Lechery, substance abuse, and ... Han Yu?

Author:Davis, Timothy M.

By the Northern Song [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (960-1127) dynasty, Han Yu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (768- 824) had become a "Confucian cultural hero" whose literary corpus and posthumous prestige influenced all those interested in the relationship between literature and the transmission of the moral Way. (1) Both reform-minded intellectuals and those who favored traditional approaches for managing the empire's challenges felt obligated to define themselves in relation to Han Yu's growing legacy. (2) While most literati in the centuries following the Tang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (618-907) readily acknowledged Han Yu's exceptional skill in producing striking works of poetry and prose, the evaluation of his personal conduct yielded more ambivalent responses.

Several literati from the Five Dynasties [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (907-960), Song [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (960-1279), and later eras criticized Han Yu for moral inconsistency in their collections of anecdotes, "brush jottings" (biji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and "remarks on poetry" (shihua [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Others, maintaining his innocence, sought to deflect such attacks. In this article, I trace the trajectory of these responses in order to shed light on the contested process by which Han Yu became a cultural icon in the post-Tang era and to better understand the different ways that later literati shaped his image and employed it for their own purposes. The primary evidence for Han Yu's alleged licentious behavior and hypocritical indulgence in mineral-based elixirs is derived from a few carefully selected literary works. Foremost among these seemingly incriminating texts are the following:

  1. Zhang Ji's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ca. 766-ca. 830) "Offering for Tuizhi" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

  2. Han Yu's "Presented When Drunk to Secretary Zhang [Shu]" (3) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

  3. Bai Juyi's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (772-846) "Thinking of Old Friends" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

  4. Han Yu's "Tomb Epitaph Inscription for Li Gan" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

These four texts became touchstone compositions, referenced by both those who denounced Han Yu and those who defended him. The comments of Kong Pingzhong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1044-1111) and Chen Shidao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1053-1101), each of whom referred to this cluster of texts, were particularly influential in establishing the basic framework for denouncing Han Yu's questionable pastimes. A close reading of relevant passages from the shihua of these two Northern Song literati is followed by a discussion of examples from later "remarks on poetry" that were designed to defend Han Yu's growing reputation as an advocate of canonically sanctioned values. Among the four texts mentioned above, Bai Juyi's "Thinking of Old Friends" and Han Yu's "Tomb Epitaph Inscription for Li Gan" sparked a multi-generational debate (played out in the pages of post-Tang biji and shihua) regarding whether Han Yu had indulged in the consumption of alchemical elixirs. To gain a better grasp of this controversy, I conclude with a section explaining the medieval practice of ingesting sulfur for medicinal purposes.


One of the earliest indictments of Han Yu's character is attributed to Tao Gu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (903- 970), an official who served three different regimes during the Five Dynasties period. (4) The relevant anecdote, which comes from the section on medicines (yaopin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in his Qingyi lu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Records clarifying the unusual), is entitled "Storehouses of the Fire Numen":

His Excellency [Han] Yu of Changli, in later years was quite infatuated with rouge and powder. [According to an] old incident, he partook of [restorative] food consisting of roosters that had been fed a mixture of ground sulfur and rice gruel and not allowed to mate for a thousand days. (5) When stewed, they were called "Storehouses of the Fire Numen." His Excellency would have one served to him every other day. In the beginning he experienced some results, but ultimately it brought about the end of his life. (6) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] The source and accuracy of the information regarding Han Yu's curious virility-boosting diet are unverifiable and therefore must be considered with caution. Since the factuality of the anecdote cannot be confirmed, it may be described more accurately as gossip tending towards rumor. But why would Tao Gu want to undermine Han Yu's growing credibility as a moral exemplar and advocate of canonically sanctioned values? What needs did such criticisms satisfy for the post-Tang elite? A closer look at some of the general social functions of gossip and rumor is helpful in seeking answers to these questions.

As social psychologists Nicholas DiFonzo and Prashant Bordia explain, gossip and rumors are "threads in a complex fabric of social exchange." (7) According to distinctive criteria proposed by these same scholars, gossip highlights improprieties, peccadilloes, and (more rarely) the admirable qualities of individuals in order to build group solidarity and maintain social networks. (8) The scholar of Francophone literature and culture Malina Stefanovska similarly notes that sharing anecdotes "served as a means of tightening the community and drawing its boundaries through the exchange of rumors and news." (9) In light of these social functions of gossip, Tao Gu may have been motivated to record this account of uncommon knowledge regarding Han Yu private life to enhance his own reputation as someone privy to rare details about the peculiar personal habits of a budding cultural icon (there is a certain voyeuristic pleasure associated with such episodes). (10) By providing a previously undisclosed reason for questioning Han Yu's moral integrity, Tao Gu may have hoped to earn a reputation as a purveyor of unique truths to members of the scholar-official class. He may also have wanted to inject some humanity and complexity into the ongoing debate about Han Yu's character in an era before an idealized image had been firmly established.

In addition to the above-mentioned functions, gossip also plays a normative role. By enhancing or denigrating the character of the one under evaluation, gossip helps to clarify what passes for acceptable behavior among members of the group. (11) David Schaberg has suggested that "gossip demands to be told and retold" because this is one way that those conveying the surprising information "deal with a perceived transgression of some stable system of classifications." (12) In this case, Ta Gu's account runs counter to the emerging classification of Han Yu as a principled advocate of traditional social relationships and obligations. Although Tao Gu does not overtly criticize Han Yu's alleged behavior, the intended message is that a moral exemplar should not behave in so scandalous a fashion.

Rumors differ from gossip in important ways. For example, they tend to "arise in contexts of ambiguity, danger, or potential threat." (13) In such situations, rumors are produced to help people make sense of uncertain circumstances. In other words, rumors seek to explain the motivations behind urgent or personally significant events. This rumor about Han Yu's lasciviousness emerged in an era of political disunion and intense military activity when the utility of the classical cultural underpinnings for a unified empire and the role of the scholar-elite in stabilizing that order were called into question. Discrediting Han Yu as a model of principled behavior was one way of responding to the crisis.


Even more common than anecdotal accounts of Han Yu's alleged concupiscence were the brief, informal, and unsystematic evaluations of his verse preserved in the new genre "remarks on poetry." Ouyang Xiu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1007-1072) created this new type of literary exegesis and connoisseurship around the year 1071, in response to the absence of an existing forum for expressing casual comments, personal observations, and entertaining stories highlighting the social aspects of poetic production, criticism, and appreciation. Prior to this watershed event, the elite presented their views on literature in more formal compositions, especially treatises, essays, and prefaces. (14) The genre of shihua also became a venue for discussing literary craftsmanship, a topic previously thought to be beneath the purview of the gentleman. (15) "Remarks on poetry" thus provided opportunity for the competitive display of one's intelligence, wit, and aesthetic sensitivity and cleared a space for the expression of idiosyncratic or unorthodox views of literary history and textual interpretation.

Han Yu's literary talent and questionable personal character became two perennial topics addressed by Song literati in their "remarks on poetry." While one might expect to discover more negative criticism of Han Yu from reform-minded scholar-officials than conservative literati, it turns out that the eleventh-century authors of "remarks on poetry" were less interested in employing the genre to make overt political statements than they were in competing with each other in the display of clever analysis, literary acumen, and refined connoisseurship. Individuals who differed dramatically in their assessment of Wang Anshi's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1021-1086) "New Policies" (xinfa [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) found aspects of Han Yu's literary talent to praise and areas of his conduct to condemn. (16)

Post-Tang criticism of Han Yu as hypocrite tended to focus on two areas of perceived moral turpitude: (1) his licentious indulgence in feminine beauty and (2) his consumption of sulfur-based elixirs. (17) Tao Gu's claim that...

To continue reading