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Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies
ISSN 0577-9170; DOI 10.6503/THJCS


An Analysis of Wang ying-lin’s Historical Thought

Vol. 27 No. 3   12/1997  


An Analysis of Wang ying-lin’s Historical Thought


Yuan Chang









Key words

Wang Ying-lin, Historical thought, Kun-hsueg Chi-weni, Tzu-chih t’ung-chien


      Wang Ying-lin王應麟, the prominent scholar around the late Sung and early Yuan Dynasties, has left behind him a large body of academic works, many of which deal with the subject of history. An analysis of these historical works of his will not only help understand his personal views of history, but also provide a good example of the development of historical studies in the period when Neo-confucianism was flourishing.

    Influenced by li hsueg理學(Neo-confucianism in this period, Wand Ying-lin places a special emphasis on the importance of heavenly laws and human mind for the interpretation of history. He holds that the correct way of historical interpretation is to present the right and wrong of thingsi.e. the ch’un-ch’iu Ta Yi,春秋大義)instead fo the causes for either success or failure only, as is case in Tso-chuan左傳. For the right and wrong of things is the embodiment of heavenly laws, which can be realized through the human mind. And this is a much higher value than the causes for success or failure. History is to affirm the deeds of those whose mind reflects heavenly laws nad to denounce the deeds of those whose mind harbours earthly desires only. In fact, success does often go to the former and failure to the latter. The fact itself supports the righteousness of heavenly laws. This can be proved by numerous historical evidences. To understand this is the purpose of his torical studies, so that one will realize the importance of one’s own spiritual cultivation and then strive to be a gentleman of virtue. These Neo-confucianist beliefs are adopted by Wang Ying-lin from the Sung scholars. And form this point of view, Wnag criticizes the Confucian scholarly attainments. He further points out that the flourishment of Confucianism at that time does no good to either the state or the people for exatly the above-mentioned reason. As an extrememly learned scholars, Wnag Ying-lin also senses that the tendency of time and history can be seen in the continuation and transformation of the traditional ethico-political system. The national unification in the Ch’in Dynasty marks the end of feudalism as well as the vanishment of heavenly laws. Many of the political institutions in the Han Dynasty are inherited from Ch’in, and therefore embedded with bad elements. However, his interpretation of Han Wu Ti’s漢武帝 critical role in the gradual centralization of state power on the emperor over the prime minister is a purely historical view, with no trace of Neo-confucianist influence. This shows his competence in interpreting historical dev elopments and producing classic works on history.

    However, this competence of his is not fully realized, partly because of influences of this Neo-confucianist beliefs and partly because of his scholarly approach. As is known, Wang is extremely well-read and has taken extensive notes. His knowledge of historical documents is so proficient that his work often exhibit an accuracy of even a minor historical date, a convincing judgment o n the reliability of a certain source, and the recollection of many views held by earlier Sung scholars that were gradually forgotten. All this shows his sophisticated sdholar ship in the collection, categorization application of historical sources. But unfortunately, his heavy reliance on historical source seems to result in a neglect of argument and analysis. His work in this respect remains at the level of contrasting and comparing sources or re-stating other people’s views. This naturally limits his own academic achievements.

    Wang Ying-lin’s deep conviction in the truth of Neo-confucianism also leads to an over-reliance of his basic view-points in historical interpretation on Neo-confucianist ideas. These ideas, however, are supposed to be self evident, just like the feudalist systemwhich is established by the Sage in order to realize heavenly laws, and does not need to be verified. Besides, Wang’s way of re asoning and inference is too simple. A single historical evidence can be used by him to base a generalized interpretation on, as he himself frequently says,“ the founding or the destruction of the state can be brought about by the utterance of a single idea.” He also tends to equate two things of the same nature but of different times. To him, the nature of things determines their function, regardless of their historical backgrounds. He thinks that by bringing things together in this manner, a better understanding of their significance can be achieved. He does not seem to give any consideration to the feasibility of disregarding historical differences. The weakness in his historical studies is clearly seen here. His approach to historical studies is not based on a thorough understanding of the characteristics of particular historical time and an objective analysis of the motives of the persons involved, and therefore can hardly be expected to turn out original view with convincing evidences

    Wang Ying-lin was highly regarded by scholars of criticism of the CH’ing dynasty. And his book kun-hsueh chi-weni困學紀聞was so much valued that several commentaries were published. In these commentaries, however, critical views can be found against Wang’s way of argumentation. The chief weakness is believed to be a lack of evidence for his generalizations, since Wang tends to make interpretations of historical issues with unsupported views which only sound nice but provide no help for the understanding of the issues. Apart from that, the over-simplicity of his inferences is also noticed. Conclusions are often based on simple categorization without an in-depth understanding of the particular historical situations. Such conclusions, drawn from the most superficial phenomena, cannot be of any significance in view of the complicated nature of historical issues.

    Of Wang Ying-lin’s critics, Chang Hsueh-ch’eng章學誠 is the most acute, who points out that what Wang possesses is craftsmanship rather than scholarship. Craftsmanship here, according to Chang, means the ability of source-collecting, categorizing, comparing and contrasting, and book-compiling, while scholarship requires the competence of analytical interpretation of the collected sources based on thorough understanding as well as original thinking which will provides enlightenment and inspiration for late generations. Figuratively speaking, Chang further explains, craftsmanship is just like sorghum to be distilled for spirit while scholarship equals to real liquor. And Wang Ying-lin’s works is just like a pile of Chinese sorghum.

    Regarding academic influences upon him, Wang Ying-lin is closer to Chu Hsi朱熹and Lu Tsu-ch’ien呂祖謙in terms of both casic approaches to historical subject and patterns of academic argumentation. However, there exist considerable differences between them, too. As influential scholars of the Southern Sung Dynasty, both Chu and Lu are extremely erudite with a large body of s cholarly works left behind. And significantly, their interpretations of historical issues are all prudently based on careful study and in-depth understanding. It is clear that Wang Ying-lin consciously pursues and extensive and profound scholarship as possessed by those two scholars before him but loses hold of their attitude of prudence and meticulousness toward academic studies. Wang particularly admires those two scholars for their emphasis on the value of both Neo-confucianist principles and classic historical sources. Both scholars are frequently quoted in his works. Presumably, he regards the application of Neo-confucianist principles in historical studies as the combination of learning with morality, which will lead, in his belief, to an idealized state of spiritual cultivation. But such a combination, if not founded on a basis of careful study and original thinking, will make up nothing more than a superficial, mechanical, orinorganic match. Therefore, it is not likely to be an effective means for significant accomplishments, not to mention anything comparable to those achieved by Chu Hsi and Lu Tsu-ch’ien. In brief, though Wang Ying-lin h as carried on the academic workinitiated by the main-stream Neo-confucianist scholars of the Southern Sung Dynasty,he chooses to neglect their distinctive approaches. For this reason, it seems rather inappropriate to label him as their successor. It si the belief of the author of the present paper that Hu San-sheng胡三省, the annotator fo Tzu-chig t’ung-chen資治通鑑 exemplifies the application of Ne0-confucianism to the studies of history during the late Sung and early Yuan Dynasties.

    The study of history today varies a great deal from that in the past in terms of both subject and approach. Wang’s works on history are no longer on the list of books required of a students of history. The reason lies chiefly in the fact that in spite of their extensiveness his works lack the quality of meticulousness and therefore cannot be expected either to broaden readers’ scope of knowledge or to enlighten their mind. It is only natural that such works are considered to be out date in our present time.




Author: Yuan Chang
Genre: Article
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