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Yu Shinan, a Man of Five Absolute Merits
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Yu Shinan (558 - 638), also named Boshi, was a calligrapher and man of letters in Tang Dynasty. For generations, his families lived in Minghechang of Beixi Town, Cixi County. Shinan's family was a noble and distinguished one in Cixi. His grandfather, father, uncles and brothers all enjoyed great fame. Yu Ji, Shinan's uncle, served in the royal court as Imperial Secretary. Yu Ji had no children, so he adopted Shinan as his heir - that was why Shinan was also named Boshi (uncle's heir). 

Yu Shinan looked frail physically, but was very knowledgeable and had unusual memory. When young, he studied together with Yu Shiji, his elder brother, from Gu Yewang, a learned scholar. For over ten years, he never spared his effort in learning. At times he was so intoxicated in the study that he forgot to wash up for weeks. Yu Shinan liked calligraphy in particular, and befriended with Monk Zhiyong, the 7th generation posterity of Wang Xizhi (the best-known calligrapher throughout Chinese history). With intensive teaching from Monk Zhiyong, the master in calligraphic art of Wang Xizhi, Yu Shinan grasped the essence of calligraphy, and inherited the calligraphic tradition of Wang Xizhi and his son Wang Xianzhi, with the handwriting well-rounded and full of internal strength and beauty. While Yu Shinan, Ou Yangxun, Chu Shuiliang, and Xue Ji together were known as the four most noted calligraphers in early Tang Dynasty, Yu Shinan was the most outstanding of the four. Yu Shinan's calligraphy work, the Epitaph on Confucius Temple, was a great favor of Emperor Li Shimin of Tang Dynasty. The Emperor often imitated Shinan's calligraphy. It was said, one day the Emperor was writing the character '' when Yu Shinan came to pay his respect. As the character's right half had not yet been completed, Yu Shinan picked up the brush and added it. The Emperor then showed the completed character to his minister Wei Zheng, and said 'I have been learning calligraphy from Shinan. Do you think this imitation is much the same as his handwriting?' After a look, Wei Zheng answered 'The right half looks quite real'. After the death of Yu Shinan, Emperor Li Shimin sighed, 'I can talk about calligraphy with no one now'.

In his life, Yu Shinan experienced the three dynasties, namely, Chen, Sui and Early Tang Dynasty. Emperor Wendi of Chen knew Shinan was a learned scholar, and appointed him the advisor of the army. After Chen Dynasty, Shinan, together with his brother Shiji, went to Chang'an, and became an imperial secretary of Sui Dynasty. Then, Shiji ranked high in the imperial court and lived luxurious life, with quilts and clothes used by his family even better than the lords or dukes. Shinan, although living together with Shiji, still kept his thrifty tradition. After Sui Dynasty, in admiration of Shinan's talent, Li Shimin asked Shinan to be the advisor of his office. After ascending the throne, Li Shimin appointed Shinan the Scholar of the Imperial Library in charge of imperial writings together with Fang Xuanling, and later named appointed Shinan to be officer in charge of literary works. Once Emperor Li Shimin wanted to copy 'Story of Ladies of Integrity' on a screen. As no copy could be found at the moment, Shinan wrote down all the words from his memory without even one error, which won the admiration of the civilian officials in the imperial court.

Although looking frail and cowardly, Shinan was actually a quite brave gentleman, without any scruples in criticizing the remises of the government. Many times, he critically persuaded Emperor Li Shimin to be diligent in administration, and used examples of the old emperors to illustrate the gains and losses. In the 8th year of Emperor Li Shimin (634 A.D.), an avalanche took place in Shanxi. When Emperor Li Shimin asked about the 'act of heaven', Shinan took for example the avalanches that occurred since Jin Dynasty to demonstrate that 'A heaven-sent opportunity is not as good as an earthly advantage, but an earthly advantage is not as good as the union of the people; if virtues are not administered, even the heaven's help may prove no good; if there is no deficiency in administration, accidents can do no harm to the sovereignty; may your Majesty be not arrogant because your merits have transcended the ancient, and be not proud and getting loose because peace has continued; Keep on your prudence as always.' Upon hearing this, Emperor Li Shimin looked solemn and meditating. Time and again, Shinan advised the Emperor to give up luxurious tomb building, and the Emperor did have some self-restriction. He also persuaded the Emperor not to be indulged in hunting and neglect administrative affairs. In the reign of Emperor Li Shimin, a well-known period of prosperity in Chinese ancient history, Yu Shinan did play a positive role. Emperor Li Shimin once said to his ministers, 'The country is sure to be in peace and harmony if all of you are as upright and loyal as Yu Shinan.'

After Yu Shinan was over 70 years old, many times he wrote to the Emperor asking for retirement, but got refused, and was named as Magistrate of Yongxing, and was thus called by people as 'Yu Yongxing'. Yu Shiman died at the age of 80 in the 12th year of Emperor Li Shimin reign (638 AD). Emperor Li Shimin was very sad at Shinan's death, and cried, saying 'Yu Shinan is loyal to me as I am to myself, correcting and reminding me every day; he is really a noted official of our time and a moral model of human being. Whenever I erred, he was always there to advise me. Now he is now more, and who is to replace him in the imperial court.' Royal rare treasures were given by the Emperor to be buried together with Shinan, and the title of Imperial Protocol Minister was conferred upon him. Also granted to him by the Emperor was the posthumous honorary title 'Literature Master'. With the Emperor's order, Shinan's portrait was hung in Lingyan Pavilion of the royal palace.

Emperor Li Shimin once said that Yu Shinan had five absolute merits: The first is good morality; the second is uprightness and loyalty; the third is erudition; the fourth is verse talent; and the fifth is skillful calligraphy. Yu Shinan's representative calligraphic work was the 'Epitaph on Confucius Temple' in regular Chinese. Yu Shinan edited China's first complete book series 'Beitang Book Collections', which collected various classic books available in early Tang Dynasty and totaled 160 volumes. Most of the classic writings could be found today in no other place than 'Beitang Book Collections', which apparently helped preserve the old works. After Yu Shinan's death, his old residence in Minghe Town, Cixi, was built into a temple, in which Yu Shinan's portrait was hung. Yu Shinan's descendents all moved to live in Chang'an.

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