Wang Can (王粲) (177 – 217) was a politician, scholar and poet during the late Eastern Han Dynasty in ancient China. His talent was recognized by the official Cai Yong when he came to the capital at Chang’an at the age of 14, though to others he seemed a meek and pallid teenager. In 194, Wang Can went to Jingzhou (荆州, present day Hubei and Hunan) to seek a position under the governor Liu Biao. After the death of Liu Biao in 208, Wang Cao persuaded his son Liu Cong (刘琮) to surrender to Cao Cao. Wang later joined Cao Cao and became a high-ranking official. In 213, when Cao Cao was enfeoffed as the Duke of Wei, he entrusted Wang Can with establishing a new system of laws and standards to replace the old one, which had largely fallen into disuse. Wang contributed greatly to the establishment of laws and standards during the founding days of the Principality of Wei—predecessor to the later Cao Wei Dynasty—under Cao Cao.
Wang Can was also an outstanding poet and was ranked among the Seven Scholars of Jian'an (建安七子) for his literary achievements. One of his most famous poems was the Poem of Seven Sorrows (七哀诗, Qiai Shi), a five-character poem lamenting the suffering of the people during the years of war. Wang Can was also renowned for his photographic memory. The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms describes an incident where Wang Can was watching a game of go. Someone accidentally knocked the board and scattered the pieces. Wang Can then placed the pieces back to their original positions based on memory.
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A local of Guangping Commandery (present day Zou County, Shandong), Wang Can was born in in 177 to a family of high-ranking bureaucrats. His great grandfather and grandfather were among the Three Dukes (三公) under Emperor Shun (漢順帝) and Emperor Ling (漢靈帝) respectively. Cai Yi, a high-ranking official, thought highly of Wang.
When the warlord Dong Zhuo (董卓) usurped power in 190, placing in the throne the puppet Emperor Xian (漢獻帝), Wang Can was only thirteen–years–old. A year later, when Dong Zhuo moved the capital from Luoyang (洛陽) to the more strategically secure Chang'an (長安). Wang Can went to the new capital, where he stayed for the next three years. During his stay in Chang'an, Wang Can's talent was recognized by the prominent scholar and calligrapher Cai Yong (蔡邕). The young Wang Can was also offered several posts, all of which he turned down.
In 194, Wang Can went to Jingzhou (荆州, present day Hubei and Hunan) to seek a position under the governor Liu Biao. However, Liu Biao did not favor Wang Can because he looked pallid and sickly, and Wang was not given the opportunity to excel his full potential. After the death of Liu Biao in 208, his son Liu Cong (刘琮) was persuaded by Wang Can to surrender to Cao Cao. Wang later joined Cao Cao and became a high-ranking official. Wang Can's talent was finally exploited under his new lord. In 213, Cao Cao was enfeoffed as the Duke of Wei, and given ten cities under his fiefdom, which was named the State of Wei. Wang Can was then entrusted with establishing a new system of laws and standards to replace the old one, which had largely fallen into disuse. In late 216, Wang Can followed Cao Cao on his fourth southern campaign against Sun Quan. He died on the way due to sickness in the spring of 217.
There is a saying in Chinese, "Dao Ji Xiang Ying," which refers to Wang and Cai Yong. Once Wang Can came to visit Cai Yong when he was in the midst of entertaining a numer of guests at a party in Changan. Cai was in such a hurry to greet Wang that he put on his shoes backward. All his guests were surprised, because at the time Cai was a well-respected official and Wang was only a teenager. The gests could not understand why Cai showed such deference to Wang Can. Wang Can was renowned for his photographic memory. One day, Cai went on a picnic with several of his friends, including Wang Can. As they passed a tombstone by the road side, Cai asked everyone to read the contents and hurried them along. A little while later, Cai asked them to recite the inscription on the tombstone. Only Wang could recite it word-for-word. Although the guests were impressed, they were suspicious that Wang had memorized the writing on the tombstone ahead of time. The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms describes an incident where Wang Can was watching a game of go, a strategic board game for two players. Cai won the game in 265 moves by one point. While they were discussing the game, someone accidentally knocked the board and scattered the pieces. Wang Can then placed the pieces back to their original positions based on memory.
Wang Can was an established poet. Along with the works of six other poets of his time, his poems formed the backbone of what was to be known as the jian'an¹ style (建安风骨). These poets were collectively called the Seven Scholars of Jian'an (建安七子). (Jian'an was the era name for the period from 196 to 220.) Wang can and Liu Xie (劉勰), courtesy name Yanhe, 彦和), a devout Buddhist who helped edit sutras at the Dinglin Monastery (定林寺) and author of China's greatest work of literary aesthetics, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, were hailed as the best among the seven.
The civil strife towards the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty gave the jian'an poems their characteristic solemn, yet heart-stirring tone; lament over the ephemerality of life was also a central theme of works from this period. In terms of the history of Chinese literature, the jian'an poems were a transition from the early folksongs into scholarly poetry. Wang Can's works included Weiqi Fuxu and DanqiFuxu.
Wang Can also contributed greatly to the establishment of laws and standards during the founding days of the Principality of Wei—predecessor to the later Cao Wei Dynasty—under Cao Cao.
The representative work by Wang Can was the Poem of Seven Sorrows (七哀诗, Qiai Shi), a five-character poem lamenting the suffering of the people during the years of war.
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