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Sun Simiao Biography

Sun Simiao’s Biography in the Jiu Tang Shu 舊唐書



Background: This text was completed in 945, in the Latter Jìn 後晉 Period by Liú Xù 劉昫 et al. Originally entitled “Táng History” (Táng Shū 唐書), the name was altered in order to distinguish it from the Xīn Táng Shū 新唐書 (New Táng History”) composed by Oūyáng Xiū 歐陽修 et als. in 1060. The comparative merits and demerits of both texts as sources of biographical information on Sūn Sīmiǎo have been hotly debated by scholars for centuries. In regard to the Jiù Táng Shū, its sources of information are often questioned because it was composed during times of unrest and general upheaval. Nevertheless, Gān Zǔwàng, for example, considers it to be more reliable than the Xīn Táng Shū because it is more explicit and concrete. Nathan Sivin, on the other hand, criticizes both texts extensively and considers the biographical information as mostly hagiographical since it cannot be substantiated with other primary sources. In general, he considers the information from the Xīn Táng Shū more reliable because it was composed during a time of greater peace and social stability, when more extensive historical information was available to the editors. He does admit, however, that stylistic concerns motivated the editors to exclude some significant material but that otherwise no substantial discrepancies exist between the two texts.


Translation of 《舊唐書》191, pp. 5094-5097


Sūn Sīmiǎo was from Huáyuán in Jīngzhào. At age seven, he took up studying, daily reciting thousands of characters. In his twenties, he excelled at discussing the theories of Zhuāngzi, Lǎozi, and the Hundred Schools [of classical philosophy], and was equally skilled in Buddhist literature. When the governor of Luò Zhōu, Dúgū Xìn, saw him, he sighed: “This is a sagely youth. But regrettably his talent is so great that his suitability is diminished and he will be difficult to employ.” At the time of Emperor Xuān of Zhōu (578-579), when the ruling house was embroiled in frequent upheavals, Sūn lived in retreat on Mount Tàibó. When Emperor Wén of the Suí dynasty was regent of the government (580-589), he was summoned to become an Erudite of the National University, but he declined under the pretext of illness. Addressing a close friend, he said: “After fifty years have passed, there should be a sage emerging [as ruler] and I will assist him with my prescriptions in saving people.”



When [Táng Emperor] Tàizōng ascended the throne [in 627], he summoned Sūn to the metropolitan area. Stunned by the great youthfulness of his appearance, [the emperor] addressed him: “Thus I know that there are people who have obtained the Dào and can be sincerely revered. How could talk about Xiàn Mén and Guāng Chéng (two famous immortals from Daoist mythology) be empty words!” When [Sūn] was about to be conferred the rank of a noble, he firmly refused to accept it. In the fourth year of Xiǎnqìng (659), emperor Gāozōng summoned him to an audience, appointing him Grand Master of Remonstrance, and again he firmly refused and did not accept.



In the first year of Shàngyuán (674), he requested to return home on the grounds of illness. He was presented with a horse of exceptional quality and with the administrative office of Princess Póyáng’s estate for his residence. At that time, well-known scholars such as Sòng Lìngwén, Mèng Shēn, and Lú Zhàolín treated him with the decorum accorded a teacher in order to serve him. [Sūn] Sīmiǎo once followed in the Emperor’s retinue to Jiǔchéng Palace and Zhàolín stayed behind in his house. At that time, there was a diseased pear tree in front of the main hall. Zhàolín made a poem about it, its preface saying: “In the year Guǐyǒu, I lay down with illness at an official building in the Guāngdé Precinct in Chángān. An old man said: ‘This is the administrative office of Princess Póyáng’s estate. Long ago, the princess died before getting married, and her estate has fallen into disrepair.’ Currently, the hermit Sūn Sīmiǎo is in residence there. Miǎo’s way harmonizes the past with the present, and he has studied the arts of calculation to the extreme. His eminent discussion of Orthodox Oneness (a branch of religious Daoism that combined the Celestial Master tradition with the Shàngqīng and Língbǎo traditions, in medieval Daoism used as a reference to Orthodox Daoist practices) is on a par with that of the ancient Zhuāngzi. His deep penetration of non-duality is on a par with that of his contemporary Vimalakirti. His astrological prognostications and measurements of the masculine and feminine are on a par with Luòxià Hóng and Ānqī Shēng.”



Zhàolín had a malignant illness which physicians were unable to cure, so he went and asked Sīmiǎo: “What principles do the famous physicians employ to cure illness?” Sīmiǎo answered: “I have heard that if one is skilled at talking about Heaven, one must substantiate it in the human realm; if one is skilled at talking about humans, one must also root it in Heaven. In Heaven, there are four seasons and five phases; winter cold and summer heat alternate with each other. When this cyclical revolution is harmonious, it forms rain; when it is angry, wind; when it congeals, frost and snow; when it stretches out, rainbows. These are the constancies of Heaven and Earth. Humans have four limbs and five internal organs. They alternate between being awake and sleeping. In exhaling and inhaling, spitting out and sucking in, essence and qi leave and come. In their flow, they constitute provision and defense (i.e., 營氣 and 衛氣], they manifest as facial color, and they erupt as sound. These are the constancies of humanity. Yang employs the form, yin employs the essence. This is where Heaven and humanity are identical. When [the constancies] are lost, if [qi and essence] steam upward, they cause heat; if they are blocked, they cause cold; if they are bound, tumors and excrescences; if they sink, abscesses; if they scatter wildly, panting and dyspnea; and if they are exhausted, scorching and withering. Their symptoms arise on the face, and their transformations move around in the body. When one extends this analogy to apply it to Heaven and Earth, it is also likewise. Thus the waxing and waning of the Five Planets, the irregular motions of the constellations, the eclipses of the sun and moon, the flight of shooting stars, these are Heaven and Earth’s symptoms of danger. Unseasonable winter cold and summer heat are the ascent or blockage [of qi and essence] in Heaven and Earth. Uprighted boulders and thrust-up earth are the tumors and excrescences of Heaven and Earth. Collapsing mountains and caved-in ground are the abscesses of Heaven and Earth. Scattered winds and violent rains are the panting and dyspnea of Heaven and Earth. Dried-up streams and parched marshes are the scorching and withering of Heaven and Earth. An excellent physician guides [qi] with medicines and [lancing] stones and rescues with needles and prescriptions. A sage[ly ruler] harmonizes [qi] to perfect his power and uses this as support in order to manage the affairs of humanity. Thus, the human body has illnesses that can be cured, and Heaven and Earth have calamities that can be dispersed.”



Again, he said: “Wish for a gallbladder that is large, and a heart that is small, for knowledge that is round, and for action that is square. The Shī Jīng (“Classic of Poetry”) passage, “like approaching a deep abyss or treading on thin ice,” refers to a small heart. “The elegant warrior, he is a protection and wall to the prince,” refers to a large gallbladder. “He does not take a crooked course for gain, nor does he consider acting in righteousness a distress,” refers to square action. “He perceives the first signs and immediately takes action; he does not wait even a whole day,” refers to rounded knowledge.



Sīmiǎo himself said that he was born in the Xīnyǒu year of the Kāihuáng period (581-600), and that he was presently 93 years old. When inquiries were made in his home village, people unanimously stated that he had been a person of several hundred years of age. When he spoke of affairs during the [Northern] Zhōu (557-581) and Qí (550-577) periods, it was as vivid as from an eyewitness. Considering this, he cannot have been a person of a mere hundred years. But nevertheless, his sight and hearing were not weakened, and his spirit flourishing. He can be called one of the extensively illuminated immortals of ancient times.



Previously, Wèi Wēi and others received an imperial order to compile the histories of the Five Dynasties, of Qí, Liáng, Chén, Zhōu, and Suí. Fearful of leaving out anything, they paid frequent calls to him. Among Sīmiǎo’s oral transmissions, there were some that were [as vivid] as if he had seen them with his own eyes. When the Vice Director of the Chancellery Sūn Chǔyuē presented his five sons Tǐng, Jǐng, Jùn, Yòu, and Quán to Sīmiǎo, Sīmiǎo said: “Jùn will be the first to obtain high office, Yòu will reach it later, Quán will be the most famous and important, but disaster will strike when he serves in the military.” Afterwards, all this occurred as he had said. When the Supervisor of the Household of the Heir Apparent, Lú Qíqīng, was in his youth, he requested to inquire about his prospects and Sīmiǎo said: “Fifty years from now, you will have risen to the post of Regional Inspector and my grandson will serve as your subordinate. You will personally be able to protect him.” Subsequently, when Qíqīng was serving as head of Xú Prefecture, Sīmiǎo’s grandson Pǔ was indeed employed as an aid in Xiāo County in Xúzhōu. When Sīmiǎo had initially talked to Qíqīng, Pǔ had not even been born yet, and still he had known of this affair in advance. In all cases, the various traces of marvel stories are mostly of this kind.



Sīmiǎo died in the first year of Yǒngchún (682). He left behind orders for a simple funeral, to not be buried with any funerary objects, and to worship the spirits without sacrificing any animals. After more than a month had passed, his outward appearance was unchanged and when lifting the corpse, it was stiff as wood as if it were merely empty clothes. His contemporaries regarded this as a miracle.

He wrote commentaries on Lǎozi and Zhuāngzi and composed the Qiān Jīn Fāng 千金方 (“Thousand Gold Formulas”), which has been circulated through the generations. He also composed the Fú Lù Lùn in three volumes, the Shè Shēng Zhēn Lù, the Zhěn Zhōng Sù Shū, and the Huì Sān Jiào Lùn, each in one volume.



His son Xíng held the post of Vice Director of the Imperial Secretariat in the reign period Tiānshòu (690-692).

Please note that this is a copyrighted translation produced by Sabine Wilms in many weeks of painstaking research. If you appreciate our work, support us by donating or buying our publications through our on-line store. Feel free to consult this document for academic research or personal study but respect the author's copyright. In other words, reference or cite this document in publications, or share the link to this page, but please always give proper credit. For a full version with lengthy explanatory footnotes and my interpretation of this text, consult my dissertation (University of Arizona, 2002) or my book Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang: Essential Prescriptions worth a Thousand in Gold for Every Emergency Vol. 2-4, published by The Chinese Medicine Database in 2008.