An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Shuwang benji 蜀王本紀

Oct 6, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Shuwang benji 蜀王本紀 "Biographies of the Kings of Shu", also called Shu benji 蜀本紀 or Shuji 蜀記, is a chronicle of the ancient state of Shu 蜀 in the region of modern Sichuan. The book was compiled by the late Former Han-period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) philosopher and writer Yang Xiong 揚雄 (53 BCE-18 CE).

According to the imperial bibliography Jingjizhi 經籍志 in the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書 the Shuwang benji was only 1-juan long. In the bibliographies in the Suishu, Jiutangshu 舊唐書 and Xintangshu 新唐書 the book was classified as a geographic treatise.

It was already lost during the Song period 宋 (960-1279), but fragments of it are quoted in Zeng Zao's 曾慥 series Leishuo 類說, yet it must be assumed that not all of these paragraphs are identical to the original book. The Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Wang Mo 王謨 (jinshi degree 1778) collected fragments of it, to be found in his geographic collection Han-Tang dili shuchao 漢唐地理書抄. Similar projects were carried out by Hong Yixuan 洪頤煊 (1765-1833) (Jingdian jilin 經典集林), Yan Kejun 嚴可均 (Quanhanwen 全漢文, as part of the collection Quan shanggu sandai Qin Han Sanguo Liuchao wen 全上古三代秦漢三國六朝文, part Quanhanwen 全漢文) and Wang Renjun 王仁俊 (1866-1913) (Yuhan shanfang jiyi shu bubian 玉函山房輯佚書補編). There are also six paragraphs of obscure origin (probably not Yang Xiong's book) quoted in Zeng Zao's Leishuo.

The Shuwang benji is a chronicle, but contains a lot of material that belongs rather to the genre of fiction than to historiography. It narrates the history of the ancient kings Can Cong 蠶叢, Bo Guan 柏灌 (or Bo Huo 柏濩), Yu Fu 魚鳧, Wang Di 望帝 and Kai Ming 開明. Most interesting are the stories about the last two kings. The god Du Yu 杜宇 once descended from Heaven, married Lady Li 利 who had been born in a well, and made himself king of Shu, with the title Wang Di.

There was a man in central China called Bie Ling 鱉靈 who died and was reborn in Shu. He then met Emperor Wang and was appointed his counsellor. In this function he tamed the floods (like Yu the Great) and so pushed away the inundations. The king ordered Bie Ling to control the waters, which he effectfully did, like in northern China Yu the Great 大禹, but with the help of a stone rhino (shi xi 石犀) that served to control the water spirits. There is also the story how five strong men (wu ding li shi 五丁力士) dug canals to regularize the floods coming from the mountains. The king of Shu once married the "spirit of the mountains" (shan zhi jing 山之精) that transformed into a beautiful girl.

The Shuwang benji also quoted the story how the Daoist master Laozi 老子, when attempting to leave China, the commander of the pass (Guanyinzi 闕尹子) persuaded him to travel to Chengdu 成都, the capital of Shu, where Laozi was said to find Guanyinzi again in the front of a sheep butcher's shop (qingyangsi 青羊肆, today the place of a famous temple, the Qingyanggong 青羊宮).

The book also tells the story how the five strong men (wu ding li shi 五丁力士) opened the way to Shu across the Qinling Range 秦嶺.

Later authors criticized the Shuwang benji as a collection of phantastic stories that had nothing to do with history, like Bie Ling's ascendance to the Western Heaven, the transformation of Du Yu's soul to a cuckoo (juan 鵑), or the story of the stone rhino (shixi 石犀, or stone oxen, shiniu 石牛) as a magical tool to master the floods. The King of Shu was also said to have married a girl that was a substantiation of the spirit of the mountains (shan zhi jing 山之精). A lot of these stories were later quoted by Chang Qu 常璩 (c. 291-361) in his geography Huayang guo zhi 華陽國志.

The richness of these myths shows that the culture of Shu differed widely from that of the states of the Central Plain. People during the Han period became very interested in this type of semi-historical narratives and started collecting them. The story of Li Bing's 李冰 administering the rivers by fighting with the River God of the Yangtze 江神 is also to be found in Ying Shao's 應劭 (c. 200 CE) encyclopaedia Fengsu tongyi 風俗通義, and in Li Shangyin's 李商隱 (813-c. 858) poem Jinse 錦瑟 from the Tang period 唐 (618-907), where the story of the transformation of Emperor Wang's soul to a cockoo is retold.

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