Yang Wanli: Life, Times, and Work

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Yang Wanli: Life, Times and Work

Yang Wanli (1127-1206) was born in Jishui City, Jiangsu Province, to a family with past generations of intellectuals. The year 1127 was also when the northern invaders forced the Song court to move its capital to Hangzhou in the south. This split the Song Dynasty into the Northern Song (960-1127) and the Southern Song (1127-1279).

Most of Yang’s education was conducted in the home with his family and hired teachers and tutors. At the age of seventeen he began to study outside the home with a Mr. Wang, who was a former government official. Four years later, he changed teachers for broader and higher studies. This teacher, Mr. Liu, had been a government minister. Years of serious study prepared him for the imperial exams which would qualify him to enter into the imperial government as an official. At the age of twenty-seven, in the year 1154, Yang passed the highest and final version of the imperial exams.

By the age of twenty-nine, Yang was ready for his own government position. Throughout his working career in the imperial bureaucracy Yang slowly ascended through the official ranks and levels. The highest office he held was near the end of his career as Director of the Imperial Library, to which he was appointed in 1189.

One of Yang’s earliest appointments was to a post in the province of Hunan. Here he met an influential senior official who helped him to advance his career. This mentor and benefactor was promoted to an appointment inside the capital city Chang’an with the installment of the new emperor Xiaozong. Yang was then brought along to a new appointment in the capital city by 1163.

In 1167 Yang wrote an essay titled A Thousand Concerns, in which he advocated maintaining a strong military defense against the northern invaders who by now had advanced as far south as the Huai River. The commissioner of military affairs and the prime minister were so impressed that they had Yang promoted to professor of the Directorate of Education.

Yang retired in 1192 when he was sixty-six years old to his birthplace in Jishui. He received imperial requests to return to the capital for work, but he declined to go. Yang died in 1206 and was survived by his wife, three sons, and a daughter. His poems, and the poems of others who wrote about him, provide much more detail about his life and personality than do the stories about him.

About 4,200 of his poems have survived. Yang wrote nine collections of poetry. In the preface to the second one, he described his development as a poet. He began by studying and copying those before him, including the works of Wang Ah-shi and other Late Tang poets. But in 1178 at the age of fifty-one, he no longer felt the need copy those who came before him. This conversion came also as a reflection of his interest in Chan (Zen) Buddhism. His practice of deep meditation facilitated his ability to concentrate on Nature’s details, such as his poem describing the movements of a fly in “The Cold Fly”. Yang also developed an attention to the passing moments, transient nature of life, and the many subtle changes in nature. Having outgrown earlier imitativeness, Yang concentrated on his own individuality in poetic style. In a poem he stated, “There is no model, there is no begging bowl, nor is there a robe.” The begging bowl and robe were symbols of the transmission of teachings from a Buddhist monk to his students. So after a poet learns his craft through studying the people and traditions before him, he then moves on the find a style his own.

The Four Great Masters of the Southern Song were close friends and contemporaries of Yang Wanli. They frequently exchanged poems among themselves. They included Lu Yu, Fan Chengda, Yu Mao, and Xiao Desao.
Yang later replaced Xiao as one of the four masters.

Yang lived during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). The emperor Lanzong’s reign was noted for it’s policies of appeasement and compromise with the northern neighbors. This was a period in Chinese history where the northern nomads forced the Chinese imperial court to relocate south from Chang’an to the city of Hangzhou. Eventually the Mongols overthrew the Song in 1279 and found their own dynasty, the Yuan.

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