The Influence of Chenwei on Han Dynasty Literature and Literary Theory

In: Journal of Chinese Humanities
Fengyi Zhang (張峰屹) Professor of School of Literature, Nankai University Tianjin China

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Apocryphal chenwei ideas and beliefs rose to prominence in the Han dynasty as a political and cultural movement that became closely intertwined with orthodox classical scholarship. These ideas and beliefs profoundly influenced the literature and literary theory of this period, and their influence must be taken into consideration – alongside that of classical scholarship – when undertaking Han dynasty literary and cultural research. A comprehensive understanding of Han dynasty literature and literary thought can only be obtained when connections to both chenwei themes and classical scholarship have been recognized. Accordingly, this article seeks to shed light on the strong links between chenwei concepts and Han dynasty literary thought through an examination of chenwei influence on Han dynasty poetry and literary theories.


Apocryphal chenwei ideas and beliefs rose to prominence in the Han dynasty as a political and cultural movement that became closely intertwined with orthodox classical scholarship. These ideas and beliefs profoundly influenced the literature and literary theory of this period, and their influence must be taken into consideration – alongside that of classical scholarship – when undertaking Han dynasty literary and cultural research. A comprehensive understanding of Han dynasty literature and literary thought can only be obtained when connections to both chenwei themes and classical scholarship have been recognized. Accordingly, this article seeks to shed light on the strong links between chenwei concepts and Han dynasty literary thought through an examination of chenwei influence on Han dynasty poetry and literary theories.

Academic works on the Han dynasty [206 BCE–220] often speak of chenwei 讖緯, a concept commonly translated as “apocryphal texts”. Made up through a combination of the word chen – generally understood as referring to prophetic texts such as oracles and predictions – and wei, a word that contrasts with jing [canonical texts, classics], the term commonly refers to esoteric and unorthodox explanations of classical texts. But what really is chenwei? Is it a single concept, or does it refer to two separate things? How do we determine what constitutes chenwei? Generations of scholars have, ever since the Tang dynasty [618–907], held differing understandings of the term chenwei, with the majority falling into roughly two camps: one holding that there is a distinction between chen and wei with the other maintaining that no such distinction exists. This latter understanding has been generally favoured by most scholars and academics since the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet an examination of historical records suggests that both these positions do not completely correspond with historical facts.

During the Han dynasty the terms chen and wei referred to distinctly separate ideas, yet, at the same time they would combine and separate in a complex web of meanings in the writings of scholars. The terms went through a process of dynamic change that roughly took place as follows. During the Qin [221–206 BCE] one can find the concept of chen but not of wei (as wei is a term relative to canonical jing, in a time when there were no jing then there could be no wei). The term chen continued to be used at the beginning of the Western Han [206 BCE–25], but this period also saw the emergence of wei as an intellectual practice in which prophetic chen texts were used to create esoteric commentaries of canonical jing texts. It should be noted that the term wei did not first appear until the later stages of the Eastern Han [25–220], with the combined term chenwei only emerging at the end of the Eastern Han. The use of chen to interpret and supplement canonical texts was a new intellectual trend that emerged with the rise of canonical studies in the early stages of the Western Han.

In the following four hundred years of Han dynastic reign, the relationship between chen and canonical texts deepened as it gradually became standard scholarly practice to use chen to interpret the canon. The written records that were formed in these endeavors have come to be known as weishu 緯書 [apocryphal writings], suggesting that the concept of wei as opposed to jing, is, in fact, merely referring to the use of prophetic chen texts. The concept of wei only arose because these prophecies [chenyan 讖言], prognostication texts [chenji 讖記], prediction charts [tuchen 圖讖], and omens marking the Mandate of Heaven [fuming 符命] were integrated with canonical texts, thereby forming what is now known as wei and distinguishing this term from the individual concept of chen. This trend became increasingly popular during the later stages of the Western Han and, by the reigns of Emperor Ming 明帝 [r. 57–75] and Emperor Zhang 章帝 [r. 75–88] in the Eastern Han, had become the ideological orthodoxy of the Han state, culminating with the discussions at the White Tiger Hall in 79 and the formation of the Baihutong 白虎通 treatise. Both the appearance of chen during the Qin and chenwei during the Han had a powerful influence on the intellectual fabric of society, an influence that was highly political in nature. In essence, the rise of chenwei in the Han dynasty was a political and cultural movement, and it was this fact that provided the grounds for its dynamism and vibrancy.

In short, as an academic construct, chenwei can be characterized as prophetic chen texts used to create esoteric wei commentaries of canonical texts. Therefore, a more precise understanding of what chenwei is and is not needs to focus on the way that chen were used in the interpretation of canonical texts, while also considering the political motivations for such interpretations. This will provide a more accurate assessment of chenwei, one that can grasp its essential nature and avoid generalized understandings.1

When did chenwei first emerge? Scholars have held differing opinions regarding the origins of chenwei since the Eastern Han.2 The question of the origin of chenwei is itself closely intertwined with what does and does not constitute chenwei. Answering this question requires consideration of both historical facts and logical reasoning. Applying the basic criteria for chenwei given above, that it was the politically motivated use of chen to interpret canonical texts, then it becomes clear that mere prophecies and prognostication texts can not be seen as chenwei per se: they can only be considered as chen. It is only when these prophecies and prognostication texts intersect with classical scholarship and politics that they become chenwei. The logical conclusion of this understanding is that the origins of the academic construct of chenwei must lie after the emergence of the canon and classical scholarship (at the earliest, it could only have emerged in tandem with the rise of the canon). It therefore follows that, in light of existing historical sources, the origins of chenwei can, at the earliest, be traced back to the beginning of the Western Han. In other words, the gradual establishment of the canon during the early stages of the Han dynasty witnessed an emerging association between prophetic chen texts as well as the increased use of chen within the field of politics.3

How did chenwei evolve during the Han dynasty? What influence did it have on the scholarly class of the Western and Eastern Han? An analysis of historical sources suggests that the evolution of chenwei during the Han dynasty can be roughly divided into three major periods: from the beginning of the Western Han to the reign of Emperor Ai 哀帝 [r. 7–1 BCE]; from the Wang Mang 王莽 [r. 8–23] interregnum (including the reign of Emperor Ping 平帝 [r. 1 BCE–5]) to Emperor Guangwu 光武帝 [r. 25–57]; and from the reign of Emperor Ming to the end of the Eastern Han.

During the first period prior to the reign of Emperor Ai, the use of chenwei was marked by an antagonistic attitude towards the ruling regime and a tendency towards moral suasion and even political criticism. This meant that many of the chenwei scholars of this time were ignored, expelled, imprisoned or even sentenced to death. However, the increasing use of chenwei during the reigns of Wang Mang and Emperor Guangwu saw a change in this dominant trend as chenwei came to be used to justify the legitimacy of the political regime. Chenwei scholars in this period who were able to meet the political demands of the times would inevitably be rewarded with official positions and titles, while those few who came into conflict with the ruling regime would fall out of favor or even be punished. By the time of Emperors Ming and Zhang, the integration of chenwei with classical studies and its use as a tool to interpret (and be interpreted by) the canon had become the state ideological orthodoxy. During this period, chenwei became a path to office and would be studied by all scholars alongside the canon. Looking across the intellectual sphere of the Western and Eastern Han periods, it is evident that all scholars were well acquainted with both the canon and chenwei texts and would freely make use of both, regardless of whether they were orthodox scholars employed by the government, learned practitioners engaged in prophecy and divination, or independent thinkers and philosophers.4 This had a profound influence on Han dynasty literary thought.

1 Chenwei Influences on Han Fu

During the Han dynasty, the highest forms of artistic expression were to be found in the fu [rhyme-prose, or rhapsody] and shi [lyrical poetry] genres.5 Taking these two genres as the focus of investigation, this article aims to provide a general description of the relationship between the rise of chenwei ideas and literary trends during the Han dynasty. This section will first examine how this relationship played out in the composition of Han fu.

Before the reign of Emperor Ai, the use of chenwei was marked by an antagonistic attitude towards the ruling regime that often adopted a politically critical stance. Careful analysis suggests that the development of chenwei during this period can be divided into two sub-periods, the first running from the beginning of the Western Han to the reign of Emperor Wu 武帝 [r. 141–87 BCE]; the second commencing with the reign of Emperor Zhao 昭帝 [r. 87–74 BCE] and lasting until the reign of Emperor Ai. While chenwei tendencies can be found in literature prior to the reign of Emperor Wu, they had not yet come to hold sufficient political influence to attract the attention of those in power. During this period the intellectual association between chenwei and the scholarly class was still relatively rare. The use of chenwei as a tool for political critique reached a high-water mark during the second half of the Western Han between the reigns of Emperor Zhao and Emperor Ai. Scholars writing at this time began to use their knowledge of chenwei to actively shape political discourse, and, in doing so, forged a stronger connection between chenwei ideas and politics.

There are just over fifty fu from the Western Han period in existence today, all of which were composed prior to the end of the reign of Emperor Ai. Of these, eleven fu have themes that touch upon chenwei related content.6

1.1 Influences on Han Fu During the Early Western Han

Han fu written prior to the reign of Emperor Wu include Jia Yi’s 賈誼 [ca. 200– 168 BCE] “The Owl [Funiao fu 鵩鳥賦]” and “Dry Clouds [Han yun fu 旱雲賦]” and Kong Zang’s 孔臧 [ca. 201–ca. 123 BCE] “The Owl [Xiao fu 鴞賦]”. While Jia Yi’s “The Owl” was written in the political context of being dismissed from court and sent into exile, it is clear that his specific representation of the owl as an inauspicious portent is an expression of personal anxiety for his own fate and is not directly related to politics. Similar ideas can be found in Kong Zang’s “The Owl”. Though this fu also sees Kong Zang worrying about his own fate, it differs from the work of Jia Yi in that Kong Zang expresses his commitment to further cultivate his Confucian education. Again, this text should be seen as the manifestation of personal sentiments and not as political criticism. It is only in Jia Yi’s “Dry Clouds” where elements of chenwei can be found expressing the political idea that there is a resonance between the human and cosmic orders [tianren ganying 天人感應]. Jia Yi begins “Dry Clouds” describing how an imbalance in cosmic forces has resulted in a drought, “During this summer’s great drought, the natural order of balanced forces has been lost.” The drought is then later shown to be the result of the dishonorable conduct of the ruling regime, and “… there is resentment in the people’s hearts which cannot be relieved, this disaster is due to a failure of those who rule … their conduct is not virtuous, state affairs are handled inappropriately and proper standards are violated.”7 However, it is important to note that the political critique in “Dry Clouds” is still bound within Jia Yi’s expression of his own intense personal sentiments and is markedly different from the dispassionate, rational critiques found in fu after the reign of Emperor Zhao. That is to say, the use of chenwei as a political critique in “Dry Clouds” is ancillary to the expression of personal expression. It should not be seen as the deliberate use of chenwei concepts as a tool for political critique. This is reflected in Zhang Qiao’s 章樵 [d. 1235] commentary on “Dry Clouds” which interprets the metaphor of the dry cloud that does not bear rain as an analogy for Jia Yi’s inability to put his talents to good use following his exile from the capital.8

1.2 Influences on Han Fu During the Late Western Han

The eight fu composed by Liu Xiang 劉向 [77–6 BCE], Wang Bao 王褒 [ca. 84–ca. 53 BCE] and Yang Xiong 揚雄 [53 BCE–18] were all written during the period from Emperor Zhao to Emperor Ai, with the majority expressing a clear political intention to praise or criticize the ruling regime. Generally speaking, these fu have a tendency to veer more towards criticism rather than praise, especially those composed by Yang Xiong. In a similar fashion to “Dry Clouds”, Liu Xiang’s “Praying for Rain at Mount Hua [Qing yu Huashan fu 請雨華山賦]” touches on chenwei concepts through expressing resonances between human and cosmic orders. Although the fu as it has been passed down is a corrupted text with missing and distorted words, the gist of the piece can be summarized as follows: Following a long drought, the emperor accompanied by his officials made their way to Mount Hua to pray for rain and perform a rain sacrifice [yu ] – one of the most important ceremonies undertaken by the state. The god of rain was moved by their call and “the sky became cloudy and rain fell”.9 The final section of the fu praises the illustrious virtues of the emperor. Liu Xiang is here using his fu to express the accepted political idea that there were resonances between the cosmic and human orders, while at the same time using these resonances to eulogize the virtue of the emperor. In a similar vein, Wang Bao’s “Eulogy on the Sweet Springs Palace [Ganquan gong song 甘泉宮頌]” is also another example of using chenwei concepts to praise the emperor. Although the text only exists as a fragment, it is evident that the first part of the eulogy depicts the majestic beauty of the Sweet Springs Palace while the second half touches on a range of chenwei motifs such as auspicious creatures and symbols in what is clearly a celebration of the Han emperor’s Mandate of Heaven.10 In contrast to the works of Liu Xiang and Wang Bao, Yang Xiong’s “Sweet Springs Palace [Ganquan fu 甘泉賦]”, “East of the River [Hedong fu 河東賦]”, “The Barricade Hunt [Jiaolie fu 校獵賦]”, and “Tall Poplars Lodge [Changyang fu 長楊賦]” were, according to his biography in the History of the Han [Hanshu 漢書], primarily works of subtle criticism and moral suasion. These fu contain a vast range of chenwei material of which a few examples are given below.

“Sweet Springs Palace”: Written after Yang Xiong accompanied Emperor Cheng 成帝 [r. 33–7 BCE] to the Sweet Springs Palace north of Chang’an 長安, this fu describes the journey of the imperial entourage to the palace and the sacrifice that was made on their arrival. The use of chenwei can be seen in Yang Xiong’s analogy between the palace and the “hanging garden” [Xuan pu 縣圃], said to be the residence of the Celestial Lord situated at the top of the Kunlun Mountains, as well as in his reference to the blessings of the “Three Spirits” [San shen 三神] on the Emperor.

“East of the River”: Composed roughly around the same time as “Sweet Springs Palace”, Yang Xiong’s “East of the River” describes the journey of Emperor Cheng and his entourage of ministers as they traveled to Fenyin 汾陰 to make sacrifices to Houtu 后土 [the deity of soil and earth]. The fu describes the purpose of the sacrifice as an opportunity for the emperor to leave behind a grand legacy and create an auspicious climate in which fortune and prosperity would cover his empire. The sacrifice is shown as bringing order to the spiritual world whereby “the numinous earth-spirits having been feted, the five positions are in proper sequence.”11

“The Barricade Hunt”: A description of an imperial hunt held by Emperor Cheng in 10 BCE, this fu is preceded with a preface in which Yang Xiong extols the virtuous rulers of the past for the way they cared for the land. In only hunting for what they needed and not giving over to extravagant indulgence, these rulers were, according to Yang Xiong, able to create a wealthy state that was blessed with auspicious omens of good government such as the yellow dragon, phoenix, and qilin 麒麟.

“Tall Poplars Lodge”: Composed after another hunt following “The Barricade Hunt”, this fu describes the founding of the Han dynasty through astrological symbolism. Metaphors symbolizing adherence to the will of heaven are found in the description of the first Han emperor Liu Bang 劉邦 [r. 206–195 BCE] following the direction of the Dipper and the Pole star, while the harmonious reign of Emperor Wen 文帝 [r. 180–157 BCE] is symbolized through the ordering of the Grand Stairway [taijie 太階], a six star constellation that was seen to reflect political and social hierarchy.12

These four fu are examples of the chenwei concept that there is a resonance between the celestial and terrestrial worlds. This can be seen in the way the emperor connects with the spirits of the heavens and the earth in “Sweet Springs Palace” and “East of the River”, in the way in which good governance is reflected in a harmonious environment as found in “The Barricade Hunt”, and in the way the Mandate of Heaven is received and a new dynasty is established in “Tall Poplars Lodge”. The purpose of Yang Xiong’s adept use of chenwei concepts in these fu was to provide the emperor with subtle criticisms and moral suasion and can be seen as a manifestation of the late Western Han tendency to use chenwei as a political critique.

1.3 Influences on Han Fu During the Wang Mang Interregnum and Early Eastern Han

Chenwei use changed during the Wang Mang interregnum (including the reign of Emperor Ping) and the rule of Emperor Guangwu and was marked by a tendency to meet political demands and directly serve the ruling regime. The development of chenwei during this period can also be broken into two sub-periods. The first stage can be seen just prior and during the Wang Mang interregnum as he began to monopolize power before usurping the throne in 9 CE. The development of chenwei during this stage was complicated by the fact that, while mainstream discourse primarily used chenwei to justify Wang Mang’s usurpation of the Han dynasty, there were others during this time who were using prediction charts to oppose him. This conflicting use of chenwei was resolved with the return of the Han under Emperor Guangwu during which time chenwei concepts were all used to validate the restoration of the Han dynasty. While there were some during this time who criticized the use of chenwei (such as Huan Tan 桓譚, Zheng Xing 鄭興, and Yin Min 尹敏), they were only denouncing chenwei as absurd and unorthodox from an academic standpoint and not as a form of political critique.

Only a small number of fu written during this time have survived, with eleven in total (including those of which only fragments remain) composed by Cui Zhuan 崔篆 [fl. 10–25], Feng Yan 馮衍 [fl. 30], Ban Biao 班彪 [3–54] and Du Du 杜篤 [d. 78].13 Of these eleven, five contain chenwei related themes: Feng Yan’s “Making Clear My Aims [Xian zhi fu 顯志賦]”, Ban Biao’s “Viewing the Sea [Lan hai fu 覽海賦]” and “Nomadic Sojourn [You ju fu 遊居賦]” (also known as “On Jizhou [Jizhou fu 冀州賦]”), and Du Du’s “The Many Auspicious Portents [Zhong rui fu 眾瑞賦]”, and “Discussing the Capital [Lun du fu 論都賦]”. All five were written during the reign of Emperor Guangwu.

The reign of Wang Mang from the end of the Western Han to the Xin Dynasty [9–23] witnessed a continued increase in prognostication texts and omens marking the mandate of a new dynasty. However, no fu survive from this time14 and it is not possible to analyze the relationship between chenwei and fu composition during this period. Of the five fu touching on chenwei themes composed during the reign of Emperor Guangwu, Feng Yan’s “Making Clear My Aims” is rather unique. Written late in life during his retirement after a failed official career that had left him in poverty, “Making Clear My Aims” is an early autobiographical fu in which Feng Yan describes his travels both to actual places near his new home and ancestral home, as well as to imaginary places in which he makes a complete circuit of the world. During the latter journey, Feng Yan employs the use of chenwei concepts including yin-yang, the five elements and the four auspicious beasts. However, these references do not seem to be directly connected to the politics of the times and are more likely to be representations of the anger and frustration felt by Feng Yan after being rejected and stripped of his position by Emperor Guangwu.15 In contrast, the use of chenwei in the other four fu was solely to praise the restoration of the Han dynasty and the rule of the Liu clan.

“Viewing the Sea”: Most likely written around 37 when Ban Biao was the magistrate of Xu (modern day Xuzhou, Jiangsu),16 this fu draws heavily on characters, objects and locations associated with the world of immortals [xian ]. Beginning with a description of the sea and the mountains of immortals, Ban Biao then portrays his journey through an imaginary emperor’s palace that includes auspicious plants, legendary immortals, and mythological beings. The poem finishes with an expression of Ban Biao’s desire to climb up the social hierarchy through the support of those in power: “and then via the heralds of the Purple Palace, worship the deity Taiyi 太一 and receive his auspicious talisman.”17 Given that religious Daoism had not yet emerged in the early stages of the Eastern Han, Ban Biao’s metaphors and allusions to immortal beings and the xian realm should be seen here as the use of chenwei concepts.

“Nomadic Sojourn”: Presumably written while he was governor of Jizhou 冀州 (hence the alternative title “On Jizhou”), “Nomadic Sojourn” begins with Ban Biao’s travels throughout the central plains before delving into the mytho-historical events of the places he records. At Mengjin 孟津, the place where King Wu of Zhou 周武王 [ca. 1056–1043 BCE] forded the Yellow River on his expedition to conquer the Shang [ca. 1600–1046 BCE], Ban Biao writes of the white fish that leapt into King Wu’s boat as he made the crossing, an auspicious portent that was seen as heralding the passing of the Mandate of Heaven from the Shang to the Zhou [ca. 1046–256 BCE]. This is followed by a description of Emperor Wu of Han making his way to perform the feng and shan sacrifices (rituals publicly announcing the Mandate of Heaven) at Mount Tai. By describing these two events together, Ban Biao is clearly stating that the Han dynasty had inherited the virtue of the Zhou dynasty and had also received the Mandate of Heaven.

“The Many Auspicious Portents”: Only seven lines of this fu still exist, making it difficult to understand the general context. However, taking into account the name chosen for the title and the years in which Du Du was active, it is clear that this piece extols Emperor Guangwu’s restoration of the Han through the description of numerous auspicious signs and portents.

“Discussing the Capital”: Written by Du Du as a mock debate between himself and an imaginary guest on whether the capital should be in Luoyang 洛陽 or Chang’an, this fu uses chenwei themes to praise the Han dynasty. The text includes narrative accounts of the founding of both the Western Han under Liu Bang and the Eastern Han under Emperor Guangwu that draw heavily on auspicious omens and portents which, during the Han, were seen as signs that each emperor had received the Mandate of Heaven. These include “the cleaving of the white snake, the gathering of the dark clouds,18 and the conjunction of the Five Planets in the Eastern Well constellation”19 during the ascendancy of Liu Bang, and the emergence of the Red Hidden Tally [Chifu fu 赤伏符]20 prophecy foretelling the rise of Emperor Guangwu. Du Du describes how the blessing of the mandate and the assistance of spirits and magical weapons allowed both emperors to establish dynastic reign, with Liu Bang defeating the Qin and Emperor Guangwu pacifying the empire and restoring Han rule.

1.4 Influences on Han Fu During the Late Eastern Han

The years between the reign of Emperor Ming to the end of the Eastern Han saw the complete integration of chenwei ideas with orthodox classical scholarship, best illustrated by the conference held at White Tiger Hall in 79 on the meaning of the classics and the written report of these discussions in the Baihutong. This era saw the state set out the intellectual framework within which chen texts could be used to interpret the classics (and vice versa), with chenwei rising to become the central intellectual belief of the Eastern Han period.21 Intellectuals, chenwei scholars and fangshi 方士 [doctors, diviners, magicians] active after the reign of Emperor Ming would invariably incorporate the orthodox canon into their work, while most official classical scholars as well as highly independent and critical thinkers would similarly incorporate chenwei concepts and beliefs in their own writings. This phenomenon is reflected in the fu written during this period.

Of the approximately 60 fu composed from the reign of Emperor Ming to the end of the Eastern Han, 19 display chenwei related themes.22 This proportion, roughly a third of all fu written during this era, shows a much higher prevalence than found during the Western Han, and was directly related to the rising prestige of chenwei during the Eastern Han. Chenwei related fu during this period can be divided into the following categories.

1.5 Fu on Metropolises and Capitals

The most influential fu on metropolises and capitals written during this era were Fu Yi’s 傅毅 [d. 90] “The Luo Capital [Luo du fu 洛都賦]”, Cui Yin’s 崔駰 [d. 92] “Returning to the Capital [Fan du fu 反都賦]”, Ban Gu’s 班固 [32–92] “The Two Capitals [Liang du fu 兩都賦]” and Zhang Heng’s 張衡 [78–139] “The Two Metropolises [Er jing fu 二京賦]”. These four pieces all draw heavily on chenwei elements to both praise the Han dynasty and put forward the personal opinions and beliefs of their authors. Zhang Heng’s “The Southern Capital [Nan du fu 南都賦]” can also be included in this category. While the fu does not touch on the capitals at Luoyang or Chang’an, its exposition of the ancestral home of the Emperor Guangwu at Nanyang 南陽 and the origins of the Liu clan celebrates the Han regime by presenting the ruling family as the descendants of the sage ruler Yao and by suggesting that the dynasty has inherited the power of the fire element [huode 火德]. This celebration of the Han and Emperor Guangwu is further seen in Zhang Heng’s allusions to a prophecy foretelling that the ninth descendant of Liu Bang – said to be the Emperor Guangwu – would encounter great glory.23 The use of chenwei themes in “The Southern Capital” as a means of praising the Han is no different to those found in the four fu mentioned above.

1.6 Fu on Rites and Institutions

Fu composed after the reign of Emperor Ming also show a tendency towards using chenwei concepts to extol Han dynasty rites and institutions. This is most evident in Li You’s 李尤 [44–126] “Fu on the Royal Academy [Piyong fu 辟雍賦]”, a glorification of the religious, political, and educational institutions of the Eastern Han. The fu honors these institutions through grandiose descriptions of the building complex situated just south of the walled city of Luoyang where sacrifices, government affairs and educational activities were carried out during the Eastern Han. Made up of the Luminous Hall [Mingtang 明堂], the Royal Academy [Piyong 辟雍], the Divine Tower [Lingtai 靈臺], and the Imperial University [Taixue 太學],24 the complex was a physical manifestation of the interaction between the cosmic and human worlds and oversaw the ritualized meeting of heaven and earth and the regulation of human affairs. “Fu on the Royal Academy” takes these resonances between the cosmic and human domain – which are likely to have originated from chenwei concepts – and uses them to glorify Eastern Han institutions and celebrate the Liu clan’s attainment of the Mandate of Heaven. Another important fu praising the rites of the Han dynasty is Deng Dan’s 鄧耽 [fl. 114] “Suburban Sacrifices [Jiaosi fu 郊祀賦]”, a composition on the meaning and magnificence of the important suburban sacrifices25 – the primary purpose of which was for the emperor to support the order of heaven as a means of governing the empire.26 These sacrifices were rooted in chenwei concepts of yin-yang and the resonance between the cosmic and human realms. This is reflected in the fu, which tells of the emperor following in the path of ancient rulers, observing the signs of Heaven and complying with auspicious signs and portents. Deng Dan’s work, while only existing today as a short fragment, was evidently a eulogy on the power and fortune of the Han and the auspicious blessings and portents that the Liu clan had received from Heaven. In addition to these two fu, Cui Shi’s 崔寔 [ca. 103–170] “The General Amnesty [Da she fu 大赦賦]”, while ostensibly praising the pardon issued by Emperor Huan 桓帝 [r. 146–168] in 157, can also belong to this category. The fu employs a wide range of chenwei related themes – from qilin and phoenixes to stars of fortune [jing xing 景星] and auspicious grain [jia he 嘉禾] – in combination with an emphasis on continuing the mandate of past sage rulers and adhering to heaven and earth in the establishment of laws and regulations (concepts based on chenwei understandings of receiving the mandate). In a similar manner to the use of chenwei in “Fu on the Royal Academy” and “Suburban Sacrifices”, Cui Shi’s use of chenwei elements in “The General Amnesty” serves to extol the mandate of the Liu clan and celebrate the many auspicious omens and portents that they have received as a result of their benevolent rule.

1.7 Fu on Natural Scenery and Imperial Buildings

Another characteristic of fu during the post-Emperor Ming era is a tendency to apply chenwei concepts to descriptions of the natural world and palace and temple buildings. Representative fu in this category include Li You’s “The Hangu Pass [Hangu guan fu 函谷關賦]”, Wang Yanshou’s 王延壽 [ca. 143–ca. 165] “Hall of Numinous Brilliance [Lu Lingguang dian fu 魯靈光殿賦]”, Ban Gu’s “Zhongnan Mountain [Zhongnan shan fu 終南山賦]” and Zhang Heng’s “The Hot Springs [Wenquan fu 溫泉賦]”. Li You’s fu on the Hangu Pass – a key mountain pass situated between Chang’an and Luoyang – is a poignant example of the way in which chenwei elements were integrated into the celebration of building structures and their restoration. Introducing the pass through associated historical anecdotes from the Zhou through to the Western Han, Li You goes on to describe the gradual deterioration of the pass in the later stages of the Western Han before alluding to its restoration during the reign of Emperor Guangwu. This latter section of the text draws heavily on chenwei symbolism with Li You praising the emperor for fulfilling the prophecies and portents that predicted his rise and the restoration of the Han dynasty. Li You then celebrates the longevity of Han dynasty comparing the achievements of Emperor Guangwu with those of the Han dynasty founder Liu Bang. Wang Yanshou’s “Hall of Numinous Brilliance”27 is another example of the use of chenwei in the depiction of imperial buildings. Connecting the design of the physical hall to corresponding constellations, Wang Yanshou celebrates the grandeur of the hall through an array of auspicious signs and portents that glorify the Han as the heir to the virtue of ancient sage rulers. The poem ends with chenwei inspired lines that extol the longevity of the dynasty: “It was spirits who built her, to bless our house of Han, that it never decay.”28

In a similar vein, chenwei themes describing natural scenery were also used to celebrate the Han. This is evident in Ban Gu’s “Zhongnan Mountain”, in which auspicious signs – such as the call of the phoenix and numerous rare objects – assemble on the mountain and are used by the author to honor the magnificence of the Han. Ban Gu explicitly writes that it is only with the perfect virtue of the emperor that such auspicious signs can appear. The natural world in Zhang Heng’s “The Hot Springs” is also heavily imbued with chenwei concepts glorifying the empire. Written during his younger years while traveling between Chang’an and Luoyang, Zhang Heng’s description of the hot springs at Lishan 驪山 (which would later become the site of the famous Huaqing Pool 華清池 during the Tang) compares the springs to the mythical Dawn Valley [Yanggu 暘谷] in Yingzhou 瀛洲, a fabled island in the eastern sea from which the sun and moon rose each day. This cosmologically inspired chenwei connection is furthered with a reference to the sun and moon bathing in the Yingshi 營室 constellation, which is interpreted in Zhang Qiao’s commentary as the reason why the springs were heated.29 Zhang Heng then employs chenwei concepts to compare the spring with the Han dynasty itself, celebrating the benefit they both bestow to the populace with the washing of the waters metamorphizing into the purification of evil and the implementation of the correct way.

1.8 Fu Expressing Personal Feelings and Aspirations

Expression of personal sentiment in fu composition during this period would also regularly incorporate elements of chenwei, with prominent examples found in Ban Gu’s “Communicating with the Hidden [Youtong fu 幽通賦]”, Zhang Heng’s “Responding to Criticism [Ying jian 應間]” and Cai Yong’s 蔡邕 [133–192] “Defense Against Admonition [Shi hui 釋誨]”. Written in his early twenties during an intense period of contemplation and introspection following the death of his father, Ban Gu’s “Communicating with the Hidden” taps into a deep sense of ennui that consumed him as a young man as he struggled to find his purpose and make his own way in the world. The fu takes place in a land of dreams that feels at once both real and surreal, and in an environment that, like the dream, is both realistic and fantastical. Chenwei concepts abound throughout the fu, with Ban Gu conveying his feelings through references to historical events and stories, many of them relating to chen practices such as divination, dream predictions and oracle consulting.30 The other two fu in this category, “Responding to Criticism” and “Defense Against Admonition”, appear as appropriations of Dongfang Shuo’s 東方朔 [ca. 161–93 BCE] “Replying to a Guest’s Objections [Da ke nan 答客難]” in which Dongfang Shuo explains why he has not attained a high ministerial position in spite of his vast learning. Yet while Zhang Heng and Cai Yong’s fu do not display original expressions of personal sentiment, they nevertheless express the intellectual spirit of their times with each incorporating a considerable number of lines dealing with chenwei knowledge and concepts. Accordingly, Zhang Heng’s defense of his relatively low official position is supported through references to mythological figures such as Fenghou 風后, Chong and Li who had met opportune times and been able to put their services into practical use.31 Cai Yong’s argument in “Defense Against Admonition”, namely that it is important to know when to act and when to withdraw – an allusion to the dangers of seeking office during a time of factional struggles between powerful families – is similarly given through a range of chenwei inspired analogies that describe resonances between man and the cosmos.

A number of fu written from the reign of Emperor Ming to the end of the Eastern Han that do not fall into the above four categories also make frequent use of chenwei themes. Ma Rong’s 馬融 [79–166] “The Zither [Qin fu 琴賦]”, for instance, celebrates the power and virtue of the instrument through an allusion to an anecdote from the Han Feizi 韓非子 that describes the way in which music was thought to influence the workings of the cosmos.32 Huang Xiang’s 黃香 [ca. 68–122] use of chenwei in “The Nine Chambers [Jiu gong fu 九宮賦]” is also clearly apparent. One of the earliest works on the ancient Chinese magical square, “The Nine Chambers” is the earliest fu that is dedicated to a description of the two cosmological diagrams commonly used in divination practices and explanations of the Book of Changes [Yijing 易經] – the Yellow River Map [Hetu 河圖] and the Luoshu Square [Luoshu 洛書].33 Chenwei tropes also abound in Wang Yanshou’s “A Dream [Meng fu 夢賦]” in which he recounts a nightmare where he battles with an imaginary host of “devils and demons, four-horned, serpent-necked, fishes with bird-tails, three-legged bogies from six eyes staring; dragons hideous, yet three-part human.”34 The fu ends with an epilogue in which Wang Yanshou references a number of chenwei themed stories where the nightmares and visions of others turned out to be auspicious portents. The stories reveal Wang Yanshou’s determination not to cower in the face of evil and misfortune. Ban Zhao’s 班昭 [ca. 49–ca. 120] “The Great Bird [Daque fu 大雀賦]”, written to memorialize the presentation of ostriches as a tribute gift to the court, also veers into chenwei territory with the fu comparing the birds to auspicious beasts before ending with a celebration of the Han:


Citation: Journal of Chinese Humanities 8, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/23521341-12340125

Before drawing this section on Han fu to an end, it is also worth mention Ban Gu’s “Elaboration on the Canon [Dian yin 典引]” written in 74. Over the course of history, this essay has not generally been regarded as a fu, and during its inclusion in the Selections of Refined Literature [Wen Xuan 文選] anthology under the direction of Xiao Tong 蕭統 [501–531], it was placed within the fuming 符命 genre (alongside Sima Xiangru’s “Essay on the Feng and Shan Sacrifices [Feng shan wen 封禪文]” and Yang Xiong’s “Denigrating Qin and Praising Xin [Ju Qin mei Xin 劇秦美新]”). However, when considered in light of Han dynasty literary genres, “Elaboration on the Canon” (as well as the other two works by Sima Xiangru and Yang Xiong), can be classified as fu. The lengthy text, which describes the virtue of the Eastern Han imperial house as well as numerous prophetic signs and auspicious omens, can rightly be regarded as an almost exhaustive collection of prognostication records for the Eastern Han.

To summarize, fu composed during the period from Emperor Ming to the end of the Eastern Han reflect the profound influence wielded by chenwei concepts during this time. This influence was closely bound up with the development of chenwei as a political ideology and popular movement and with the way in which it was incorporated into official classical studies.

2 Chenwei Influences on Han Lyrical Poetry and Songs

While the lyrical poetry [shi ] of the Han dynasty never achieved the same fame as the fu, the number of lyrical poems and songs composed during the period was, nevertheless, comparatively high. “The Book Catalogue [Yiwen zhi 藝文志]” chapter in the Hanshu records 316 works across 28 categories and authors under the geshi 歌詩 [song-verse] genre,36 though unfortunately many of these have been lost throughout history and only a few remain.37 Of course, the “Book Catalogue” should not be seen as an exhaustive list of the lyrical poems and songs composed during the Western Han. There are many examples of recorded works which were not entered into the Yiwen zhi. To date, one of the more comprehensive anthologies of Han dynasty poetry is Lu Qinli’s 逯欽立 section on Han dynasty poetry in The Poetry of the Pre-Qin, Han, Wei, Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties [Xian Qin Han Wei Jin Nanbeichao shi 先秦漢魏晉南北朝詩].38 The anthology includes 174 lyrical poems and songs from the Western Han period. As the History of the Later Han [Hou Hanshu 後漢書] does not include a separate treatise cataloging poetry in the Eastern Han, it is difficult to guess the number of lyrical poems and songs composed during this time. From records in the History of the Later Han found throughout the “Biographies of Literary Men [Wenyuan zhuan 文苑傳]” chapter as well as the numerous other individual biographies of scholars and literati, it is clear that most learned scholars during this time were composing lyrical poetry and songs. Scholars who produced a large volume of work in these genres include Wang Yi 王逸 [fl. 120], who is credited with 123 lyrical poems included in a work titled “Poems on the Han [Han shi 漢詩]”; Ying Feng 應奉 [fl. 144], who composed “Moved by the Sao [Gan sao 感騷]” in thirty pian ; and Zhao Qi 趙岐 [d. 201], who is recorded as writing “Song of Troubles and Travails [E tun ge 厄屯歌]” in twenty-three stanzas. (All three scholars have individual biographies in the History of the Later Han.) None of these works are extant today. Lu Qinli’s anthology includes 464 lyrical poems and songs from the Eastern Han period, though this number certainly does not represent the total number of lyrical poems and songs composed during this period.

In total, Lu Qinli’s anthology records 638 Han dynasty lyrical poems and songs. This is the basic body of literature through which scholars today can understand the lyrical poetry landscape during this period. Of these six hundred or so poems, there are roughly one hundred that clearly incorporate chenwei related themes.

2.1 Chenwei Themes in Western Han Lyrical Poems and Songs

Around fifty yuefu 樂府 poems and authored lyrical poems and songs from the Western Han explicitly touch upon chenwei elements and concepts.

One of the major sources of these poems and songs was Emperor Wu himself, with chenwei themes found in many of his surviving works. These include the two-part “Song of the Huzi Dike [Huzi ge 瓠子歌]”, five songs attributed to him from the ritual hymns in the “Songs for Suburban Sacrifices [Jiaosi ge 郊祀歌]”, as well as the “Song of Lady Li [Li Furen ge 李夫人歌]” and “Song of Yearning for the Commandant of Imperial Carriages Zihou [Si Fengche Zihou ge 思奉車子侯歌]”. These songs are all deeply steeped in chenwei concepts that include calling for blessings in the wake of a natural disaster, celebrating the virtue of empire through the portrayal of auspicious omens, and embodying ideas of the resonance between the cosmos and the world of man in his longing for others.

“Song of the Huzi Dike”: Composed in the second year of the Yuanfeng 元封 period [110–105 BCE] as repairs were being made to a breach in the Yellow River,39 this two-part song is not only a lament on the destructive power of the flooding waters and the difficulties involved in the repair work, but also a invocation to the deity of the river that epitomizes the resonance between cosmic and human order. The song expresses the emperor’s plaints and supplication to the river spirit, “Ask the Lord of the River for me, ‘Why are you so cruel? Your surging inundations will not cease; you grieve my people …’” which is then followed by a sacrifice to the spirit of a white horse and jade to obtain their favor, “and cast the precious jade. The Lord of the River hears our plea.” The song then concludes with a prayer that the raging waters will be calmed and that fortune will descend on the empire, “We will stem the break at Xuanfang 宣防 and bring ten thousand blessings!”40

“Songs for Suburban Sacrifices”: Five of these nineteen ritual hymns deal directly with auspicious omens and portents that occurred during the reign of Emperor Wu. The two-part “Song of the Heavenly Horse [Tian ma ge 天馬歌]” – composed upon the acquisition of the blood sweating horses from Ferghana in 101 BCE41 – is recorded in both the “Book on Music [Yueshu 樂書]” in the Records of the Grand Historian [Shiji 史記] and the “Treatise on Ritual and Music [Li yue zhi 禮樂志]” in the Hanshu, though the two versions vary quite significantly.42 Yet despite these differences, the central idea behind the two versions is the same, with both abounding in chenwei concepts of the auspicious connection between humans and the natural world. The first part highlights the virtue of Emperor Wu in attracting such auspicious beasts to his empire, while the second emphasizes the might of the emperor in subjugating the barbarian tribes. Four other hymns explicitly celebrating the occurrence of auspicious omens are also included in the “Songs for Suburban Sacrifices”. Hymn seventeen, “Turning to the Top of Mount Long [Chao Long shou 朝隴首]”, was composed upon the capture of a white unicorn [bai lin 白麟] around 122/123 BCE, and interweaves this auspicious omen with a celebration of the emperor’s rule and military achievements on a cosmic scale.43 Hymn twelve, “The Auspicious Star [Jing xing 景星]”, was written to celebrate the acquisition of a precious tripod [bao ding 寳鼎] in 113 BCE, an auspicious omen symbolizing the legitimacy of Emperor Wu’s reign.44 Hymn eighteen, “The Beautiful Chariot [Xiangzai yu 象載瑜]”, eulogizes the capture of six red wild geese at Donghai 東海 in 94 BCE. Hymn thirteen, “The Abstemious Room [Qi fang 齊房]” (also known as the “Song of the Fungus of Immortality Room [Zhi fang zhi ge 芝房之歌]”), celebrates the growth of a magical fungus [zhi ] at the sacrificial center of Ganquan in 109 BCE. The hymn’s origins are recorded in the “Annal of Emperor Wu [Wudi ji 武帝紀]” in the Hanshu which states:

In the sixth month, an imperial edict said, “In an inner chamber of Ganquan Palace, there has sprung up a fungus of immortality with nine stalks and interconnected leaves. The Lords on High visit widely and do not disdain the inferior rooms; they have granted Us an eminent favor. Let an amnesty be granted to the empire. Let an ox and wine be granted to every hundred households in the Yunyang capital.” The “Song of the Fungus of Immortality Room” was made.45

Through singing of auspicious omens that occurred during the reign of Emperor Wu, these four hymns glorified the benevolent rule of the emperor and the harmony between heaven and earth. Manifestations of the divine protection bestowed on the Han, the hymns represent the desire for a prosperous empire that would be forever blessed.

“Song of Lady Li” and “Song of Yearning for the Commandant of Imperial Carriages Zihou”: Emperor Wu’s “Song of Lady Li” was written as a lament for his deceased concubine of the same name who had died young not long after giving birth to a son. His “Song of Yearning for the Commandant of Imperial Carriages Zihou” was, in a similar fashion, composed in memory of Huo Shan 霍嬗 [120–110 BCE] (style name Zihou 子侯), Commandant of Imperial Carriages and son of his most esteemed military leader Huo Qubing 霍去病 [140–117 BCE]. While the sentiment expressed in both songs is obviously sincere and deep, it is the context in which these feelings arose which is of interest here. With the “Song of Lady Li”, Emperor Wu’s passionate longing for his dead concubine was elicited by the wizardry of Shao Weng 少翁 [d. 117 BCE], who, with the help of wine, dim candles and curtains, was able to have the emperor believe that he had brought back Lady Li’s spirit from the dead. Although this was clearly a setup, the fact that Emperor Wu actually believed he was seeing Lady Li – even taking into account the irrational state of mind that his emotions had left him in – suggests that in his mind he believed in such supernatural occurrences. In the case of his song for Huo Shan, Emperor Wu was moved to passion by Huo Shan’s ascendency into the immortal realm. This is described in an introduction to the poem recorded in Huo Shan’s biography in Biographies of Cave Immortals [Dongxian zhuan 洞仙傳] which states:

[Commandant of Imperial Carriages] Zihou was a man of Fufeng. Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty loved him for his purity and youth and transferred his position to that of Palace Attendant. One morning he announced to his family, “Now I will fill an immortal post. I shall depart this spring, but in midsummer I will return briefly.” He returned for a while and departed again, just as he had said. Missing him, Emperor Wu then composed a song: …


Always wanting to become an immortal himself, Emperor Wu’s song is filled with both longing for his friend and envy as he mourns not only the loss of a friend but his own inevitable fate. As there was no religious Daoism during the Western Han, the desire to become immortal and roam the immortal realm reflected in this song should be seen in terms of chenwei mysticism.

Another song attributed to a Western Han emperor is the “Song of the Yellow Swan [Huang hu ge 黃鵠歌]”, which has, throughout history, been attributed to Emperor Zhao. The song narrates the appearance of a swan at the Jianzhang Palace 建章宫 in Chang’an, with the “Diverse Notes on the Western Capital [Xijing zaji 西京雜記]” recording that during the first year of the Shiyuan 始元 period [86–80 BCE] a swan came down to the Taiye Pool 太液池 after which Emperor Zhao composed a song. The sighting of the swan is also recorded in the “Annal of Emperor Zhao [Zhaodi ji 昭帝紀]” in the Hanshu (though the text does not mention the song), with Fu Zan’s 傅瓚 [fl. 280] commentary of this passage stating: “during the Han dynasty the ruling element was the virtue of earth [tude 土德] while the favored color for robes was yellow [note that in the theory of five elements, earth is associated with yellow]. As all swans are white, the fact that this one had become yellow was seen as an auspicious omen and thus recorded. It is said that the Taiye Pool is made up through a gathering of the liquid essence of yin and yang.” Ru Chun’s 如淳 [fl. 198–265] commentary on this section in the Hanshu notes that the pool’s liquid was formed through a combination of the liquids of heaven and earth. Given the propitious nature of the yellow swan and the symbolism behind the Taiye Pool this event would have been seen as doubly auspicious and hence led to the creation of a song to celebrate these fortuitous omens.47

The Western Han belief in the resonance between cosmic forces and the human world was already firmly in place from the reign of Emperor Wen and all subsequent Emperors continued to hold to this understanding of the world. They may well have all composed lyrical poems and songs touching on this idea that have since been lost to time. There are even fewer surviving works on this theme by ministers and courtiers, with the only traces of chenwei influenced lyrical poetry found in Wei Meng’s 韋孟 [ca. 228–156 BCE] “Poem of Admonition [Fengjian shi 諷諫詩]”. According to his biograp