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Yuan Zhen (Yüan Chen) (779–831). Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

A brilliant and powerful statesman of the TANG DYNASTY,
Yuan Zhen strove to reform the governments
of two emperors, only to be twice banished
from the imperial court for his efforts.With his
friend and fellow poet BO JUYI, he advocated a new
kind of poetry, simple in style and having as its
chief aim social and political reform.While his poetry
has declined in popularity over the centuries,
Yuan Zhen is best known today as the author of
one of the most influential works of prose fiction
in Chinese literature, Yingying zhuan (The STORY
OF YING-YING).
Yuan Zhen was born in Xi’an, the imperial capital
of Tang China, in 779. His father, Yuan Yuan
Kuna, died seven years later, and his mother took
the family to live with relatives at Fengsiang in
Shensi, a frontier town where the young Yuan
Zhen was able to observe firsthand the suffering
that military skirmishes and corrupt provincial
government imposed on the common people. In
the meantime Yuan Zhen’s mother had taken over
the boy’s education, and he was learning, among
other things, the art of poetry.
In 793, Yuan Zhen passed the first civil service
examination, called ming-ching (“explication of
the classics”). He moved back to Xi’an the following
year. In 802, he was married, achieved first
place in the next civil service examination, and was
appointed to his first official post in the imperial library.
Here he met fellow poet and bureaucrat Bo
Juyi, who became his lifelong friend. Shortly after
this, it is believed, Yuan Zhen composed his Story
of Ying-ying. In 806, Yuan Zhen received an outstanding
score on the chih-k’e tui-ts’e (“palace examination”),
the highest of the civil service
examinations, monitored by the emperor Hsientung
himself. As a result he was given a position
close to the emperor, as “Censor of the Left.” Later
that same year, however, he was banished from the
capital, chiefly because of his presentation of a 10-
point plan for reform of the government that angered
some of his enemies at court—Yuan Zhen’s
Confucian concept of government for the benefit
of the people was not always popular among the
less idealistic elements in the imperial court. He
was sent to take a minor position in Henan; however,
when his mother died about this time, Yuan
Zhen decided instead to retire and to observe a period
of mourning.
By the time Yuan Zhen emerged from mourning
in 809, elements friendlier to him were in power at
court, and he was immediately appointed “Inspecting
Censor” and sent to investigate allegations of
corruption in Tung Ch’uan (in eastern Szechwan).
Here he found evidence of rampant corruption in
the administration of the military governor, but the
officials he accused received only minor reprimands and he was transferred to another provincial
post.When he removed a corrupt mayor from office
without first consulting the court, Yuan Zhen
was finally banished from the court for 10 years.
Though his friend Bo Juyi and others appealed to
the emperor, the banishment stood.
Languishing in minor posts in the provinces,
Yuan Zhen spent much of his time editing his own
poems (a collection of more than 800) that he
completed in 812, and also wrote a number of additional
lyrics in the simple style that he and Bo
Juyi had adopted. In 821, with the advent of a new
emperor, Muzong (Mu-tsung), who had been impressed
by his poetry, Yuan Zhen was appointed
secretary of the Ministry of Rites, and placed in
charge of drafting official proclamations. In 822,
he was made chief minister. However, his rivalry
with the military leader P’ei Tu, with whom he
shared the title of chief minister, ultimately led to
his dismissal from office and banishment, once
again, to minor posts in the provinces.
During these years Yuan Zhen compiled an edition
of his collected works, and the following year
added an edition of the works of his friend Bo. In
830, he was appointed governor of Wuchang,
where he died the next year.His body was returned
to Xianyang for burial, and in death Yuan Zhen
was given the honorary title of minister of state.
While Yuan Zhen’s ardent desire for reform met
largely with indifference and opposition at the imperial
court, resulting in a series of banishments,
his poetry—simple in style but aimed just as directly
at reform—was extremely popular in his
own day.He was nicknamed “Yuan the Genius” because
of his verse, and was especially admired for
his use of rhyme. But his poetic reputation has
since waned, and it is as a fiction writer that he is
best remembered. The Story of Ying-ying, a masterpiece
of the new genre of short stories in classical
Chinese called chuanqi (ch’uan-ch’i), is a romantic
tale of a young woman wooed and then deserted
by an ambitious young man,who ultimately wants
her again, once she has married someone else.
Yuan Zhen would probably have seen the tale as
unworthy, since it fails to stress a social purpose.
But that, perhaps, is what has made the tale more
universally appealing than his poetry.
Bibliography
Hightower, James R., trans. “The Story of Ying-ying.”
In Traditional Chinese Stories: Themes and Variations,
edited by Joseph S. M. Lau and Y. M. Ma.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.
Palandri, Angela C. Y. Jung. Yüan Chen. Boston:
G. K. Hall, 1977.

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