An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Wang Shizhen 王世貞

May 27, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

Wang Shizhen 王世貞 (1526-1590), courtesy name Yuanmei 元美, style Fengzhou 鳳洲 or Yanzhou shanren 弇州山人, was a writer and historian of the late Ming period 明 (1368-1644). He hailed from Taicang 太倉, Jiangsu and obtained his jinshi degree in 1547. The highest office he held was that of Minister of Justice (Xingbu shangshu 刑部尚書) in the Southern Capital Nanjing 南京. Wang was a disciple of Li Panlong 李攀龍 and is seen as the head of the group of the so-called Later Seven Masters (hou qi zi 後七子) of literature. His most important writings are Yanzhou shanren sibu gao 弇州山人四部稿, Yanzhou shanren sibu xugao 弇州山人四部續稿, Dushu hou 讀書後, Gubugu lu 觚不觚錄, Quanxinglu 權幸錄, Chaoye yiwen 朝野異聞, Shishuo xinyu bu 世說新語補, Fengzhoubiji 鳳洲筆記 (Fengyuan biji 鳳淵筆記), Yanzhou gaoxuan 弇州稿選, Quantangshi shuo 全唐詩說 (commentaries on Tang poetry), Yanshantang bieji 弇山堂別集, Jiajing yilai shoufu zhuan 嘉靖以來首輔傳 (biographies of Counsellors-in-chief), Huayuan 畫苑, Shuyuan 書苑 (Wangshi shuhua yuan 王氏書畫苑), Yanzhou shanshui tiba 弇州山水題跋 (books on painting and calligraphy), Yiwu huiyuan 異物彙苑, Huiyuan xiangzhu 彙苑詳注, Shicheng kaowu 史乘考誤 (a historical critique), Chidu qingcai 尺牘清裁, and is also the author of the critical analysis of contemporary arias, Quzao 曲藻, and probably of the theatre play Mingfengji 鳴鳳記 "The call of the phoenix".
Wang Shizhen's theory of literature is found in his Yiyuan zhiyan 藝苑卮言, which is part of the collection Yanzhou shanren sibu gao. He was of the opinion that in the field of prose writings, the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) produced the best masterpieces, and in the field of poetry, early and high Tang period 唐 (618-907) writers were the best (wen bi Xihan, shi bi sheng-Tang 文必西漢,詩必盛唐). Contemporary writers therefore should imitate these ancient paradigms. Wang was in his later years by Gui Youguang 歸有光 attacked for this infertile mode of writing, and began to doubt his own earlier thoughts. Wang was of the opinion that talent (cai 才) produced thoughtfulness (si 思), and thoughts brought forward tunes (diao 調), and tunes determined the eventual pattern (ge 格) of a poem. In a poem, spirit and the object would unite, and quite naturally produce a result that would be understandable without extravagance, yet with a character standing alone for itself, and very fruitful. The composition of a poem required the observation of the right standard for stanza (pianfa 篇法), phrases (jufa 句法) and individual words (zifa 字法), to which a writer had to adhere to strictly. In a masterpiece of poetry, these rules would be applied so natural that they could not be seen. Only in rare cases, Wang believed, should individual thoughts and feelings show their expression in poems. This would not be necessary, because the words of good poems would the reader or listener lead into the heart of the writer. This approach was different from other persons of the Han/Tang school from the "Earlier Seven Masters" (qian qi zi 前七子) and "Later Seven Masters" who argued that a pure imitation of Han prose and Tang poetry would be sufficient to produce good literature. Wang, on the contrary, saw that strict imitation was possible and welcome for painting and calligraphy, but not in the case of literature. Copying and "piracy" of ancient poetry was even a wide-spread of the time (piaoqie moni, shi zhi da bing 剽竊模擬,詩之大病). Yet a proficient writer would have led his brush by his thoughts (bi sui yi 筆隨意).
The historiographer Wang Shizhen was of the opinion that in fact all writings could be seen as a kind of historiographical source: "nothing is not history" (wu fei shi er yi 無非史而已). Historiographers and prose writers were best to speak with simple and plain words, and forego the use of ornated language. Wang's interest in popular literature can be seen in his collections of stories and theatre plays and operas.

Deng Shaoji 鄧紹基, ed. (2004). Zhongguo gudai xiqu wenxue cidian 中國古代戲曲文學辭典 (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe) 761.
Li Yu’an 李玉安, Chen Fuyi 陳傳藝, eds. (1989). Zhongguo shoucangjia cidian 中國藏書家辭典 (Wuhan: Hubei jiaoyu chubanshe), 137.
Lin Fei 林非, ed. (1997). Zhongguo sanwen da cidian 中國散文大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 289.
Mao Peiqi 毛佩琦 (1992). "Wang Shizhen 王世貞", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1196.
Yin Gonghong尹恭弘 (1986). "Wang Shizhen王世貞", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 900.
Zhang Zecheng 趙則誠, Zhang Liandi 張連弟, Bi Wanchen 畢萬忱, eds. (1985). Zhongguo gudai wenxue lilun cidian 中國古代文學理論辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 129.
Zheng Yunbo 鄭雲波, ed. (1992). Zhongguo gudai xiaoshuo cidian 中國古代小說辭典 (Nanjing: Nanjing daxue chubanshe), 572.
Zhong Mu 中木 (1990). "Wang Shizhen 王世貞", in Li Zehou 李澤厚, Ru Xin 汝信, eds. Meixue baike quanshu 美學百科全書 (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe), 469.