Yan Zhitui (Chinese: 顏之推; pinyin: Yán Zhītuī; Wade-Giles: Yen2 Chih1-T'ui1, 531–591) was a Chinese scholar, calligrapher, painter, musician, and government official who served four different Chinese states during the late Southern and Northern Dynasties (南北朝): the Liang Dynasty (梁朝) in southern China, the Northern Qi (北齊) and Northern Zhou (北周) Dynasties of northern China, and their successor state that reunified China, the Sui Dynasty (隋朝). In his writing, despite his own strong emphasis on Confucian learning and education, Yan Zhitui supported Buddhism and defended it against many of his peers who were staunch critics of Buddhist thoughts.
Yan is best known for the Yanshi jiaxun ("Admonitions for the Yan Clan") which dealt not only with human relations and self-cultivation, but also with literature, the arts, and problems of life and death. Yan stressed the need to acquire a good education, since well-educated ministers were chosen for posts, while others who only had prestigious family lines for centuries wound up working on farms or tending to horses in the stable if they were not properly educated (Ebrey, 82.) Although he stressed the need for mastering calligraphy, painting, and playing the guqin (lute), he warned his sons against practicing too much and gaining too much skill, because those of higher rank, in a degrading and humiliating fashion, could easily call upon them to constantly entertain and produce fanciful calligraphy, poetry, or a musical performance on the spot. Historically, Yanshi jiaxun is considered the most influential and comprehensive book on family education in China. The book also sheds much light on history and social life in the period during which it was written.
Yan was also the first person in history to mention the use of toilet paper.
In the year 317, after the fall of the Jin Dynasty (晋朝)'s capital city of Chang'an, the Yan family migrated south below the Yangtze River. The Yan family became prominent among the elite families in the Eastern Jin's new capital of Jiankang (modern-day Nanjing). The Yan family provided many officials that served the governments of the Eastern Jin Dynasty and the succeeding Liang Dynasty in southern China. There was one dissident in the Yan family, though; upon the transition of the Southern Qi to the Liang regime in the year 502, Yan Zhitui's grandfather refused to serve the Liang court out of continuing loyalty to the Southern Qi. When Emperor Wu of Liang (梁武帝) assumed the throne and control over southern China, Zhitui's grandfather starved himself to death in an act of piety towards the dynasty he once served (Ebrey, 82). Despite his grandfather’s act of devotion, Zhitui's father decided to serve Emperor Wu and the new Liang Dynasty.
Yan Zhitui was born in 531. His father died when he was only nine years old, and without a father figure to guide or support him, Zhitui was raised largely by the efforts of his elder brother (Ebrey 82). In his teenage years, Zhitui served as a lowly court attendant in the southern capital at Jiankang. When he was eighteen, the infamous military general Hou Jing (侯景) came to power in southern China, in a rebellion against the Liang Dynasty. Zhitui and a royal prince were made prisoners of Hou Jing and narrowly escaped execution (Ebrey, 82).
In the year 552, Yan Zhitui fled to Jianling in what is today modern Hubei (湖北), accompanying the Liang prince whom he had served prior to Hou Jing's revolt. This Liang prince established a rival court, which was destroyed when Western Wei (西魏) invaded from the north and captured Jianling in the year 554. At age 24, Yan Zhitui became an enslaved prisoner of war, carried off with 100,000 others to the Western Wei capital of Chang'an.
In 556, his family managed to escape Chang'an, and prepared to move east in hopes of returning to the Liang Dynasty across southern China. However, the Chen Dynasty (陳朝) had since overthrown the Liang Dynasty in the south, with the ascension of Emperor Wu of Chen. Much like his grandfather, who had refused to serve Liang once it usurped control from the Southern Qi state, Yan Zhitui decided not to serve the new Chen regime. Instead, Yan Zhitui was accepted in several court positions serving the Northern Qi Dynasty in northeastern China. Yan was forced to move again, this time after the Northern Zhou (北周) defeated the Northern Qi in the year 577, supplanting it as the ruling dynasty over northern China. At age forty-six, Yan Zhitui moved back to Chang'an, where he had once spent time in captivity. For the next several years he was not appointed to any governmental posts, and suffered for a brief time in a state of poverty. When the Sui Dynasty, headed by Emperor Wen of Sui (楊堅), usurped control in the north from the Northern Zhou Dynasty, Yan Zhitui was once again given recognition and appointed to several scholarly and ministerial posts.
Yan Zhitui’s writings include historical and lexicographical works as well as poetry, especially the autobiographical "Guan wo sheng fu" [Prose-poem viewing my life]. Zhitui was also one of the few poets of the Northern Dynasties. He is best known for the Yanshi jiaxun [Yan's family instructions] which deals not only with human relations and self-cultivation but also with literature, the arts, and problems of life and death. In his old age, Yan found time to work on a dictionary and related literary projects. In his writing, despite his own strong emphasis on Confucian learning and education, Yan Zhitui supported Buddhism and defended it against many of his peers who were staunch critics of the ideology. Yan also required of his sons that his funeral should be accompanied by Buddhist services, and persuaded his sons not to offer meat in traditional ancestral offerings (Ebrey, 82). Although he called upon his sons to observe and respect the teachings of Buddhism, he did not want them to lead a remote and isolated monastic life, as he still had expectations that his sons should marry and have families of their own. He did, however, encourage them to:
<...attend to the chanting and reading of the sacred books and thereby provide for passage to your future state of existence. Incarnation as a human is difficult to attain. Do not pass through yours in vain! (Ebrey, 82).
Yan was also an antiquarian and prized the calligraphy in his family's collection, possessing pieces that were originally penned by the masters of early calligraphy, Wang Xizhi (王羲之) and his son Wang Xianzhi (王獻之).
After centuries of Buddhist prevalence, Yan Zhitui was a vehement proponent of Confucian values in the Northern Wei empire of the Yuan (元), a family that traced their origins to the Tuoba people (拓跋), a non-Chinese nation. Adopting Confucianism as the state doctrine gave the foreign Tuoba rulers the same legitimacy as the Chinese rulers before them. Yanshi jiaxun followed the guideline of the Confucian classic, Daxue (大學, "The Great Learning"), a small book that recommended self-cultivation as the base for the welfare of the family and the whole nation. It dealt with the discipline of the mind, the state and the family.
In the 26 chapters of Yanshi jiaxun (顏氏家訓, "The Family Instructions of Master Yan"), Yan Zhitui left an entire written compendium of his own philosophy of life and his advice to his sons, advising them which paths to take and which paths to avoid in order to gain success in life. He wrote that he had formed many bad habits in life that took years to overcome, because his elder brother had not been strict enough with him in the absence of their father (Ebrey, 82). He stressed the need to acquire a good education, since well-educated ministers were chosen for posts, while others who had prestigious family lines for centuries wound up working on farms or tending to horses in the stable if they were not properly educated (Ebrey, 82). Although he stressed the need for mastering calligraphy, painting, and playing the guqin (lute), he warned them against practicing too much and gaining too much skill. This was because those of higher rank, in a degrading and humiliating fashion, could easily call upon them to constantly entertain and produce fanciful calligraphy, poetry, or a musical song on the spot (Ebrey, 82). Yanshi jiaxun admonished his offspring to study hard and become useful people when they grew up, and emphasized applying what one has learned and serving one's country.
Historically, Yanshi jiaxun is considered the most influential and comprehensive book on family education in China. The book also sheds much light on history and social life in the period during which it was written. Containing cogent arguments, unique viewpoints and wide-ranging theories, it is acclaimed as a pioneer work in family education.
Although paper had been known as a wrapping and padding material in China since the second century B.C.E. the first reference to the use of toilet paper in human history was made by Yan Zhitui (Needham, 122). In 589 C.E. Yan Zhitui wrote:
Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes (Needham, 122).
They (the Chinese) are not careful about cleanliness, and they do not wash themselves with water when they have done their necessities; but they only wipe themselves with paper" (Needham, 122).
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