier attendant-in-ordinary (sanji changshi 散騎常侍). As a highly educated person, he was granted the title of Marquis within the Pass (guanneihou 關內侯) during the Zhengshi reign-period 正始 (240-248).

Liu Shao has written several rhapsodies, namely Zhaodu fu 趙都賦, Xudu fu 許都賦, and Luodu fu 洛都賦, in which he reveals a very critical stance towards the society of his times. Of his other books Huanglan 皇覽, Duguan kaoke 都官考課, Lülüelun 律略論 and Falun 法論, only fragments have survived. Only the treatise Renwuzhi is transmitted in full.

The book is arranged in 3 juan or fascicles, consisting of 12 chapters. During the Tang 唐 (618-907) and Song periods 宋 (960-1279) it was rated as a treatise of the "school of dialecticians" (mingjia 名家), but the compilers of the imperial series Siku quanshu 四庫全書 from the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) categorized it as a "miscellaneous" treatise, having eliminated the bibliographical category of dialecticians.

Human nature was according to Liu Shao expressed in two different ways, namely talent and character. These could be rightly applied for specific use after careful analysis. Talent (cai 材 "matter") could be acquired by learning, yet all humans had also a certain portion of natural talent that was different is each person. Some persons had more of it, others less, some develop it earlier, and others later. Human talents could be used for different purposes, and not everyone was able to take over each task. Sparingness, artificial skills, judicial skills, politics, the arts, philosophical talents, literary abilities, rhetorics or a heroic spirit were such talents that were unequally distributed among all people.

Character was influenced not only by Yin and Yang 陰陽 and the Five Agents 五行 of which the cosmos was composed and to which it was subject, but also by the physical conditions of the body that were related to the Five Agents (wood to the bones, metal to the muscles, fire to the breath, earth to the skin, and water to the blood). There were, accordingly, strong people or weaker ones, audacious or prudent persons, persons with a love for specialized details and others with a broad interest, persons that were lenient and such that were impatient, active and moving people or passive and quiet persons, and people that like openness and other loving to conceal matters. Similarly, the five constant virtues (wuchang 五常) kindheartedness (ren 仁), righteousness (yi 義), propriety (li 禮), trustworthiness (xin 信) and wisdom (zhi 智) were influenced by nature. These could be perceived in the general appearance, conduct, voice and facial complexion. These natural dispositions of character and talent were one-sidedly inclined (pianzhi zhi xing 偏至之性, pianzhi zhi cai 偏至之材) and could not be altered. The morally highest character was that of a "central harmony" (zhonghe 中和), in which Yin and Yang were pure and harmonic and the five learnable talents did not need to be adjusted.

Through careful investigation of human talent and character a ruler would be able to give everyone an appropriate position in the state administration and, in a wider sense, also in society. This was, according to Liu Shao, possible because talent and character could be perceived by certain factors (the jiuzheng 九證 "nine proves") that appeared at the surface, namely spirit, wit, the physical condition, breath, colour of the face, comportment, general appearance, and speech. Yet the author also discusses reasons for an eventual failure of such an analysis and the reasons why talent and character were not necessarily apparent from the physical appearance. These were the seven resemblances (qisi 七似) and the seven errors (qimiu 七謬). The methods for analysis were the eight observations (baguan 八觀) and five inspections (wushi 五視).

The method of rating persons and attributing a certain categorical rank to them followed the method during that time to give all important families a certain rank that qualified them for according positions in the state administration. The Confucian concept of the holy man (shengren 聖人), the perfect noble, is explained by the terms youming 有名 "able to become famous" and wuming 無名 "not able to make oneself a name", terms going back to Daoist thought of the activation of the "not" that corresponds to the natural way, the Dao, but also to the idea of a destiny posed upon the life of everyone.

There is a commentary written by Liu Bing 劉昞 (also written 劉昺) during the Northern Wei period 北魏 (386-534). The Renwuzhi was printed during the Song period 宋 (960-1279) by Ruan Yi 阮逸. For a long time it was categorized as a text of the schools of dialecticians (mingjia 名家), but Ruan Yi was the first who identified it not as a purely philosophical text, but one related to the art of statecraft. The compilers of the series Siku quanshu 四庫全書 categorized the book as a "miscellaneous treatise". The most common edition is a Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) print included in the series Sibu congkan 四部叢刊.

There is a translation by J. K. Shryock (1966), The Study of Human Abilities: the Jen Wu Chih of Liu Shao (New York: Kraus).

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, 1883.
Tang Yijie 湯一介 (1987). "Renwuzhi 人物志", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhexue 哲學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 712.
Yan Guocai 燕國材 (1991). "Renwuzhi 人物志", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Xinlixue 心理學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 291.