An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

zan 贊, eulogy, encomion or appraisal

Jun 23, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Zan 贊 is a type of text that can be translated as eulogy, encomion or appraisal. It was used to praise the achievements of a person, mainly with beautiful word (zanmei zhi ci 贊美之辭), as the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Wu Ne 吳訥 (1372-1457) explains in his literary critique Wenzhang bianti 文章辨體.

The genre appears in the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) and was used through all dynasties. In the beginning, zan encomia were accompanied by music, and were accordingly written in verses with rhymes. Later on the use of prose also became commonplace. The choice of words was usually one stressing elegance and magnificence, grace and solemnity, and phrases separated by cadences and transitions.

Depending on the purpose, some zan also included critical comments, be it praise or blame (bao bian 褒貶).

According to Yao Hua's 姚華 (1876-1930) literary theory Lunwen houbian 論文後編 (ch. Mulu 目錄), zan-type texts can be divided into three categories. The first are "miscellaneous" appraisals (zazan 雜贊), intended to praise the achievements of historical persons or literary works. Representative texts are Sima Xiangru's 司馬相如 (179-117 BCE) Jing Ke zan 荊軻贊, Dongfang Shuo's 東方朔 (154-93 BCE) Huaxiang zan 畫像贊 or Huang Kan's 黃侃 (488-545) Maoshi zhengjun zan 毛詩正均贊.

The second type are appraisals of the deeds of historical persons (shizan 史贊), like those found at the end of the biographical chapters in the official dynastic histories Shiji 史記, Hanshu 漢書 and Jinshu 晉書, or Yuan Hong's 袁宏 Sanguo mingchen xuzan 三國名臣序贊.

The third type are eulogies written for a funeral or in remembrance of a deceased persons (aizan 哀贊). In such texts, the late person's virtues are usually stressed.

There is a huge number of eulogies preserved from all ages, and nearly all great writers used to compile zan-type texts. Comparatively famous are Guo Pu's 郭璞 (276-324) Shanhaijing tuzan 山海經圖贊, Du Fu's 杜甫 (712-770) Hua ma zan 畫馬贊, Liu Zongyuan's 柳宗元 (773-819) Yi Yin wu jiu Jie zan 伊尹五就桀贊 (on a historic event in the remote past), Su Shi's 蘇軾 (1037-1101) Han Gan hua ma zan 韓幹畫馬贊 (on the painter Han Gan, 706-783) and Wen Yuke feibai zan 文與可飛白贊 (feibai was a certain style of calligraphy), or Hong Liangji's 洪亮吉 (1746-1809) Shiziyan zan 師子崖贊 and Tianshan zan 天山贊 (on two tourist spots).

Quotation 1. Appraisal of Emperor Xian from the Houhanshu
The Appraisal says:
[Emperor] Xian (r. 189-220) was born under inauspicious signs, and lived the life of a wayfarer, while his country was in distress. He ended the four hundred years of our [Han Dynasty] and from then on [played just the role] of the guest of Yu 虞 [i.e. Zidan 子丹, the son of Emperor Yao 堯, who did not inherit his father's role, but was only a subordinate of Yu, i.e. Emperor Shun 舜].
Source: Houhanshu 後漢書, 9 Xiaoxiandi ji 孝獻帝紀.
Quotation 2. Su Shi's 蘇軾 Appraisal of a Painting of Han Gan 韓幹
韓幹之馬四: Han Gan's horses [on this painting] are four:
其一在陸,骧首奮鬣,若有所望,頓足而長鳴; One of them is standing on the firm ground, the head risen high, and swinging its tail. It looks as if it were regarding something, stamping the earth and whinnying loudly.
其一欲涉,尻高首下,擇所由濟,跔蹐而未成; Another one wants to cross the river, the croup high, and the head bent down, while looking for a path through the water, hesitantly, not yet decidedly.
其二在水,前者反顧,若以鼻語,後者不應,欲飲而留行。 Two of them are inside the water, the horse in front looking back, as if it wanted to say something with its snout, yet [the horse] behind it is not willing to answer, but instead wants to drink and drops behind.
以爲廄馬也,則前無羁絡,後無箠策; One might believe they are horses from the stable, yet [feel] no harness in front nor whips on their backs;
以爲野馬也,則隅目聳耳, one might believe they are wild horses, yet their eyes are almond-shaped and their ears are standing upright.
豐臆細尾,皆中度程,蕭然如賢大夫、貴公子,相與解帶脫帽,臨水而濯纓。 With their wide chests and their fine tales, they are all of a fine breed; they have a lively appearance like princes or lords having all together untied their girdles and taken off their caps to cleanse them, approaching the water.
遂欲高舉遠引,友麋鹿而終天年,則不可得矣; And thus they high-spirited and desire to become friends with the wild deer and live on under the sky – yet they can’t.
蓋優哉遊哉,聊以卒歲而無營。 Joyous and happy they are, to enjoy their days henceforth without duties or burdens.
Source: Han Gan hua ma zan 韓幹畫馬贊, from the collected writings of Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101).
Lin Fei 林非, ed. (1997). Zhongguo sanwen da cidian 中國散文大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 76.