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Han Yu

    Han Yu (768 – 824 AD) was one of the greatest Chinese writers in history.

    He is particularly famous for his prose, but his poetry was also brilliant.

    Writing almost 1,000 years after Han Yu’s lifetime, the Qing dynasty scholar Zhao Yi (1727 – 1814) famously said that Han Yu started the trend for:

    Writing prose like poetry

    Besides this, he also altered the course of Chinese writing by advocating for an ‘ancient writing’ (style) (古文).

    His life is a tale of genius, moral uprightness, power, and exile.

    Family background

    Han Yu descended from a long line of Han Chinese government officials from Northern China.

    During the Tang, genealogical research was highly valued. Han Yu’s was able to record his own illustrious ancestors, including: 

    • Han Xin: a king of Yinchuan executed by the Han dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD, 25 – 220 AD) for defection
    • Han Qi and Han Mao: Distinguished father and son Wei dynasty (386–535 AD) officials and military men

    More immediately, his paternal grandfather, Han Ruisu (? – ?), was a government official and general in Guizhou. Han Yu later wrote that his grandfather “brought civilisation to the South.”

    Han Yu’s father was Han Zhongqing (d. 770 AD). He too was a government official. Not much is known about him. However, China’s most famous poet, Li Bai (701 – 762 AD) did praise him in a prose piece:

    ‘When he arrived at his appointment as magistrate in Wuchang, before he had descended his carriage, the people feared him. However, as soon as he descended, they liked him. His kindness was like a spring breeze, and within three months there were major reforms. Rapacious officials were under control, and powerful families looked on cautiously.’

    – Li Bai, extract from ‘Inscription Commemorating the Departure of Magistrate Han of Wuchang’

    Han Zhongqing is also said to have had keen literary interests and talents. Unfortunately, none of his writings survive.

    And his younger brother, Han Yunqing (? – ?), was also well-known for his writing ability. Han Yunqing would prove to be a strong influence on Han Yu’s intellectual development.

    Early life

    The exact place of birth of Han Yu (韩愈 [Hányù]), courtesy name Tui Zhi, is uncertain. Accounts variously state:

    • Luoyang (in today’s Henan Province), then the eastern – and secondary – capital of the Tang empire. 
    • Heyang (today’s Mengzhou, Henan Province), where his own and his family’s ancestral tombs are 
    • Huizhou (today’s Xiuwu County Henan Province)
    • Changli (today’s Yi County, Liaoning Province)

    (The An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763 AD) broke out in the northeast of China about 15 years before his birth. This had caused his family – like many others – had migrated further south.) 

    What is known for certain is that just two months after his birth, his mother passed away. And two years later, in 770 AD, his father did, too.

    Fortunately for Han Yu, his elder brother, the government official Han Hui (738 – 780 AD), then raised him. Han Yu described his early circumstances later on in his writing: 

    My birth was not auspicious. I was orphaned at two years old and raised by my older brother. It was my sister-in-law’s kindness that rescued me from death. Before I was seven, my brother received a government post, so we left Luoyang to live in Chang’an. When I was cold, she clothed me; when I was hungry, she fed me. So, neither illness nor misfortune befell me.

    – Han Yu, extract from ‘Lament for Madam Zheng’ (祭郑夫人文)

    Han Hui worked as ‘the diarist of activity and repose’ during his time in Chang’an.

    However, as a close associate of the prime minister Yuan Zai (? – 777 AD), Han Hui was exiled when the prime minster was executed for corruption.

    Han Yu, still a child, accompanied his brother to his new post in Shaozhou (today’s Shaoyang, Hunan Province) in 777. 

    781 – 786 AD: Xuanzhou – Education and finding his vocation

    Unfortunately, in 780 or 781, when Han Yu was about 11 years old, his brother passed away. 

    Because of turmoil in the north of China, Han Yu’s sister-in-law brought Han Yu with her to Xuanzhou (today’s Xuancheng, Anhui Province).

    Like most boys of his class, Han Yu studied the Chinese classics in preparation for the imperial exams from around six years old. 

    Unlike many boys of his class, he seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed this. Reflecting on this just over a decade later, he wrote:

    Because of the troubles on the central plains,
    We went south of the river to live, 
    And there I began solely to focus on study, 
    Putting my mind only to the precepts of the ancients.
    I spied the traces these former spirits had left behind

    And rose high and alone to search out their depths.
    When once I saw my road, I pulled swiftly ahead, 
    never realising I lacked the strength.

    – Han Yu, extract from ‘Fu on Renewing My Purpose’ (复志赋) (797 AD)

    786 – 793 AD: Chang’an, exams

    In 786, A very bookish and solitary 18-year-old Han Yu arrived in Chang’an, the Tang dynasty capital.

    By his own admission, he was not particularly sociable. His interest appeared to lie solely in his studies. 

    He was also poor and not well connected. And things looked like they would go worse when his cousin, Han Yen (753 – 787 AD) was killed fighting the Tibetan army.

    Soon after this, the wealthy military governor of Henan, Ma Sui (726 – 795 AD), reached out to Han Yu. Ma, an associate of Han Yen, appears to have taken pity on Han Yu, who he treated as a guest in his mansion.

    Not long after this, in 788, Han Yu passed the provincial examination. This enabled him to sit for the higher exam, the jinshi – passing this opened up government careers to successful candidates.

    Unfortunately, he failed again in 788, 789, and 791. This was at least in part due to his failure to make a connection with his examiner.

    Throughout the Tang dynasty, candidates were expected to befriend and get to know their examiners over the course of months before exams. 

    This changed in later dynasties, when the relative anonymity of candidates became a crucial part of maintaining more objective assessments.

    Finally, he passed on his fourth attempt in in 793.

    793 – 795 AD: Higher exams and searching for work

    After passing the jinshi, many candidates still had to wait for years until they received an official position.

    Another option, which could fast-track their progress, was the advanced ‘vast erudition and grand composition’ (博学宏辞科).

    Han Yu actually passed this exam on his first attempt. He was one of three (out of 32) successful candidates.

    Unfortunately, his name was taken off the list by a leading minister due to his (Han Yu’s) associations with the examiner’s political rivals!

    He next tried to travel to the military district on Fengxiang, near Chang’an (today’s Xi’an, Shaanxi Province). He tried to find employment with the military governor there, but he was unsuccessful.

    This was followed by two more unsuccessful attempts at the vast erudition and grand composition exam in 793 and 794.

    And yet another unsuccessful attempt at being employed in 795 – this time by writing directly to leading government ministers.

    (Given Han Yu’s later status as one of the most vastly erudite and grand masters of composition, these failures may seem strange. However, many similar examples exist throughout Chinese history.)

    He headed back to his hometown in in 795. He reflected on his intellectual and personal frustration in a poem:


    Ancient annuls strewn left and right, 
    Poetry and History placed in front and behind. 
    How do I differ from a bookworm, 
    caught between words from birth until death? 
    My indignation cries out in anguish, 
    my tears gush like the nine rivers […]
    Even to return today, who would befriend me?

    -Han Yu, extract from ‘Miscellaneous Poem’ (杂诗) (795)

    795 – 96 AD: Marriage and first job

    795 – 96 was a turning point in Han Yu’s life. After a lot of solitary study and disappointments, things began to happen.

    In fact, 796 is the only year of his adult life that there appear to be no datable writings from…

    In August of 795, he gained his first government job as an inspector (推官) and collator of texts in the imperial library in Bianzhou Prefecture (today’s Kaifeng). 

    And in the autumn or winter of 795, he married into the aristocratic Lu clan. This was likely arranged by the wealthy politician Ma Sui, whose own son was married to the sister of Han Yu’s wife.

    His government positions were both within the lowest of the nine-rank system of Tang officials. However, Bianzhou was a critical part of the Tang empire.

    (It should be noted that by this point, Han Yu was head of a household numbering nearly thirty people, including his wife, daughters, domestic staff, and more).

    And Han Yu arrived there as important events unfolded…

    In short, a power struggle broke out when the existing military governor died. The 28-year-old Han Yu travelled with the new governor to greet the subordinate who has assumed command of the military garrison there.

    The unarmed party Han Yu was with covered 50 miles in a short space of time, knowing that a potentially violent mutiny faced them. Fortunately, their speed and smooth handling of matters ensured peace preserved.

    Around this time, despite his lack of writing, Han Yu began to gain a reputation as a learned literary man. Visitors came and held discussions or even studied under him.

    799 – 800 AD: Close call, frustration, and close call again

    In 799, Dong Jin, the governor Han Yu worked under, passed away. Han Yu accompanied a party of officials taking Dong’s body back to Luoyang.

    Meanwhile, back in Bianzhou, the soldiers mutinied. They caught several officials and their staff, cut them up and ate them…

    Han Yu was, of course, lucky to have avoided this fate by being away at the right time. And his family, who had still been in Bianzhou at the time, had escaped by boat along the grand canal).

    Han Yu and his family found refuge in Xuzhou (in today’s Jiangsu Province) with a protégé of Ma Sui named Zhang Jianfeng (735 – 800 AD). Here he was appointed to the same role he had served in Bianzhou.

    Unfortunately, relations between Han Yu and Zhang were not good.

    Han Yu made clear his disapproval of Zhang’s working rules and out-of-work behaviours (including using troops to play polo, which Han Yu thought needlessly distracted and tired them).

    Zhang eventually dismissed Han Yu. This was a blessing in more ways than one: the ailing Zhang died shortly after and his troops mutinied shortly after.

    By this point, Han Yu was safely out of the way again, back in Luoyang.

    801 – 803 AD: Teaching

    In 801, Han Yu was appointed to as a professor of the University of the Sons of the State. Here, helped students prepare for the Jinshi examinations. 

    Here, he gained a reputation as a great teacher able to help a high number of his students pass this prestigious exam.

    Shortly after his two years working here, he reflected on the nature of taking teachers in his piece, ‘On Teachers’ (803):

    Having a teacher was a necessity to ancient scholars. Teachers transmit the Way and knowledge, and resolve doubts. People aren’t born with knowledge, so how can they be without doubts? And doubts will never be resolved without teachers.

    – Han Yu, extract from ‘On Teachers’

    803 – 804 AD: A memorial on famine

    In 803, Han Yu was appointed to his highest government position yet as ‘censor in the court of outside inquiries’.

    This was a time of tense political intrigue and in-fighting in the imperial court. To make matters worse, drought and famine appeared in 803. 

    The same year, Han Yu submitted a memorial to the Emperor Dezong (r. 779 – 805 AD).

    至闻有弃子逐妻,以求口食;坼屋伐树,以纳税钱;寒馁道途,毙踣沟壑。[…] 伏乞特敕京兆府,应今年税钱及草粟等在百姓腹内征未得者,并且停征,容至来年,蚕麦庶得,少有存立。
    Your subject submits that, this year, districts around the capital have suffered from summer  drought and an early autumn frost. As a result, nine-tenths of the crops have failed […] 
      There is news of some abandoning their children and driving off their wives to preserve food. Others have torn down their houses and felled their trees to pay taxes 
    I humbly request that you be gracious enough to order the Metropolitan Prefecture to waive taxes and deliveries of hay and grain not yet collected from the people this year until the silkworm and wheat harvests next year […]

    – Han Yu, extract from ‘Censorial Memorial on Drought and Famine’ (803) (御史台上论天旱人饥状)

    The emperor saw this memorial as criticism and Han yu was punished by being sent into exile south in Lianzhou (in today’s Guangdong Province).

    This would not be the first time Han Yu would get himself in trouble with memorials to the throne.

    805 – 816 AD: Return to politics

    In 805 the Emperor Dezhong died. During the the brief reign of Emperor Shunzong (r. February – August 805), a general amnesty was announced that enabled Han Yu to return from exile.

    The amnesty remained in place under the Emperor Xianzong (r. 805 – 820). Han Yu was appointed administrator of judiciary services. 

    And then, in 806, Xianzong issued a decree that offered 100 official positions at the Imperial University in the capital. Han Yu was recommended by the then prime Minister, Zheng Yuqing (748 – 820 AD). 

    He was in this role for about three years, when he was transferred to the post of ‘auxiliary secretary in the Bureau of Prisons’ and – concurrently – as a member of the Bureau of Sacrifices. This was a big step up in his career. 

    Meanwhile, He had been writing some of his greatest poetry and prose to date, including what many consider to be his greatest poem, ‘Autumn Sentiments’.

    Han Yu was appointed to a number of provincial positions in the following years, both in Chang’an and Henan (roles in the capital were still considered provincial at a certain level).

    His upright and outspoken nature led him into conflict with court eunuchs and corrupt officials.

    My duties have bought me into daily conflict with the eunuchs. They wait for me to make a mistake, utter calumnies and slander against me, and create disorder amongst the official documents.

    – Han Yu

    816 – 817 AD: Rising status, an end to war

    In 816, Han Yu was appointed imperial palace secretary. This was his highest position yet, which him in regular contact with the emperor. 

    Unfortunately for Han Yu, he was demoted a few months later when anti-war faction in government managed to gain the upper hand in an internal political struggle. 

    A potential internal rebellion, complete with raids, was brewing in Caizhou (today’s Zhumadian, Henan Province). Government officials argued over whether or not to crush this. 

    Finally, in 817, a daring raid during a snowstorm by government forces retook the rebel’s garrison. Han Yu, then back in imperial favour, spent two months on a commission from the emperor to write an account of the events.

    818 AD: The Buddha’s finger bone

    In 818, Han Yu was fifty years old and at the height of his official career. 

    But his life – and the lives of family – changed drastically for him when wrote a certain memorial to the emperor.

    It began when it was announced that a relic, purported by the faithful to be the Buddha’s finger, was due to come to the Forbidden City (where the emperor lived in the capital).

    The emperor himself had ordered his eunuchs to keep the relic in the Forbidden City for three days. It was even designated the status of ‘Protector of the Nation’. Enthusiastic crowds gathered to visit it.

    Han Yu’s memorial took the usual stance of a memorial to an emperor – a polite, humble suggestion that doesn’t directly blame the emperor for anything. 

    However, it was unusually bold in the claims it made and the taboos it touched upon. For example, it highlighted previous emperors who had embraced Buddhism and then not lived long afterwards.


    The Buddha was a barbarian. With his language he could not have communicated with the people of China, and his dress was different to ours. He did not speak in the manner of our ancient kings, nor was his body clad like theirs. He did not know the proper relationship between rulers and ministers and the affection between father and son. […]
    Now that he has been dead for a long time, why should we let his decayed and rotten bones, an ill-omened and filthy relic, enter the Forbidden City of the palace?

    -Han Yu, extract from ‘Memorial on the Buddha’s Bone’

    It is difficult to see how he could not have expected the emperor to be offended.

    And offended the emperor was…

    In fact, he even wanted Han Yu to be executed. But in the end, ministers persuaded him that exile was sufficient punishment.

    Anti-Buddhist sentiment in Tang China

    To fully understand the above incident, it’s worth knowing a bit about the background to anti-Buddhism in Tang China.

    Buddhism had first entered China during the Han dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD). It successfully found adherents across the nation, even taking on a uniquely Chinese version in ‘Chan (禅) Buddhism’.

    By the Tang dynasty, the number of Buddhist temples in the capital (Chang’an), outnumbered the number of Daoist temples. 

    To some Daoist and Confucian adherents and intellectuals, this was unacceptable. After all, many of them argued (often more vociferously than Han Yu did), this foreign religion: 

    • Competed with and contradicted Daoism and Confucianism
    • Encouraged self-mutilation 
    • Caused adherents to withdraw from society and not pay taxes


    Shortly after Han Yu’s lifetime, the Emperor Wuzong (r. 840 – 846) aggressively persecuted Buddhists, especially in the last two years of his reign. However, this was not the norm throughout the dynasty (and thereafter). 

    As Han Yu found out: the official stance towards Buddhism was generally toleration and even acceptance.

    819 AD: Exile

    Han Yu was sent into exile in Chaozhou (in today’s Guangdong Province).

    Today, of course, Guangdong has long been a prosperous part of China. However, back during the Tang dynasty, places this far south often led to suffering or even death for officials.

    There was often a risk of malaria and other discomforts that came with the subtropical climate, different diet, customs, etc. 

    Furthermore, the locals often did not speak mutually intelligible forms Chinese. And when officials arrived at these locations, they were expected to work (administrating the region) for little or no pay.

    The journey itself was incredibly long and arduous. The distance between Chang’an and Chaozhou is approximately 1,100 miles (1, 770 km).

    To make matters even worst for Han Yu, his fourth daughter, Han Na (808 – 819 AD), died en route into exile. 

       After I went south [into exile], the authorities held that the criminal’s family could not remain in the capital, so they were forced into exile also. My daughter Na was eleven. She was already ill and sick with fear at the separation from her father. Furthermore, she suffered from the shaking and jolting of travel by sedan chair and from the irregularity of meals. She died at the Cengfeng Post station near Shangnan and was buried in the hills off to the south of the road.

    – Han Yu, extract from ‘Lament for my Daughter Na’ (819) (祭女挐女文)

    About a year later, when he passed by the grave again, he was more direct about his feelings in his writing:

    Your innocence was brought to this by my guilt –
    A hundred years of shame, remorse, and tears.

    Han Yu, extract from ‘Last Year I Was Exiled from the Ministry of Justice To Be Prefect of Chaozhou and Set Off on the Post Road to Take Up My Position; Later My Family Was Also Banished. My Daughter Died on the Road and Was Buried in The Mountains by the Cengfeng Post Station. Now I have Been Pardoned and on My Return to the Capital, I Pass by Her Grave and Inscribe This On the Beam of the Post Station’ (去岁自刑部侍郎以罪贬潮州刺史乘驿赴任其后家亦谴逐小女道死殡之层峰驿山下蒙恩还朝过其墓留题驿梁)

    The travel also brought back memories of Han Yu’s brother’s exile decades before:

    Childhood memory of following my brother. 
    Southbound today, the lone person [from former times].
    Before me, my whole household moves again,
    but there’s no one to talk with of the past.

    – Han Yu, ‘Thoughts on passing the Shixing Estuary’ (819 AD) (过始兴江口感怀)

    Han Yu continued to loyally and diligently carry out his work as a government official in Chaozhou. He even ended of child slavery in the region and setting up of a Confucian school.

    820 AD – 824 AD: Return to Chang’an and passing

    Han Yu was recalled from exile in November 820, when he was appointed the rector of the Imperial University. 

    In 822, he was transferred to the position of vice president of the Ministry of War. Later the same year he become vice president of the Ministry of Personnel. And finally, he returned to the same Ministry of War role.

    In the summer of 824, he requested – and was granted – sick leave. By autmn, he resigned from his role. And on December 25th, he passed away. 

    His last poem was written just a couple of months before his death:

    Tonight’s [moon’s] roundness be better [than before]
    with fine guests for company here. 
    I regret that I can’t enjoy more food and wine, 
    but I can still partake in poetry and laughter.

    – Han Yu, extract from ‘Enjoying the Moon, I Rejoice at the Arrival of Auxiliary Secretary Chang and Librarian Wang’ (玩月喜张十八员外以王六秘书至)