Wang Can

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Wang Can
Politician of Han Dynasty
Born 177[1]
Died 217 (aged 40)[1]
Courtesy name Zhongxuan (Chinese: 仲宣; pinyin: Zhòngxuān; Wade–Giles: Chung-hsüan)
Wang Can
Chinese 王粲

Wang Can (Chinese: 王粲; 177–217),[1][2] courtesy name Zhongxuan, was a politician, scholar and poet who lived in the late Eastern Han Dynasty. He contributed greatly to the establishment of laws and standards during the founding days of the vassal kingdom of Wei – the forerunner of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period – under Cao Cao. For his literary achievements, Wang Can was ranked among the Seven Scholars of Jian'an (建安七子).

Wang Can was also renowned for his eidetic memory. Chen Shou's Records of the Three Kingdoms described an incident where Wang Can was watching a game of weiqi. Someone accidentally knocked into the board and scattered the pieces. Wang Can then placed the pieces back to their original positions based on memory.


A local of Guangping Commandery (present-day Zou County, Shandong), Wang Can was born into a family of high-ranking bureaucrats, the son of Wang Qian (王謙). His great-grandfather, Wang Gong (王龔), and grandfather, Wang Chang (王暢), were among the Three Excellencies under Emperor Shun and Emperor Ling respectively.

When the warlord Dong Zhuo usurped power in 189, placing on the throne the puppet ruler Emperor Xian, Wang Can was merely 13 years of age. A year later, Dong Zhuo moved the capital from Luoyang to the more strategically secure Chang'an. Wang Can then headed for the new capital, where he settled down for the next three years. During his stay in Chang'an, Wang Can's talent was recognized by the prominent scholar and calligrapher Cai Yong. The young Wang Can was also offered several posts, all of which he turned down.

In 194, Wang Can went to Jingzhou (covering present-day Hubei and Hunan) to seek a position under the governor Liu Biao. However, Liu Biao did not favor Wang Can as the latter looked pallid and sickly. After the death of Liu Biao in 208, his son Liu Cong was persuaded by Wang Can to surrender to Cao Cao.

Wang Can's talents were finally exploited under his new lord. In 213, Cao Cao was enfeoffed as the Duke of Wei and given ten cities under his dukedom, which was named "Wei". Wang Can was then entrusted with establishing a new system of laws and standards to replace the old one, which had largely fallen into disuse. In late 216, Wang Can followed Cao Cao on his fourth southern campaign against Sun Quan.

Wang Can died on the way back to Ye (in present-day Handan, Hebei) due to sickness in the spring of 217 at the age of 40. Cao Pi who attended his funeral said that "in old times, Wang Can loved the braying sounds of donkeys, let's make a braying sound as a farewell to Wang Can"; thereupon, each of the funeral guest brayed like a donkey.

Wang Can was survived by two sons. However they were executed in the result of the rebellion of Wei Feng in 219, resulting in Wang Can's line being terminated. Being a relative Wang Can, Wang Ye, a son of Wang Kai, inherited 10,000 books of Wang Can, which were passed on to Wang Ye's sons Wang Bi and Wang Hong.

Literary achievements[edit]

Wang Can was an established poet. Along with six other poets of his time, their poems formed the backbone of what was to be known as the Jian'an style[1] (建安風骨). They were collectively called the "Seven Scholars of Jian'an" (建安七子).

The civil strife towards the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty gave the Jian'an poems their characteristic solemn yet heart-stirring tone, while lament over the ephemerality of life was also a central theme of works from this period. In terms of the history of Chinese literature, the Jian'an poems were a transition from the early folk songs into scholarly poetry. One of the representative works by Wang Can is the Poem of Seven Sorrows (七哀诗), a five-character poem lamenting the suffering of the people during the years of war. Wang Can also wrote a history book called Records of Heroes (英雄記).


Many anecdotes and stories related to Wang Can exist. It is recounted[where?] that when he was yet a youth, Wang Can went to visit Cai Yong, then a vice-chairman of the Secretariat; and although many guests of exalted rank were present, the host hastened to welcome the newcomer with the greatest deference. The others were astonished and asked why he was so respectful to a mere youth. "He is a young man with the highest gifts," said Cai Yong. The Records of the Three Kingdoms stated that Wang Can was widely read and had a most retentive memory, better than any of his contemporaries. If he glanced at a roadside monument as he passed, he remembered every word of the inscription. If he saw people playing weiqi and the board was suddenly disturbed, he could replace every piece in its correct place.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Jian'an" was the era name for the period from 196 to 220.


  1. ^ a b c Wang Can's biography in Records of the Three Kingdoms mentioned that he died at the age of 41 (by East Asian age reckoning) in the 22nd year of the Jian'an era (196-220) in the reign of Emperor Xian of Han. (二十二年春,道病卒,時年四十一。) By calculation, Wang Can's birth year should be around 177.
  2. ^ de Crespigny, Rafe (2007). A biographical dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23–220 AD). Brill. p. 802. ISBN 978-90-04-15605-0.