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He Yan 何晏

Mar 16, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

He Yan 何晏 (190-249), courtesy name Pingshu 平叔, was a Confucian scholar of the Three Kingdoms period 三國 (220-280) and one of the founders of the "School of the Mystery" (xuanxue 玄學).

He was the son of general He Jin 何進 and grew up at the court of the warlord Cao Cao 曹操. He was highly admired for his refined senses and was married to Princess Jinxiang 金鄉公主, appointed Commandant-escort (fuma duwei 駙馬都尉) and given the title of Marquis within the Passes (guanneihou 關內侯). Under the regent Cao Shuang 曹爽 he rose to the post of Minister of Personnel (libu shangshu 吏部尚書) and actively took part in government affairs. He was later killed by the general and regent Sima Yi 司馬懿.

He Yan loved discussing the various interpretations of the Confucian Classic Zhouyi 周易 "Book of Changes" and the Laozi 老子, to which he wrote a commentary. He initiated the custom of the so-called "pure discussions" (qingtan 清談) with Wang Bi 王弼 and Xiahou Xuan 夏侯玄. He further assembled the various commentaries on the Lunyu 論語 "Confucian Analects" written by the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) scholars Kong Anguo 孔安國, Bao Xian 包咸, Master Zhou 周氏, Ma Rong 馬融, Zheng Xuan 鄭玄, Chen Qun 陳群, Wang Su 王肅 and Zhou Shenglie 周生烈, as the Lunyu jijie 論語集解, which is the oldest surviving collection of commentaries to the Lunyu.

As the founder of the School of Mystery, He Yan initiated a thoroughly new interpretation of the Confucian Classics that deviated from those of Han period scholars. This interpretation was heavily influenced by Daoist philosophy and saw wu 無 "the nothing" or dao 道 "the Way" as the origin of all things in the universe. This "nothing" was in place before all things came into being, and the dao is yet inherent in all existing things. Dao is often seen as nature (ziran 自然 "being in itself, being like it is"), and in the mind of all men it can be reflected on to go back to the real nature of things. He Yan elevated the Daoist philosopher Laozi to the same level as Confucius. The natural dao in Daoism corresponded in his view to the Confucian virtues kindheartedness (ren 仁) and righteousness (yi 義). The virtue of the mythological rulers of the past was so great that it resembled the unsurmountable dao. In the sphere of government, non-action (wuwei 無為) was therefore to be preferred in order not to disturb the natural order of society and the state. Non-activity in the form of virtuous and benevolent government was a better expression of the natural dao than the legalist, proactive style of reign that had prevailed during the Han period. The kindheartedness of the ruler is like a mountain, upon whose fundament all people and their necessities can grow in peace.

He Yan's Lunyu jijie has survived, but from his other writings only fragments are preserved in the commentary to the Liezi 列子, Liezi zhu 列子注, and the collection Shishuo xinyu 世說新語. These are the Wuminglun 無名論, Daodelun 道德論 and Daolun 道論.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 77.