Han Yu (768–824)

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Han Yu lived in a time when the Chinese Tang empire (618907) was threatened by military separatism but enjoyed cultural creativity and economic expansion. He became a major writer in his youth and had a successful official career late in his life. He was an innovative poet and essayist and the chief champion of the guwen movement that paved the way for a fundamental change of prose style. More unusual for a writer, Han played a leading role in a crucial philosophical redirection.

As a thinker, Han's most important idea was that Confucianism is the sole legitimate teaching for human conduct, to the exclusion of Buddhism and Daoism. This was an extreme position in his own time, but it exerted profound influence throughout later Chinese history. Han presented this view most forcefully in his famous essay "Essentials of the Moral Way" (Yuan Dao ). This essay asserts that the only Dao is the one based on everyday life, which is the Confucian Way discovered and developed by ancient sage-kings. What are the teachings of these sages? Han declares:

To love universally, which is called humanity; to apply this in the proper manner, which is called rightness; to act according to these, which is called the Way; to [follow the Way and] become self-sufficient without seeking anything outside, which is called virtue. The Book of Poetry, the Book of History are their writings; rites and music, punishments and government, their methods. Their people were the four classes of scholar-officials, farmers, artisans, and merchants; their relationships were those of sovereign and subject, father and son, teacher and friend, guest and host, elder and younger brother, and husband and wife. Their clothing was hemp and silk; their dwellings halls and houses; their food grain and rice, fruit and vegetables, fish and meat (de Bary, et al. 1960, pp. 378379 with minor changes).

A key point here is the all-embracing and this-worldly nature of the Confucian Way. Han made his point by going so far as to include people's clothing and food as part of the Way.

In his treatise, Han not only rejects all teachings that attempt to find the meaning of life outside or beyond the social order prescribed by Confucian sages, but also asserts that Confucianism values spiritual life as well. However, the Confucian mode of self-cultivation is intrinsically linked to mundane life; spiritual purification should be a basis for bettering, not transcending, the world. In another essay, Han gives his picture of Confucian spirituality. It is essentially a reconfiguration of ideas prevalent mainly during the Han era (206 BCE220 CE), and failed to win the approval of the later thinkers taking up his program of Confucian renewal.

The chief target of Han's intellectual campaign was Buddhismthe dominant religion of medieval Chinawhich because of its foreign origins conflicted with Confucian values in many fronts. Yet the true significance of his thought shows more clearly in his criticism of Daoism. Han categorically disagreed with the anticivilization attitudes in the Laozi and the Zhuangzi. He held that in constructing what is now called the Confucian order, ancient sage-kings saved humankind from a state of chaos and savagery; the Daoist calls for a return to the innocent primeval age, he believed, were absurd. Han also accused the religious Daoists, with their search for immortality and a secluded life, of deserting their inviolable duties as members of the human community. By taking an almost unique position against Buddhism, religious Daoism, and philosophical Daoism simultaneously, Han was assailing a view predominant in China since the early third century CE, that Daoism and Buddhism brought to light questions concerning the fundamental essence of the world and the spirituality of individuals whereas Confucianism had practical uses in building a proper sociopolitical order. Han put forward a new vision: that a proper human society can only be built upon Confucian principles in toto.

Han wrote only a few formal essays on philosophical issues, but often expressed his views in other genres and in highly literary manners. He was an original thinker who had effective weapons with which to send his message. Han challenged a fundamental intellectual premise of medieval China, and opened the way for the eventual formation of "the Learning of Principle" (lixue )or neo-Confucianismin the eleventh century. If the word "pioneer" means anything in historical account, Han was a most significant pioneer.

See also Confucius; Li Ao.


de Bary, William Theodore, et al., eds. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol 1, edited by Wing-tsit Chan and Burton Watson, 371382. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.

Hartman, Charles. Han Yü and the T'ang Search for Unity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

McMullen, David. "Han Yü: An Alternative Picture." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 49 (2) (December 1989): 603657.

Jo-shui Chen (2005)