Fan Zhongyan (范仲淹) (Picture credit: Visual China Group)

Fan Zhongyan (989-1052) was from Wu County (吳縣, present-day Suzhou City [蘇州] in Jiangsu Province [江蘇省]). Known by his courtesy name Xiwen (希文) and ratified as the Duke of Wenzheng (文正) posthumously, Fan was a politician, writer, military strategist, and educator in the Northern Song dynasty (北宋). He lost his father at a very young age and later followed her mother to live with his stepfather. Despite his poor life, he studied hard and left behind a famous story called Huazhou Duanji (斷虀畫粥). When the young Fan was studying, he couldn't afford to eat well. As a result, he divided his congealed porridge into several portions and ate them according to a fixed amount. In the eighth year of the Dazhong Xiangfu (大中祥符) period (1015), the 27-year-old Fan passed the Imperial Examination and received the Jinshi degree (進士, the highest rank granted by the imperial examination). That was when he started his career as an official.

Education was stagnant in the early Song dynasty. In the Imperial Examination, poetry and essay writing skills were more valued than morality and governance abilities in a poor academic atmosphere. Against this backdrop, the recruited officials all followed old rules, made no progress, and only sought their own promotion and fame. Fan advocated developing education during his time in office. He stressed that education should be the priority of a country. He accented the key to cultivating talent lied in the persuasion of learning, especially the learning of six classics - The Book of Songs (《詩》, Shi ), The Book of History (《書》, Shu), The Book of Rites (《禮》, Li), The Book of Changes (《易》, Yi), The Book of Music (《樂》, Yue), and The Spring and Autumn Annals (《春秋》, Chunqiu). This way, people could access the idea of the sages and assist the emperor in governing the country as the ultimate goal. He also established a prefecture-level school in Suzhou at his self-purchased mansion Nanyuan (南園) to practise his educational philosophy. He proposed to reform the content of the Imperial Examination and revitalise the academic atmosphere, which was carried out in his later Qingli New Deal (慶曆新政) of refining the Imperial Examination and the recruitment system.

Agriculture is China’s foundation of national development. Water resources have therefore always tied to the national economy and people’s livelihoods. During his time as an official, Fan took water conservancy as the core of his work and one of the programmes of his Qingli New Deal. During his tenure as the Magistrate of Xinghua County (興化, present-day Xinhua City in Jiangsu Province), he engaged in a series of dyke-building projects. Although he was later transferred to other posts, the projects were still completed by Zhang Lun (張綸), the Commissioner of grain transport in the Jianghuai area [江淮]). By the age of 46, Fan had served as the Prefect of Suzhou twice. His major achievement was the local water conservancy. His management principles of “building fences, dredging rivers, and installing sluices” became a model for later water conservancy projects.

As Li Yuanhao (李元昊), the King of Xia state (夏國) (a former vassal of the Song dynasty), proclaimed himself emperor in 1038, the Song-Xia relations broke. Two years later, a fierce battle broke out between the two sides at Sanchuankou (三川口) in the north-west of Yan’an City (延安) in Shaanxi Province (陝西省). The battle ended in a complete failure for the Song army. Panic-stricken, the Song imperial court swiftly strengthen its national defence of the west border. Under these circumstances, Fan was appointed the Deputy Military Commissioner of Shaanxi to strengthen the defence in the north-west. He took multiple measures under an active defence strategy, including recruiting generals, building forts, preparing armaments, storing grain and forage, and improving the army’s overall strength. The Song imperial court adopted Fan’s defence strategy after its successive defeats in battles of Dingchuanzhai (定川寨) and Haoshuichuan (好水川). The Western Xia army did not dare invade the Song frontiers ever since.

Fan was summoned to Bianjing the capital (汴京, present-day Kaifeng City [開封] in Henan Province [河南省]) when the Western Xia sued for peace in the third year of the Qingli reign (1043). There he began to implement the Qingli New Deal. At that time, the Song dynasty was stricken by its military weakness and poverty. Threatened by the Western Xia and Liao (遼) on the frontiers, and dragged by the redundant officials and soldiers in the government, the Song imperial court was trapped into serious financial problems and mass impoverishment. Under this background, Fan submitted a ten-point memorial to the emperor, in which he outlined his ten reform programmes. However, the reforms were terminated in less than a year under the backlash of the conservative bureaucrats. Charges were even made against Fan and his fellows for forming a subversive faction. Fan had to leave the imperial court and took up to a position in the local government.

Fan returned to his hometown in Suzhou in 1049 and bought a lot lots of fertile farmland with his savings for his clans. As he used the income from the crops to support his clans, his land became known as Fan’s Charity Manor. He also set up charity houses as a settlement for the and clan members. Moreover, he established charity schools to provide education for the children of his clans. The Charity Manor carried Fan’s ambition of shouldering social responsibility, helping the underprivileged, managing his family, and assisting in the governance of the country. Fan was also regarded as the pioneer of Confucianism in the Song dynasty and the leader of the Neo-Confucian scholars. He also wrote discussions and comments on the Confucian classics such as The Book of Changes, The Doctrine of the Mean (《中庸》), and The Spring and Autumn Annals.

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