Wei Yüan

The Chinese historian and geographer Wei Yüan (1794-1856) was one of the first Chinese to advocate learning about the West; he collected and edited available facts in the "Illustrated Gazetteer of the Countries Overseas."

Wei Yüan was born on April 23, 1794, in Shaoyang, Hunan. He passed the first of the official examinations at the age of 14 and is said to have exhibited an interest in history and philosophy. In 1822, after having received the chujen (the second-highest academic degree), he accepted the post of editor of the Collected Essays on Statecraft under the Reigning Dynasty, in which were reprinted over 2, 000 essays on economics and other administrative matters. This book, which was completed in 1826, became the model for an entire genre of such collections.

Through his work as editor, Wei developed an interest in current affairs and in 1829 purchased a position as a secretary in the Grand Secretariat. His new job, which gave him access to the imperial library and the archives, made it possible for him to become thoroughly familiar with national affairs and government procedures. His work also motivated him to write a history of the military campaigns of the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1912), Record of Imperial Military Exploits, which he finished in 1842. In his book he described the Ch'ing conquests of China, Mongolia, Tibet, Sinkiang, and Taiwan and the victories over the Russians, Burmese, Vietnamese, and the White Lotus rebels.

Wei was not satisfied being just a scholar, as he believed that learning should be applied to the practical problems of government. In 1825, when the Grand Canal was blocked by ice, he wrote a treatise advocating that the tribute rice be sent to Peking by sea. His admirer, the reforming governor of Kiangsu, T'ao Chu, put his plan into effect in 1826 with exemplary results. During the 1830s T'ao Chu relied on Wei's advice to reform the Northern Huai salt monopoly.

Wei Yüan is known primarily for his authorship of the Illustrated Gazetteer of the Countries Overseas, which he produced in 1844. Wei had witnessed the decline of the Ch'ing, the growing internal unrest, and the encroachment of the Western nations which climaxed in the Opium War (1839-1842). His concern prompted him to write his book as a guide on how to control the Western barbarians. The imperial commissioner for the suppression of the opium trade at Canton, Lin Tse-hsü, who was Wei's old friend, had devoted a great deal of time and energy while in Canton to gathering information about the West, much of it from Western sources which he had translated into Chinese. These materials were compiled into a Gazetteer of the Four Continents, which was turned over to Wei in 1841 and became the basis of his book.

Wei's work is unique in China's relations with the West since it represents the first systematic attempt to provide educated Chinese with a realistic picture of the outside world. His general thesis was that the Western barbarians in their desire for power and profit had devised techniques and machines to conquer the civilized world. China, committed to spiritual and moral virtue, learning, and peace, should arouse itself to the danger and apply itself to the practical problems involved so that it could triumph over the enemy.

The book is divided into four parts: history, geography, and recent political conditions in the West; the manufacture and use of foreign guns; shipbuilding, mining, and the practical arts of the West; and methods of dealing with the West. In the preface Wei stated that his reasons for compiling this book were so that China could use barbarians to fight barbarians, use barbarians to negotiate with barbarians, and learn the superior techniques of the barbarians to control barbarians. This last statement presaged the ideas of the later-generation "self-strengtheners."

In the same year that Wei completed his Illustrated Gazetteer he also received a chin-shih (the highest academic degree) and in the next year (1845) was appointed an acting district magistrate in Kiangsu. The remainder of his official career was spent in relatively minor posts, in which he dealt with matters of more traditional concern, such as local administration, flood control and irrigation, water transport, and salt administration.

Even so, Wei Yüan was recognized by his contemporaries as one of the outstanding scholars of his age, and his Illustrated Gazetteer was reprinted many times, expanded and supplemented, and translated into Japanese. Wei was working on a revised history of the Yüan dynasty (1260-1368) at the time of his death in Hangchow.

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Further Reading on Wei Yüan

The preface to Wei Yüan's Illustrated Gazetteer of the Countries Overseas is presented in translation in William T. De Bary, ed., Sources of Chinese Tradition (2 vols., 1964). There is no book in English on Wei Yüan. The only complete biography is in the publication by the U.S. Library of Congress, Orientalia Division, Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912, edited by Arthur W. Hummell (2 vols., 1943-1944).