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A statue of Wang Anshi (王安石) in front of Wang Anshi Memorial Hall in Fuzhou (撫州市), Jiangxi Province (江西) (Photo credit: Visual China Group)

Wang Anshi (1021- 86), whose courtesy name as Jiefu (介甫) and pseudonym as Banshan (半山), was born in Linchuan (臨川), Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province.  Titled as Jingguogong (荊國公), this famous politician and writer during the Song dynasty (宋朝) had some controversial political achievements handed down from more than nine centuries ago. His Xining Reforms (熙寧變法, also known as Wang Anshi Reforms), which ultimately ended in failure, also caused great controversy at the time. His literary achievements, however, have been highly valued that he was reputed as one of the “Eight Great Masters of the Tang and Song Dynasties”.


Wang became a Jinshi (a scholar who passed the palace exam - the highest level in the imperial examination system) at the age of 22. He held many different local official positions, like the Administrative Assistant to the Military Commissioner of Huainan (淮南), the Magistrate of Yin County (鄞縣), the Controller-general of Shuzhou (舒州), the Prefect of Changzhou (常州) , and the Commissioner for Judicial Affairs in East of Yangtze River  (江東). He felt pity for the poor peasants under oppression and hated the corrupted and ruthless officials infamous for plunder. In the fifth year of the Jiayou reign (嘉祐, 1060), Wang, at the age of 40, was promoted to become an official in the capital. In the second year of the Xining reign (1069), Wang attempted socioeconomic reforms supported by Emperor Shenzong (神宗), known as the Xining Reforms. The reforms included new laws such as Junshufa (均輸法, balanced delivery law), Qingmiaofa (青苗法, green sprouts law), Shuilifa (水利法, hydraulic works law), Mianyifa (免役法, labour recruitment law), Shiyifa (市易法, market exchange law), Junshuifa (均稅法, equal tax law), Baojiafa (保甲法, traditional Chinese system of collective neighbourhood organisation), and Baomafa (保馬法, Militia-horse Law). In addition, Wang also reformed governmental institutions, the imperial examination system and the educational system. His reforms were opposed and obstructed by the vested interests and conservative political forces, jeopardising his political career that experienced ups and downs with the implementation of reforms. In the tenth month of the ninth year of the Xining reign (1076), he was forced to resign again from his post as chancellor and was demoted to the Intendant of Jiangning (江寧). From this point on, he lived a secluded life in Zhongshan (鍾山) until his death.


Wang’s reforms were opposed by many political officials at that time, including Sima Guang (司馬光), Ouyang Xiu (歐陽修), Su Xun (蘇洵), Su Shi (蘇軾), and Su Zhe (蘇轍). In his over 3,300 character-long Second Letter to Wang Jiefu (《與王介甫第二書》), Sima exhaustively listed the drawbacks of the new laws. Wang, however, retorted upon him as best as he could. This dispute finally earned them both the nickname “Mr Stubborn”. Ouyang greatly appreciated Wang’s literary talent, and Wang also respected Ouyang. Later, their relationship was affected by their conflicting political views, but Wang still spoke highly of Ouyang in his Elegiac Address to Ouyang Wenzhong (《祭歐陽文忠公文》). In addition to their different personalities, Wang’s bad relationship with the Su brothers was mainly caused by their conflicting political views. However, this did not affect the personal literary exchanges between Wang and Su Shi. Zeng Gong (曾鞏) used to be a good friend of Wang, and he once recommended Wang to Ouyang. However, the two good friends gradually drifted apart due to their political differences.

The epitaph of Wang Anshi inside Ouyang Xiu Cemetery, Xinzheng City (新鄭市), Henan Province (河南省) (Photo credit: Yan Jianhua/Fotoe)

Wang is best known for his literary achievements, among which his poems are the most notable. His existing poems amount to over 1,600 pieces, which give a full representation of the social life at that time and his inner world. He wrote many pieces focused on national politics, social reality, people’s livelihoods, and socioeconomic reforms. They manifested themselves in such as People of Hebei (《河北民》), A Thought (《感事》), Distributing Rice (《發廩》), Annexation (《兼併》), Collecting Salt (《收鹽》), and Bare Hill (《禿山》), and also in his lyrics. In his prose, he advocated that one should write to serve and benefit society. Most of his articles contained specific content and thinking, reflecting his views on politics and academic issues, as well as his attitude towards learning and life. Wang also paid attention to the artistic skills of writing and innovation. His most famous works include Preface to the Poem on Linggu (《靈谷詩序》), A Reply to Sima on His Criticism (《答司馬諫議書》), To My Long-parting Friend Zigu (《同學一首別子固》), A Reply to Su Zizhan (《回蘇子瞻簡》), Lament over the Oblivion of Zhongyong (《傷仲永》), A Trip to Baochan Mountain (《遊褒禪山記》), and A False Estimate (《讀孟嘗君傳》). Wang did not possess a productive amount of lyrics. Nevertheless, he holds a firm position in the history of lyrics for his innovation in topics and expression techniques exhibiting in his over 20 existing pieces. For example, Fragrance of Laurel Branch (《桂枝香》) was written during Wang’s time as the Intendant of Jiangning. It is the first mature and nostalgic lyric of its kind in the development of Chinese lyrics.

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