An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Liu Xiang 劉向

Sep 20, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Liu Xiang 劉向 (79-8 or 77-6 BCE), courtesy name Zizheng 子政, original name Liu Gengsheng 劉更生, was a librarian and historian during the late years of the Former Han period (206 BCE-8 CE). He was a descendant of Liu Jiao 劉交, Prince of Yuan 楚元王 who lived at the beginning of the Han period.

Liu Xiang began compiling poems and rhapsodies in his youth, together with his friend Wang Bao 王褒. Of his poetry, unfortunately nothing has survived except the sequence Jiutan 九嘆 "Nine sighs" that is included in the collection of the Chuci 楚辭 "Southern poetry". Emperor Xuan 漢宣帝 (r. 74-49 BCE) appointed him Cavalier attendant Grand Master of Remonstrance (sanji jian dafu 散騎諫大夫).

Under Emperor Yuan 漢元帝 (r. 49-33 BCE) he was promoted to Cavalier attendant Chamberlain for the Imperial Clan (sanji zongzheng 散騎宗正). He was also interested in the Confucian Classics and was an adherent of the new-text (jinwenjing 今文經) tradition. In their interpretation, earthquakes, inundation and drought were a hint of the invisibly Heaven to the ruler that he had to adjust his policy towards a more benevolent and gracious rule.

Liu Xiang submitted a memorial to the throne explaining this background of natural disasters, but he was accused of sorcery and put into jail. Being relased and demoted to a commoner, he spent ten years in private seclusion. Only when Emperor Cheng 漢成帝 (r. 33-7 BCE) mounted the throne, he was again appointed to an office and was made inner gentleman commissioned to support the waterworks in the metropolitan area (zhonglang shi ling huo sanfu dushui 中郎使領護三輔都水), later Grand Master of Splendid Happiness (guanglu dafu 光祿大夫). In this position he was ordered to catalogue the imperial library, together with Ren Hong 任宏, Yin Xian 尹咸 and Li Zhuguo 李柱國. His last office was that of Commander of the Capital Guard (zhonglei xiaowei 中壘校尉). He is therefore also known as Liu Zhonglei 劉中壘.

The only surviving writings of Liu Xiang himself (except the Jiutan) are some memorials to the throne and introductions to literary collections. Yet he is very famous for his compilations of stories from the Spring and Autumn 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) and Warring States 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) periods, like the Xinxu 新序, Shuoyuan 說苑 and Lienüzhuan 列女傳. The latter is dedicated to examples of morally examplarious conduct of women and includes also some stories about vile women. These compilations can be seen as forerunners of the great tradition of novellas that began flourishing during the Wei 曹魏 (220-265) and Jin 晉 (265-420) periods.

Fragments of Liu Xiang's writings (Liu Zizheng ji 劉子政集 or Han Liu Zhonglei ji 漢劉中壘集) were collected by the Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Zhang Pu 張溥 (Zhang Tao 張濤) in his book Han Wei Liuchao baisan mingjia ji 漢魏六朝百三名家集. Liu Xiang also wrote a commentary on the chapter Hongfan 洪範 of the Confucian Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents", the Hongfan wuxing zhuan 洪範五行傳.

The result of the bibliographic work in the imperial library is the annotated catalogue Bielu 別錄, based upon which Liu Xiang's son Liu Xin 劉歆 later compiled the Qilüe 七略, China's oldest book catalogue. It is included in an abbreviated form in the bibliography Yiwenzhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書.

Fragments of the commentaries were collected by the Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) scholars Hong Yixuan 洪頤煊, Ma Guohan 馬國翰 and Yao Chenzong 姚振宗. The four persons doing the work of examining the imperial library first collected all different versions of each book and established a "standard version" (diben 底本) in which all writing errors and contradicting passages were compared and errors eliminated. For each refined version, Liu Xiang has written a short abstract (xulu 敘錄) explaining the title and chapters of the book, as well as the process of reviewing. Books and abstract were submitted to the throne. The resulting catalogue Bielu was originally 20-juan long.

Fei Zhengang 費振剛 (1986)- "Liu Xiang 劉向", 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, 450.
Zhang Zunjian 張遵儉 (1993). "Liu Xiang Liu Xin 劉向劉歆", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Vol. Tushuguanxue qingbaoxue dang'anxue 圖書館學•情報學•檔案學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 258.