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Yan Family preferred practical work to empty talk

LIN SHENGHAI | 2017-11-02
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Yan Family Instructions by Yan Zhitui


As the first systemic family instruction in medieval China, the Yan Family Instructions by Yan Zhitui (531-c.591) heavily emphasizes traditional family ethics, the influence of which is still noticeable even today.

The method of selecting officials in the Southern and Northern dynasties (420-589) was heavily influenced by family background. Yan criticized this phenomenon by saying: “Ever since the social turbulence, I saw a lot of prisoners. Some of them were from ordinary families without prominent backgrounds for generations. However, they were later employed as teachers because they studied the Confucian classics. Those from the prominent families, who could not write at a basic level, all ended up farming or tending the horses.” “Being unwilling to study for several years brings these people lifelong humiliation!”

Refuting the excuse that it was too late to study when one became an adult, Yan said: “Studying when one is young is like being able to see the light at the sunrise. Studying when one is old is like walking in the night with a candle in hand. It is still better than blindly walking.” Yan supported the idea that learning always has benefits.

Family background lost significance in as qualificated officials once began to be selected through national examinations in the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907). Yan’s instructions for his offspring, which emphasized the importance of learning, were also followed by many scholars.

Empty talk was very popular in the Southern and Northern dynasties, when Taoism prevailed.According to the Book of Liang, a senior official said: “From the Zhengshi Era (240-249) of the Wei Dynasty to the middle period of the Western Jin Dynasty (266-316), people spoke highly of the mysterious and dispassionate way of handling issues as well as the natural way of behaving.” Wang Jinghong, another senior official of the Song Dynasty (420-479) also followed this trend by only signing his name on official documents without reading them. According to the Book of Liang, those officials who strictly and industriously observed their duties, on the contrary, never got promoted.

Yan educated his offspring by saying: “It is an honorable life for a gentleman to benefit others. Only engaging in empty talk or playing music and practicing calligraphy results in wasting the official positions that the emperor grants you.” Yan educated his offspring by instructing them to learn from people of all walks of life. He said: “Even the peasants, merchants, artisans, servants, slaves, fishmen, butchers as well as the cattle-raisers and the shepherds know something that you can learn. Broadly learning from these people will be beneficial to your career.”


Lin Shenghai is from the College of History and Sociology at Anhui Normal University.