An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Jia Yi 賈誼

Sep 29, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Jia Yi 賈誼 (200-168 BCE) was a high minister and famous writer of the early Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE).

He hailed from Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan) and was a retainer of the governor (taishou 太守) of that city, Wu Gong 吳公. Emperor Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE) highly esteemed Wu Gong and made him Chamberlain for Law Enforcement (tingwei 廷尉). Jia Yi accompanied him to the court and was made a erudite (boshi 博士), at that time the youngest of this profession at the National University (taixue 太學).

Jia Yi was recognized as the most eloquent and literate person among all erudites and was often asked to draft imperial edicts. Emperor Wen therefore made him Superior Grand Master of the Palace (taizhong dafu 太中大夫). In this position Jia Yi recommended to the Emperor establishing determined rules for the empire, to proclaim a reign motto, to alter the imperial colour and to define the task of officials and the exact performances of state rituals. Emperor Wen acknowledged his suggestions and wanted to make him one of his entrusted chamberlains (gongqing 公卿), yet the senior ministers Zhou Bo 周勃 and Guan Ying 灌嬰 objected the promotion of a young man to such a high position.

Instead, Jia Yi was appointed mentor (taifu 太傅) to the Prince of Changsha 長沙. He is therefore also known as Jia Changsha 賈長沙 "Jia from Changsha" or Jia Taifu 賈太傅 "Mentor Jia". During his years in Changsha he wrote his famous "Rhaposody of the owl” (Funiao fu 鵩鳥賦), describing the vanity of fame and honours in the face of eternal changes. His inclination to Daoism is clearly seen in this poems, while his suggestions for administration also prove a Confucian or even legalist background.

The emperor regretted that he had to dispense with Jia Yi's talents and invited him to discuss the influence of ghosts and spirits on the imperial altars. After this encounter, Jia Yi was made mentor to Prince Huai of Liang 梁懷王. Jia Yi several times submitted memorials to the throne proposing methods for a peaceful reign, the so-called Zhi'ance 治安策 "Plans for reigning in peace".

In 169 Prince Huai dropped off his horse and died. Jia Yi sought the responsibility for this accident with himself and a year later committed suicide, aged note more than 33 sui.

According to the imperial bibliography Yiwen zhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書, there was a book called Jiazi 賈子 "Master Jia", including 58 chapters of prose and 7 chapters of rhapsodies. This collection has not survived, but Jia Yi's political treatise Xinyu 新語 has been transmitted. Yet it it generally thought to be compiled by later persons, not by Jia Yi himself.

The most famous passage of this book is the chapter Guoqinlun 過秦論 "About the faults of the Qin" in which he discussed the reasons for the demise of the Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BC). After the unification of the empire, he says, the emperors of the Qin were victims of a "deceitful force" (zha li 詐力) and did not understand that to conquer and to rule are two different things that require particular methods of power. The Qin rulers had only made use of the legalist concept of reward and punishment which was not sufficient to rule an empire. Instead of the law, rituals were required that included a benevolent hand by the ruler towards his subjects. The peasantry was the true foundation of the empire, and the merchants and their luxury goods could well be relinquished. The central government had to be strengthened and the power of the princes to be weakened, so that there was a clear difference between the emperor as the ruler and the princes as his subjects. Jia Yi was so one of the first ministers of the Han dynasty recommending to curtail the power of the princedoms.

His "Rhaposody of the owl" and the chapter Daodeshuo 道德說 "About the way and its virtual energy" are influenced by the Daoist school of Huang-Lao thought 黃老. He explains that all things in the universe have been created by dao 道, the Way, and de 德, its virtual energy. This energy produces Yin and Yang, Heaven and Earth and all ten thousand things, and the natural dao, its base, is therefore included in all things and all human beings. In the "Rhapsody of the owl" he uses Xunzi's 荀子 concept of the pureness of all objects. These are created by Heaven, Earth, Yin and Yang like bronze in a furnace. All things are subject to a permanent change, and so is also human life that can never expect to live in a wholly secure position. Such changes are spontaneous and unpredictable. Human life, social life and also the government of a state have therefore to adapt to actual circumstances and must be flexible.

His rhapsodies (fu 賦) are the first poems of this style that were written during the Han period. Their origin has to be found in the "Southern Poetry" (Chuci 楚辭) written in the elegiagic style (saoti 騷體). In his "Rhapsody of the owl", Jia Yi uses the method of a question-and-answer play in which he answers his own questions. Frightened by the appearance of an owl in his room, a bird of mischief, he fears this as a bad omen but convinces himself that life is subject to a constant change determined by Heaven and that fortune-telling has no influence at all. The language of this rhapsody comes from the inner heart and is able to move the reader by its simple and symbolic language. The whole poem is written in four-syllable verses that are often written in parallel sentences and are cut in two by the verse divider (xi 兮) used in the southern elegies. The composition has nevertheless the tendency to a prose writing and so opens the trend of the prose-poetry of Han period rhapsodies.

He elegy about Qu Yuan 屈原 (Diao Qu Yuan fu 吊屈原賦) was written on his way to Changsha when he crossed the River Xiang 湘水. He compares himself with the unhappy statesman Qu Yuan who was exiled from the court of the kingdom of Chu 楚, like he had been "banished" to leave the court in Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi) and was sent to serve the Prince of Changsha. This poem is highly praised by Liu Xie 劉勰 in his anthology Wenxin diaolong 文心彫龍. This literary and biographical relationship is reflected in the history Shiji 史記, where Qu Yuan and Jia Yi have a common biographic chapter. Both are also sometimes jointly called with the term Qu-Jia 屈賈. His poem Xishi 惜誓 is also included in the collection Chuci. Yet the commentator Wang Yi 王逸 says that the Xishi was not a writing by Jia Yi.

The prose writings of Jia Yi are written in the style of stories from the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), like those of the coalition advisors. He makes use of a lot of historical examples to support his arguments, a method that gives his essays strength and a convincing character. In his chapter Guoqinlun, for instance, he explains the reasons why the kings of Qin were able to subdue the rulers of the the other warring states, and why their rulers, as emperors, were unable to govern their empire peacefully. When Chen Sheng 陳勝 rose against the Qin, he was able to do so because peasant labourers like him were not taken seriously by the Qin officials. All these detailed descriptions served as an argument for administrative reforms in the early Han empire.

Jia Yi's language is rich, colourful and concrete, and he does not beat around the bush but brings straighly forward his suggestions with the help of parables. In a memorial called Chen zheng shi shu 陳政事疏 "Explaining government", for instance, he directly says: "Everyone now says that the empire is at peace, yet your servant alone is not of this opinion... To say so is the same as piling up a stack of firewood and going to sleep just on top of it." The vivid style of Jia Yi's writings might have had an influence on the prose writings of the Tang period 唐 (618-907).

There is a Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) collection of Jia Yi's writings, the Jia Changsha ji 賈長沙集 that is included in Zhang Pu's 張溥 series Han-Wei-Liuchao baisanjia ji 漢魏六朝百三家集. The Republican scholar Liu Shipei 劉師培 (1884-1920) has written a commentary to the Xinshu, the Xinshu jiangbu 新書斠補, and a collection of fragments of Jia Yi's writings, the Yiwen jibu 佚文輯補.

Bao Zunxin 包遵信 (1992). "Jia Yi 賈誼", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Vol. Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 430.
Fei Zhengang 費振剛 (1986). "Jia Yi 賈誼", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Vol. Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 297.
Ge Rongjin 葛榮晉 (1987). "Jia Yi 賈誼", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhexue 哲學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 342.