An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Mei Sheng 枚乘

Feb 15, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald

Mei Sheng 枚乘 (d. 140 BCE), courtesy name Shu 叔, was a famous writer of the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE). He hailed from Huaiyin 淮陰 (today's Qingjiang 清江, Jiangsu) and was palace gentleman (langzhong 郎中) in the princedom of Wu 吳, where Liu Pi 劉濞 (217-154) reigned. The latter belonged to a group of princes rebelling against the central government which tried to curtail the princely powers.

Mei Sheng urged the Prince not to participate in the uprising, but in vain. He therefore left the princedom of Wu, together with Zou Yang 鄒陽 (d. 120) and Yan Ji 嚴忌, and became a retainer of Liu Wu 劉武 (d. 144 CBE), Prince Xiao of Liang 梁孝王.

After Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE) had put down the rebellion of the seven princes, he appointed Mei Sheng Commander-in-chief (duwei (duwei 都尉) of the commandery of Hongong 弘農, but after some while, Mei was bored by administrative matters, resigned under the pretext of illness, and returned to the court of the Prince of Liu, where he served as attendant of the instructor (wenxue shicong 文學侍從).

Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE), having heard of Mei Sheng's literary excellence, invited Mei to take over a post in the central government, and even sent an imperial "low-vibration" coach (anche pulun 安車蒲輪) to pick him up. Yet Mei died on the way to Chang'an 長安 (Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi).

Mei Sheng was among the first writers using the genre of rhapsody (fu 賦), which is a mixture of prose and poetry and was particularly used for educative purposes. The imperial bibliography Yiwenzhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 says he wrote nine rhapsodies. Three of his writings have survived, namely the rhapsodies Liu fu 柳賦 "The willow", and Liang wang tuyuan fu 梁王菟園賦 "The Prince of Liang's bindweed garden" (both perhaps not originals), and the semi-rhapsody Qifa 七發 "Seven discoveries".

The latter belongs to a particular literary sub-genre, the "sevens" (qi 七), with examples like Fu Yi's 傅毅 (d. 90 CE) Qiji 七激 "Seven hurries", Zhang Heng's 張衡 (78-139) Qibian 七辯 "Seven discourses", Wang Can's 王粲 (177-217) Qishi 七釋 "Seven explanations", Cao Zhi's 曹植 (192-232) Qiqi 七啟 "Seven opening", Lu Ji's 陸機 (261-303) Qizheng 七徵 "Seven proves", or Zhang Xie's 張協 (d. 307) Qiming 七命 "Seven orders".

Qifa is written as a parable in which a physician cures the crown prince, but in fact criticizes the "diseases" by which the court was befallen. In a question-and-answer pattern, the "guest from Wu" (Wu ke 吳客) explains to the sick "Heir Apparent of Chu" 楚太子 the reasons for his weakness which lies in problems not to be solved by materia medica or acupuncture and moxibustion (zhenjiu 針炙), but by the "wondrous Way" (miaodao 妙道), namely giving up extravagant amusements like music, luxus dishes, banquets, coaches, hunts, and visiting scenic spots (guantao 觀濤). Magicians (fangshu zhi shi 方術之士) would support the Prince in "discussing the essence of the world" (lun tianxia zhi jingwei 論天下之精微) and "explain what is wrong and what right among the ten thousand things" (li wanwu zhi shifei 理萬物之是非).

Quotation 1. Example from Mei Sheng's 枚乘 Qifa 七發 "Seven discoveries"
縱耳目之欲,恣支體之安者,傷血脈之和。 If you allow for the wishes of your ears and eyes and the peace of your four limbs, this hurts the harmony of all blood vessels.
且夫出輿入輦,命曰蹶痿之機; Now, going out, you use a coach, and returning home, you use a sedan chair – this should be called "mechanisms to make you lame and paralyzed".
洞房清宮,命曰寒熱之媒; [You build] dark chambers and bright halls – this should be called "you level out cold and warm".
皓齒娥眉,命曰伐性之斧; [You love] gleaming teeth and effeminate eyebrows – this should be called "axes attacking your inborn nature".
甘脆肥膿,命曰腐腸之藥。 [You eat] sweet, brittle, greasy, and viscid [meals] – this should be called "herbs that rot your intestines".
Note: These verses are inspired by similar statements from the book Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋, ch. Bensheng 本生 and Zhongji 重己.

Of Mei's prose writings, two letters to the Prince of Wu are preserved, Jian Wu wang shu 諫吳王書, and Chong jian Wu wang shu 重諫吳王書 (the latter not authentic). The literary critic Liu Xie 劉勰 (d. 522), author of the famous book Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍, judges that with his Qifa, Mei Sheng "spread beauty" (chi yan 摛艷) by the use of "copious words in cloudy structures" (yu ci yun gou 腴辭云構) and "luxurious elegance in stylish awakening" (kua li feng hai 夸麗風駭).

Nine "miscellaneous poems" (zashi 雜詩) recorded in Xu Ling's 徐陵 (507-583) anthology Yutai xinyong 玉臺新詠 are definitely not the works of Mei Sheng.

Thus only a small part of Mei Sheng's collected writings Mei Shu ji 枚叔集, with an original length of 2 juan, has survived. A book with this title includes the few transmitted texts and was compiled in the late Ming period 明 (1368-1644).

Chi Wenjun 遲文浚, Xu Zhigang 許志剛, Song Xulian 宋緒連, ed. (1992). Lidai fu cidian 歷代賦辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 1295.
Chu Binjie 褚斌杰 (1986). "Mei Sheng 枚乘", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 526.
Jiang Feng 蔣風, ed. (1990). Xinbian wen-shi-di cidian 新編文史地辭典 (Hanzhou: Zhejiang renmin chubanshe), 87.
Lin Fei 林非, ed. (1997). Zhongguo sanwen da cidian 中國散文大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 49.
Shi Benhua 帥本華, ed. (1991). Zhong-wai wenyiji ji mingzuo cidian 中外文藝家及名作辭典 (Lanzhou: Gansu renmin chubanshe), 693.
Yi Xingguo 衣興國, ed (1988). Shiyong Zhongguo mingren cidian 實用中國名人辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 125.
Li Binghai 李炳海 (1996). "Mei Sheng 枚乘", in Feng Kezheng 馮克正, Fu Qingsheng 傅慶升, ed. Zhuzi baijia da cidian 諸子百家大辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 42.