An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Yishi 繹史

Mar 11, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Yishi 繹史 "Unceasing history" is a history of ancient China written by the early Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Ma Su 馬驌 (1621-1673). The 160-juan long book was finished in 1670 and printed in the same year. Another print dates from the Guangxu reign-period 光緒 (1875-1908). There is also a print from the Shangyou Studio 尚友齋 in Wulin 武林, Hangzhou. Ma Su also wrote another history of early China, Zuozhuan shiwei 左傳事緯, and took part in the compilation of the series Shisandai weishu 十三代緯書.

The Yishi is written in the historiographic style of "events in their entirety" (jishi benmo 紀事本末). It begins in the mythological age and ends with the downfall of the Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BC). The book is divided into five parts, the first, with a length of 10 juan, reporting the creation of the world, the reign of the mythological emperors and especially that of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝. The second parts, 20 juan long, covers the so-called "three ages" (sandai 三代) of the Xia 夏 (17th-15th cent. BCE), Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) and Western Zhou 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) dynasties.

The 70-juan long third part is dedicated to the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE), describing the rule of the five hegemonial lords, the life of Confucius, and so on. The fourth part describes in 50 juan the age of the Warring States 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) with the partition of the state of Jin 晉, the various philosophical schools, the destruction of the house of Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), the chancellorship of Lü Buwei 呂不韋 in Qin 秦, the conquest of the states by Qin, and the end of the Qin.

The fifth part, a kind of supplement, contains chapters written in the way like the treatises in the official dynastic histories, dealing with the state offices, geography, the Five Agents, economy, and eminent persons. The Yishi is thus a quite reasonable combination of a narrative, theme-centred history and treatises of important aspects of statecraft.

It includes 37 genealogical tables (shixi tu 世系圖), 8 maps (dili tu 地理圖), 10 maps of the starry sky (tianxiang tu 天象圖), 85 illustrations of various objects (guwu tu 古物圖), 8 illustrations of the political system (jianzhi tu 建制圖), 4 general tables (zhu biao 諸表), as well as 8 tables of seals (guwen zi moyin 古文字摹印).

For the compilation, Ma Su had used numerous sources, from contemporary writings of the late Zhou period to Han-period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) writings and historiographic books of the Liang period 梁 (502-557). In total, he had consulted more than 120 books. Ma Su had not always copied the texts literally, but often altered the source texts to meet the need of a historiographical narrative. Among the books consulted, quite a few writings either refer to unbelieveable reports, like the stories in the semi-geography Shanhaijing 山海經, or differ from statements in other books, like the Zhushu jinian 竹書紀年 "Bamboo Annals", whose dates and data often are not consistent with those in the "official history" of that age, the Shiji 史記. Some book were even forgeries or are counted among the apocryphal texts, like the Han-period book Gusanfen 古三墳, or the military classic Liutao 六韜. Yet Ma Su was aware of the unreliability of such sources, and commented the statements of these books. This well-reflected choice of sources raises the historiographical value of the Yishi.

At the same time, Ma Su made his own comments to historical events at the end of each chapter. These commentaries reflect a modern understanding of history, like is is seen, for example, in the takeover of the royal power by the Zhou dynasty that could only happen because the Shang dynasty had become militarily week. It was not, as seen formerly, the will of Heaven that the Shang would find their end. The many illustrations and maps are a further advantage of the book. No history before ever had included maps or charts of the administrative system. This was something entirely new introduced by Ma Su.

Li Qing 李清, who wrote a second preface to the book, therefore raised the Yishi to the same level of quality like Du You's 杜佑 administrative encyclopaedia Tongdian 通典 from the Tang period 唐 (618-907) and the history Tongzhi 通志 by the Song-period 宋 (960-1279) writer Zheng Qiao 鄭樵.

The Yishi is included in the series Siku quanshu 四庫全書.

Jin Yan 金燕 (1992), "Yishi 繹史", in Zhongguo xueshu minzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Lishi 歷史 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), p. 195.
Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰, eds. (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典 (Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe), Vol. 1, 909.
Wu Feng 吳楓, ed. (1987). Jianming Zhongguo guji cidian 簡明中國古籍辭典 (Chanchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 575.