Yan Zhitui: Family Instructions for the Yen Clan

(ca. 560–590)

Family Instructions for the Yen Clan, which Yan Zhitui (531–ca. 590) completed in the last year of his life, is an assessment of what a sixth-century, broadly educated man thought were the most essential lessons to impart to his descendants. The scion of an influential northern family that had settled in southern China in the fourth century, Yan Zhitui was a knowledgeable scholar and talented writer who became an official at the tender age of nineteen. He personally experienced the political turmoil and vicissitudes that characterized China’s Period of Disunion (220–589 CE): In 550 the rebel warlord Hou Jing made him a war captive. In 554, after the Western Wei conquered his home state of Liang, Yan Zhitui had to walk to Chang’an (modern-day Xian) as a prisoner; along the way he contracted beriberi. Then, in 556, he fled to the neighboring state of the Northern Qi, and in 577, when the Northern Qi fell to the Sui government, he once again became a captive and had to return...