Nirmal DASS

Han Yu was a poet and a Confucian thinker. His carefully wrought essay style earned him a reputation as one of greatest prose writers of the Tang period. This image was included in a book of portraits of famous poets called Wan hsiao tang-Chu chuang—Hua chuan, which was published in 1921.

Poet, essayist and Confucian thinker, Han Yu is considered to be one of the foremost writers of the Tang dynasty, whose carefully wrought prose greatly influenced the literature of China and whose ideas helped establish neo-Confucianism.

Han Yu, born in Heyang, Henan Province, and orphaned at the age of six, was one of the greatest prose writers of the Tang period (618–907 CE). His philosophical works inculcated Confucianism tenets and his prose style brought about the Old Prose Movement.

Han Yu was raised by his older brother, an accomplished singer, and an uncle, a well-known prose writer. These early influences charted the course of his own life, as he set about from a very early age to study for the imperial examinations to gain a government position as a scholar-official. He sat for these examinations on three separate occasions, but failed each time. It was only on his fourth attempt that Han Yu passed and by 802 was successful in acquiring a post at court. However, he was overly outspoken and critical of the way government officials behaved and the royal refusal to rescind certain taxes during times of famine. Han Yu’s criticisms of the government were expressed in his works, particularly Study of the Five and Study of the Way, in which he advocated an adherence to the guiding principles of Confucianism. Before long he was sent into exile by the emperor Dezong.

In time, Han Yu was rehabilitated and given various minor posts in far-off cities, away from the royal court. He might well have lived out his life in such remote places had he not taken up a cause significant to his beliefs. During the Tang period, the influence of Buddhism and Daoism was expanding rapidly in China. Han Yu, as a committed Confucian, detested these new and foreign influences. When Han Yu learned that the new emperor, Xianzong, would take part in a procession honoring a Buddhist relic, he famously sent off an open letter to the emperor titled Memorial of the Bone of the Buddha, reminding the emperor of the nobility of the Confucian way and openly deriding anyone who chose to follow foreign, non-rational ideologies that did nothing to further Confucian morality in the kingdom. According to Han Yu, Buddhism and Daoism represented a great threat to Chinese society because both belief systems were concerned solely with the other-worldly, meaning that people did not concern themselves with the here-and-now and with bettering society, as advocated by Confucianism. In addition, Han Yu saw the emperor as the central authority for the betterment of society. Thus, if the emperor gave himself over to worrying about the hereafter, he would neglect his Confucian duty to rule over a peaceful and just kingdom.

Han Yu’s critical letter enraged the emperor, who ordered Han Yu’s immediate execution. But friends of Han Yu, and those who followed Confucianism, convinced the emperor to order exile instead, which the emperor promptly decreed. When another emperor, Muzong, ascended the throne, Han Yu sent another letter, this time of apology, and he was allowed to return to Ch’ang-an, where he was given various posts until his death. Han Yu is best remembered for his clarity of style. He stripped off the frivolous ornamentations that had encumbered literary prose; his writing was concise and uncluttered. This methodology was derived from his devotion to Confucianism and the canon of Confucian writing, which advocated a life of frugality and honesty without vanity.

In his writings, Han Yu sought to elaborate the workings of an ideal Confucian society, in which the ruler, his officials and his people would have clearly defined duties and obligations. However, in his own lifetime, he was considered a minor thinker. It was only during the Song Dynasty that he was rediscovered and his work was elevated as a worthy example of Confucian thought. Thereafter his influence upon Chinese thought grew unabated.

Further Reading

de Bary, W. T., Chan, Wing-Tsit, & Watson, B (Eds.). (1960). Sources of Chinese tradition. Vol. 1. UNESCO Collection of Representative Works, Chinese Series. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hartman, C. (1986). Han Yu and the T’ang search for unity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Liu Wu-chi. (1966). An introduction of Chinese literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

McMullen, D. (1988). State and scholars in T’ang China. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Owen, S. (1996). The end of the Chinese “middle ages”: Essays in mid-T’ang literary culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Source: Dass, Nirmal. (2009). Han Yu. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 995–996. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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