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Qilüe 七略 and Bielu 別錄

Feb 5, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Qilüe 七略 "Seven Abstracts" was the oldest bibliography of ancient China. It recorded all books stored in the libraries in the imperial palace during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE). The compilation was begun in 26 BCE by imperial aide Liu Xiang 劉向 (79-8 or 77-6 BCE).

Liu Xiang first compared different manuscripts of books and established a standard version after eliminating writing errors and redundant paragraphs. He then arranged the chapters of the books and created a standardized content. Finally, he wrote a preface pointing at the strengths and weaknesses of the texts. The different parts were compiled by experts on the particular field. Liu Xiang himself compiled the poetry part, Ren Hong 任宏 that on military treatises, Yin Xian 尹咸 that on astronomy and divination, and Li Zhuguo 李柱國 the part on medical and magical texts. In the end, Liu Xiang submitted the prefaces, as a 20 juan long book, to Emperor Cheng 漢成帝 (r. 33-7 BCE) for lecture. The collection of the prefaces was called Bielu 別錄 "Separate records".

After Liu Xiang's death, his son Liu Xin 劉歆 (d. 23 CE)revised the Bielu, eliminated the description of the content and compiled the 7-juan long Qilüe 七略. All books were included in one of six categories, at the beginning of which Liu Xin put an introduction (jilüe 輯略, as the seventh category), describing the general history of the literary types in the particular category. The introduction was seen as a separate "category", resulting in seven lüe "abstracts". Each category was divided into 38 different schools of masters (jia 家). The books listed under the headings of these schools were listed in chronological order.

The first category was that of the "Six Arts" (Liuyi lüe 六藝略), i. e. the Confucian Classics, including the Yijing 易經, Shangshu 尚書, Shijing 詩經, Liji 禮記, Yueji 樂記 ("On Music"), Chunqiu 春秋, Lunyu 論語, Xiaojing 孝經, and minor teachings (xiaoxue 小學), with all related texts.

The second category was that of the various masters and philosophers (Zhuzi lüe 諸子略). The nine or ten different schools include philosophers, political advisors, creators of law, scientific treatises, and some more.

The third category (Shifu lüe 詩賦略) included poems and rhapsodies.

The fourth category was that of the military treatises (Bingshu lüe 兵書略), that only later would be incorporated into the masters category, just like the two last categories, namely books on calculation and divination (Shushu lüe 術數略), and the category of texts on magic and supernatural skills, including medical texts (Fangji lüe 方技略). The Qilüe included books of 603 writers and texts with a volume of 13,219 juan.

Surviving fragments of the Qilüe quoted in other books give in impression of the wide range of texts compiled during the Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and early Han periods. At the same time it makes it possible to assess the meager percentage of those books that have survived until today.

Both the Bielu and the Qilüe were lost at an early date. The historian Ban Gu 班固 (32-92 CE) of the early Later Han period 後漢 (25-220) preserved part of the Qilüe in the bibliography that is included in his official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書, namely the chapter Yiwen zhi 藝文志.

Table 1. Literary categories of the Qilüe 七略
1 六藝略 Liuyi lüe Confucian Classics
2 諸子略 Zhuzi lüe Masters and Philosophers
3 詩賦略 Shifu lüe Songs/Poems and rhapsodies
4 兵書略 Bingshu lüe Military Treatises
5 術數略 Shushu lüe Books on (astronomical) calculation and divination
6 方技略 Fangji lüe Medical texts
7 輯略 Jilüe Introduction

The Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) scholars Gu Guanguang 顧觀光 (1799-1862), Hong Yixuan 洪頤煊 (1765-1833), Ma Guohan 馬國翰 (1794-1857) and Yao Chenzong 姚振宗 (1842-1906) collected all surviving fragments of the Bielu and Qilüe. Their result is included in the reprint series Yuhanshanfang jiyi shu 玉函山房輯遺書.

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