Zhao Yi (1727-1814) was a poet, historian, and critic during the Qing Dynasty in China. Zhao is notable for his innovative poetry, his historical writings (including Notes on the Twenty-Two Dynastic Histories), and for espousing unconventional views on various aspects of Chinese dynastic history.
Zhao's early life exemplified the Confucian ideal of upward mobility from destitution through the skillful cultivation and use of intelligence, education, and personal connections.:135-136 Like many other aspirants to social status in the Qing Empire, Zhao began his studies early in life. Zhao began his education before the age of five, and was recorded to have been a precocious learner.:110 Later, Zhao was further spurred on to achieve educational and career success to ensure the well-being of his family after his father died when Zhao was only 14 years old.:118
In the imperial examination system, Zhao achieved admirable success, despite early setbacks. After apparently failing a local examination fourteen times, Zhao went on to earn his provincial degree in 1750 at the age of 23 on his second attempt, and later earned his metropolitan degree in 1761, placing third overall in his cohort behind Wang Jie and Hu Gaowang.:36-37, 110 Notably, Zhao specialized in the difficult Book of Rites (along with only 6% of his cohort), and incorporated emphasis on practical problems of government.:73,75,105
Even as he performed well in the imperial examination system, Zhao was notably defiant in his examination writings. In these writings, Zhao criticized the format and practices of the examination system, taking aim at issues including the imposed formal structure of examination writing as well as the failures of examiners in their duty both to those taking the exams and to the level of scholarly discourse.:94-95
At least in part because of an aversion to examination writing, Zhao delved into poetry.:114 Zhao eventually became and is still remembered as one of the Three Masters of the Qianlong Period for his poetry (the others being Zhao's friends Yuan Mei and Jiang Shiquan).:102
The originality of Zhao’s ideas on poetry were recognized in his own lifetime, as is attested to in the writings of his friend and fellow poet Yuan Mei who appreciated Zhao’s poetic eccentricities as well as his unorthodox and rich literary influences, and drew a firm distinction between Zhao’s work and that of his contemporaries who imitated Tang and Song poetry.:271
Notable historical positions
For the compilation of works on the Dzungar campaign like Strategy for the pacification of the Dzungars (Pingding Zhunge'er fanglue), the Qing hired Zhao Yi and Jiang Yongzhi at the Military Archives Office, in their capacity as members of the Hanlin. Poems glorifying the Qing conquest and genocide of the Dzungar Mongols were written by Zhao. Zhao Yi wrote the Yanpu zaji in "brush-notes" style, where military expenditures of the Qianlong Emperor's reign were recorded.
Zhao supported the view that historians and works of history were of great importance in China. In one instance, he argued that, while the Confucian Classics constituted the principles of Chinese dynastic government, it was works of history that provide the actual record of the government at work that could act as a guide to what historian Richard J. Smith calls, “proper conduct for the present and future.”:136
With regard to another historical position, Zhao was at odds with the still popular and (in modern times) patriotic view that the peace policy of the Southern Song Dynasty toward the Jin Dynasty was traitorous, and Zhao instead adopted the minority position he shared with the earlier Chinese scholar Wang Fuzhi that the peace policy saved the Southern Song from further defeat at the hands of the Jin.:49 At least one modern Western scholar has taken a position that aligns with Zhao’s, arguing that the peace policy was “validated by the later history of the Southern Sung.”:49
In another notable instance of an unconventional historical interpretation, Zhao espoused what historian Arthur Waldron terms a “realistic opinion” that the fall of the Ming Dynasty was the fault of the empty words of poorly informed scholars whose opposition to the peace efforts of the Chongzhen Emperor toward the Manchus brought about unnecessary conflict that the Manchus had not intended.:189 This view limits the responsibility of the Manchus for initiating Manchu-Chinese conflict and shifts it to the Chinese elites.
In one further notable divergence from many Chinese writers in his era and even more so during the Ming Dynasty, Zhao offered praise for the efforts of the founder of the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shihuang, to secure the northern borders of China with the early Great Wall rather than the criticisms of certain other Chinese writers (such as Wan Sitong and Li Mengyang).:202
Although because of various setbacks, Zhao failed to achieve the political influence which he had ambitions to attain in his lifetime and considered his professional career a failure, Zhao has been recognized as an important figure in Chinese history and historiography through the present day.:199
- Iona D. Man Cheong, Class of 1761, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).
- J. D. Schmidt, Harmony Garden: The Life, Literary Criticism, and Poetry of Yuan Mei (1716-1798), (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
- Man-Cheong, Iona (2004). Class of 1761. Stanford University Press. p. 180. ISBN 0804767130. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
- Schmidt, J. D. (2013). Harmony Garden: The Life, Literary Criticism, and Poetry of Yuan Mei (1716-1798). Routledge. p. 444. ISBN 1136862250. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
- Schmidt, Jerry D. (2013). The Poet Zheng Zhen (1806-1864) and the Rise of Chinese Modernity. BRILL. p. 394. ISBN 9004252290. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
- Theobald, Ulrich (2013). War Finance and Logistics in Late Imperial China: A Study of the Second Jinchuan Campaign (1771–1776). BRILL. p. 32. ISBN 9004255672. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
- Chang, Michael G. (2007). A Court on Horseback: Imperial Touring & the Construction of Qing Rule, 1680-1785 (illustrated ed.). Harvard University Asia Center. p. 435. ISBN 0674024540. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
- Richard J. Smith, China’s Cultural Heritage: The Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983).
- Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China, (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990).
- Edward H. Kaplan, “Yueh Fei and the Founding of the Southern Sung,” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 1970), as found in: Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China, (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990).
- Cheong, Iona D. Man. Class of 1761. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.
- Kaplan, Edward H. "Yueh Fei and the Founding of the Southern Sung." PhD diss., University of Iowa, 1970, as found in: Waldron, Arthur. The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990.
- Schmidt, J. D. Harmony Garden: The Life, Literary Criticism, and Poetry of Yuan Mei (1716-1798). New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.
- Smith, Richard J. China’s Cultural Heritage: The Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983.
- Waldron, Arthur. The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990.
- Du, Weiyun, Zhao Yi zhuan. Taipei, 1983.
- Wang, Jiangsheng. Zhao Oubei yanjiu. Taipei, 1988.