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  • His Stubbornship: Prime Minister Wang Anshi (1021–1086), Reformer and Poet by Jonathan Pease
  • Xiaoshan Yang (bio)
Jonathan Pease. His Stubbornship: Prime Minister Wang Anshi (1021–1086), Reformer and Poet. Sinica Leidensia, vol. 153. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2021. xxx, 647 pp. Hardcover $222.00, isbn 978-90-04-45929-8.

In 1992, Deng Guangming 鄧廣銘, one of the most prominent scholars on Wang Anshi in the twentieth century, advised Jonathan Pease to seek a "living Wang Anshi." This advice set in motion a project that has now materialized in a hefty 647-page tome. Drawing on Wang's poetry, prose, and diary, as well as a wide array of other primary and secondary sources, Pease's book aims to achieve three overarching goals: (i) "to explore Wang's point of view," (ii) "to reconstruct a rudimentary autobiography for him," and (iii) "to illuminate his ten years of reflection at the Banshan house beneath Bell Mountain" (p. xii). All three goals are admirably accomplished.

Arranged in chronological order, the eighteen chapters of the book are evenly divided in three parts. Each part has a one-word title: Service, Reform, Retirement. Part I covers Wang's life up to 1066, when he served in various posts both in the provinces and in the capital. Part II chronicles Wang's career from 1067 to 1076, when he implemented a wide range of reforms while at the peak of his political power. Wang's retirement from 1076 to 1086 is presented in part III. There is no need to summarize each chapter here, as such a summary would be useless for readers who are familiar with the basic contours of Wang's life and meaningless for those who are not. Suffice it to say that the book is a gripping read. Its information-packed narration is frequently enlivened by a literary flare laced with incisive humor and vivacious imagination.

The liveliness of Pease's book derives in no small part from his imaginative speculations. A prime example is his treatment of the famous "Record of an Excursion into Baochan Mountain" 遊褒禪山記. Wang's piece describes a failed [End Page 222] exploration into a mountain cave he took with four companions. The group came out before reaching the bottom of the cave because one of them got tired and urged everyone to leave on the pretext that their torches would burn out. The account has been appreciated for the lesson it offers on the importance of getting to the bottom of things for attaining true knowledge. Pease, however, spends four full pages (pp. 68–71) speculating on the identity of the person responsible for aborting the trek. While entertaining multiple possibilities, he zeroes in on Wang Hui 王回 (1023–1065) as the most likely culprit. His evidence is in the name. Hui 回 literally means "turn around" or "go back." Wang Hui's courtesy name, Shenfu 深甫, contains the word "deep" (shen 深), which appears five times in the text. Pease also sees hui 回 as a possible semi-homonym for hui 悔 (regret), which appears three times in the piece. He even brings to bear the name of Wang Hui's brother, Wang Xiang 向 (with xiang meaning "toward"). The given names of the brothers form huixiang 回向—literally "re-direction"—a Buddhist term that means transferring one's merits to others.

Pease is very frank that his work as a history detective is based on "tenuous" evidence, that the hui/return/regret hypothesis is "unprovable," and that "it would be excessive to claim that Wang Anshi built the piece around a pun" (p. 71). Nonetheless, he should be commended for offering a hypothesis that may open up new perspectives on a most frequently anthologized piece. When read as a "private joke," Wang's account assumes an additional layer of meaning. We get a tantalizing hint of his "sense of humor" (p. 69). Humor is a quality that has rarely been associated with Wang, whether in his personal life or in his writings.

Speculations spice up Pease's narration. Sometimes, however, they are based on evidence that seems flimsy at best, as when he imaginatively traces the genesis of Sijia shixuan 四家詩選 (Selected Poems of Four Masters) to Wang's interaction with Chen...