He Yan (c. 195 – 9 February 249),[lower-alpha 1]courtesy namePingshu, was a Chinese philosopher and politician of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period of China. He was a grandson of He Jin, a general and regent of the Eastern Han dynasty. His father, He Xian, died early, so his mother, Lady Yin, remarried the warlord Cao Cao. He Yan thus grew up as Cao Cao’s stepson. He gained a reputation for intelligence and scholarship at an early age, but he was unpopular and criticised for being arrogant and dissolute. He was rejected for government positions by both emperors Cao Pi and Cao Rui, but became a minister during the rule of Cao Shuang. When the Sima family took control of the government in a coup d’état in 249, he was executed along with all the other officials loyal to Cao Shuang.
He Yan was, along with Wang Bi, one of the founders of the Daoist school of Xuanxue. He synthesised the philosophical schools of Daoism and Confucianism, believing that the two schools complemented each other. He wrote a famous commentary on the Daode Jing that was influential in his time, but no copies have survived. His commentary on the Analects was considered standard and authoritative for nearly 1000 years, until his interpretation was displaced by the commentary of Zhu Xi in the 14th century.
He Yan was born in Nanyang, Henan. His great-grandfather was a butcher, and his grandfather, He Jin, was a general and regent of the Eastern Han dynasty. His grandaunt was Empress He, the wife of Emperor Ling of the Eastern Han dynasty. He Yan’s father, He Xian (何咸), died at an early age. The He family’s political power was destroyed when a warlord, Dong Zhuo, occupied the Han capital of Luoyang. He Yan’s mother escaped and gave birth to He Yan in exile.
When He Yan was about six, his mother was taken as a concubine by the warlord Cao Cao, after which she became known as “Lady Yin”. After being adopted by Cao Cao, He was raised with the other princes of Wei, including Cao Cao’s eventual successor, Cao Pi (r. 220-226). Cao Pi resented He for acting as if he were a crown prince, and referred to him by the name “false son” rather than his real name. He later married one of Cao Cao’s daughters, Princess Jinxiang, who may have been one of He’s half-sisters. As a result of his adoption, He Yan spent a considerable amount of time with Cao Cao during his childhood.
At a young age, He Yan gained a reputation of being extremely gifted: “bright and intelligent as a god”. He had a passion for reading and study. Cao Cao consulted with him when he was confused about how to interpret Sun Tzu‘s The Art of War, and was impressed with He Yan’s interpretation. He Yan’s contemporaries (both in Cao Wei and the Jin dynasty) disliked him, and wrote that he was effeminate, fond of makeup, dissolute and egotistical. The second Wei emperor Cao Rui (r. 226-239) refused to employ him because he believed that He was a “floating flower”: well known for a life of flamboyance and dissipation. He was reportedly fond of “five-mineral powder“, a hallucinatory drug.
He Yan was not able to achieve political prominence either under Cao Pi or Cao Rui. When Cao Rui died in 239, he left his adopted son, Cao Fang, then still a child, on the throne. Cao Shuang, a relative of the Cao family, took control of the government as regent. He Yan ingratiated himself into Cao Shuang’s inner circle, eventually being promoted to Secretary of Personnel (吏部尚書) and bringing many of his friends and acquaintances into important positions. One of He Yan’s friends promoted into office during this period was the influential philosopher Wang Bi.