Ancient Wisdom From The Quiet Conqueror of The Song Dynasty
The ancient Chinese advisor Yan Shu led no army and solved no crisis, but his firm hand and benevolent presence nurtured a generation of talent in the Song Dynasty.
Yan Shu happened to encounter Wang Qi while traveling to Hangzhou to assume office. He invited Wang — second in command of Jiangdu County — for dinner, and told him of his trouble: he was working on a poem, and could not come up with the next phrase after: “Helplessly, the flowers wither away.” Wang Qi, deep in thought, looked up into the sky. Some swallows flew past. “Why not use: ‘The swallows, once seen, return again’?” he said. Yan heard the verse, shouted “Bravo!” and adopted it. It remains a familiar saying in Chinese to this day.
Some ancient Chinese advisors led vast armies to suppress rebels, while others devised elaborate stratagems to eliminate political rivals. Yet others were like Yan Shu. Born in a peaceful era of the Northern Song Dynasty, he was admired for a life of quiet dignity. His wisdom helped strengthen his nation. Yan Shu showed those around him the value of sincerity, loyalty and open-mindedness — all principles that were esteemed in China’s ancient traditions.
As a 14-year-old boy, Yan Shu already seemed destined for great things. In 1004 A.D., he was one of around 1,000 scholarly candidates, hopefuls for prized civil service posts, who streamed into the capital from around the country. It was a multi-day exam, and many entrants were eliminated on the first two days. On the third, the remaining applicants were asked to compose “fu” on a given theme — works of prose interspersed with verse.
The examination theme was given out, but young Yan voiced a problem with it, something unheard of at that time in China. Making it through two days of gruelling examinations in the solemn palatial hall was impressive enough, but now he stepped forward to ask to speak to the Song Dynasty’s emperor himself.
Awed, the proctors agreed. He was presented to the majestic Emperor Zhenzong, who looked down at him with anticipation. “I have recently written on today’s exam topic,” Yan solemnly said. “I received feedback from several of my teachers. It would be unfair to others if I were to write on it again. I hope that Your Majesty will test me with another topic.”
Yan Shu’s forthrightness and confidence startled the emperor, who consulted in hushed tones with his nearby advisors. They decided to challenge Yan with an especially tough topic. He wrote an outstanding response, even winning the grade of jinshi, a prized attainment. In three short years he was put in charge of ceremonies at the Ministry of Rites, a crucial post in a dynasty where ritual and symbolism meant so much.
Cultivating great young minds
During this peaceful period in China’s history, Yan’s policies ushered in the famous “Restoration Era” schools (1042 A.D.). The Four Great Academies of the early Song Dynasty are still admired today: Yingtianfu Academy (which he personally helped to re-open), White Deer Grotto Academy, Stone Drum Academy and Yuelu Academy. White Deer Grotto may have been the first university established in the world, several hundred years before the University of Bologna. These were places of the highest and most refined learning in the empire, where the most brilliant pupils could mine ancient texts and study the best ways of administering a strong and peaceful state. Many prominent politicians and literary figures of the Song Dynasty were appointed to important positions thanks to Yan’s patronage and recommendations.
Throughout his career Yan remained studious, but he had another side to him. He came from a modest background, and in his early years, enjoyed only a low-ranking position in the court with a meagre salary. He stayed at home writing literature and studying poetry while his peers attended lavish parties.
Emperor Zhenzong once remarked: “I heard court officials were outside all day, feasting and frolicking, except Yan Shu and his brothers, who were reading at home behind closed doors.”
When Yan Shu got wind of this, he quickly reassured the emperor: “It’s not that I’m not fond of merriment, but too poor to go and party!” His candidness made the emperor chuckle and like him even more.
Later in his career he lived in a mansion and, in his generosity, invited dozens of guests over. Once, after a day of music, chatter and wine with friends, Yan invited everyone to stay for dinner. The family panicked — they hadn’t planned for so many dinner guests — but Yan reassured them and saw to the comfort of his company, filling their wine cups, and leading them in composing poetry. After a few rounds of poems and drinks, dinner was ready. As the piping hot food came out, Yan looked around at all his friends, contemplated his life, the empire, the poetry, and was overcome with goodwill and gratitude. Right then he composed one of his most well-known poems.
“Time is short, and life limited. When we part, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by sorrow. Complain not of feasts too frequent. Casting over the vast rivers and peaks, in vain we worry over kith and kin. Flowers falling in the wind and rain make the passing of spring bring greater pain. Better that we simply cherish those in front of our eyes.”
Illustration by Mu Chuan