Han Yu

Han Yu
(Han Yü) (768–824)
   One of the better-known poets of China’s Middle TANG DYNASTY, Han Yu was also a very important prose stylist who advocated a change from the prevailing “parallel prose” style of his day in favor of a more organic prose structure. He is best remembered, however, for his eloquent protest of a memorial to a relic of the Buddha, in which he condemned both Buddhism and Taoism as irrational and barbarian religions inevitably conflicting with traditional Confucian values. Han Yu was born into a family of scholars in Nanyang in modern-day Henan. He was orphaned at a young age, but embarked, like most of his contemporary poets, on a career in the imperial bureaucracy. He passed the JINSHI (chin-shih) exam in 792, and subsequently, after serving some time with two military governors, he obtained a post as instructor at the Imperial University in 802. He held other posts in a career with several ups and downs. However, in 819 he jeopardized his career by writing the Jian ying Fogu biao (Memorial against the welcoming of the Buddha bone), in which he condemned the imperial reception and devotion to a relic of the Buddha’s finger bone that had arrived at the palace. In the early Tang dynasty, Buddhism had flourished, and the imperial court had enthusiastically patronized the growth of the new religion.Han Yu was at the forefront of a Confucian counterattack on Buddhism, as well as Taoism. The emperor, however, was so angry at Han Yu’s “Memorial” that he wanted the writer executed. Instead, after his wrath abated, he demoted Han Yu and sentenced him to exile in the south, in Chaozhou. As a poet,Han Yu began by writing rather simple didactic lyrics that were not much admired by his contemporaries. His best poetry was written during the years of his demotion and exile—these were much more complex and technically accomplished. His best-known poem of this period may be “Nanshan shi” (Poem of the Southern Mountains), though many believe that his less ostentatious “Autumn Meditations” is his poetic masterpiece. During his later years, after he had regained some status in the bureaucracy (he was ultimately appointed rector of the university, among other positions), Han Yu’s poetic output was somewhat reduced, and he wrote only rather uncomplicated occasional verse. Beyond his own verse, Han Yu’s contribution to Chinese poetry includes his “discovery” and championing of the young and wildly imaginative LI HE, author of haunting supernatural verse that has been particularly appealing to Western readers.
   Han Yu’s larger contribution is in literary prose. He was a chief spokesman for the guwen yundong (ancient style prose movement), which called for a reform in the style and content of prose. Han Yu opposed the artificiality of the “parallel prose” style popular in his time, a style that required every pair of lines in a prose composition to be strictly parallel or antithetical. In such compositions, form was allowed to dominate content, according to Han Yu, and he advocated a style that grew more organically out of the content, a style he saw as a return to the traditional, ancient prose style. Initially praising originality in the content of prose texts,Han Yu later decided that content should be judged according to its adherence to correct Confucian doctrine— in particular, he revived interest in the neglected scholar Mengzi (Mencius) and promoted what became known as “Neo-Confucianism.” Thus his prose, like his early poetry, took on a didactic purpose.
   Beyond the very famous Jian ying Fogu biao, Han Yu’s best-known prose texts are his Yuandao (Inquiry into the way), in which he condemns Buddhism and Taoism and discusses the correct Confucian teachings. His Song Meng Dongye Xu (Preface to Meng Dongye’s “farewell”) is an exploration of the tradition of poetry. On the less serious side, and to the chagrin of some of his friends,Han Yu also wrote a number of fables and parodies. One such parody is Mao Ying Zhuan (Biography of hair point), in which Han Yu relates the “official career” of a hair point, or writing brush, in the style of a traditional biography of some important bureaucrat. Of all his voluminous output, such occasional comic pieces might have a particular appeal to a contemporary reader. In his own day, he was so respected a writer that he became known as the Prince of Letters.
   ■ Hanson, Kenneth O., trans. Growing Old Alive: Poems by Han Yü. Port Townsend,Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1978.
   ■ Hartman, Charles. Han Yu and the T’ang Search for Unity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.
   ■ Idema,Wilt, and Lloyd Haft. A Guide to Chinese Literature. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1997.
   ■ Owen, Stephen. The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T’ang. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1981.
   ■ ———. The Poetry of Meng Chiao and Han Yü. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975.

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