An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Yanshi jiaxun 顏氏家訓

Sep 13, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Yanshi jiaxun 顏氏家訓 "Family instructions of Master Yan", shortly called Jiaxun 家訓, is a privately written book on philosophical and family-related topics. The book with a length of 7 juan (today reduced to 2 juan) and 20 chapters was written by Yan Zhitui 顏之推 (531-591) with the intention to have it read as an educational handbook for his sons. Because the thematic range of the Yanshi jiaxun surpasses the genre of private education (jiaxun 家訓), it has traditionally been classified as a "miscellaneous" writing.

Yan Zhitui, courtesy name Jie 介, hailed from Linyi 臨沂 (nodern Linyi, Shandong) and obtained an excellent education by his father Yan Xie 顏勰 who had made some research on the Confucian Classics Zhouguan 周官 (i.e., the Zhouli ) and Zuozhuan 左氏. With the age of twelve, Yan Zhitui became a disciple of Xiao Jiang 蕭絳, the Prince of Xiang 湘, and a member of the ruling house of the Liang dynasty 梁 (502-557). The Prince of Xiang was a Daoist adept, and transmitted some thoughts of this philosophical school to Yan Zhitui. In 554, Yan was captured by the invading army of the Western Wei empire 西魏 (535-556), but managed to escape to the state of the Northern Qi 北齊 (550-577), from where he intended to return to his home in the south. But the Liang dynasty had in the meantime been displaced by the Chen dynasty 陳 (557-589). Yan thus had no choice but to stay in the north where he was able to obtain eminent offices under the Northern Qi, the Northern Zhou 北周 (557-581), and finally the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618). He worked as a drafter in the Imperial Secretariat (zhongshu sheren 中書舍人), as gentleman attendant at the palace gate (huangmen shilang 黃門侍郎) and as governor (taishou 太守) of the commandery of Pingyuan 平原. Under the Northern Zhou, he was senior serviceman of the Censorate (yushi shangshi 御史上士), and under the Sui as an academic counsellor (xueshi 學士) for the Heir Apparent.

Yan Zhitui had basically been educated in a Confucian manner, and thus became an expert in the various ritual and social obligations of the Confucian etiquette. Besides, he was also an excellent rider, a skill that was highly appreciated in his time. The Yanshi jiaxun, finished in 589, was written as an instruction to his sons and grandsons, but except regulations for deportment in specified situations, the book also includes information on education in general, history, literature, linguistics, customs and habits and many aspects in contemporary society. The Yanshi jiaxun provides a wide picture of life and activities of the upper class during the sixth century. Exiled in the north, the southerner Yan Zhitui displayed a refined taste in writing in the rugged northern environment. The book therefore immediately achieved great attraction as a kind of classic for private education. Later books on education like the anonymous Taigong jiajiao 太公家教 from the Tang period 唐 (618-907), Sima Guang's 司馬光 (1019-1086) Jiafan 家範 from the Song period 宋 (960-1279), Sun Qifeng's 孫奇逢 (1585-1675) Jiaozi jiaxun 教子家訓 from the early Qing period 清 (1644-1911) and Zhu Bailu's 朱柏廬 1617-1688) Zhijia geyan 治家格言 are based on Yan Zhitui's book. Over the ages, the Yanshi jiaxun was famous for its high literary quality.

In the author's eyes it was important that children started learning at an early point of time. Learning instead of hunting and gaming was the most important activity in life. For young children it was important to learn one skill perfectly, which would then be the base of one's life. Life was to be filled with a meaning (hui dang you ye 會當有業). The peasant had to plough the fields, the merchant to make profits, the craftsman to produce objects, the artist to train his skills, the warrior to use the bow and ride his horse, and the scholar had the social duty to interpret the classical writings. Concerning marriage, Yan Zhituo refused the aims at making financial profits by arranged marriage and stressed the importance to consider the reputation of a family instead.

Although educated in a traditional Confucian way, Yan Zhitui was a Buddhist believer, but also was a statesman with a good sense for practical politics. This flexibility is the reason why he found a job under each one of the different rulers. It was his experience in a time of trouble and final unification of the empire under the Sui that made him one of the most esteemed personalities of his time.

The most important commentaries are Wang Liqi's 王利器 (1912-1998年) Yanshi jiaxun jijie 顏氏家訓集解 and Zhou Fagao's 周法高 (1915-1994) Yanshi jiaxun huizhu 顏氏家訓彙注. The Yanshi jiaxun is included in the series Han-Wei congshu 漢魏叢書, Zhibuzuzhai congshu 知不足齋叢書, Baojingtang congshu 抱經堂叢書, Zishu baizhong 子書百種, Sibu congkan 四部叢刊 and Siku quanshu 四庫全書. The oldest surviving print dates from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644). There are also the Ming prints published by Yan Ruhuai 顏如瓌, Yuan Zhibang 袁志邦 and Cheng Boxiang 程伯祥.

An English translation was produced by Teng Ssu-yü (1968), Family Instructions for the Yen Clan (Leiden: Brill).

Table 1. Contents of the Jinlouzi 金樓子
1. 序致 Xuzhi Introduction
2. 教子 Jiaozi Education of a son
3. 兄弟 Xiongdi Relationship among brothers
4. 後娶 Houqu Stepmother and stepbrothers
5. 治家 Zhijia Regulate your family
6. 風操 Fengcao Character and behaviour
7. 慕賢 Muxian Yearn for wisdom
8. 勉學 Mianxue Engage well in studies
9. 文章 Wenzhang Learn to write and to compose
10. 名實 Mingshi Make conform theory and practice
11. 涉務 Shewu Gain practical experience
12. 省事 Xingshi Be sparingly with words and deeds
13. 止足 Zhizu Be self-sufficient
14. 誡兵 Jiebing Study the art of war
15. 養生 Yangsheng Preserve your health
16. 歸心 Guixin Submit your heart to the righteous cause
17. 書證 Shuzheng Text sources for the Family Instructions
18. 音辭 Yinci Make sound your words
19. 雜藝 Zayi Miscellaneous arts (painting, shooting, divining, mathematics, medicine etc.)
20. 終制 Zhongzhi Complete the three-year mourning for your parents
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, 1885.
Zhou Yiliang 周一良 (1992). "Yanshi jiaxun 顏氏家訓", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1367.