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date: 21 April 2019

Intellectual Trends in Imperial China

Summary and Keywords

In a letter to his friend Wang Hui王回 (1023–1065), the great Song dynasty (960–1279) politician, scholar, thinker, and writer Wang Anshi王安石 (1021–1086) makes a distinction between the golden age of the ancients and the less-than-desirable world of the present. More importantly, it claims that the golden era was marked by a commitment to unity. Not only were morality and customs of the world made the same, but the learned were united in their learnings and opinions. The periods after the golden age, on the other hand, were marked by diversity and confusion arising from how the truth is understood. Wang believed that he had found the truth about unity and how it could be achieved from reading the Classics. His ambitious political reform (called New Policies) was a grand program that sought to bring the ideal of unity to the world through government.

Wang Anshi was of course not the only major thinker in Chinese history to ponder the question of unity. In fact, a dominant and enduring theme in the history of Chinese thought is the search for unity. Faced with uncertainties arising from a diverse and complex world, thinkers in different periods and with different intellectual orientations saw it as their main mission to discover the true nature of unity and ways of realizing it for attaining a harmonious world. The process began when Confucius (551–479 bce) was confronted with the chaotic reality following the gradual collapse of the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 bce) and its institutions and cultures. It ended with the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the last imperial regime, when new ideas of nation-state began to drastically transform the Chinese worldviews. During the two millennia in between, the search for unity spanned distinctive intellectual trends often labeled as Confucian, Daoist, or Buddhist. But such loose and often retrospective labeling cannot do justice to the complexity of history. It is therefore important to go beyond the labels and examine the common assumptions about unity among the major thinkers during a given period and how that changed over time. In doing so, we will be able to trace the emergence, development, and sometimes decline of distinctive intellectual trends before the 20th century.

Keywords: imperial China, intellectual trends, Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, literati learning, imperial system, moral self, unity, diversity


In a letter to his friend Wang Hui王回‎ (1023–1065), the great Song dynasty (960–1279) politician, scholar, thinker, and writer Wang Anshi王安石‎ (1021–1086) begins with a lament about how he has been misunderstood by his contemporaries. After much reflection, he writes, he came to this conclusion:

In ancient times, morality was unified to make the world’s customs the same. Literati who were active in ordering the world had no difference of opinion. Nowadays, every household has different ways. Individuals differ [in their understanding of] morality, and they allow [their feelings of] love, hatred, joy and anger to distort the facts before spreading them.1


The author’s personal grievance aside, the narrative of the letter is typical in the distinction it posits between the idealized golden age of the ancients, marked by a commitment to unity, and the less-than-desirable world of the present. Not only was morality singular, shaping the customs of the world in identical ways, but the learned were united in their learning and their opinions. Subsequent eras, on the other hand, were marked by diversity and confusion arising from how the truth is understood. As Peter Bol points out in his study of Wang Anshi’s thought, Wang believed that he had found the truth about unity and how it could be achieved from reading the Classics. His ambitious political reforms (called the New Policies) constituted a grand program that sought to restore the ideal of unity to the world through government.2

Wang Anshi was of course not the only major thinker in Chinese history to ponder the search for unity. In fact, it is a dominant and enduring theme in the history of Chinese thought. Faced with uncertainties arising from a diverse and complex world, thinkers in different periods and with different intellectual orientations saw as their main mission to discover the true nature of unity, that a more harmonious world might be attained. Needless to say, the definitions and conceptions of unity, and the methods proposed by major thinkers from different eras and intellectual traditions for achieving it, were as diverse as the varied phenomena that they sought to unite. It is the diversity underneath the seemingly singular pursuit of unity that this paper intends to explore.

Our earliest records of this quest date from when Confucius (551–479 bce) faced the chaotic reality following the gradual collapse of the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 bce) and its institutions and cultures. We will draw our discussion to a close with the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the last imperial regime, when new ideas about the nation-state began to drastically transform Chinese worldviews. During the intervening two millennia, the search for unity spanned distinctive intellectual trends that we often label as Confucian, Daoist, or Buddhist, though such loose and often retrospective labeling cannot do justice to the complexity of history. It is therefore important to go beyond these labels, examining the common assumptions about unity discussed by the major thinkers of a given period, and how they changed over time. In doing so, we will be able to trace the emergence, development, and sometimes decline of distinctive intellectual trends before the 20th century.

Confucius and the Origins of Literati Learning

The textual tradition of China began long before the time of Confucius (551–479 bce), but it was Confucius who first put together the systematic program of learning based on ancient texts that would eventually become the intellectual foundation of the social class of learned men called shi士‎ (often translated as “literati”). In the mainstream narrative, Confucius was not the first sage, much less the only one, of this great civilization. Yet there was little doubt in people’s minds that Confucius’s teachings had actually introduced something fundamentally new, which was crystallized in the concept of ren仁‎. The term has been translated as “virtue,” “humanity,” “humanness,” “benevolence,” and so on, but the central idea is almost untranslatable, for it is commonly known that Confucius provided different answers to the various students who asked him to define it on different occasions. On one such occasion, Confucius discussed the relationship between ren and li禮‎, which is often translated as ceremony, rite, or ritual:

The Master said, “What can a man do with the rites (li) who is not benevolent (ren)? What can a man do with music who is not benevolent (ren)?3

Here, rites and music are references to the all-encompassing ritual system that many believed was created by the duke of Zhou. As a sociopolitical system, the structure of ritual was, at least in theory, supposed to provide the guiding principles for organizing the political, social, and religious lives of the nobles. It was believed to be the foundation of social unity and harmony that made the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 bce) great.

Yet by the Warring States period, it had become clear that the system was no longer working, although the forms were still retained. Confucius saw real value in li and worked to revitalize it. Living in a disintegrated world, Confucius contended, the mission of learned men was to rediscover the essence of li by intimately examining their involvement in the system. In the passage quoted above, Confucius urged his students to contemplate the actions of individuals that imparted meaning to the social practices of rites and music. Apparently, Confucius was highlighting the importance of self-reflection in one’s pursuit of ideal social order, and he put the responsibility of creating a perfect world of unity and harmony squarely on the individual who is committed to cultivating the moral self. This focus on the individual would come to dominate the intellectuals’ concerns in the subsequent centuries. Erica Brindley has argued in her study of “individualism” (as she defines it) in early Chinese thought that in the Warring States period, accompanying the changing social composition of the shi class, there was a growing awareness of individual agency. “Perhaps as a function of rhetorical competition, perhaps through a need to render coherent many divergent ways of thinking, or perhaps, as this book emphasizes, because of the demands of increasingly centralized states, intellectuals began presenting their claims about human agency and potential in terms of universal, cosmic agencies that could unify all individuals and things in the cosmos according to a correlated and systematic network of relationships.”4 In another work, Brindley further argued that especially among those we called the “Confucianists,” (ru儒‎), music was an essential avenue for humans to exert their agency in interactions with the cosmos and participate in the creative and positive transformation of both cosmic and human worlds.5

Politically, Confucius and his immediate disciples envisioned an ideal government where the ruler and his subjects are united. Consider the following passage:

Duke Ai asked You Ruo, “The harvest is bad, and I have not sufficient to cover expenditure. What should I do?”

You Ruo answered, “What about taxing the people one part in ten?”

“I do not have sufficient as it is when I tax them two parts in ten. How could I possibly tax them one part in ten?”

“When the people have sufficient, who is there to share your insufficiency? When the people have insufficient, who is there to share your sufficiency?”6

In this dialogue, Confucius’s disciple You Ruo advised against raising taxes. He appealed to the ruler to enrich his people, for only after the people are enriched can the ruler become rich. Clearly, You Ruo saw the material well-being of the ruler and his people as interconnected. This form of reasoning is abundant in the Analects, suggesting that the idea of unity and reciprocity was crucial for Confucius’s vision of an ideal political order.

After Confucius, faced with stiff intellectual competition from competing schools, Mencius (372–289 bce) and Xunzi (c. 314–217 bce) both defended Confucius’s teachings. Although they differed sharply in their understanding of human nature and many other issues, they converged on the view that the key to a better world lies in moral self-cultivation. In pre-imperial times, this belief was shared by thinkers who were retrospectively placed in the “Confucian” school. Ru was at best a loose label, however, and one that sometimes conceals the differences between different “members” of the school. Moreover, there were many contemporaries who held radically different views about how a perfect world could be achieved. Among these, the schools that were particularly relevant to the establishment of the imperial order were the political philosophy of the Laozi text and the statist tendencies shared by a number of thinkers from different generations and regions who were later categorized together as representing a legalist (fa法‎) mode of thought.

The authorship and the exact date of the Laozi text are still unresolved. Traditionally it is accepted that Laozi and the Zhuangzi text belonged to the same camp of philosophical Daoism, but the two texts are actually products of very different intellectual purposes. While Zhuangzi’s primary objective is to elucidate what a truly free life entails, Laozi’s main concern is about teaching rulers the art of government. Its teaching empowers the ruler to act discretely, without invoking the sense of unity and reciprocity between the ruler and his subjects that was prevalent in texts commonly associated with the Confucian school. The author of Laozi advises his intended reader, the ruler, to keep his mind empty and clear so as to rule without bias. The concern here is not about connecting with the people, but rather about maintaining the distance necessary to cultivate unity with the Way (dao道‎), which is a reference to the mystical truth that cannot be fully described by human language. In other words, Laozi’s version of unity requires the ruler to stand aloof and detached from his subjects.

Laozi’s idea of the nature of rulership was a source of inspiration for Han Fei (c. 280–233 bce), considered to be a great synthesizer of the Legalist stance. Han Fei was a student of Xunzi, who professed that human nature is inherently evil. While Xunzi still believed that people could be transformed through moral education, Han Fei did not share the same optimism. Instead, he argued that only through imposing strict laws could people be induced to behave properly. In Han Fei’s ideal world, the ruler must remain unbiased and objectively evaluate the deeds of his ministers, administering rewards and punishments accordingly. He must also free himself from desire and conceal his feelings so as to prevent losing his power to someone whom he favors. To effectively govern his people, the ruler must implement a legal system in which the codes are clearly spelled out. It is only through these endeavors that the ruler could bring about true political unity.

It is not difficult to understand why Legalist proposals were attractive to the ambitious lords of the Warring States period, when inter-state warfare was a regular affair. This philosophy promised absolute power and the ability to mobilize the people for economic production and war. From Confucius to Han Fei, we notice a trend in intellectual discourse toward a statist view of politics, favoring a strong centralized government with an all-powerful monarch at the apex and the ultimate goal of unification. As Yuri Pines argues, “In retrospect, the seventh and sixth centuries bce appear to have been an exceptional period in Chinese history, when political fragmentation was considered an acceptable state of affairs and efforts were made to attain stability within the framework of the multistate system; and it is the failure of these attempts that ultimately led to the rejection of the multistate world altogether.”7

The Imperial System as the Model for Unity

The ascendancy of the imperial system, then, was the result of many years of intense debate and negotiation between competing political visions of political unity. After the great Qin unification, dissenting voices were suppressed under the tyranny of the Qin Shihuang (秦始皇‎, 259–210 bce), the first emperor of China, who tried to implement harsh laws based on Legalist proposals. The outcome was disastrous, but although the first Chinese Empire lasted for only fifteen years, the imperial system that it established was to endure for the next two millennia. More importantly, the imperial system called for a commitment to intellectual unity, so much so that the extremely diverse intellectual landscape of the pre-Qin period was seen by many as an undesirable state of affairs.

In the early years of the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce), the failure of the Qin was on the minds of many, and proposals to build a different kind of empire were articulated. Yet as Mark Lewis points out, the Han shared many of Qin’s policies of unifying written scripts for exerting imperial authority. By and large the Han as the first long-lasting Chinese Empire was extremely successful in consolidating, altering, and reinterpreting disparate texts from various intellectual traditions for creating a coherent set of orthodox ideologies.8 The canonization of the Five Classics in 136 bce was one of the results of this process. Putting these texts of diverse natures and messages under the label of “Confucian” classics was the doing of the Han court and its scholars. The purpose was to create a unified curriculum for learned men aspiring to become officials serving the empire.9

At the same time, in order to avoid the fate of Qin, some early Han emperors adopted a philosophy of government that “allowed the people to rest,” which in practice meant “to be frugal, keeping costs down to reduce taxes and undertaking measures to improve the state of agriculture.” The ideological foundation of such an approach was based on so-called Huanglao黄老‎ thought, with “Huang” referring to the legendary Yellow Emperor and “Lao” to Laozi. It would be misleading to think of Huanglao as a “school” with a coherent set of doctrines or texts. Rather, the term was created by Sima Qian (145–90 bce) to retrospectively refer to varied trends of thought that loosely shared certain assumptions about cosmos–human relations. As Robin Yates points out, the texts that were placed under the label of Huang-Lao Daoism share the assumption that “a ruler who strives to align himself with the unknowable, transcendent order of the cosmos will become a ‘true king’ capable of commanding the allegiance of a unified China.”10

In other words, the Huanglao philosophy provided early Han rulers with a ruler-centered cosmology to justify political unity in the form of an empire. Still, for practical reasons, the early Han regime partially reverted to the pre-Qin political arrangements of allowing certain parts of its territory to be granted to imperial relatives and supporters as fiefs, although many of these were reabsorbed as time passed.

But the laissez-faire approach to government had no appeal for Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 bce), an ambitious monarch whose priorities were to expand the territories he controlled, even if it meant war, and to generate sufficient revenue to sustain his expansionist policies. He needed a new ideology, one that supported a proactive government helmed by a benevolent ruler. Dong Zhongshu (179–104 bce) provided just that. Dong was but one of the reformist thinkers in his time who tried to work out a theory about how perfect unity could be realized under the imperial system, when the prevailing mentality of the power holders at court was to pursue an aggressive strategy for material achievement and territorial expansion.11 According to Aihe Wang, the alternative approach that Dong and other like-minded scholars articulated represented an attempt to moralize the cosmos. The result was the reinvention of a complex set of doctrines that underscored the interconnectedness between the cosmos and the human world mediated by the human monarch.12

Generally speaking, the reformists’ proposal was twofold. First, it discouraged absolute despotism by demanding the emperor to act morally and in accordance with the will of Heaven and the cosmological cycle. On the other hand, it allowed the emperor to claim a semidivine status in which he alone possessed the ability to trigger a response from Heaven with his behavior. In the end, an imperial system presided over by a benevolent ruler was deemed the most ideal political form for realizing the perfect order of unity. In a memorial submitted to Emperor Wu, Dong warned against the diversity of thought that sowed confusion in the present day:

The grand co-ordinating unity (da yi tong大一统‎) that is mentioned in the Spring and Autumn Annals is a thread which runs constantly through Heaven and Earth, and it forms the principles of action that have been generally accepted in past and present. At present our teachers propagate strange principles; our fellow human beings hold to unusual practices; the many schools of thought have idiosyncratic methods, and the conclusions to which they point are not identical. It is for these reasons that the upper reaches of society have no means with which to up-hold the co-ordinating unity; and as the models for behaviour and institutions have been frequently changed, the lower reaches of society do not comprehend what is being preserved.13

To correct such dysfunctionality of the age, as Aihe Wang has noted, Dong Zhongshu “developed Jia Yi’s (贾谊‎, c. 200–169 bce) themes of elevating the authority of the emperor, defining social hierarchy, and establishing Confucianism as the state orthodoxy. He achieved all three by recentering emperorship in the moral cosmology of Heaven.”14

Dong’s theory of emperorship and the inevitability of the imperial system would become the standard interpretation of an ideal natural and human order through most of the early and medieval periods up until Tang (618–907) times. However, it was not without competition.15 A different line of discourse may be found in the eccentric text of the Huainanzi, in which the sovereign’s position in the Heaven–human connection is decentralized. Produced under the sponsorship of Liu An劉安‎ (d. 122 bce), the Huainanzi represented the voices of the kings of distant kingdoms who opposed the imperial court’s attempts to centralize ideas and culture. It promoted a theory of cosmic resonance that denied the emperor a monopoly on his connection with the cosmos, instead proposing that the Heaven will make its will felt through anyone who unities with the Way.16

More than a century later, Wang Chong (王充‎, 27–100 CE) threw the whole idea of correlative cosmology out of the window. As Alfred Forke, a translator of Wang’s Critical Essays (Lunheng論衡‎), aptly put it,

Regarding Heaven as nothing else than a substance, a pure and tenuous fluid without a mind, Wang Chong cannot but reject these anthropomorphisms. Heaven has no mouth, no eyes: it does not speak nor act, it is not affected by men, does not listen to their prayers, and does not reply to the questions addressed to it.17

While Wang Chong still subscribed occasionally to the idea of the “mandate of Heaven” (tianming天命‎), his philosophy fundamentally deconstructed the very foundation of a moralized view of empire based on correlative cosmology: the unity between the ruler and Heaven.

Wang was at best a marginal figure during his own lifetime and was unable to dislodge such belief in unity. After the fall of the Han dynasty, when China entered a long period of division, new ideas were articulated about how human beings could connect with the ultimate truth without relying on any existing political or social order. A general intellectual trend captured the imagination of the elites, mostly inspired by ideas loosely associated with philosophical Daoism that have come to be known as “Dark Learning” (xuanxue玄學‎) around the early 5th century, or “Neo-Daoism” in Western scholarship. Leading thinkers and writers associated with this tradition or influenced by its general intellectual orientation, from He Yan何晏‎ (c. 195–259) to Wang Bi王弼‎ (226–249), to Ji Kang嵇康‎ (223–263) and Ruan Ji阮籍‎ (210–263), and to Xiang Xiu向秀‎ (c. 227–272) and Guo Xiang郭象‎ (c. 252–312), pondered deep and profound meanings of the universe that appeared mysterious to later intellectuals―thus xuan玄―‎through commentaries on the Classics and pre-Qin texts, philosophical treatises and literary writings. While their ideas were very diverse, a common thread that ran through their work was an urgency in trying to rediscover the ultimate source of truth. This was at a time when the Han promise of entrusting the responsibility of uniting all realms solely to the emperor was becoming less and less persuasive. The general assumption was that conventional theories inherited from the Han could not adequately elucidate the nature of the perfect order established by the ancient sages; new language and ideas must be developed for delineating this new understanding of the truth.

What then were the differences between these Han conventions and the new trends of thought in the periods that followed? Traditionally the distinction between the new discourses that emerged during the Wei-Jin period has been characterized as the difference between a call for the return of Han orthodox teachings of morality and social propriety (mingjiao名教‎, literally “teaching of names”), and an appeal to spontaneity (ziran自然‎, literally “self-so”).18 While scholars today question the simple dichotomy between mingjiao and ziran used to differentiate these intellectual conventions, we do see a tendency to undermine the political and social order of the imperial system by privileging a spiritually free self not bound by its role in that order. While political disengagement had always been a respected option in previous eras, it was during this time that investigating the various forms of disengagement became a popular intellectual exercise. One result was a proliferation of biographies of recluses. Collectively, these works promoted a narrative that sought to justify the actions of individuals who declined office.19 Such narratives also made their way into standard history. The History of the Later Han by Fan Ye范曄‎ (398–445) contains a section on recluses. In the preface, Fan draws on stories from the golden age of the sage-kings to praise those individuals who decided to “withdraw”:

The [Book of] Changes proclaims, “Great indeed is the significance of the timeliness of ‘Withdrawal.’” It also says, “He does not serve a king or lord; he elevates in priority his [own] affairs.” For this reason, although Yao was praised as “modelling Heaven,” he could not humble the lofty integrity of [Xu You from] north of the Ying. And while King Wu was “utterly praiseworthy,” still the purity of the [Lords of] Guzhu forever remains intact.”20

Yao and King Wu were exemplars of perfect human beings who united politics and morality. Yet there were those—such as Xu You, who refused to accept the throne, and the two Lords of Guzhu, Bo Yi伯夷‎ and Shu Qi叔齊‎, who chose death after their country fell rather than serve the new ruler—whose moral qualities rivaled those of the sage-kings. By comparing the Later Han recluses with these legendary figures, Fan was in fact claiming that the social and cultural space that the recluses occupied did not have to rely on the existing political order for endorsement. In other words, Fan acknowledged that there was a world where an individual could pursue a personal path of self-fulfillment, independent of the imperial system.

In this period, such a personal path of self-fulfillment was often expressed through discourses about physical and spiritual liberation from worldly constraints, enabling one to be united with the cosmic origin of oneness. This created immense enthusiasm toward religious Daoism among the class of learned men, including Ge Hong葛洪‎ (c. 284–c. 344), the famous Daoist thinker and practitioner. Ji Zhang made the following insightful comments in his comparative study of Ge Hong and Plato:

Ge Hong’s cultivation belonged to the school of empiricism. It began in the Han period as a heterodox current practiced by various fangshi (i.e., alchemists) and then found its place in organized religious Daoism in the Jin period. The school of empiricism did not break away from the early Lao-Zhuang intellectualism, but the early tradition developed and continued through the empirical school, which was misunderstood by Confucians intellectually as esoteric fangshu (i.e., alchemy). From the early philosophical contemplation of the One (zhiyi 知一‎) to the later religious preservation of the One (shouyi 守一‎), the quest for unity with the cosmos never faded away.21

With xuanxue and Daoist thinkers leading the way, transcending the sociopolitical order to be united with the ultimate truth became a popular intellectual pursuit. This laid the ground for the Chinese to accept a foreign religion and mode of thought: Buddhism. Buddhism’s entry into China is a fascinating story of cultural exchange. Scholars of Chinese Buddhism often speak of the Sinicization of Buddhism. While this way of understanding how Buddhism became Chinese is highly problematic, it does alert us to those aspects of Buddhism that grew in importance because of the political, social, and cultural developments of the various regimes that governed the territories of China in this period.

One such aspect was the political element of this supposedly “otherworldly” religious tradition. At its theoretical core, Buddhism, including both the Mahayana and Theravada traditions, advocates that human beings should strive to transcend the phenomenal world in search of the true path of liberation. As such, all political and social orders are seen as irrelevant or even harmful for someone who is committed to a Buddhist goal. Yet in medieval China, the kind of Buddhism that emerged as the mainstream by and large took political authority as a given and sought to work with it or became a part of it. In the south, Buddhism gained access to political power mostly through penetration into the aristocratic class of great clans, whereas in the north, the focus was put squarely on the monarch, even to the extent of claiming that the emperor was a Buddha incarnate. In any case, though not without contestation, the view that Buddhism should respect and operate within the imperial order, and even enhance it, was generally accepted. For this reason, when China was united again under the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties, although the rulers were keenly aware of the potential danger of Buddhism developing into a separate center of power, nevertheless they found faith in Buddhism to be useful in bringing together the cultures of north and south.22

Despite tighter state control and occasional persecution, Buddhism flourished under the Tang. Most major schools of thought that came to define Chinese Buddhism were either founded or further developed during the Tang.23 Over time, the Chan vision (or Zen in Japanese) became particularly influential among learned men. Its extreme version promoted humanity’s shared innate Buddha nature as the sole source of enlightenment, rejecting the usefulness of any form of external authority, including even the “three treasures” (the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), in one’s path toward the ultimate salvation. For these reasons, Chan was often perceived to stand aloof of established traditions, norms, and political powers. Yet Albert Welter has clearly shown that Chan’s success could not have occurred without support from rulers and high-ranking officials.24 Hence, rather than establishing an alternative or separate realm of authority, Chinese Buddhism had helped to advance the political agenda of the imperial state.

In the end, the imperial system survived a long period of political disunity, and the proliferation of intellectual and religious trends that had the potential of undermining it, to reach even greater heights under the Tang dynasty. Unlike the Han dynasty, however, the Tang system was defined largely by the aristocratic culture of the great clans who had gradually risen to prominence since the last days of the Han. This aristocratic culture was usually spoken of in terms of wen文‎, which can denote literary writings, cultural forms, or sometimes cosmic patterns, depending on the context. In the early Tang, wen was the key to understanding prevailing assumptions about how human society was connected to the cosmic order. As Peter Bol points out, early Tang court scholars generally assumed the following:

First, the models and forms that made up culture were elaborations, imitations, and variations on forms from the past; the new had been built upon the old in a cumulative fashion to create a tradition that stretched back to the beginning of civilization under the Former Kings, a beginning still accessible through the Classics. Second, the original creations from which the cumulative tradition arose replicated and continued the manifest patterns of heaven-and-earth.25

Furthermore, in the views of these early Tang court scholars, establishing an empire that functioned properly was essential for keeping the cumulative tradition alive and realizing the patterns of Heaven and Earth. Politics, culture, and cosmology were all fused into a grand narrative for justifying the re-creation of a centralized unified empire. But this model of political unity, based on a belief of unbroken ideological continuity between the sages’ world and the contemporary imperial epoch, was brought into question by the great mid-Tang literary figure and thinker Hang Yu韓愈‎ (768–824), who claimed that the true way of the sages was lost after Mencius and never recovered, not even by the Tang. Han was not trying to challenge Tang’s legitimacy. As Charles Hartman has shown, Han was committed to help the Tang, with both his political involvement and ideological construction, strengthening its claim as a universal and unified empire.26 However, by proposing a program of learning and a new style of literary writing that underscored the individual’s role over that of the empire’s in reconnecting with the world of the ancient sages, Han essentially undermined the importance of the empire as a political institution in the search of ultimate unity.

Han’s reinterpretation of the transmission of the Dao independent of existing political order inspired the intellectual world of later generations. Scholars of the Northern Song (960–1126) reconsidered how unity could be achieved when, with the fall of the great clans, the medieval aristocratic notion of wen no longer proved intellectually satisfactory to the new class of learned men of the 11th century.27

The Moral Self as the Starting Point for Attaining Unity, and Its Statist Alternative

After they finally “accepted” the throne from the Later Zhou, the most urgent task for the Song founders was to minimize the threat of military usurpation by establishing civil rule. They did so with great success. By the mid-Northern Song, the consensus was that the founding principles of the dynasty had sanctioned the shi, the cultured elites, as the most important participants in the state system to whom must be granted due privileges. In the process, the view that the Song should emulate the distant Three Dynasties (Sandai三代‎) rather than the more recent Han and Tang became prevalent among the shi.28

What was so great about the Sandai? The notion that one should learn from antiquity was of course not a Song invention, but Song intellectual leaders understood it in ways that pushed aside past analyses and defined how later ages interpreted the same issue. Yu Ying-shih sees Song interpretation as basically political and ruler centered. Sandai according to Song formation was thus a golden age when the government, headed by benevolent rulers, followed the Way in ordering the world. But how was it relevant to the shi? The Song assumption was that because of the rupture created by the less-than-ideal Han-Tang approaches, it was now the responsibility of the shi to find their benevolent rulers and put the Way into practice.29

Historians have long noted that in the Northern Song, those who called themselves shi were markedly different from their counterparts in the Six Dynasties and the Sui-Tang periods. Without the kind of family pedigree that members of the great medieval clans enjoyed, the Northern Song shi now had to rely on passing the civil-service examination to become officials, and an established shi family could only maintain its success over an extended period if it could successfully send its members into the bureaucracy generation after generation. By the second half of the 10th century, the transformation was complete. In the new era, learning rather than family pedigree had come to seen as be the fundamental attribute of a shi, and it could be tested through examination to determine a person’s qualification for official appointment.

But what was the content of this learning? Put differently, what should be studied, and what could serve as models for learning? In particular, Ouyang Xiu歐陽修‎ (1007–1072) formulated a cultural-political theory that persuasively explained the perfect order of antiquity and how it could be revived. This was exemplified by his views on the ritual system. Ouyang lamented that later generations had forgotten about the real meanings of ancient rituals, blindly following only the forms. He argued that in antiquity, the ritual system encompassed everything from rites and music used at sacrifices and at court, to issues of administration, judicature, and national defense. In other words, what made antiquity great was a holistic system that governed all aspects of human life with a single principle. In later years, this unified system broke down, and the uses of rites and music became divorced from daily administration, rendering the principle unworkable.30 Peter Bol points out that because Ouyang did not deny that there was a universal principle beyond the phenomenal world, one that ties everything together, he actually encouraged others to search for that key and to put forth interpretations of it.31 The question was where and how to begin.

In the next generation, Wang Anshi—whom we briefly met in the opening section and who continued Ouyang Xiu’s and other guwen thinkers’ call for political reform—adopted a radical approach. He wanted the emperor to take Yao and Shun as models, rather than the emperors of Han and Tang. These later rulers had only imitated the forms of antiquity but failed to understand the underlying principle that made antiquity great. The way to restore the order of antiquity therefore depended not on restoring the ancient institutions, but on discovering the real messages and intents of the sages. Like Ouyang Xiu, Wang Anshi saw antiquity as a period when everything belonged to a coherent system. More ambitious than Ouyang, Wang declared that he had grasped the underlying principle of that perfect system and was able to explicate it. The key was to do what the sages had done: to exercise one’s cognitive function to recognize the universal principle—derived from the patterns of Heaven and Earth—to see how all parts of society organically connected with one another, contributing to the formation of a coherent system (the state). Once a person has accomplished this—and Wang believed he had done so—he should be put in charge of the state apparatus, for only the state had the authority and power to “unify customs and make morality the same.”32

Wang’s approach to unity did not resonate with some of the other great intellectuals of the time. For instance, Su Shi蘇軾‎ (1037–1101), one of the most accomplished literary figures in Chinese history, chided Wang for trying to impose his vision of culture, writing, and scholarship dogmatically on the literati class without allowing for individualistic expression. It would be wrong to infer from this that Su was not interested in the ideal of unity. In fact, Su frequently invoked the concept of unity and oneness (yi一‎) to illustrate the point that in antiquity, the perfect order was defined by unity, coherence, and comprehensiveness. But unlike Wang Anshi, Su refused to grant political authorities the moral ground to justify their desire to impose their definitions of social unity from the top down. That moral authority belonged to enlightened individuals who had mastered the various cultural forms—prose, poetry, calligraphy, painting, music, and so on. This is because underlying all of these different cultural and artistic ventures and their respective traditions is the universal principle of unity, creativity, and transformation. Engaging in such ventures is in itself a process through which unity of the self and the world may be realized.33

Su Shi emerged from the guwen movement but moved beyond its vision. He was part of a new trend beginning around the mid-11th century that put the responsibility of attaining unity squarely on the individual, but his culturalist approach was rejected by some who believed that artistic and literary pursuits were irrelevant to literati learning, or even harmful. This was the position that would later come to be known as Daoxue (Learning of the Way) Neo-Confucianism, championed by Zhou Dunyi周敦頤‎ (1017–1073), Zhang Zai張載‎ (1020–1077), and especially the Cheng Brothers (Cheng Hao程顥‎ [1032–1085] and Cheng Yi程頤‎ [1033–1107]).

The differences among these Northern Song Daoxue thinkers are profound, but they shared the common assumption that moral self-cultivation was key to reviving the perfect system of antiquity and attaining ultimate unity with the workings of the universe. Although they were explicit in their criticism of Buddhism, many believe that, among other things, Daoxue’s turn toward the inner self, its ideas about intellectual lineage and transmission, and its core concept of li理‎—“pattern,” “principle,” and more recently “coherence” are among some of the most common translations—betrayed its indebtedness to Buddhist discourses, especially the Chan school. No new major Buddhist school of thought had emerged during the Song, but the conventional conception about Buddhism’s post-Tang decline is misguided. Buddhism continued to play a major role in the political, social, cultural, and intellectual lives of both elites and commoners in the Song.34 It is beyond the scope of this article to examine the complex relationship between Chan and Daoxue. Suffice it to point out that when these Daoxue masters and their followers attacked the so-called unorthodox teachings of Buddhism (and to a lesser extent Daoism), they were more concerned with rebutting fellow members of the literati community—influential figures such as Su Shi—whose ideas they felt were harmful. Buddhism in such instances was but a negative label used to discredit one’s intellectual opponents.

As Daoxue gained currency among the literati community in the late 11th and early 12th centuries, supporters of the cultural enterprise of wen represented by Ouyang Xiu and Su Shi had to begin defending their position. The split between these two great intellectual visions became a regional one when the Jurchens invaded north China and established the Jin dynasty (1115–1234), forcing the Song court to flee south. Jin literati culture was by and large an extension of the Northern Song’s guwen movement, and regarded Ouyang Xiu and Su Shi as cultural heroes. The Daoxue alternative, on the other hand, spread quickly in the south under the leadership of Zhu Xi朱熹‎ (1130–1200) during the Southern Song (1126–1279) regime.

But Zhu Xi was not working alone and not without his opponents. Hoyt Tillman has made a compelling argument to situate Zhu’s ideas within a complex web of relations, to which Tillman called a Daoxue fellowship. The term by no means implies that there was a coherent mode of thinking. On the contrary, the exchanges of ideas within the group were extremely diverse and often resulted in intellectual competition. Still, a case could be made about Zhu’s ultimate “victory” only being possible with the collective effort of members within the fellowship as they struggled against state power holders.35

Nonetheless, it was Zhu Xi who eventually produced an organic set of texts, vocabularies, ideas, and practices that came to define Daoxue. At the core of Zhu Xi’s theory of learning was the commitment to rediscover the principle of coherence (li理‎) that characterizes the working of the universe, and which made the perfect order of antiquity possible despite great diversity in the world. He borrowed and expanded on Cheng Yi’s phrase “Li is one but its manifestations are many” (liyi fenshu理一分殊‎) to illustrate how the myriad things in the world still share the same principle of coherence, which could be discovered through moral learning. An individual who is fully committed to this sole correct form of learning would become capable of realizing his or her Heaven-endowed innate nature—the li of humanity—and go beyond physical differences to recognize that all things are organically connected. In Zhu’s philosophy, and Daoxue more generally, the focal point for the pursuit of unity lies in an individual’s moral self. Only one who is steadfast in cultivating his or her moral self can bring positive changes to the world. An enlightened individual could seek to influence policy making and the working of the government through service as an official. The state remained an important arena for Zhu to accomplish his goals, but it was not the only option. In fact, Zhu seemed to have more faith in voluntary social programs and initiatives—family rituals, private academies, community granaries, and compacts—spearheaded by literati and local gentlemen acting in their non-official capacities.36

Jin scholars were aware of the Daoxue current in the south, but it was not until the unification of China under the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) that the northerners began to embrace the new intellectual trend. Even then, the northern version took a distinctively different form. In the south, individuals who identified with Daoxue established extended literati networks and non-official institutions, and constructed local traditions of learning based on communities defined by teacher–student relations. In the north, while Daoxue scholars continued to uphold ideals of moral self-cultivation, there is no evidence to suggest that they adopted the southern mode of social and cultural engagement. Instead, they saw the state, with individuals educated and cultivated in a Daoxue program acting as its agents, as indispensable for realizing the Way of the Former Kings. If becoming an official and participating in the state system was not an option, then the responsibility of putting the world in order fell upon the shoulders of Daoxue scholars as individuals, rather than voluntary organizations or communities of scholars supported by non-official local institutions.37

The southern mode of social voluntarism came to a somewhat drastic halt in the early days of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when the founding emperor Taizu (r. 1368–1398) “hijacked” Daoxue’s social programs and gave them an autocratic twist. He was particularly inspired by the group from the Eastern Zhejiang region (zhedong浙東‎) who fused Daoxue and the Zhedong tradition of statecraft studies into a unique program of political activism that John Dardess called “professional Confucianism.”38 Perhaps affected by the chaos that they experienced in the final days of the Yuan, many Daoxue advocates conceded that a strong ruler was needed to bring order back to the world. Moreover, with the civil-service examination curriculum now privileging Daoxue’s interpretations of literati learning, the voices of Daoxue thinkers as independent scholars were greatly compromised. There were some like Wu Yubi吳與弼‎ (1391–1469), who insisted on remaining independent and refused to pursue an official career. But generally speaking, Daoxue’s assumption of the status of state orthodoxy had undermined its ability to craft an alternative discourse of politics and culture independent of the state’s grand agenda.

By the late 15th century, when the state’s control of society loosened, elite voluntarism began to reappear. At the same time, state-endorsed Daoxue became less of an inspiration for many who sought intellectual solutions to contemporary problems. Daoxue’s entire premise was reevaluated by scholars of varied intellectual inclinations, among whom Wang Yangming王陽明‎ (1472–1529) was the most famous. He accepted mainstream Daoxue’s view that moral self-cultivation holds the key to realizing the ideal of unity, but he had a very different understanding of what the process entailed. While the Cheng-Zhu mode of Daoxue maintained that the principle of coherence is to be discovered by the cognitive function of the mind through a step-by-step method of inquiry and cultivation laid out by the Great Learning, Wang’s philosophy entrusted the mind’s innate and intuitive capability of knowing and distinguishing good from evil with recognizing and realizing the true meaning of unity. For Wang, this intuitive faculty was the principle of coherence itself, shared by all people, and of absolute goodness. This was the basis for his claim that a sage’s mind is at one with all things.39

However, Wang’s commitment to the ideal of unity did not lead the intellectual-world-at-large to reimagine the possibility of restoring faith in unity. Rather, it was his emphasis on the spontaneity of an individual in the pursuit of truth that greatly inspired later generations. In other words, what people found intriguing about Wang’s thought was his approval of individualistic expression and action for achieving various cultural and intellectual endeavors. In fact, Wang’s lifetime saw the beginning of a trend of abandoning the assumption that the perfect world is characterized by a general display of unity and oneness. For instance, Wang Tingxiang王廷相‎ (1474–1544) argued that the nature of the cosmos is not one of unity but of diversity. “The principles are many,” he proclaimed, and as such the Daoxue scholars were mistaken to assume that an individual’s effort in moral self-cultivation could lead to the ideal world of perfect harmony.40 Similarly, Li Mengyang李夢陽‎ (1473–1530) posited that the cosmos as well as the human world are full of irregularities and unpredictability; Daoxue’s confidence in human nature being good as it embodies the principle of coherence is therefore misplaced.41 This critique of the Daoxue position signaled the coming of an age when new understandings of the universe required new forms of human knowledge.

Diversity as the Norm

Late 16th- and 17th-century rejection of Daoxue’s claim of unity came in the form of knowledge compartmentalization. Daoxue took a moralist view of knowledge and approved the pursuit of a certain branch of knowledge only if it could serve the grand scheme of rediscovering the singular and universal dao. But in their critiques of Daoxue, most leading late Ming intellectuals did not seek to replace Daoxue’s universal claim with another universal claim. Rather, they tended to recognize that the different branches of knowledge were independent and equally valuable for furthering our understanding of and dealing with this complex world. In his study of the late Ming figure Hu Yingling胡應麟‎ (1551–1602), who produced numerous works that displayed his “broad learning” (boxue博學‎), Peter Bol argues that for Hu, knowledge acquisition was an end to itself; it was not about finding the one correct path leading to the ultimate ideal state of coherence and unity. Hu’s encyclopedic approach to learning thus focused on the particular, without assuming that there existed beyond each phenomenon an overarching principle or pattern that required elucidation.42

This new appreciation of the world as fundamentally diverse led late Ming intellectuals to argue for the importance of respecting the distinction among different branches of knowledge. Take statecraft studies (jingshi經世‎) for example. Toward the end of the Ming dynasty, when internal and external crisis escalated, a group of reform-minded intellectuals compiled the gigantic work Collected Writings on Statecraft of the Ming Period (Huang Ming jingshi wenbian皇明經世文編‎). It sought to redefine literati learning through emphasizing the primacy of “practical” knowledge essential for dealing with national policies and daily administration.

The term jingshi had a long tradition, but it was only in the Song that some authors began to use it in the title of their works. Evidence from the Song-Yuan period suggests that jingshi was not yet considered a distinct branch of literati learning concerned specifically with the practical affairs of government, although knowledge about statecraft was taken seriously by thinkers of different intellectual inclinations. Beginning from the mid-Ming, not only did many more works use terms in their titles like jingshi or jingji經濟‎ (shorthand for jingshi jimin經世濟民‎, lit. ordering the world and relieving the people), but scholars were increasingly writing about jingshi as a special form of learning independent of, for instance, Daoxue or literary studies. The keyword here is “independent,” for late Ming jingshi discourse by and large did not attempt to replace Daoxue’s quest for the Way, or for the pursuit of literary excellence. Rather, it focused on reminding the literati that public administration should be taken seriously as a subject of learning. Jingshi in a late Ming context consisted of a separate knowledge system that required a distinct approach of inquiry, one that privileged the practical experience of administration over philosophical and theoretical explorations. While 17th-century scholars continued to use the language of “unity” (yi一‎) of knowledge, what most of them had in mind was a broad array of literati learning in which different branches of knowledge ideally coexisted but with clear-cut distinctions.43

The Manchu conquest in 1644 dealt a heavy blow to late Ming political and social activism. Many have attributed the rise of “evidential research” (kaoju考據‎) scholarship—a form of literati learning that privileged philological study of texts over philosophical speculation—to the tyranny of Qing (1644–1911) rule. It is suggested that because of state-imposed literary inquisitions, scholars were afraid to voice their opinions through writing, and they thus settled for conducting “harmless” scholarship such as textual studies. While the adverse political environment might indeed have played a role in the flourishing of this kind of scholarship during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the seeds of this approach had already been planted in the late 16th century. As with 17th-century jingshi studies, kaoju scholarship’s commitment to illuminating the particular details and factual evidence recorded in ancient texts, especially the Classics, was also the product of an intellectual world that accepted diversity as the norm for both the natural and the human world. The result was a greater compartmentalization of knowledge and scholastic professionalism.

Daoxue did not disappear completely. It was still a state-endorsed ideology and continued to exert its influence on the literati world through the civil-service examination. In many places, it also continued to define the local tradition of learning. After the late 18th century, the debate between Daoxue and kaoju scholarship was described as one of Song versus Han learning, because Daoxue originated in the Song, and the kaoju scholars claimed that their methods derived from Han-dynasty Classical Studies in the Ancient Texts tradition.44

During the Han, however, there had been a Modern Texts tradition that was marginalized in later years. This tradition recognized Confucius as an innovative sage and sought to uncover the hidden meanings of great political significance that Confucius had encoded between the lines of the Classics. In the context of 19th-century China, many proponents of the Modern Texts version were political activists who fervently called for aggressive political reform. In his fascinating study of how Wei Yuan魏源‎ (1794–1857), one of the most creative thinkers of the Opium War period, used the Modern Texts approach to the Book of Odes to articulate his political vision, Philip Kuhn points out that Wei was tackling the hot-button issue of political participation. According to Wei, because the powerholders were unwilling to broadly seek out the views of learned men like himself, and because no one had the right answers in every situation, the concentration of power in the hands of a few, and the constrained right to participation in political debates, had resulted in a declining state of affairs. Powerholders must therefore allow for good ideas to emerge through free discussion, recognizing that truth is multiple and there is no single doctrine that is absolutely correct. Clearly, Wei did not return to the mainstream pre-16th-century quest for a single all-encompassing doctrine to solve political and social woes. He recognized problems as multifaceted and was committed to searching for targeted solutions to each problem. It was therefore no coincidence that Wei took great interest in statecraft studies, in a form very similar to 17th-century jingshi scholarship. The result was the publication of the Collected Writings on Statecraft of the Qing Period (Huang-Ming jingshi wenbian皇清經世文編‎) in 1827.45

Today Wei Yuan is best known for the Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms (Haiguo tuzhi海國圖志‎), published in 1843 with important input from the reform-minded official Lin Zexu林則徐‎ (1785–1850). The work marked a major step toward imagining China not as a world-spanning empire but as one of many players in a new world order. Frequent contact with and humiliation by the Western powers gradually implanted in the minds of learned men a kind of nationalistic sentiment that was informed mostly by failure.46 Although some still tried to defend the universal relevance of the sagely Way when challenged by Western technologies, by the late 19th century, the dominant concern was the survival of the Chinese race, expressed through the import, translation, and interpretation of Social Darwinism. The ideal of unity, whether in narratives about empire or in personal cultivation, was no longer the most important pursuit put forth by the intellectuals.

The termination of the civil-service examination in 1905 fundamentally changed the relationship between learned men and the state. When the 1911 Revolution ended the dynastic era in Chinese history, learned men’s tradition of drawing inspiration from the Classics and anecdotes from the pre-imperial period to articulate their visions of a perfect order based on the assumption of imperial unity finally became a matter of the past.

Discussion of the Literature

The first attempts to write a general history of Chinese thought in a modern academic style began in the early 20th century, when Chinese intellectuals of the May Fourth period embarked on an intellectual journey to reassess China’s cultural traditions. Leading figures such as Hu Shih胡適‎ (1891–1962) and Fung Yu-lan馮友蘭‎ (1895–1990), whose works are available in English,47 were mainly concerned with producing a comprehensive narrative about the development of Chinese thought based on methods and concepts imported from the Western philosophical traditions. The same could be said about the works of Marxist scholars such as Hou Wailu侯外盧‎ (1903–1988), whose approach of framing its delineation of intellectual developments with theories of class struggle had dominated the Chinese academic world after 1949.48

On the other hand, scholars whose intellectual inclinations came under the loose label of Contemporary Neo-Confucianism and who left the mainland after 1949 also sought to write a history of Chinese philosophy that underscores the essence and value of the Chinese mindset. Among these, Carsun Chang’s (1887–1969) two-volume history of Neo-Confucianism deserves special mention. It was the first of its kind in English and provided Western scholars with a window into the world of Neo-Confucian thought.49

In the West, quite predictably, the study of Chinese philosophy and thought started with translation. The Scottish missionary and sinologist James Legge’s (1815–1897) monumental translations of the Chinese Classics remain a useful source of reference. In the 20th century, translations of major philosophical works continued to be a productive endeavor. In particular, two influential works have given the field a comprehensive overview of intellectual trends with excerpts from translations of primary sources. Wing-tsit Chan’s translation is in effect a general survey of the most important thinkers and their philosophical writings.50 In comparison, the project that William T. de Bary spearheaded (with Wing-tsit Chan and Burton Watson) covers a wider array of writings on philosophy, politics, society, and culture.51 It attempts to situate discussions about the developments of ideas within a broader narrative of historical development that pays more attention to political and social questions.

A comparable approach to go beyond the narrowly defined concept of “philosophy” is undertaken by Ge Zhaoguang葛兆光‎ in his three-volume An Intellectual History of China.52 The book stresses the importance of examining the writings of not only the elites but also the non-elites. This would allow us to gain a comprehensive understanding of how ideas were shaped by historical realities and vice versa.

The works surveyed here provide only a snippet view of the rich scholarship devoted to introducing intellectual trends in premodern China in a broad-stroke manner. Yet it is already sufficient to represent the three main approaches to the study of Chinese thought. The first is akin to the kind of philosophical inquires commonly used for analyzing the thought of Western philosophers. Very often, works belonging to this category would assume a comparative perspective and address theoretical concerns inspired by questions that arise from Western intellectual settings. Issues pertaining to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, human rights, democracy, and so on are examined through a comparative lens. In these instances, the historical environments within which the Chinese thinkers operated are less of a concern.53

The second approach is one of history of ideas. Rather than attempting at cross-cultural comparison, scholars working with this approach are generally more interested in systematically examining the intellectual vision of a thinker or a certain mode of thought (Neo-Confucianism for instance) within the intellectual trends that it was produced and developed. Although most studies will devote a portion of the research to delineating the historical background, their main focus is still on the ideas expounded. Some of the finest intellectual biographies are exemplars of this approach.54

The third approach works with the assumption that ideas and history are inseparable. Unlike the second approach, it sees intellectual claims made by thinkers as part of the historical developments that it seeks to explain. But in doing so, some scholars tend to relegate in-depth investigation of the core philosophical ideas of the thinkers whom they intend to study to the margin. For instance, in his two-volume study of Zhu Xi’s historical experiences, Yu Ying-shih, to prove that Zhu Xi was more than a philosopher, spends much effort in outlining the political conditions that Zhu Xi and Song scholar-officials operated in and chooses to leave Zhu’s core ideas on cosmology, ethics, and epistemology out.55

However, there are others, while sympathetic toward the approach of historicizing ideas, who refuse to ignore the importance of ideas. In fact, what they try to show is that without paying attention to ideas and how that had been applied through people’s actions, we would not be able to understand why history had proceeded in a certain manner. In his study of Neo-Confucianism, Peter Bol first demonstrates how the Neo-Confucians’ sophisticated belief in the idea of unity as expressed through their philosophical discourses was shaped by their historical experiences. He also shows how these ideas were being translated into actual political, social, and intellectual initiatives that would come to define the historical paths that China eventually took.56

In a reflective piece addressing the crisis of Chinese intellectual history arising from the challenges posted by postmodernism published in 2010, Benjamin Elman issues a timely reminder to intellectual historians, urging them to rethink their perspectives and methodologies. In Elman’s view, scholars should be mindful of subscribing to functionalistic determinism when they privilege the study of sociocultural structures. At the other end of the spectrum, they should also avoid assuming historical actors’ boundless voluntarism. More specifically for intellectual historians of China, the urgent task would be to integrate China’s intellectual with its social, political, and economic histories. This could be achieved, Elman contends, by locating and examining the universal claims put forth by the Confucian texts in their particular historical contexts.57 Judging from the works on Song-Ming Confucianism published in the late 20th and early 21st centuries that Elman thinks have adequately addressed the issue, the field’s future is bright.

Primary Sources

As early as the 3rd century, traditional Chinese scholarship had been divided into four categories: Classics (jing經‎), Histories (shi史‎), Masters (zi子‎), and Collections (ji集‎). Conventionally, the study of Chinese thought has relied largely on materials from the two sections of Classics and Masters. The former includes the orthodox texts of the Chinese tradition and their commentaries and exegesis written and compiled over time. A large portion of the works that fall into the latter category are attached to individuals whom we would normally label as “thinkers” or “philosophers.” Naturally, these are the kinds of texts that would first attract the attentions of scholars interested in China’s intellectual trends before the modern era. But as the field evolves and with researches in Chinese thought focusing more on explicating the sociocultural contexts, now works of history and literature have also become indispensable. Thus, every surviving text, regardless of which of the four categories it belongs to, has virtually become a source for the study of Chinese intellectual history.

In most adequately funded research libraries, one would be able to find the Siku quanshu四庫全書‎ (The Complete Library of the Four Sections), a collection of 3471 books originally prepared for the imperial library during the 18th century. The original was hand copied. It was only printed for the first time in the 1980s, and a digitized and searchable version has been available since 2000.58

While the Siku quanshu is a valuable and convenient course, it has two significant problems. First, the books collected in the volume represent only a fraction of all surviving texts from the 18th century and before. There were many reasons. Many books were simply not available to the editors and compilers during the process, many were banned or destroyed for perceived dangerous contents, and many were deemed not suitable or necessary to be included in the collection. Second, for various reasons, many books in the collection had gone through heavy editing, making researchers skeptical about their authenticity. By and large, seasoned researchers will only rely on and cite works in the collection when there are no other editions available. This being said, the collection, especially now with the searchable digital version, still proves to be a convenient venue for locating the sources that one needs.

To overcome the problems, beginning from the 1990s there have been efforts to expand upon the work done in the 18th century. The result is a series of new collections, including the following: (1) Siku quanshu cunmu congshu四庫全書存目叢書‎ (Collection of Siku Quanshu Catalogue works, 1997). These are works that were listed in the catalogue when the Siku Quanshu was created but never made it into the original collection. This collection has 4,508 titles. The supplement published in the early 2000s has an additional 219 titles. (2) Xuxiu Siku quanshu續修四庫全書‎ (Siku Quanshu Continued, 1998). This collection includes 5,213 works that were either left out from the Siku Quanshu or that came after the Siku Quanshu project. (3) Siku jinhui shu congkan四庫禁毀書叢刊‎ (Collection of Books Censored from the Siku Project, 1998–2000), which contains 934 titles. (4) Siku Weishoushu jikan四庫未收書輯刊‎ (Collection of Books not included in the Siku, 1997–2000). This additional collection includes 1,328 titles left out of the Siku.59

There are many other series and collections both from the premodern and modern periods that are indispensable for doing in-depth research on Chinese intellectual history. But for someone who is looking for materials pertaining to the topic for the first time, the Siku and the modern collections that it inspires are a great place to begin the search.

Further Reading

Bol, Peter K. Neo-Confucianism in History. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008.Find this resource:

Chan, Wing-tsit. A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.Find this resource:

Chang, Carsun. The Development of Neo-Confucian Thought. 2 vols. New York: Bookman Associates, 1957.Find this resource:

Chen, Kenneth. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.Find this resource:

Creel, Herrlee G. What Is Taoism? And Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.Find this resource:

De Bary, William T., Irene Bloom, et al. eds. Sources of Chinese Traditions. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Elman, Benjamin A. “The Failure of Contemporary Chinese Intellectual History.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 43.3 (2010): 371–391.Find this resource:

Fung, Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Translated by Derk Bodde. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952.Find this resource:

Ge, Zhaoguang. An Intellectual History of China, vol. 1: Knowledge, Thought, and Belief before the Seventh Century CE. Translated by Michael S. Duke and Josephine Chiu-Duke. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014.Find this resource:

Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1989.Find this resource:

Hu, Shih. English Writings of Hu Shih, volume 2: Chinese Philosophy and Intellectual History. Edited by Chih-p’ing Chou. New York: Springer, 2013.Find this resource:

Mou, Bo, ed. The Routledge History of Chinese Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2009.Find this resource:

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China, volume 2: History of Scientific Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1956.Find this resource:

Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Xiao, Jiefu, and Li, Jinquan eds. An Outline History of Chinese Philosophy. 2 vols. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Ziporyn, Brook. Ironies of Oneness and Differences: Coherence in Early Chinese Thought, Prolegomena to the Study of Li. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Ziporyn, Brook. Beyond Oneness and Difference: Li and Coherence in Chinese Buddhist Thought and its Antecedents. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013.Find this resource:


(1.) Wang Anshi, “Da Wang Shenfu shu”答王深甫書‎, Linchuan xiansheng wenji臨川先生文集‎ (Taipei: Shijie shuju), 72.

(2.) Bol, “Government, Society, and State: On the Political Visions of Ssu-ma Kuang (1019–1086) and Wang An-shih (1021–1086),” in Ordering the World: Approaches to State and Society in Sung Dynasty China, eds. R. Hymes and C. Schirokauer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 128–192.

(3.) D. C. Lau, transl., The Analects (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 3.3, p. 67.

(4.) Erica Fox Brindley, Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Though and Politics (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2010), xxiii.

(5.) Erica Fox Brindley, Music, Cosmology, and the Politics of Harmony in Early China (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012).

(6.) D. C. Lau, transl., The Analects, vol. 12, 9. I have changed the Romanization of all names in quotations that are originally in the Wade-Giles format throughout this paper to pinyin for adhering to the current scholarly trend.

(7.) Pines, The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and its Imperial Legacy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 13.

(8.) Mark Edward Lewis, Writing and Authority in Early China (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 339.

(9.) Michael Nylan, The Five Confucian Classics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001).

(10.) “Introduction,” in Robin D. S. Yates, transl., Five Lost Classics: Tao, Huanglao and Yin-Yang in Han China (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997).

(11.) Loewe, “The Former Han Dynasty,” in The Cambridge History of China, vol. 1, eds. Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 103–106.

(12.) Wang, Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 143–151.

(13.) Cited from Michael Loewe, Divination, Mythology and Monarchy in Han China (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 135.

(14.) Wang, Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China, 191.

(15.) For comprehensive and insightful studies of the debates surrounding the relationship between the human and divine realms, see Michael J. Puett, To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002).

(16.) Puett, To Become a God, 190.

(17.) Alfred Forke, “Introduction,” in Lun-Hêng Part I: Philosophical Essays of Wang Ch’ung, transl. Forke (Leipzig: Harrassowitz, 1907), 18.

(18.) Brook Ziporyn, The Penumbra Unbound: the Neo-Taoist Philosophy of Guo Xiang (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2003), 23.

(19.) Alan J. Berkowitz, Patterns of Disengagement: The Practice and Portrayal of Reclusion in Early Medieval China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 126–148. The term mingjiao is deeply rooted in the Confucian belief that an orderly and moral society is only possible when every member performs his or her duties faithfully according to their political and social roles defined by the very names of those roles.

(20.) Translation taken from Berkowitz, Patterns of Disengagement, 163.

(21.) Zhang, One and Many: A Comparative Study of Plato’s Philosophy and Daoism Represented by Ge Hong (Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 2012), 76.

(22.) Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese history (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959), 42–70.

(23.) For a comprehensive study of the complex relationship between Tang state and Buddhism, see Stanley Weinstein, Buddhism under the T’ang (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

(24.) Albert Welter, Monks, Rulers and Literati: The Political Ascendency of Chan Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

(25.) Bol, This Culture of Ours: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992), 77.

(26.) Charles Hartman, Han Yü and the T’ang Search for Unity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980).

(27.) Peter K. Bol, Neo-Confucianism in History (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008), 61.

(28.) Deng Xiaonan鄧小南‎, Zuzong zhi fa: Bei-Song qianqi zhengzhi shulue祖宗之法,北宋前期政治述略‎ (Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 2006), 398–421.

(29.) Yu Ying-shih余英時‎, Zhu Xi de lishi shijie: Songdai shidafu zhengzhi wenhua de yanjiu朱熹的歷史世界: 宋代士大夫政治文化的研究‎, 2 vols. (Taipei: Yunchen Wenhua, 2003).

(30.) Ouyang Xiu, et al., Xin Tangshu新唐書‎, vol. 11 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1975), 307–308. Cf. Peter K. Bol, “When Antiquity Matters: Thinking about and with Antiquity in the Tang–Song Transition,” in Perceptions of Antiquity in Chinese Civilization, eds. Dieter Kuhn and Helga Stahl (Heidelberg: Edition Forum, 2008), 209–235, esp. 217–218.

(31.) Peter Bol, “The Sung Context: From Ou-yang Hsiu to Chu Hsi,” in Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching, eds. Kidder Smith Jr., Peter K. Bol, Joseph A. Adler, and Don J. Wyatt (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 33–42.

(32.) Bol, This Culture of Ours, 215–218.

(33.) Bol, This Culture of Ours, 254. See also Peter K. Bol, “Su Shih and Culture,” in Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching, 56–99.

(34.) Peter N. Gregory and Daniel A. Getz Jr., eds, Buddhism in the Sung (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999).

(35.) Hoyt Cleveland Tillman, Confucian Discourse and Chu Hsi’s Ascendancy (Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 1992).

(36.) Bol, Neo-Confucianism in History, 194–217, 218–256.

(37.) Chang Woei Ong, “Confucian Thoughts,” in Modern Chinese Religion I: Song-Liao-Jin-Yuan (960–1368 AD), vol. 2, eds. John Lagerwey and Pierre Marsone (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015), 1378–1432, esp. 1421–1432.

(38.) John W. Dardess, Confucianism and Autocracy: Professional Elites in the Founding of the Ming Dynasty (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983). For major thinkers from Southern Song Zhedong and their competitions with Daoxue, see Winston Wan Lo, The Life and Thought of Yeh Shih (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1974). Hoyt Cleveland Tillman, Utilitarian Confucianism: Ch’en Liang’s Challenges to Chu Hsi (Cambridge, MA: Council of East Asian Studies, 1992). Hilde De Weerdt, Competition over Content: Negotiating Standards for the Civil Service Examinations in Imperial China (1127–1279) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007).

(39.) Bol, Neo-Confucianism in History, 215–216.

(40.) Chang Woei Ong, “The Principles Are Many: Wang Tingxiang and Intellectual Transition in Mid-Ming China,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 66.2 (December 2006): 461–493.

(41.) Chang Woei Ong, Li Mengyang, the North-South Divide and Literati Learning in Ming China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016), 117–162.

(42.) Bol, “Looking to Wang Shizhen: Hu Yinglin (1551–1602) and Late Ming Alternative to Neo-Confucian Learning,” Ming Studies 53 (2006): 99–137.

(43.) Yu Hongliang魚宏亮‎, Ming-Qing zhiji jingshi zhi xue yanjiu: zhishi yu jiushi明清之際經世之學研究:知識與救世‎ (Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2008), 67–80.

(44.) Benjamin A. Elman, From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China, 2d ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), ch. 2.

(45.) Kuhn, Origins of the Modern Chinese State (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), ch. 1.

(46.) Jing Tsu, Failure, Nationalism and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895–1937 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), ch. 1.

(47.) Hu Shih, English Writings of Hu Shih, vol. 2, Chinese Philosophy and Intellectual History, ed. Chih-p’ing Chou (Berlin, New York: Springer, 2013); and Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, trans. Derk Bodde (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952).

(48.) Hou, Zhongguo sixiang tongshi中國思想通史‎, 5 vols. (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1957).

(49.) Chang, The Development of Neo-Confucian Thought, 2 vols. (New York: Bookman Associates 1957).

(50.) Chan, A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969).

(51.) De Bary, Chan, and Watson, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964). The scope is greatly expanded in the 2d edition, published more than thirty years later, and with more contributors. See De Bary, Bloom, Irene, et al. eds., Sources of Chinese Traditions, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

(52.) 葛兆光‎, Zhongguo sixiangshi中國思想史‎. 3 vols. (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe, 2004). The first volume has been translation into English. See Ge, An Intellectual History of China, vol. 1: Knowledge, Thought, and Belief before the Seventh Century CE, trans., Michael S. Duke and Josephine Chiu-Duke (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014).

(53.) An extremely influential work that falls into this category is Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: the Secular as Sacred (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).

(54.) A good example would be Willard J. Peterson, Bitter Gourd: Fang I-chih and the Impetus for Intellectual Change (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979).

(55.) Yu Ying-shih, Zhu Xi de lishi shijie: Songdai shidafu zhengzhi wenhua de yanjiu. Yu has a long-lasting disdain for works that he believes are guilty of investigating ideas out of their historical contexts. He first expressed his displeasure through a criticism of Edward Ch’ien’s approach in the 1980s. For Ch’ien’s work that sparked the debate and the exchanges between the two scholars, see Ch’ien, Chiao Hung and the Restructuring of Neo-Confucianism in the Late Ming (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986); Yu Yingshi, “The Intellectual World of Chiao Hung Revisited,” Ming Studies 5 (1988): 24–66; and Ch’ien, “Neither Structuralism Nor Lovejoy’s History of Ideas: A Disidentification with Professor Ying-Shi Yu’s review as a Dis-course,” Ming Studies 31 (1991): 42–77. But debates of this sort have a longer history. See for instance the exchanges between William de Bary and Frederick Mote. Mote, “The Limits of Intellectual History?” Ming Studies 19 (1984): 17–25; de Bary, “Reply to Frederick Mote’s ‘The Limits of Intellectual History’,” Ming Studies 21(1985): 77–92; and Mote, “Surrejoinder to Professor William Theodore De Bary,” Ming Studies 21 (1985): 93–94.

(56.) Bol, Neo-Confucianism in History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008).

(57.) Elman, “The Failure of Contemporary Chinese Intellectual History,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 43.3 (2010): 371–391.

(58.) Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A New Manual, 4th ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 945.

(59.) Wilkinson, Chinese History, 954.