An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ruan Yuan 阮元

May 6, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Ruan Yuan 阮元 (1764-1849), courtesy name Boyuan 伯元, style Yuntai 芸台, was a late Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholar and philosopher. He hailed from Yizheng 儀征, Jiangsu, and made a quick and successful career as governor (xunfu 巡撫) of Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Henan and governor-general (zongdu 總督) of Liang-Guang 兩廣 and Yun-Gui 雲貴.

In his leisure-time, Ruan Yuan studied the Confucian Classics and critically commented some older editions. He compiled the commentary collection Jingji zuangu 經籍纂詁 and published the writings of numerous Confucian scholars like that of the Xuehai Studio 學海堂 and the Gujing jingshe Studio 詁經精舍. Ruan Yuan published a text-critical edition of the Thirteen Confucian Classics with the two traditional layers of commentaries, the Shisanjing zhushu jiaokanji 十三經注疏校勘記, as well as the series Huang-Qing jingjie 皇清經解, a collection of important contemporarian commentaries. Ruan Yuan was so the most important editor of Confucian research during the Qianlong 乾隆 (1736-1795) and Jiaqing 嘉慶 (1796-1820) reigns, the so-called Qian-Jia School 乾嘉學派. His private collected works are included in the book Yanjingshi ji 揅經室集.

Ruan Yuan stressed the importance of philological study (xunguxue 訓詁學) as the main entrance to understand the meaning of the Confucian texts. His book Jingji zuangu is a collection of the most important results of philological research of a dozen of scholars that mainly focused on the oldest commentaries to the Classics from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), a discipline called Han period research (Hanxue 漢學). Ruan Yuan is important because he revived the study of textual evidence that had been largely neglected since the rise of Neo-Confucian speculation during the Song period 宋 (960-1279) and the subsequently flourishing discipline of the "Song period teaching" (Songxue 宋學). Both disciplines, Ruan said, were equally important for the study of Confucianism.

Ruan Yuan was particularly interested in the use of single keywords in Confucian classics, like the term kindheartedness (ren 仁) in the Lunyu 論語 "Confucian Analects". With the help of statistical evidence he demonstrated that the term ren always meant the relation between two persons. In some cases he was able to show by an inductive method that the Neo-Confucians had developed wrong interpretations of old terms, like the term yiguan 一貫 which meant "consistent behaviour" and not, as the Neo-Confucians stipulated, "well versed".

As a philosopher, Ruan Yuan brought forward the argument that human desire (yu 欲) may confront social morale, but that this circumstance does not necessarily mean that the human nature (xing 性), imagined as being in accordance with the presupposed natural goodness, is totally free of desires. Affects (qing 情) are in his view a part of human nature and can not be seen as opposed to a natural goodness.

Ruan Yuan also compiled a collection of biographies of astronomers, the Chourenzhuan 疇人傳. It is China's oldest biographic treatise of scientists and breaks away from the traditional pattern of reserving biographies to state officials and Confucian scholars.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 256.