Han Yu

From New World Encyclopedia
Chinese Names
Chinese surname Xìng 姓 : Hán 韓
Chinese given name Míng 名: Yù 愈
Courtesy name Zì 字:Tuìzhī 退之
aka:Chānglí 昌黎
Posthumous name Shì 謚:Wén 文
Han Yu

Han Yu (韓愈, Hán Yù, Pinyin Han Yu, also called Han Wen-kung) (768 - 824 C.E.), born in Nanyang, Henan, China, was a precursor of Neo-Confucianism as well as an essayist and poet. He lived during China’s late Tang dynasty, and though he passed the government examinations and held many bureaucratic positions over his lifetime, he was better known for his prose and poetry than for his politics. His persistent dedication to Confucianism and his attempts to reform the Chinese government often resulted in reprimands and demotions. He is best remembered for the eloquent poems and essays he wrote expressing both his political and non-political ideas. Han Yu rejected the traditional prose style of bianwen, which had become so burdened with restrictive rules that forthright expression was virtually impossible, and proposed the use of Zhou philosophers and early Han writers as models for prose writing. The resulting literary freedom gave rise to a new genre of prose romances.

Han Yu advocated a more centralized government and a return to Confucian ideals. He deplored Daoism and Buddhism as teachings which encouraged self-centeredness and disregard for others, and criticized the Buddhist monks and Daoist priests because they “do not work, they do not produce, worst of all, they teach people not to work.” Han Yu quoted extensively from Mencius, the Ta hsüeh (Great Learning), the Chung-yung (Doctrine of the Mean), and the I Ching (Classic of Changes), Confucian works that had previously been somewhat neglected. His writings laid the foundations for later Neo-Confucianists, who drew their basic ideas from these books.


Han Yu was born in 768, in Northern China, the son of a fairly high-ranking official. His mother died two months after his birth, and his father two years later; he was brought up mainly by his older brother, Han Hui, who had a reputation for being a great singer. His uncle, Han Yunqing, a professional writer, is also thought to have been a prominent influence on Han Yu’s childhood. He began preparing for the provincial exams at the age of six, and went to Chang'an in 786, when he was eighteen, to take the jinshi exam for the first time. The examiners found his prose too unconventional, and failed him three times. He finally succeeded in 792, and then had difficulty finding employment. On three occasions he wrote a letter to the government, unsuccessfully applying for a position. In the last few years of the eighth century, he began to form the literary circle which later spread his influence so widely.

He gained his first central government position in 802, but was soon exiled, apparently for failing to support the heir-apparent's faction (other possible reasons may have been his criticism of the misbehavior of the emperor's servants, or his request for reduction of taxes during a famine). From 807 to 819, he held a series of posts first in Luoyang and then in Chang'an. During these years, he was a strong advocate for reimposing centralized control over the separatist provinces of the northeast.

Han began to promote Confucianism at a time when it had become relatively unpopular, and to attack Taoism and Buddhism which were at the height of their influence in China. In 819, he lost his government position when he wrote his celebrated Memorial on Bone-relics of the Buddha, castigating the emperor for paying respect to the supposed finger bone of Buddha. This protest against Buddhist influence in China was disrespectful to the point of personally insulting the emperor. Its only immediate effect was to prompt Han Yu's dismissal and exile to Chaozhou in Southern China. Eventually, after Han Yu submitted another, apologetic memorial, the emperor allowed him to return, saying that he had been offended by Han Yu’s boldness, but that he understood that Han Yu had acted out of his love for the Chinese people.

Han Yu held various government positions until his death in 824. The reason for his death in 824 is unknown, although it is known that he took a leave of one hundred days from his government post shortly before his death. After his death, the title of President of the Ministry of Rites was conferred upon him, as well as the epithet “Prince of Letters,” both great honors.

Confucianism in the time of Han Yu

Han Yu was not particularly influential during his lifetime; his fame spread when Confucianism became popular during the Song dynasty (960-1279), and Han Yu’s Neo-Confucian ideologies caught on. The mainstream ideology of Han Yu’s age was a blend of Daoism/Neo-Daoism and Buddhism. Han Yu regarded this ideology as extremely self-centered and not beneficial to the Chinese as a people as a whole; it ignored the Eastern concept that everything is interconnected. Han Yu was strongly committed to Confucianism, which most people of his day associated with the government system of bureaucracy. Buddhism and Daoism had increasingly come to emphasize other-worldliness, while Confucianism emphasized the relationships among people in this world. Han Yu believed that Buddhism and Daoism were causing the Chinese to think that they did not need to worry about their treatment of others in this world.

Han Yu attempted to use his position in the government to bring about change by influencing higher authorities. He gained a reputation for being headstrong and arrogant, and was demoted several times. His dedication to Confucian teachings and his memorials quoting Confucius, however, indicate that his distaste for individualism came from a concern for the well-being of the Chinese people.

In his defense of Confucianism, Han Yu quoted extensively from Mencius, the Ta hsüeh (Great Learning), the “Chung-yung” (Doctrine of the Mean), and the I Ching (Classic of Changes), works that had previously been somewhat neglected by Confucians. His writings laid the foundations for later Neo-Confucianists, who drew their basic ideas from these books. Han Yu preferred the free, simple prose of these early philosophers to the mannerisms and elaborate verselike regularity of the parallel prose that was prevalent in his time. His own essays (“Study of the Way,” “On Man,” and “On Spirits”) are acknowledged as being among the most beautiful ever written in Chinese, and they became the most famous models of the prose style he espoused. Han Yu tried to break out of the existing literary forms in poetry also, but many of his efforts at literary reform failed.

Han Yu’s poetry and literature

Han Yu trained as a poet while studying for the jinshi exams, but he is best remembered for his prose and his memorials. He rejected contemporary literary criticism, which judged all poetry against the standard of one particular style. He preferred to use his own less ornate style, and demonstrated that different styles of poetry could be used for different occasions (Gardner, A Return to Confucius). Han Yu sought to follow the principle that the form of the work should match the content, treating a simple subject in a simple style, and a sophisticated one in an elaborate style . He wrote poems about many topics, including arriving in Chang’an for the examinations, and satires about officials with whom he disagreed. He adapted Confucianism to his age by combining ancient wisdom with his own personal insights, seeking not to mimic the style of the ancient poets, but to approach writing in the same way as they did.

In the writing of prose, he was a strong proponent of the Classical Prose Movement (古文運動), which advocated a clear and concise style of writing. Han Yu is best known for his implementation of the guwen style. The effectiveness of Han Yu’s prose memorials varied depending on his own knowledge of the subject, his eloquence, and the wisdom or arrogance with which he wrote.

Han Yu was also a master of Chinese linguistics, and many of the words he coined have become idioms and are widely used today. For example, a phrase from Study of the Way, "someone sitting in a well and looking at the sky says that the sky is small; actually the sky is not small, they just cannot see the whole sky," is now a common idiom used to describe people who are short-sighted.

Study of the the Way

Han Yu’s Study of the Way was a treatise on the ideology and implantation of Confucian doctrines. The first paragraph defined the Confucian concept of ren, or perfect virtue, as love for all mankind. Yi (righteousness) was a balanced relationship between action and appropriateness. The way (Dao) of Confucianism was the inseparable combination of ren and yi; Confucians believed in ren, and action based on ren was yi. Dao was the principle, which showed people the right direction in which to go. Ren could not be imposed by outside force or by preaching of doctrine; it could only be arrived at by cultivation of the mind, with willingness and great effort. Ren and Yi needed to be specific concepts in order for people to carry them out. Han Yu made it clear that when he spoke of “dao” (way) and “de” (morality), it was in the Confucian sense of a combination of ren and yi, and not in the Daoist sense.

In the second paragraph of "Study of the Way," Han Yu explains that people lost their way when they turned to Taoism and Buddhism, and that it was important to enlighten them with Confucianism. In the third paragraph, Han Yu blamed the chaos and famines of the time on Buddhism and Daoism, saying that Buddhist monks and Daoist priests, “do not work, they do not produce, worst of all, they teach people not to work.” In the old days of the sages, he said, there were only four types of people, solider, peasant, craftsman, and merchant; there was only one religion: Confucianism, which believes in "doing something.” The fourth paragraph describes how the sages taught people to live in an interdependent society, in which each person played an integral part. Next, Han Yu gave a blueprint of the ideal Confucian society, composed of a king, officials and common people. The king is responsible for giving the order, officials for carrying out the order to the common people, and the common people for providing food, clothes, property and money to the king and the officials. If any of the three failed in their responsibility, the consequences would be dire: the king could lose his throne, an official his power, and the common man his life.

Han Yu continued to explain how some people became sages. "Emperor and king, though [they] have different names, the reason why [they] became the sages are the same. [They] wear thin clothes in the summer, fur in the winter; [they] drink when [they are] thirsty, [they] eat when [they are] hungry; though these are different things, that's why they are called wise." He criticized the Buddhists and Daoists for ascetic practices which went against common sense, such as wearing thin clothes in the winter and drinking water when hungry. Worst of all, Taoism and Buddhism trained people to avoid involvement in political affairs and family duties. Confucianism, he said, cultivated the mind in order to manage the country in the future and to utilize all the knowledge to serve the country. Which doctrine is more helpful to a society in a state of low productivity, "do nothing," or "do big things?"

Then Han Yu devoted a paragraph to a discussion of the “way” of his ideal society: Ren and yi. "[The] books [people read] are Shijing, Shujing, Yijing, Chunqiu; its legal system is etiquette, music, penalty and policy; its people are solider, peasant, craftsman and merchant; its relationship is official-king, father-son, teacher-friend, guest-host, brother-sister, and husband-wife; people wear linen and silk; people live in houses; people eat wheat, rice, fruit, vegetable, fish, and meat. It is easy to understand as a doctrine. It is easy to carry through as a policy."

In the last paragraph, Han Yu proposed that, "[we should] burn the books of Buddhism and Taoism, rebuild the temples into houses, guide [them] with the way. [We will] take care of the widowers, widows, orphans, seniors, disabled people and sick people."

Study of the the Way and prose writing

Although Study of the Way (also called On the Way) was about the way to manage a state, Han Yu also used it to promote his reform of Chinese writing. He rejected the peculiarly artificial prose style of “bianwen,” which over a period of almost one thousand years had become so burdened with restrictive rules that forthright expression was virtually impossible.

Han Yu boldly advocated the use of Zhou philosophers and early Han writers as models for prose writing. This reform brought about a liberation in writing. The sentence unit in prose writing was now free to seek its own length and structural pattern, according to logic and its content, rather than slavishly conforming to the rules of bianwen. With this new literary freedom, Liu Zongyuan, Han Yu's chief collaborator in literary reform, was able to write charming travel and landscape pieces. A new genre of prose writing soon developed, tales of love and romance, heroic feats and adventures, the mysterious and supernatural, and of imaginary incidents and fictionalized history. These prose romances in classical prose style were written for the entertainment of the literati and did not reach the masses until much later, when some of the popular ones were adapted by playwrights.


It is universally admitted that the unicorn is a supernatural being of good omen; such is declared in all the odes, annals, biographies of illustrious men and other texts whose authority is unquestionable. Even children and village women know that the unicorn constitutes a favorable presage. But this animal does not figure among the domestic beasts, it is not always easy to find, it does not lend itself to classification. It is not like the horse or the bull, the wolf or the deer. In such conditions, we could be face to face with a unicorn and not know for certain what it was. We know that such and such an animal with horns is a bull. But we do not know what the unicorn is like.[1]



  1. Jorge Luis Borges, ed., "Kafka and His Precusors," Selected Non-Fictions, 1999. ISBN 0-670-84947-2

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Borges, Jorge Luis and Eliot Weinberger. Selected Nonfictions. New York: Viking, 1999.
  • Conference on Seventeenth-Century Chinese Thought, and William Theodore De Bary. 1975. The Unfolding of Neo-Confucianism. Studies in Oriental Culture, no. 10. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231038283
  • Nienhauser, William H., ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature. Indiana University Press 1986. ISBN 0-253-32983-3
  • Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature. W.W. Norton, 1996. ISBN 0-393-03823-8
  • Zhang, Junmai. The development of Neo-Confucian thought. New York: Bookman Associates, 1957.


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