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Zheng Xuan
Portrait of Zheng Xuan
Ma Rong
Portrait of Ma Rong

Zheng Xuan(郑玄), whose courtesy name was Kangcheng, was a famous scholarly Confucian for his enormous exegesis or explanative notes for Confucianism classics in East Han Dynasty. The subsequent generation called his explanation Zheng Jian(郑笺). Zheng Xuan, according to the tradition of China, people call him Zheng Kangcheng in order to show our respect, was generally the greatest and most authoritative glossographer of Confucianism Classics in China. Besides, Zheng Xuan undoubtedly was a fairly influential academic scholar in East Han Dynasty. His talents and brilliance largely were embodied in the aspect of his explanation of Confucianism classics. More specifically, such an explanation is harder than recitation and redefinition. This is a special expression and presentation of Confucian original meaning meanwhile also mixed with the social change and the times’ need. Zheng Xuan was China’s one of the most important scholiasts of Confucianism Classics and greatest Confucians in Han Dynasty.

Story about Ma Rong and Zheng Xuan

Zheng Xuan was born in Gaomi, Beihai(北海高密, today’s Laizhou county-level municipality under the administration of Yantai). At his young time, Zheng Xuan used to acted as a leader of Xiang(乡啬夫, a low-status official title of governmental official system of Han Dynasty in charge of tax, corvee and revenue. Xiang, was an low organ of government in ancient China. Before Tang Dynasty, Xiang consisted of 12,500 independent families), but later he was unwilling to go on and abandoned this job and returned to family to learn from local official in charge of education and cultivation. His father was annoyed very much and always admonished Zheng Xuan to return to the post but it was useless at all. Zheng Xuan went to Tai Xue(太学, the top academic institute of East Han Dynasty) and stayed there. He nearly learnt all classics of Confucianism such as Gongyang Edition of Spring and Autumn Annals. And then, he turned to Zhang Gongzu(张恭祖) for Book of Songs, Zhuo-Qiuming Edition of Spring and Autumn Annals, Book of History also called Book of Official Statements, Book of Rites and so on. When finished, Zheng Xuan thought that there was nobody able to teach him in east area of Xiao Shan(崤山). He went westward with the help of Lu Zhi and learnt from Ma Rong(马融), who was a prominent authority of Confucianism in west area and even in whole Han Dynasty. However, Ma Rong was rather arrogant and self-important. Ma Rong had more than 400 students, but only 50 students more or less could directly learn face to face from him. Zheng Xuan stayed in Ma Rong’s school for three years but never met Marong, It is really interesting. Instead, Zheng Xuan learnt from one of the senior students of Ma Rong. But Zheng Xuan studied hard day and night. One day, Ma Rong summoned all his students together for some special tests. Ma Rong heard that Zheng Xuan was capable of calculation and prediction and met him separately. They communicated for a long time. And Zheng Xuan shared a lot of what he learnt and considered to be, which shocked and astonished Ma Rong deeply. He said to himself: this student was too talented to be taught. Many parts have preponderated over those of mine. He at last sighed and told his other students:”Mr. Zheng’s eastwardly departing surely takes away my Dao, the core of one’s most important knowledge system”(郑生今去,吾道东矣). Since then, Zheng Xuan’s students became more and more but Ma Rong’s students became less and less.

There was another relevant story concentrating on this change or transition of academic center from Ma Rong to Zheng Xuan. It is available in anther quite well-known story-centered classic themed with historic figures--- Shi Shuo Xin Yu(世说新语), whose author was Liu Yiqing(刘义庆). In this book, the subsequent of this story moved on. For retrieving the more and more serious situation, Ma Rong secretly sent many servants to stop Zheng Xuan’s eastward return. Zheng Xuan in advance got known the hostility of Ma Rong and also was conscious of he was in danger if he did not move away as quick as possible. He left to east area instantly. He heard the sounds of a large group of horses when he walked to a bridge. Zheng Xuan knew they were the servants of Ma Rong sent to stop his eastward department. He at one hid himself under the bridge where he standing in water for a long time. Ma’s servants did not found him and returned to inform Ma Rong they were not succeeded in finding Zheng Xuan. Ma Rong kept silently and turned back to his personal study. Suddenly, his students heard the sounds of breaking vases and furniture. After a while, Ma Rong joyfully walked out and told his students:”Zheng Xuan has died, because in line with my Zhan Bu(占卜, soothsaying via Book of Changes and warming turtle shell to see the cracks). The divination shows his condition: Heaven and Earth are both out of reach, and he is above water but below earth”. It is really funny, in fact, Zheng Xuan was under the bridge, and he surely is out of the reach of heaven and earth and under the earth but above the water, because he was standing in water under bridge!

Life Experiences of Zheng Xuan

Zheng Xuan visited outside for more than 10 years. After his completion of learning from other famous figures, he returned. His family was quite poor and did farming in Dong Lai(东莱). The following student had ranged from several hundred to more than 1,000. At the time, the national politics became more and more instable. During the reign of Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling of East Han Dynasty, there used to be the widespread and intense conflicts between two parties: the well-educated officials and the eunuchs. Historically, it was named“Dang Gu Zhi Huo(党锢之祸, The Incident of Party Imprisonment), ”Finally, in a plot, eunuchs conquered these officials and controlled the nationwide powers. A large number of well-educated officials, most of who were the Confucians, were killed, imprisoned and penalized. Surely, such a harmful influence also spread to other Confucians around the nation, including Zheng Xuan. He was forced to stay at home. He begun to compile and annotate the classics of Confucianism. He Xiu(何休), another important figure specialized in annotating Confucianism classics and acted as a high official. Zheng Xuan read his annotated classics of Confucianism and criticized rationally and justly his annotations one by one. He Xiu had no choice but sigh to say:” Kangcheng entered my room and held my spear to attack me”.

Thirteen Annotated Classics of Confucianism
Zheng Xuan's Annotated
Classics of Confucianism Published
by Shanghai Classic Publishing House

During the late period of Emperor Lingdi, The Incident of Party Imprisonment was loosened. The authoritative figure called He Jing(何进) knew Zheng Xuan a lot and invited him to be an official in central government. However, Zheng Xuan was unwilling to follow. The governors of the local governments under the pressure of He Jing ordered Xuan to go to capital, Luoyang. Zheng Xuan had to meet He Jing in Luoyang. He Jing treated him quite politely and considered him as a saint actually. Zheng Xuan reacted considerably uniquely. He just wore the ordinary clothes rather than the official togae to meet the emperor. Amazingly, one night later, he secretly fled away. At the age of 60, there were thousands of students coming to meet him from different area of country. Subsequently, he was promoted to be Shi Zhong. But Zheng Xuan refused in the excuse of the demise of his father.

Kong Rong(孔融, the descendant of Confucius in late East Han Dynasty but later he and his family were killed by Cao Cao) at the time as the prime minister highly respected Zheng Xuan and used to call on him on foot and told the governor of Gaomai County to set up a special Xiang(mentioned above) for Zheng Xuan. He said: Anciently Qi State set up The Xiang of Talents and Yue State had Troop of Gentlemen, which were both for respecting and distinguishing those talents. Besides, Sima Qian was respected as Tai Shi Gong or Lord of Imperial Historian. Two of Four Seniors of Nanshan Mountain in early West Han Dynasty named Yuan Gong and Xia Huang Gong were both respected to be the Lord or Gong. Today, the Xiang where Zheng Xuan lived in should be titled Zheng Gong Xiang. Later, the local people also built the tall gates and wide avenues to show their respects to Zheng Xuan.

Additionally, Yuan Shao(袁绍), one of the most powerful generals in late Han Dynasty, as the military leader of Ji Zhou(冀州) invited Zheng Xuan to join in a special dinner party. Zheng Xuan was the last arrival. The guests looked down upon him as a common Confucian and began to baffle him. Zheng Xuan was a tall and handsome man. Surely he was quite attractive. He kept gentlemanlike all the time but answered all the questions from guests. Those guests gradually were subdued by his knowledge and talents. Except for Ying Shao, another famous scholarly academic official under the management of Yuan Shao, said arrogantly to Zheng Xuan” I am the former governor of Tai Shan and How about you being my student?”. Zheng Xuan smiled and answered” The students of Confucius like Yan Hui and Zi Gong never show respects to the officials”. Ying Shao got embarrassed at once. Yuan Shao sincerely invited Zheng Xuan as one official in his area, but Zheng Xuan still rejected with the excuse of disease.

Zheng Xuan became old. At one night, he dreamed that Confucius told him:” Get up! Get up!. The time of this year is Chen, and the next year is Yi.” Zheng Xuan awaked and pre-checked his life in Chen Wei Knowledge(谶纬之术,a kind of special knowledge relative to the classics of Confucianism , which today is superficially considered as the superstition or anti-science knowledge system themed with foretelling the disasters and future. It is traditionally considered to be one part of Qi Xue, which exactly is the Knowledge of Qi State in today’s northeast Shandong Province. On the other hand, Wei means horizontality and Jing Means Verticality. They represents different things)and got to know he will die. At the time, Yuan Shao fought against his counterpart, Cao Cao, in Guandu Campaign(官渡之战). Zheng Xuan was forced to follow the troop of Yuan Shao by Yuan Tan, the son of Yuan Shao. Zheng Xuan had no choice but move to Yuan Cheng County alongside the troop, and then his disease became worse. In April of the same year, Zheng Xuan died at the age of 74. Before his death, Zheng Xuan wrote an imperative article to his son to tell him how to live in this world and how to cultivate himself and operate the whole family. Besides, he also left a will, in which he advocated the thrifty burying. But on his funeral, thousands of his students wearing the livery of grief and followed the solemn rites of Confucianism to the dead to bid farewell to Zheng Xuan.

Zheng Xuan was a great Confucian making a grand contribution to the annotation of classics of Confucianism and the spreading of Confucianism to the next generation. To a great degree, Zheng Xuan greatly promoted the succession of Confucianism and protected the original core of Confucianism in some way. Today’s students majoring in Chinese Classic Literature, especially in the realm of pre-Tang Dynasty, have to read the Confucianism classics with annotations of Zheng Xuan. Zheng Xuan indeed was an extraordinary scholar in studying and popularizing China Traditional Culture.