Wang Anshi (王安石, 왕안석, 1021-1086) was a Song dynasty era (宋, 송, 960-1279) bureaucrat, reformist, and a renowned writer. He was born in Fuzhou (撫州, 무주) in Jiangxi Province (江西省, 강서성); his courtesy name (字, 자) is Jiefu (介甫, 개보); and his pen name was Banshan (半山, 반산). His ancestors originally had been farmers until his grandfather, who passed the civil service exam and attained a bureaucratic position. Growing up, Wang Anshi followed his father who was a bureaucrat as he moved from one government post to another from one region to another region in China. From a young age, he was recognized for his erudition in the Chinese classics. In 1041, Wang Anshi began his political career when he passed the civil service examination. He soon became well known for his competency in public affairs and for his essays advocating reform of the government bureaucracy. In 1058, Wang Anshi was selected to serve in the high-ranking position of Hanlin Scholar (翰林學士, 한림학사). Starting in 1069, after the reform-minded young Emperor Shenzong (宋神宗, 송 신종, 1048-1085, r. 1067-1085) ascended the throne, Wang Anshi was tasked with initiating a series of wide-sweeping and controversial reforms known as the New Policies (新法, 신법). China had been beset by military losses to both the Tangut Western Xia (西夏, 서하, 1038-1227) and Khitan Liao (遼, 요, 907-1125) empires in the north and social strife within. His programs were intended to strength the military and lessen burdens on those of the lower class. For example, the Green Sprout Law (靑苗法, 청묘법) lowered interested rates on capital for poorer farmers. However, after a severe drought struck the Hebei region (河北, 하북) in 1074, the Old Policy Faction (舊法派, 구법파) that had opposed Wang Anshi’s New Policies found an opportunity to strike back and convinced the Emperor to repeal most of his reforms. Wang Anshi was soon demoted to the lowly position of an Administrative Clerk (知事, 지사) in Jiangning Prefecture (江寧府, 강녕부). He retired two years after in 1076 when he lost his son, and passed away in 1086. Even after his death, Wang Anshi’s New Policies continued to be denounced with some detractors even blaming them for the downfall of the Song dynasty.
Although Wang Anshi’s socioeconomic reforms were largely wiped away in his lifetime, he left his mark in Chinese literature. In fact, Wang Anshi become so renowned for his poetry and prose that later generations would consider him as one of the Eight Masters of Tang-Song Dynasty Era (唐宋八大家, 당송팔대가). Given his aspirations, many of his writings touch upon social, economic, and political themes. This is shown in Wang Anshi’s poem below, which not only commemorates the Lunar New Year, which falls on February 8 this year, but also is reflective of his reformist persona.
First Day of the New Year
爆竹聲中一歲除 폭죽성중일세제 仄仄平平仄仄平(韻)
春風送暖入屠蘇 춘풍송난입도소 平平平仄仄平平(韻)
千門萬戶曈曈日 천문만호동동일 平平仄仄平平仄
總把新桃換舊符 총파신도환구부 仄仄平平平仄平(韻)
Amidst the sounds of fireworks, one year slips away.
Spring winds send warmth and enter the Tusu wine (屠蘇, 도소).
Upon a thousand doors and ten-thousand houses, the bright and glistening sun.
All grab a hold of the new peach-wood to replace the old talisman.
To explode • bamboo • sound • amid • one • year • to remove
Spring • wind • to send • warmth • to enter • geographic name • herbs
Thousand • gates • ten-thousand • houses • bright • bright • sun
All • to grab • new • peach-wood • to exchange • old • talisman
- Heptasyllabic truncated verse (七言絶句, 칠언절구). The poem slightly deviates from the riming rules of Recent Style Poetry (近體詩, 근체시), as it uses near rimes (通韻, 통운), 魚(어) and 虞(우). Specifically, it invokes the “Flying Goose Entering a Formation” Rule (飛雁入群格, 비안입군격): the last character of the first line 除(제) is of the riming character 魚(어), whereas the last characters of the second and fourth lines 蘇(소) and 符(부) are of the riming character 虞(우).
- 爆竹(폭죽) – Literally “exploding bamboo.” Refers to fireworks.
- 屠蘇(도소) – Refers to an alcoholic elixir made using various herbs. Its creation is attributed to the Han dynasty era (漢, 한, 206 BC-220 AD) physician Hua Tuo (華佗, 화타, 140?-208?) or the Tang dynasty era (唐, 당, 618-907) doctor Sun Simiao (孫思邈, 손사막, 581-682). Historically, it was customary to drink Tusu wine on New Years to ward off evil spirits. It was said that “If one person drinks it, the household will suffer no affliction. If the household drinks it, the entire village will suffer no affliction (一人飲,一家無疫.一家飲,一里無疫 – 일인음, 일가무역. 일가음, 일리무역).” This practice first started in China and later spread to Korea and Japan. The traditional Korean custom involved gathering all the family together, including young children, to drink the wine. This custom has largely died out in China and Korea in modern times, but still continues in some regions of Japan.
- 曈曈(동동) – Refers to the sun at the break of dawn.
- 桃符(도보) – Refers to a talisman made out of peach-wood. It was placed on both sides of the main double gates of houses to ward off ghosts and calamities. The custom first took root in China and later spread to Korea. In Korea, the custom later morphed into placing drawings or calligraphy on paper (春聯, 춘련) on the main gate during the Start of Spring (立春, 입춘).
- Korean translation available here.