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1. The Life of Wang Ch`ung.

The principal data of Wang Ch`ung's life are furnished by his autobiography and by the biographical notice in chapter 79 p. 1 of the Hou Han-shu, the History of the Later Han Dynasty, which was written by Fan Yeh in the 5th cent. a.d. and commented on by Prince Chang Huai Hsien of the T`ang dynasty. There we read:

"Wang Ch`ung, whose style was Chung Jên, was a native of Shang-yü in K`uei-chi. His forefathers had immigrated from Yuanch`êng in the Wei circuit. As a boy he lost his father and was commended in his village for his filial piety. Subsequently he repaired to the capital, where he studied at the academy.

The book of Yuan Shan Sung says that Wang Ch`ung was a very precocious youth. After having entered the academy, he composed an essay on six scholars on the occasion of the emperor visiting the Imperial College.

His teacher was Pan Piao from Fu-fêng. He was very fond of extensive reading, but did not trouble much about paragraphs or sentences. His family being poor, he possessed no books. Therefore he used to stroll about the market-place and the shops in Loyang and read the books exposed there for sale. That which he had once read, he was able to remember and to repeat. Thus he had acquired a vast knowledge of the tenets of the various schools and systems. Having returned to his native place, he led a very solitary life as a teacher. Then he took office in the prefecture and was appointed secretary, but in consequence of frequent remonstrances with his superiors, disputes, and dissensions with his colleagues, he had to quit the service.

Wang Ch`ung had a strong penchant for discussions. At the outset, his arguments would often appear rather queer, but his final conclusions were true and reasonable. Being convinced that the ordinary savants stuck too much to the letter, and thus would mostly lose the true meaning, he shut himself up for meditation, and no longer observed the ceremonies of congratulation or condolence. Everywhere near the door, the windows, and on the walls he had his knives and pens placed, with which he wrote the Lun-hêng in 85 chapters containing over 200,000 words.

Yuan Shan Sung says in his book that at first the Lun-hêng written by Wang Ch`ung was not current in the central provinces. When T`sai Yung came to Wu, he discovered it there, and used to read it secretly as a help to conversation. Afterwards Wang Lang became prefect of K`uei-chi, and likewise got into possession of the book. On his return to Hsü-hsia his contemporaries were struck with the great improvement of his abilities. Some one remarked that, unless he had met with some extraordinary person, he must have found some extraordinary book. They made investigations, and found out that in fact it was from the Lun-hêng that he had derived this advantage. Thereupon the Lun-hêng came into vogue. Pao P`u Tse relates that his contemporaries grudged T`sai Yung the possession of a rare book. Somebody searched for it in the hiding place behind his curtains, and there in fact found the Lun-hêng. He folded some chapters together in order to take them away, when T`sai Yung proposed to him that they should both keep the book, but not divulge its contents.

He explained the similarities and the diversities of the different classes of things, and settled the common doubts and errors of the time.

The governor Tung Ch`in made him assistant-magistrate. Later on he rose to the rank of a sub-prefect. Then he retired and returned home. A friend and fellow-countryman of his Hsieh I Wu addressed a memorial to the throne, in which he recommended Wang Ch`ung for his talents and learning.

In the book of Hsieh Ch`êng it is stated that in recommending Wang Ch`ung, Hsieh I Wu said that his genius was a natural gift and not acquired by learning. Even Mencius and Sun Ching in former times, or Yang Hsiung, Liu Hsiang, or Sse ma Ch`ien more recently in the Han epoch could not surpass him.

Su Tsung commanded a chamberlain to summon Wang Ch`ung into his presence, but owing to sickness, he could not go. When he was nearly seventy years of age, his powers began to decline. Then he wrote a book on "Macrobiotics" in 16 chapters, and refraining from all desires and propensities, and avoiding all emotions, he kept himself alive, until in the middle of the Yung-yuan period, when he died of an illness at his home."

By his own testimony Wang Ch`ung was born in the third year of the Chien-wu cycle, i. e. in a.d. 27, in Shang-yü-hsien, the present Shao-hsing-fu of the province of Chekiang. His family had originally been residing in Yuan-ch`êng = Ta-ming-fu in Chihli. His father's name was Wang Sung. Owing to their violent temper his ancestors had several times been implicated in local feuds, which are still now of frequent occurrence in Fukien and Chekiang, and were compelled to change their domicile. Wang Ch`ung's critics are scandalized at his coolly telling us that his great-grandfather behaved like a ruffian during a famine, killing and wounding his fellow-people.

If Wang Ch`ung's own description be true, he must have been a paragon in his youth. He never needed any correction neither at the hands of his parents nor of his teachers. For his age he was exceptionally sedate and serious. When he was six years old, he received his first instruction, and at the age of 8 he was sent to a public school. There the teacher explained to him the Analects and the Shuking, and he read 1,000 characters every day. When he had mastered the Classics, one was astonished at the progress he made, so he naïvely informs us. Of his other attainments he speaks in the same strain and with the same conceit. The Hou Han-shu confirms that he was a good son.

Having lost his father very early, he entered the Imperial College at Loyang, then the capital of China. His principal teacher was the historian Pan Piao, the father of Pan Ku, author of the History of the Former Han dynasty. In Loyang he laid the foundation of the vast amount of knowledge by which he distinguished himself later on, and became acquainted with the theories of the various schools of thought, many of which he vigorously attacks in his writings. His aim was to grasp the general gist of what he read, and he did not care so much for minor details. The majority of the scholars of his time conversely would cling to the words and sentences and over these minutiæ quite forget the whole. Being too poor to buy all the books required to satiate his hunger for knowledge, he would saunter about in the marketplace and book-shops, and peruse the books exposed there for sale, having probably made some sort of agreement with the booksellers, who may have taken an interest in the ardent student. His excellent memory was of great service to him, for he could remember, even repeat what he had once read. At the same time his critical genius developed. He liked to argue a point, and though his views often seemed paradoxical, his opponents could not but admit the justness of his arguments.

Having completed his studies, Wang Ch`ung returned to his native place, where he became a teacher and lived a very quiet life. Subsequently he took office and secured a small position as a secretary of a district, a post which he also filled under a military governor and a prefect. At last he was promoted to be assistant-magistrate of a department. He would have us believe that he was a very good official, and that his relations to his colleagues were excellent. The Hou Han-shu, on the other hand, tells us that he remonstrated so much with his superiors and was so quarrelsome, that he had to leave the service. This version seems the more probable of the two. Wang Ch`ung was much too independent, much too outspoken, and too clever to do the routine business well, which requires clerks and secretaries of moderate abilities, or to serve under superiors, whom he surpassed by his talents. So he devoted himself exclusively to his studies. He lived in rather straitened circumstances, but supported his embarassments with philosophical equanimity and cheerfulness. "Although he was poor and had not an acre to dwell upon, his mind was freer than that of kings and dukes, and though he had no emoluments counted by pecks and bushels, he felt, as if he had ten thousand chung to live upon. He enjoyed a tranquil happiness, but his desires did not run riot, and though he was living in a state of poverty, his energy was not broken. The study of ancient literature was his debauchery, and strange stories his relish." He had a great admiration for superior men, and liked to associate with people rising above mediocrity. As long as he was in office and well off, he had many friends, but most of them abandoned him, when he had retired into private life.

In a.d. 86 Wang Ch`ung emigrated into the province of Anhui, where he was appointed sub-prefect, the highest post which he held, but two years only, for in 88 he gave up his official career, which had not been a brilliant one. The reason of his resignation this time seems to have been ill health.

So far Wang Ch`ung had not succeeded in attracting the attention of the emperor. An essay which he had composed, when the emperor had visited the college of Loyang, had passed unnoticed. In the year 76, when parts of Honan were suffering from a great dearth, Wang Ch`ung presented a memorial to the Emperor Chang Ti in which he proposed measures to prohibit dissipation and extravagancies, and to provide for the time of need, but his suggestions were not accepted. He did not fare better with another anti-alcoholic memorial, in which he advocated the prohibition of the use of spirits. When finally the Emperor became aware of Wang Ch`ung, it was too late. A friend and a countryman of his, Hsieh I Wu recommended him to the throne for his talents and great learning, saying that neither Mencius or Hsün Tse nor in the Han time Yang Hsiung, Liu Hsiang or See Ma Ch`ien could outshine him. The Emperor Chang Ti (76-88 a.d.) summoned him to his presence, but owing to his ill-health Wang Ch`ung had to decline the honour. His state had impaired so much, that already in 89 he thought that his end had come. But the next two years passed, and he did not die. He found even the time to write a book on "Macrobiotics," which he put into practice himself, observing a strict diet and avoiding all agitations in order to keep his vital fluid intact, until he expired in the middle of the Yung-yuan period (89-104) about the year 97. The exact year is not known.

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia