The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History will be available via subscription on April 26. Visit About to learn more, meet the editorial board, learn about subscriber services.

Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, ASIAN HISTORY ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 24 April 2019

Schools and Learning in Imperial China

Summary and Keywords

From the consolidation of the Han empire (206 bce–220 ce) through the collapse of the Qing (1644–1911), ideas about education associated with Confucius (c. 551–479 bce) and his followers dominated both the content and the institutions of learning. In imperial China, as in all societies, the transmission of culture across generations depended on learning values and skills within the family. Beyond the bonds of kinship, more advanced knowledge was acquired through teacher-student relationships, idealized along with family in the Confucian Analects. Both modes of learning retained their importance even after the development of formal educational institutions controlled by the state. The key innovation in this regard was the imperial civil service examination system, beginning in the 7th century ce. The single most important educational institution during the middle and later imperial periods (c. 900–1900), the influence of the examination system far eclipsed that of any individual school or schools. The examinations tested candidates on a variety of topics, ranging from knowledge of the Confucian classics to poetry and philosophy, as well as politics and history. Passing the examination led to appointment as a government official, the favored career for ambitious young males (not females, who were expected to remain in the home as wives and mothers). Beyond the Imperial University and other schools in the capital and regional centers, schools founded by families, lineages, and clans, as well as by independent scholars and local government officials, provided instruction geared to passing the examinations. From the Song period (960–1279) on, the development of printing technology and the growth of commercial publishing greatly enhanced access to education, expanding opportunities for many, although competition remained fierce, and examination success, elusive.

Keywords: Confucian, examination system, schools, printing, imperial China, Neo-Confucianism, literacy, learning

Schooling and the State in Early Imperial China

Ideals of learning formulated by Confucius (551–479 bce) and other thinkers were first put into practice by rulers of the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce), which came to power shortly after the demise of the first unified empire, the Qin (221 bce–210 bce). According to Confucius, learning was defined by the sage kings of antiquity, creators of civilization, and embodied in the sacred texts that transmitted their teachings. Confucius was later known as “First Teacher,” and was famously cited for his claim to be merely a transmitter, not a creator. For Confucius’s successor Mencius (372–289 bce), learning enabled people to become “humane” (ren) by nurturing their innate goodness. Learning was thus a defining characteristic of the “exemplary person” (jun zi), who had achieved humane-ness and was thereby responsible for maintaining the order of society by governing others.

The identification of learning with government became a hallmark of the imperial state from as early as the reign of Han Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 bce), who adapted Confucian ideals to the needs of legitimizing and carrying out centralized rule. To this end, the imperial government called for recommendations of good men from throughout the empire to take up posts in the state bureaucracy. Those recommended were to be trained in the Imperial University (124 bce) and then appointed to government office. Scholars called “Erudites,” based on their expertise in one of the Five Classics (Changes, Poetry, History, Rites, Spring and Autumn Annals), taught Imperial University students. Advanced education of this nature rested on substantial prior preparation, requiring intensive training in reading and writing from early childhood and was therefore restricted to those families with the means to hire tutors or establish private schools.

Two important themes thus emerge clearly by the Han period: the text-based scriptural nature of learning and the association of education with the needs of the state. Qin-Han imperial unification was supported by the adoption of a unified script that standardized varied forms of characters in use throughout the newly centralized empire. The use of a common script was vital to the operation of the imperial bureaucracy, tasked with documenting state administration and communicating government policies.

Acquiring the skills necessary for governing, like all education in imperial China, began with basic literacy. From an early age, children were instructed in reading and writing by the use of wordbooks that systematically introduced characters.1 Students were then taught the Analects and the Classic of Filial Piety, expanding their command of characters and their range of knowledge eventually to more advanced Confucian classics. Girls in elite families might learn from tutors along with their brothers, but education for women was confined to their domestic roles as daughters, wives, and mothers, and emphasized moral instruction. Ban Zhao (45–120? ce), for example, daughter of a famous scholarly family, wrote Admonitions for Women, a text that promoted female virtues such as humility. As classical scholarship evolved during the Han, authoritative dictionaries were compiled, such as Shuo wen jie zi (Explaining Literature and Analyzing Graphs). Scholars also began to write commentaries on the classics, creating a new kind of scholarly discourse around texts transmitted from antiquity, and a new field of learning for students. Commentaries became the form through which differing interpretations of the classics were expressed.

By the Later Han (25–220), scholars representing many different schools of thought, including Daoism, established private schools outside the capital where they studied and taught, and the trend of private teaching intensified during the Period of Division following the collapse of the Han. But one innovation of this unsettled time became a permanent fixture in the imperial government’s educational institutions: the School for Sons of the State (Guo zi xue), established in 276 by one of the successor states of the Han as a school specifically for descendants of the aristocracy, 2 in contrast to the Imperial University, which taught students who had been recommended because of their reputed abilities.

The Period of Division (c. 250–550) was characterized by the rise and fall of states, north and south, some of which sought to claim the mantle of dynastic legitimacy from the Han. During these centuries of political fragmentation, Buddhism spread throughout Chinese society. Buddhist monasteries expanded the options for learning available to many by teaching novices (and others) basic literacy along with religious training. Some have even characterized local schooling in the following Sui (581–617) and Tang (618–907) eras as “temple school education.”3 Evidence documenting the use of secular texts such as the Tang-era children’s primer Meng qiu (Inquiries of the Young) has been found in Buddhist settings at Dunhuang and elsewhere.4 Nonetheless, most education beyond basic literacy for families of means took place within the household and was regulated by age and gender. Yan Zhitui’s (531–591) Family Instructions of the Yan Clan informs readers that both women and children should be taught within the household: instilling discipline in children so they could learn, and providing women with enough learning to ensure their ability to carry out proper rituals and maintain the household. Yan Zhitui also wrote about the importance of fetal education (tai jiao) by ensuring pregnant women were only exposed to appropriate influences.5

Scholarly institutions attached to government, as in the Han, also continued to evolve in the divided political conditions prior to the reunification of China in the late 6th century under the Sui. These became the foundation of state educational institutions in the capital during both Sui and Tang. The Office for Sons of the State (Guo zi jian, more commonly called the Directorate of Education) became the central educational administrative agency, overseeing the School for Sons of the State (or Directorate School), which continued along with the Imperial University and the School of Four Gates as the most important institutions dedicated to training men for government office.6 These three colleges were distinguished primarily by the social ranks of their students, but all focused on teaching the classics, history, literature (especially poetry), and philosophy.7 The Wu jing zheng yi (Correct Interpretations of the Classics), compiled under imperial auspices in 640, became the standard textbook for instruction.8 Other schools at the imperial capital taught more practical and technical subjects to students of even lower rank: calligraphy, mathematics, law, and medicine, as well as astronomy/astrology. The latter was essential for governance because responsibility for setting the calendar and for maintaining harmony between the human world and the heavens lay with the emperor and his officials. Calligraphy was an art held in high esteem by a culture that reverenced writing; mathematics, law, and medicine had obvious importance in ordering the state (law), managing the economy (mathematics), and securing the welfare of the people (medicine). Although it is impossible to gauge how extensive they were, local government schools in theory coexisted with private schools until the collapse of the Tang central government in the 9th century, leading to the decline of government schools and corresponding increase in private ones.

The Examination System and the Expansion of Government Schools

By far the most significant educational innovation of the Sui-Tang era was the examination system. Drawing on the Confucian idea of merit, not birth, as the defining characteristic of those who governed, and on the Han practice of recommendations to recruit officials and written tests to select them, Sui rulers initiated the formal recruitment of “advanced scholars” (jin shi) by written examinations.9 Sui and Tang rulers used examinations both as a practical mechanism to recruit able officials needed for governing the empire, and as a political tool to control aristocratic families whose entitlement to rank and office had been secured by the Nine Ranks (jiu pin) system of the post-Han era.10 Initially, those who participated in the examinations were primarily members of the aristocracy whose privileges were already established, but who found it advantageous to acquire a degree that qualified them for higher offices.

As the examination system evolved during the Tang, there were two main degrees: the ming jing (“clarifying classics”), which tested knowledge of an expanded list of Nine Classics, plus a policy question; and the jin shi (“advanced scholar”), which required candidates to compose essays on questions relating to government policy, as well as demonstrating knowledge of a more limited number of classics.11 By the late Tang, an additional category of “miscellaneous essays” incorporated poetic writing, a result of the flowering of poetry during the Tang.12 Other examinations tested the fields of law, calligraphy, mathematics, and the military (and even for a time, Daoism),13 but the classical and literary degrees held the highest prestige and were therefore more sought after by descendants of aristocratic families who desired to attain higher ranks and government offices.

Beginning in the Song (960–1279), the examination system became the primary route to office for aspiring young (and often older) men, providing a means for members of locally eminent families of non-aristocratic lineage to achieve high office. The Song founder adopted the Tang institutions of the Directorate of Education, including the Directorate School and the Imperial University, which became the centerpieces of imperial government education.14 When the founding emperor’s brother succeeded to the throne in 977, he presided over an unprecedented expansion of the examination system that resulted in awarding an average of 192 degrees annually throughout the remainder of the Song.15

The first major expansion of the Imperial University took place in 1044 during the wave of reforms promoted by the scholar-official Fan Zhongyan (989–1052). These reforms also called for the building of local schools throughout the empire, and linked school attendance to qualifying for the examinations. Proposals were put forward to alter the content of the examinations, stressing policy questions requiring historical argumentation and knowledge of the classics over poetry.16 Reformers challenged prevailing practices designed to ensure impartiality, such as having examinations copied out by clerks so that an individual’s calligraphy would not be recognized by the graders. They proposed instead that, because personal character was an important aspect of the evaluation, the identity of the candidate should be revealed.

Factional politics during the Northern Song (960–1126) led to pendular swings between reform and anti-reform that shaped the evolution of both schools and the examination system. A second wave of reform took place in the late 11th century under chief councilor Wang Anshi (1021–1086).17 One hallmark of Wang’s reforms was the elimination of poetry from the examinations and increased emphasis on certain classics as the source of policies to address government problems. Although Wang fell from power and his reforms were overturned, reformers once again came to power at the end of the 11th century and remained in power for a generation.

Building on Wang’s and other reformers’ idea that schools rather than examinations should be the primary means of recruitment, the “Three Hall System” was introduced at the end of the 11th century.18 It established a tripartite hierarchical organization of the Imperial University that required students to pass through three “halls” (outer, inner, upper). Successful completion of all three tiers qualified a student to become an official, although many still chose to take the examinations instead. Gradually this system was expanded beyond the Imperial University to prefectural schools, and eventually to county and even primary schools.

By the beginning of the 12th century, the Three Hall System had become the model for an empire-wide educational network designed to use schools for recruitment as well as teaching.19 New educational posts were created to administer this vast network of schools, which were funded by income from land allocated by the government. Examinations continued to be held, but candidacy was restricted to Imperial University students, who were promoted directly from prefectural schools, and students of the Directorate School, who were primarily sons of officials. Guarantees of proper family background and individual character had always been required of examination candidates. A new policy promoted shortly after the expansion of the Three Hall System, however, created a rapid track to officialdom for students recommended for their virtuous conduct, an innovation that radically shifted the selection process away from testable skills and knowledge toward character.20

The guiding principle of these institutional changes was to tie the process of recruitment and selection more closely to schooling. In its heyday during the early 12th century, the network of schools created by the Three Hall System attracted an estimated 200,000 students throughout the empire, an impressive number (if only a relatively small portion of the roughly 100 million total population).21 Despite the dismantling of the Three Hall System barely two decades after it was adopted, it was later temporarily revived, and its long-term influence was profound: integration of the recruitment and selection process with government schools characterized the examination system of Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1910) China.

During the Song, as in later dynasties, both internal and external political forces determined the conditions in which educational policies were conceived and implemented. While political factionalism within the Song government led to shifting goals and policies, threats from semi-nomadic empires on China’s northern borders eventually diverted attention away from education to military affairs. Following defeat by the Jurchen Jin (1115–1234) and loss of significant territory in the north, the Northern Song collapsed. The move to a new southern capital at Hangzhou marked the beginning of the Southern Song (1127–1279). The political division between north and south brought into sharp focus long-standing regional divisions, but the Jin state in the north also made use of examinations to recruit Chinese literati and in other ways adopted aspects of Chinese culture that provided a degree of continuity.22

Along with the revival of the Imperial University at Hangzhou and continuation of the examinations, a defining feature of the Southern Song was local activism—in schools as well as other aspects of local government, economy, and society. Local officials invested in schools and enlisted the support of prominent and wealthy local families to promote education. Schools provided a path to success for local talents because they were gateways to the examinations. In addition to government schools, lineages and clans also established schools for their sons and sometimes opened these schools to others in their local communities. Whether in government or private family schools, students were trained in both classical and historical texts as well as the literary skills necessary to pass the examinations. The amount of learning required was truly daunting. Although the precise format and requirements of the examinations changed with ideological shifts at the Song court, whether literary skills were emphasized over classical and historical knowledge or vice versa, an immense store of knowledge was demanded. For example, even one part of the examination might have required the candidate to have mastered the Chinese equivalent of Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, Gibbon, Bede, Bury, Croce, and Hegel in the Western tradition.23

The spread of schools, coupled with the growing importance of the examinations as the main path to success, dovetailed with the expansion of printing and publishing.24 Woodblock printing was in wide use at least by the 9th century, and in the 11th century the Song court began making regular bequests of printed editions of the classics to schools. Experimentation with moveable type printing took place in the 11th century, but due to the nature of the Chinese script, with approximately fifty thousand characters, woodblock printing remained the favored technology for the transmission of knowledge. Carving woodblock pages of text for reproduction made it possible to print numerous copies, whereas typesetting the huge number of different characters for each individual page was far more time-consuming and expensive. Commercial printers and publishers sprang up to meet the demand for cheap editions of classical texts for candidates preparing to take the examinations.25 Encyclopedias and other collections of documents, such as exemplary examination essays, were printed to aid students in efficiently accessing and comprehending the enormous volume of information they needed to master.26 Wealthy bibliophiles accumulated both manuscript and printed editions to build private libraries, and government and school libraries acquired woodblocks for printing along with manuscript and printed editions of classical, historical, and literary works.

New Ideals of Learning: Neo-Confucianism and Academies in the Southern Song

During the Southern Song, a new synthesis of Confucian ideas by Zhu Xi (1130–1200) generated profound changes in the intellectual and social world of educated elites, both men and women. The theory and practice of learning was central to the thought of Zhu and his followers, whose ideas came to be known as Daoxue, “Learning of the Way.” Rooted in late Tang and Northern Song thinkers’ efforts to recover the lost Way of Mencius after the fall of the Han and the spread of Buddhism, the Learning of the Way was one among many new interpretations of Confucian thought known collectively by the English term “Neo-Confucianism.”27 Followers of the Learning of the Way sought to realize the path to Confucian sagehood by cultivating the innate principle of human nature through extensive study of the human and natural worlds.

These ideas did not mesh well with intensive preparation for the examinations, which required memorization of the classics, the absorption of massive amounts of historical knowledge, and mastery of literary forms. Zhu Xi and others criticized studying for the examinations as the sole purpose of education, and they made use of private schools known as academies (shu yuan) to promote their own ideas focusing on the cultivation of inner moral character. Most academies incorporated shrines to celebrated scholars, along with the requisite shrine to Confucius and his disciples (see Figure 1). Confucian temples had been associated with schools since the Tang period, and continued to be formally connected to government schools as they expanded throughout the empire during the Song. Like government schools, academies also became important sites of printing as well as repositories for book collections in their libraries. Cheng Hao’s works, for example, were printed at Illumined Way Academy in 1259 from woodblocks held by the library there.28

Schools and Learning in Imperial ChinaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Diagram of Ming dao Academy. Zhou Ying he, comp., Jing ding Jian kang zhi (Song Yuan di fang zhi cong shu ed.) 5.17 tu (1261). Named for one of the key Northern Song Neo-Confucian thinkers, Cheng Hao, this diagram illustrates the layout of a major Neo-Confucian academy in the mid-13th century, showing the entrance at the south (bottom), with a shrine to Cheng Hao next, then a lecture hall, followed by headmaster’s office, and a shrine to Confucius at the back (top). Dormitories are located along both sides.

Despite their avowed rejection of examinations, many academies, like government and family schools, provided instruction that met the needs of students preparing to take them. By the end of the Southern Song, Zhu Xi’s ideas had become ideological orthodoxy, reflected in the content of examination questions and correct answers. Examinations continued to provide the surest path to success for ambitious young men, despite evidence of increasing use of the yin (“shadow”) privilege that entitled descendants of officeholders to enter the lower ranks of bureaucracy without passing the examinations. After the Southern Song fell to the Mongols in 1279, the new Yuan government (1279–1368) did not immediately carry out examinations, but ultimately resumed them in 1315. The persuasive power of examinations as a means to recruit and select government officials was such that even non-Chinese rulers recognized both their utility and their political value.

Technical Education: Medicine, Law, Mathematics, and the Military

Medical education was not new in the Song, but the first official imperial medical school was established as part of the reforms of Fan Zhongyan in 1044, in recognition of the need to standardize and formalize medical training. Prior to this, medical training was acquired through apprenticeships, characteristic of technical skills education. The court authorized the printing of official medical texts, but the study of medicine remained a lowly pursuit, regarded as a far less desirable occupation than civil officials trained in literary, historical, and classical learning. The Imperial Medical Service offered medical education to anyone, requiring neither examinations nor recommendations. By the late 11th century, more rigorous application procedures were implemented, and the introduction of the Three Hall System into the medical school meant that a promotion system was integrated into medical training.29

At the beginning of the 12th century, along with other educational reforms under the last emperor of the Northern Song, Huizong (r. 1100–1126), a new medical school was designed to raise the profile of medical training on a par with other schools under the Directorate of Education. The effect of this was to open up a career in medicine as an honorable pursuit for scholar-officials, especially for those who did not do well on the civil examinations. Previously, medical examinations had been administered as a corollary of the creation of the Imperial Medical Service. These asked students to recite passages from classical medical texts and to apply medical theories to cases for diagnosis and treatment.30 The formalizing of medical education and the elevation of the status of medical training led to the formation of a new group of literati physicians. This trend continued through the Southern Song, then reached a peak in the Yuan.31 Although there were government efforts to promote the development of local medical schools during the late Northern Song, it was not until the Yuan that medical schools were established outside the capital. Medical education became an important part of the network of schools that stretched across Mongol-ruled China.32

The existence of written law codes from as early as the Qin-Han indicates the importance of legal knowledge for the operation of the imperial government and its control of the population. When the examination system began in the Tang, law was a field of examination, and by the early Northern Song there was a law school under the Directorate of Education to train legal experts. But despite examinations in law being given, like medicine, law was regarded as a lesser field of study, one of the “varied fields” (ju ke) far below that of classical studies for the coveted jin shi degree. Law, however, was clearly of practical value for government officials, who were encouraged to become familiar with legal texts, but not at the expense of their knowledge of the classics, history, and literature.

Military education was formally assigned to a school under the Directorate of Education in the Northern Song, and military examinations were held. Candidates came from the ranks of the military or from clerical posts, so did not follow the same training path as those who sought civil degrees. Military examinations had been held since the latter Tang, testing knowledge of military classics such as Sunzi’s The Art of War (c. 4th century bce). In the Song, a collection of military works, the Wu jing qi shu (Seven Military Canons), was compiled and this became the core text for the military examinations.33 But the route to military leadership was never primarily through examinations.34

Because of its use in astronomy, mathematics played an important role in supporting imperial authority. It was necessary for calculating the calendar, for example, a responsibility of the emperor and the bureaucracy. Already established in the Tang, mathematics education continued in the Song and after with a School of Mathematics under the Directorate of Education. But, like other forms of technical training, studying mathematics did not secure a position of high social or political esteem for those who passed examinations in that field.

Education and Examinations under Mongol Rule

The Mongol conquest of China in the mid-13th century brought devastation to populations and territory from north to south. Mongol rule under Khubilai Khan (r. 1260–1294), however, followed the guidance of Confucian scholars and modeled Yuan institutions of government on Chinese precedents. These institutions—above all, educational ones—were of necessity at least bilingual. There was a Mongolian Directorate of Education and Mongolian National College, as well as their Chinese equivalents.35 In testimony to the multi-religious and multicultural nature of the Mongol Empire, for a brief period of time there was also a College for Central Asians (using the term for Uighurs, Hui hui) for instruction in languages using Arabic script.36 Later a Central Asian Directorate was created.37

Mongolian language schools were established in the routes (roughly equivalent to provinces) throughout the country so the Chinese could learn Mongolian in order to advance through the bureaucracy.38 Local schools at the prefectural and county levels continued to be staffed and supported by the imperial government, and academies, too, became part of the official network of schools. Although the institution dated to the Tang, the temple school (miao xue), which fused the functions of Confucian shrines and schools, gained importance during the Yuan. Temple schools were widely established, and many of them were specifically medical schools.39 Locally, Yin yang schools taught astrology, astronomy, and mathematics—valuable skills for aspiring clerks or bureaucrats.40

Civil service examinations had been held in 1238 during Mongol rule of North China before the final conquest of the Southern Song in 1279. After that, it was not until 1315 that examinations were held. During the Song, prefectural quotas for the examinations based on ratios between successful and failed candidates had been introduced to achieve balanced representation among economically advanced and backward regions. Under the Mongols, ethnic concerns superseded geographic ones, leading to the adoption of ethnic quotas that naturally favored Mongols. Next to Mongols in priority were Central Asians, then northern Chinese (subject to non-native rule longer than southerners), and finally southern Chinese. Nonetheless, one important reason for the restoration of the examinations was to attract Chinese literati to government service under the Yuan and to gain legitimacy in their eyes. Confucian texts were taught in Yuan schools, either in Chinese or translated into Mongolian, and Confucian texts supplied the content of the examinations under the Mongols as well. Zhu Xi’s interpretations of the classics were adopted as the correct ones to be used in the examinations. This meant that candidates would have to prepare by thoroughly mastering the Four Books (Analects, Mencius, Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean) and Five Classics (Odes, Documents, Changes, Rites, Spring and Autumn Annals) as annotated and interpreted by Zhu Xi. Command of these texts and their commentarial traditions would be coupled with familiarity with a wide body of historical texts, including institutional encyclopedias that traced the evolution of government, so that candidates could respond effectively to policy questions.

Given the daunting task of learning confronted by prospective examination candidates, how might they have acquired this knowledge and at what age would they need to begin? Cheng Duanli (1271–1345), a Neo-Confucian scholar who held various positions at local schools and academies during the Yuan, composed a “Daily Schedule of Study” for his own family school, and it became an influential model curriculum during the Ming and Qing. According to this schedule, elementary learning relied on the Tang era Thousand Character Classic and other primers such as the Hundred Surnames and the Three Character Classic to teach basic reading and writing. Dating from the Song, the Three Character Classic consists of rhyming lines of three characters each that stress elements of Confucian moral education. These primers were followed by an elementary text by Zhu Xi, all before the age of eight. Between the ages of eight and fifteen, students would tackle the Elementary Learning by Zhu Xi, plus the Four Books and [Seven] Classics (here including the Classic of Filial Piety and three versions of texts dealing with ritual and rites).41 After age fifteen, the student would be expected to take on advanced commentarial texts, largely by Zhu Xi, answering questions in class with others at a family or community school or with a tutor. Mastery of these texts would endow a student with knowledge of approximately two thousand characters, establishing basic literacy for classical studies. The length and intensity of study required for this demanded that a student have the leisure time and resources available to support him as well as the will to persist. Preparing for the examinations also required that a student have ready access to necessary books, provided by a school, an academy, a family library, or purchased from a relatively cheap commercial printer or bookseller.

The Expansion of Education and Examinations in Late Imperial China

Institutional continuity was coupled with expansion of both schools and the examinations in late imperial China. The restoration of native Chinese rule in the later 14th century with the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) ushered in a five-hundred-year era of relative continuity in education and the examination system, even though this lengthy period was punctuated by conquest at the hands of yet another non-Chinese people, the Manchus (Qing dynasty, 1644–1910). The first examinations held by the Ming founder in 1370 (provincial) and 1371 (metropolitan) did away with poetry in favor of classical essays on the Four Books and Five Classics.42 This ban on poetry lasted until the mid-18th century under the Manchu Qing, but it did not dampen the literary activities of the scholarly elite, who continued to read and write poetry and to compose literary essays. However, the examinations were halted between 1373 and 1384 as the Ming founder battled with his Confucian advisers and the bureaucracy, executing many. When the examinations were restored, the Ming government made use of local and regional quotas for selection that supported its control over elite access to status and power through the examinations, although neither the Ming nor the succeeding Qing were able to eliminate the advantages enjoyed by the wealthiest prefectures and counties of the southeast. Whatever their origins, those who attained the highest degree, especially the first place jin shi, were lauded for their literary accomplishments (see Figure 2) and could look forward to positions of social and political prominence.

Schools and Learning in Imperial ChinaClick to view larger

Figure 2. The 1430 optimus writes from memory. From Ming Zhuang yuan tu kao [Illustrated survey of optimi during the Ming dynasty]. Compiled by Gu Dingchen and Gu Zuxun. 1607 edition. This woodblock print illustrates the examination candidate who won first place in 1430 exhibiting his command of a written text from memory.

The Manchu rulers of the Qing were faced with the dilemma of controlling a population that greatly outnumbered them without losing their own cultural identity and without provoking resistance. As their Mongol predecessors learned, the Manchus likewise realized that success in ruling China required the adoption of Chinese institutions. Paramount among these was the civil service examination system, reinstated by the Manchus soon after they took power in 1644. They also adopted the regional quota system employed by the Ming, but other adaptations were necessary to accommodate a far more linguistically and culturally diverse society. Even prior to the conquest, the Manchus had held examinations for Manchus, Mongols, and Chinese in their native languages, and throughout the Qing both separate examinations and ethnic quotas were used to regulate selection and recruitment into the bureaucracy, and thus access to status and power. Until the mid-18th century, the content of the examinations remained essentially unchanged from the Ming: Four Books and Five Classics, using interpretive commentaries of Song Neo-Confucians, discourses on historical topics, and policy questions. In 1756, poetry was restored as an examination subject, harkening back to Tang ideals of poetic skill as a measure of literati talent.43

Following precedent from the Song, by the mid-15th century the Ming government was committed to establishing local schools in each of the nearly 1,500 counties throughout the empire. The Ming founder called for public primary schools in every county and village not simply to teach literacy but to instill in the population obedience to imperial authority and its laws. The purpose of learning here was to inculcate values to support the maintenance of social order, not to gain mastery of a textual tradition in order to pass the examinations and become a scholar-official. Known as community schools (she xue), they joined already existing prefectural and county schools as local educational institutions.44 Unlike the Mongol Yuan, the Ming government did not incorporate academies into its official network of schools, but from the mid to late 15th and early 16th centuries, Ming literati built academies or restored them from Song foundations. The Ming academy revival was inspired in part by concerns about moral corruption in government, especially at the court, which was periodically in the hands of eunuchs who usurped authority from the reigning emperor. This was not unlike the moral fervor that inspired the Southern Song academy movement, but Ming academies acquired a far more political role in critiquing the immoral behavior of officials, and they were often perceived as a direct threat by the imperial government.

Prospective teachers for local government schools, as well as for private ones operated by families or lineages, often came from the ranks of examination candidates who passed only the first (sheng yuan) or second (ju ren) levels but who failed to succeed at the final (jin shi) level. During the Ming and Qing, passing each level of the examination system awarded the candidate a rank commensurate with that level, whereas prior to the Ming, passing each level entitled the candidate to go on to the next, but awarded no title. As the ranks of candidates who failed to gain the highest degree swelled, they became a rich resource for other occupations that required advanced literacy, such as teaching or publishing. The failed examination candidate turned teacher became a stock figure in popular literature, inspiring countless comedic scenes in works of fiction such as The Scholars, an 18th-century novel that in part satirizes the desperation of unsuccessful scholars against the backdrop of village society dominated by ignorant bullies.45 The writings of the Pu Songling (1640–1715), who failed the examinations multiple times, bear witness to the psychological pressures on individuals taking the examinations that Pu likened to being imprisoned, poisoned, or dead.46

Soon after the Manchu conquest in the 17th century, in addition to the official school system that stretched across the empire, special schools were set up for the eight military banners into which the Manchu elite and their allies were organized: Manchus, Mongols, and Chinese military families (the latter were supporters of the Manchus prior to their rise and conquest).47 Academies, both private and official, proliferated, and there were always family and lineage schools along with monastic institutions that provided varying levels of instruction. Although it is difficult to assess with precision, rising levels of popular literacy are indicated by a growth in published works available in cheap editions: novels and poetry, technical manuals, medical texts, agricultural works, and religious collections.48

A Widening World of Learning: Transmitting Knowledge in a Changing Society

Just as Zhu Xi had provided intellectual leadership for a new Confucian orthodoxy in the Southern Song, Wang Yangming (1472–1529) became the pivotal figure in a new wave of Neo-Confucian thought, spun out of Song antecedents that had contested Zhu’s focus on external text-based learning in favor of inner self-cultivation. The philosophical ideals of Wang and his followers were also directed outward, but toward action in society, premised on the notion that knowledge—however cultivated or acquired—only exists in actions it generates. Other thinkers took this idea to the point of rejecting scriptural tradition in favor of orally transmitted learning and the use of the vernacular in their written works. Aiming to reach a more popular audience, a number of Wang’s disciples, like some earlier Song thinkers, adapted the Chan Buddhist genre of “recorded conversations” (yu lu) to engage new listeners and readers through dialogues that were easier to follow than more abstract and formal philosophical treatises.49 Wang and his followers were deeply involved in Ming academies, seeing them as places for reflection and study where they could also transmit their teachings on individual self-cultivation to others.

Wang’s ideas, and those of his disciples, marked a definitive turn toward the individual and toward a conception of learning as cultivation of the Confucian self. Some of those influenced by Wang carried his ideas to extremes, becoming notorious for their advocacy of the common man as sage and sometimes simply for their individualism and eccentricity.50 Others such as Lü Kun (1536–1618) realized that for any scholar’s teachings to become accessible to common people required concrete engagement and direct communication, including addressing the needs of women as well as men. For example, his Precepts for Women was composed of verses that were easy to memorize, and Illustrated Regulations for the Women’s Quarter provided less educated female readers with glosses and other tools to make the text easier to understand.51

Although Wang Yangming himself had managed to obtain a jin shi degree in 1499, this did not make him any less critical of the kind of learning required by the examination system: unreflective memorization and rigidly structured composition in the form of the notorious “eight-legged essay” (ba gu wen), which first appeared in the 1480s.52 With four parallel sections, two parts each, the eight-legged essay was a formulaic composition designed to display the author’s erudition but not necessarily intellectual depth. The eight-legged essay was mandated as the official format for examination essays well into the 19th century, when it came under increasingly severe attack as having had a stultifying effect on intellectual creativity.53

The expanding needs of examination candidates for study aids to help them master a voluminous body of texts created a market for commercial publishing that exploded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.54 Savvy printers and publishers solicited works that would appeal to the aspiring candidate by packaging required texts and annotations in an accessible and convenient format that was also affordable. Educated but unsuccessful examination candidates also found occupation in preparing guides and study aids. For the first time, sons of merchants were allowed to take the examinations, expanding the pool of candidates beyond those of scholarly and official descent.

Like Buddhist and Daoist clergy, women were excluded from the examinations, but this did not mean that they were illiterate or uneducated. Traditionally confined to the “inner quarters” of the domestic realm, women were expected to be models of virtue as wives and mothers, but as mothers responsible for early childhood education, they were also required to be literate, even learned. Although apart from famous poets such as Xue Tao (768–831) in the Tang or Li Qingzhao (1084–c. 1155) in the Song, relatively little evidence remains, it is likely that many elite women during the Song and earlier were writers as well as readers.55 The Book of Filial Piety for Women, attributed to a woman of the late Tang, was among several didactic texts for women that circulated in Song times.56 Dissemination of the values promoted by this text was enhanced by visual representation in the form of illustrated scrolls.57 For the semiliterate or illiterate, visual learning through illustrated texts could provide an effective means of transmitting knowledge as well as values. By the Ming there were close to fifty kinds of didactic texts for women that circulated, and these were made accessible to less educated readers by the use of illustrations and language that was easier to read.58

By the Ming and Qing periods numerous sources attest to the acquisition of learning and literary creativity of elite women. Gu Ruopu (1592–c. 1681) was a widow and author, forced by circumstances to run her household on her own.59 She became a teacher and writer and, above all, an advocate for women’s education. Gu Ruopu and others moved beyond the tension between virtue and talent (the more talented, the less virtuous) in opposition to male critics who believed in purely didactic instruction for women. Among them was Lan Dingyuan (1712–1713), whose Women’s Learning offered moral lessons designed to cultivate female virtue rather than nurture literary talent or intellect.60 Unlike the poet Yuan Mei (1716–1798), who welcomed women students, the historian Zhang Xuecheng (1738–1801) in his own Women’s Learning expressed the idea that the pursuit of poetry by women undermined the ritual behavior that ordered society.61 Zhang’s view of learning was a resolutely gendered one, and from this premise he argued that “women’s learning” must reflect the segregated sphere of women’s lives as wives and mothers within the family and household. Paradoxically, however, the very profusion of such didactic texts for women in the Qing testifies to the existence of a substantial audience of literate women, not all of whom confined themselves to Zhang’s definition of “women’s learning.”62

In fiction of the late imperial period, the trope of the brilliant female student officially barred from taking the examinations while her much less talented and less qualified husband or lover takes them and fails—or she dresses as a man and passes them in her husband’s place—is further testimony to the growing numbers of educated women in late imperial China.63 Women who could not share in this world of literate culture (wen) did participate in learning through the oral transmission and practice of skills that enabled them to be wives, mothers, and workers. Cultural signs and symbols manifested in a variety of non-textual ways such as festivals and life cycle ceremonies (weddings, funerals) were potent means of transmitting knowledge to women (and men) who could not read or write.64 Beginning at least in the Song, family instructions such as those of the prominent official Sima Guang (1019–1086) were recorded to provide succeeding generations with guidance on how to carry out proper rites for lifecycle events, and how to regulate family relationships by age and gender to promote harmony and preserve the family line. Family instructions proliferated in the late imperial period, adding to the ways that learning was acquired by both men and women with varying degrees of literacy. These instructions could be delivered orally on ceremonial occasions as well as read independently.

Along with family instructions and didactic teachings for women and children, other texts devoted to the transmission of practical learning were compiled by scholars. Such technical works in fact complemented the moral precepts and administrative advice found in family instructions.65 Versions of “Pictures of Tilling and Weaving,” with accompanying poems, can be traced to as early as the 12th century, idealizing these two essential forms of labor and associated technology that produced rice and silk.66 The earliest of these was reproduced in print by the 13th century, circulating well beyond the Song court where it was initially presented. Wang Zhen’s Book of Agriculture (1313) may have been intended to promote the notion of an ideally governed society visible in the practice of agriculture, but its presentation of basic information through illustrations made it accessible and valuable to farmers in circulating printed editions.67 The most important and influential successor to this work was the Complete Treatise of Agricultural Administration (1628) by the polymath and Catholic convert Xu Guangqi (1562–1633).68

Like agricultural technology and practice, medical knowledge in the late imperial period was spread through the transmission of texts and illustrated manuals. In the 14th century, introductory medical texts began to appear, and from the Ming on, medical knowledge consequently became more accessible, unconstrained by governmental or institutional authorities.69 Both men and women could learn to become doctors through apprenticeships and by making use of cheaply printed manuals that provided basic medical knowledge. Female doctors often came from medical lineages. Their professional learning distinguished them from the more conventional maternal role as healer.70 In addition to the transmission of technology through printed texts with illustrations, the migration of laborers, craftsmen, artisans, and even merchants across the empire was also an important means of circulating practical knowledge.71

Transformations of Learning in Imperial China

From early imperial times (Han through Tang), orality, aurality, and memorization were the primary pedagogical methods for learning to read texts and comprehend their meaning.72 As elsewhere in premodern literary cultures, the relationship between the spoken and written word was key, and in medieval China (post-Han through Tang), vocalized reading linked speech and writing.73 The sacralization of the teacher in the person of the sage Confucius provided the role model for the master-student relationship through which learning was transmitted. The teacher’s authority invoked authenticity in understanding and interpreting texts that were recited and memorized before they were read.74 Not until the 17th century did pedagogical attention begin to be paid to characters and character recognition, to visual rather than oral/aural cognition.75

The introduction and spread of print culture, while not eliminating the value of manuscripts, dramatically altered the relationship between text and reader, permanently changing both conditions for the transmission of knowledge and the nature of the audience for it. Education for the elite meant cultivation of the attributes of moral authority implied by membership in the elite, exemplified by jiang xue (discussions on learning) that took place in Song academies and beyond. But for common people, the term most used to describe education from the perspective of the educated elite who governed was jiao hua (transformation by instruction, or moral transformation). By the 12th century, however, the proliferation of books evoked anxiety on the part of the educated elite, whose cultural dominance was threatened by the availability of cheap printed editions and by new formats such as encyclopedias that made knowledge more easily accessible, even to literate commoners.76 Zhu Xi’s “reading method” (du shu fa) was aimed at students overwhelmed by the growing number of books and commentaries, and it encouraged them to focus on internalizing a text by repetition and explanation from an authoritative teacher or through copying it by hand.77 Zhu’s critique of the examinations was rooted in a related concern that students preparing to take them were preoccupied with studying only what was necessary to pass the examinations. It was ironic that Zhu Xi’s own interpretations of the classics became examination orthodoxy in late imperial China.

The dominant philosophical approach to learning from the Song through the Ming derived from the Learning of the Way synthesis defined by Zhu Xi and his disciples in the Southern Song, then challenged by Wang Yangming and his followers in the Ming. The fundamental division between these two versions of Neo-Confucian thought lay in the distinction between moral knowledge as a product of both inner cultivation of innate humanity and external learning through texts (Zhu) and accessing moral knowledge from within in order to carry out moral practices in the world (Wang). Against this backdrop, a revolutionary change in thought began to take place in the 17th century, before, during, and after the Manchu conquest of China in 1644. Engendered in part by the dynamic explorations of Neo-Confucian ideas carried out by Ming thinkers like Wang Yangming, some 17th-century thinkers gradually rejected the entire foundation of rational philosophy buttressed by the ideas of Zhu Xi and other Song Neo-Confucians in favor of skeptical and secular classical empiricism.78

Taking as their guiding principle “Seek truth from facts,” these thinkers created a new mode of intellectual discourse that was open to questioning received tradition. Even the classics themselves were subject to scrutiny as historical philology became the framework for investigation of texts transmitted from antiquity. Newly acquired acquaintance with Western natural science introduced by Jesuit missionaries such as Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) broadened the frame of inquiry even farther.79 Kao zheng (literally, “seeking verification”) scholarship, often referred to as “evidential” learning, became the dominant mode of inquiry in the 18th and 19th centuries.80 The pursuit of this scholarship flourished in private academies in the Yangzi delta, and gradually spread to schools and scholars throughout the empire.

Education and the Examination System in Imperial China

Building on Han dynasty institutional precedents and Confucian meritocratic ideas, the examination system created in the 6th century and elaborated in the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing periods shaped the lives of hundreds of thousands of men and the fortunes of their families. Both government and private schooling were largely dedicated to instruction in classical learning necessary to pass the examinations. Although learning was defined in different ways by a wide range of thinkers in each era, a core body of knowledge transmitted largely through written historical, philosophical, and literary texts was recognized as essential for success in the examinations. By the time of its abolition in 1905, the examination system had dominated Chinese social, cultural, and political life for a thousand years (c. 900–1900).

Learning, however, also took place outside the realm of the examination system and the schools that supported it, both formally and informally. Children were educated at home by their mothers (and sometimes male relatives or tutors), using primers and other kinds of elementary texts (see Figure 3). Although excluded from the examinations and from public recognition of their literary skills, learned women participated in literary culture, writing poems and essays in classical style. Technical learning was often imparted through apprenticeships, studying with masters of medicine, for example. But by the Song period, emphasis on the transmission of knowledge and skills through texts brought about regulation and standardization of practice and medical practitioners. By whatever means acquired—through family members, private tutors, or government or private schools—classical, not technical, learning was the kind of knowledge that was valued and that elevated personal and family status in the society of imperial China.

Schools and Learning in Imperial ChinaClick to view larger

Figure 3. First page of Zeng shu San zi jing (Three-Character Classic, with expanded commentary), 1868. This cheap and popular edition of a classic primer begins with a simplified expression of the Mencian ideal that people are born good but diverge in their practice based on their education. Reproduced from Cynthia J. Brokaw and Kai-wing Chow, eds., Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), 207.

Courtesy of Cynthia J. Brokaw.

Discussion of the Literature

Modern English-language scholarship on this topic was influenced initially by early 20th-century Chinese scholars who viewed Confucian learning, schools, and the examinations as part of a cultural, social, and political system that needed to be reformed, if not jettisoned, in the service of building a modern China.81 In the 1960s, however, a more positive appraisal of the examination system as a meritocratic institution led to scholarship that focused on the degree to which the examination system fostered social mobility.82 Drawing evidence from lists of successful jin shi candidates that provide information on the status and occupation of each candidate’s father and grandfather, He Bingdi, for example, argued that a high degree of social mobility in the Ming and, to a lesser degree, in the Qing was brought about by competition through the examination system, which offered opportunities for talented young men from humble backgrounds to rise to positions of wealth and power through education.83 Subsequent scholarship in the 1980s questioned both the approach to the evidence and the argument, pointing out that in Chinese society the status of affinal and collateral kin mattered as well as those in the paternal descent line, and that the definition of “elite” was neither uniformly nor ubiquitously tied to examination success.84 Landholding wealth, for example, mattered too, and sometimes even more than “merit” (demonstrated through passing the jin shi examinations).85

The next generation of scholars produced studies of the examination system, schools, and learning that made use of a broader array of sources and provided more complex and detailed analyses of these interlocking topics, showing both how the imperial state exercised control over the elite through regulation of the examinations and schools tied to them, and how members of the elite manipulated the system to maintain or elevate their status.86 These scholars also drew attention to the cultural and social impact of the examination system by looking at popular literature, for example. John Chaffee’s social history of the examinations showed that, even as competition became increasingly fierce over the course of the Song, and success ever more elusive, the scholarly attributes associated with examination preparation remained important as cultural markers of elite status.87

Since the 1980s, the work of Benjamin Elman has contributed more than any other Western scholar to current understanding of the examination system and the educational institutions that supported it. By emphasizing social, political, and cultural reproduction as a central feature of the examination system, Elman’s work complicates, and in some ways challenges or even contradicts, previous studies.88 He portrays the examination system as providing a structural mechanism for the circulation of elites in imperial China rather than as a vehicle for social mobility. Elman’s magisterial study of the examination system published in 2000 brings together a wide range of quantifiable data, institutional history, and cultural materials in a comprehensive survey and analysis. He shows how the legitimacy as well as the functioning of the imperial state were interwoven with the institution of the examination system, and how the examinations thoroughly penetrated society.89

While not contesting Elman’s view, Hilde de Weerdt focuses instead on intellectual debates over examination content as a way to understand conflicts between differing schools of thought as well as differing visions of state power.90 De Weerdt’s 2007 work situates the examination system within the framework of intellectual history, building on earlier work by Peter Bol and Hoyt Tillman that sought to understand how learning was defined in the evolving Neo-Confucian tradition.91 Thomas Wilson explains how a “genealogy” of ideas was crafted in the Ming to legitimize a particular line of transmission, leading to the Neo-Confucian orthodoxy that dominated intellectual life, and especially the examinations, beginning in the mid-13th century.92 Bol’s 2008 Neo-Confucianism in History seeks to place this intellectual tradition in sweeping historical context.

Due to the importance of written texts in transmitting traditions of learning in imperial China, one of the most fruitful areas of research in relation to schools and learning has been that of printing and publishing. Beginning with early 20th-century Chinese scholarship, studies of Chinese printing and book history have surged in recent years, addressing the technology of printing, the role of the state in publishing authoritative editions of the classics for distribution to schools, and the growth of commercial publishing (especially in relation to the needs of students preparing to take the examinations).93

One area of continuing research has again been pioneered by Benjamin Elman: the history of science in China as a form of knowledge.94 Focusing on the Jesuit encounter in the 16th and 17th centuries and the transmission of European scientific thought to China can help to bring Chinese intellectual history into a global framework, rather than isolated as a society of Confucian scholars. The study of schools and learning in imperial China has been dominated by Confucian thought, omitting for the most part the rich intellectual traditions of Buddhism and Daoism, relegated to the domain of historians of religion until recently. New technologies that aid the compilation of quantitative biographical and geographical data can also help to spur more refined treatments of long-standing questions such as how the literati elite managed to retain their status (or lose it), what they read, how they learned, what it meant to be literate, and how deeply literacy penetrated throughout Chinese society.

Primary Sources

Virtually all primary sources for this topic are in classical Chinese; relatively few translations into European languages exist. An excellent place to start is Classical Historiography for Chinese History, created and regularly updated by Benjamin Elman. In addition to listing extant records relating directly to the civil service examinations (such as examination lists), this online guide provides a comprehensive overview of related sources that contain examination questions, essays, and so on (including digital materials). Apart from historical gazetteers, which have descriptions of schools and local examinations, the official dynastic histories contain sections on the examination system (from the Tang on) and on central government educational institutions such as the Directorate of Education. These are widely available in reprinted editions, punctuated and annotated, and some portions of the dynastic histories relevant to this topic have been translated into English.95

Along with a brief survey entitled “Education and the Examinations,” for the Qing period, a useful introduction to extant archival sources is provided by Wilkinson.96 For the Ming period, Franke is still useful as an overview of Ming primary sources, including those relevant to education and the examinations.97 Although not specific to this topic, Esherick and Ye is a valuable survey of archival sources, largely pertinent to the Qing and later.98 A modern comprehensive collection of all extant academy records (zhi) provides convenient access to these compilations of commemorative inscriptions, poems, biographical information on headmasters and other personnel, geographical descriptions, maps, and architectural drawings.99 Modern edited, annotated, and punctuated versions of some of these records have also begun to be published.100

It is much easier to track records of institutional history (schools and the examination system) than it is to identify specific sources for intellectual history (learning), which are both vast and diffuse. Collections of the writings of individual thinkers from the Han through the Qing have been compiled, edited, reprinted, and annotated; these are far too voluminous to list. For the beginner, one way to gain a sense of extant materials is through biographies found in a series of reference works that list collections of original writings.101

Further Reading

Bai, Limin. Shaping the Ideal Child: Children and Their Primers in Late Imperial China. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

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

Brokaw, Cynthia J., and Kai-wing Chow, eds. Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Chaffee, John W. The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China: A Social History of Examinations. 2d ed. Albany: State University of New York, 1995.Find this resource:

Cherniack, Susan. “Book Culture and Textual Transmission in Sung China.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 54.1 (June 1994): 5–125.Find this resource:

Chia, Lucille, and Hilde de Weerdt, eds. Knowledge and Text Production in an Age of Print. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.Find this resource:

Chow, Kai-wing. Publishing, Culture, and Power in Early Modern China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

De Bary, Wm. Theodore, and John W. Chaffee, eds. Neo-Confucian Education: The Formative Stage. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.Find this resource:

De Weerdt, Hilde. Competition over Content: Negotiating Standards for the Civil Service Examination in Imperial China (1127–1279). Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007.Find this resource:

Elman, Benjamin A. Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Elman, Benjamin A. A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Elman, Benjamin A. On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550–1900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Elman, Benjamin A., and Alexander Woodside, eds. Education and Society in Late Imperial China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Gardner, Daniel K. Chu Hsi and the Ta-hsüeh: Neo-Confucian Reflection on the Confucian Canon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Council on East Asian Studies, 1986.Find this resource:

Gardner, Daniel K. Chu Hsi: Learning to Be a Sage. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Ko, Dorothy. Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Lee, Thomas H. C. Government Education and Examinations in Sung China. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Lee, Thomas H. C. Education in Traditional China: A History. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000.Find this resource:

Meskill, John. Academies in Ming China: A Historical Essay. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Miyazaki, Ichisada. China’s Examination Hell. Translated by Conrad Schirokauer. New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1976.Find this resource:

Rawski-Evelyn. Education and Popular Literacy in Ch’ing China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979.Find this resource:

Schneewind, Sarah. Community Schools and the State in Ming China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Tillman, Hoyt Cleveland. Confucian Discourse and Chu Hsi’s Ascendancy. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Walton, Linda A. Academies and Society in Southern Sung China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Xu, Ting. “Knowledge Formation and the Great Divergence between China and Europe: Manuscripts and Printed Books, ca. 581–1840.” Journal of Comparative Asian Development 12.2 (2013): 245–284.Find this resource:


(1.) Bai Limin, Shaping the Ideal Child: Children and Their Primers in Late Imperial China (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2005), 21–23.

(2.) Thomas Lee, Education in Traditional China (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000), 59; and Taga Akigorô, The History of Education in T’ang China (Tôdai Kyôikushi no Kenkyû), trans. P. A. Herbert (Osaka: Osaka University, 1985), 11. Lee gives the date of 278, and Taga, 276.

(3.) Lee, Education in Traditional China, 70.

(4.) Imre Galambos, “Confucian Education in a Buddhist Environment: Medieval Manuscripts and Imprints of the Mengqiu,” Studies in Chinese Religions 1.3(2015): 269–288.

(5.) Mark Edward Lewis, “Writing the World in the Family Instructions of the Yan Clan,” Early Medieval China, 13–14.1 (2007): 39.

(6.) Lee, Education in Traditional China, 72, n. 95.

(7.) Taga, History of Education, 24–25.

(8.) Taga, History of Education, 30.

(9.) Lee, Education in Traditional China, 132.

(10.) For a brief description of this, see Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Aristocratic Families of Early Imperial China: A Case Study of the Po-ling Ts’ui Family (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 17–19.

(11.) Lee, Education in Traditional China, 134–135.

(12.) Lee, Education in Traditional China, 136.

(13.) Oliver Moore, Rituals of Recruitment in Tang China: Reading an Annual Programme in the Collected Statements by Wang Dingbao (870–940) (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004), 13–17.

(14.) Lee, Education in Traditional China, 78.

(15.) John W. Chaffee, The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China: A Social History of Examinations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 49.

(16.) Chaffee, The Thorny Gates of Learning, chapter 4.

(17.) For a brief description of some aspects of this reform, see Thomas Lee, Government Education and Examinations in Sung China (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 1985), 239–241.

(18.) John W. Chaffee, “Sung Education: Schools, Academies, and Examinations,” in Cambridge History of China, Volume 5, Part Two, Sung China, 960–1279, eds. John W. Chaffee and Denis Twitchett (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 300–305.

(19.) For a recent revisionist view of the Three Hall System, see Hu Yongguang, “A Reassessment of the National Three Hall System in the Late Northern Song,” Journal of Song-Yuan Studies 44 (2014): 139–173.

(20.) Chaffee, The Thorny Gates of Learning, 78.

(21.) Chaffee, “Sung Education,” 302.

(22.) See Hoyt Cleveland Tillman and Stephen H. West, eds., China Under Jurchen Rule (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).

(23.) Robert M. Hartwell, “Historical Analogism, Public Policy, and Social Science in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century China,” American Historical Review 76.3 (June 1971): 707.

(24.) A surge of interest in printing and publishing has produced much new work on this topic, including Lucille Chia and Hilde de Weerdt, eds., Knowledge and Text Production in an Age of Print, China, 900–1400 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007).

(25.) See, for example, Lucille Chia, Printing for Profit: The Commercial Publishers of Jianyang, Fujian (11th–17th Centuries) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002).

(26.) Chia, Printing for Profit, 119. See also Ronald Egan, “To Count Grains of Sand on the Ocean Floor: Changing Perceptions of Books and Learning in the Song Dynasty,” in Knowledge and Text Production in an Age of Print, eds. Lucille Chia and Hilde De Weerdt (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 36–38.

(27.) For a comprehensive treatment of this huge topic from the Song through the Ming, see Peter K. Bol, Neo-Confucianism in History (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008).

(28.) Linda Walton, Academies and Society in Southern Song China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999), 1.

(29.) Asaf Goldschmidt, The Evolution of Chinese Medicine: Song Dynasty, 960–1200 (New York: Routledge, 2009), 46–48.

(30.) Goldschmidt, The Evolution of Chinese Medicine, 50.

(31.) Robert Hymes, “Not Quite Gentlemen? Doctors in Sung and Yuan,” Chinese Science 8 (January 1987): 9–76.

(32.) Reiko Shinno, The Politics of Chinese Medicine under Mongol Rule (New York: Routledge, 2016), 38–40.

(33.) Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A New Manual (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013), 325.

(34.) Chaffee, The Thorny Gates of Learning, 22.

(35.) David M. Farquhar, The Government of China under Mongolian Rule: A Reference Guide (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner verlag, 1990), 128–130.

(36.) Farquhar, The Government of China, 127.

(37.) Lee, Education in Traditional China, 90.

(38.) Elizabeth Endicott-West, “The Yuan Government and Society,” in The Cambridge History of China, Volume 6: Alien Regimes and Border States, 907–1368, eds. Herbert Franke and Denis Twitchett (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 606.

(39.) Shinno, The Politics of Chinese Medicine, 54–56, 75.

(40.) Lee, Education in Traditional China, 522.

(41.) Benjamin A. Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China (Berkeley and Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2000), 272.

(42.) Benjamin A. Elman, Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 37.

(43.) Elman, A Cultural History, 546–558.

(44.) See Sarah Schneewind, Community Schools and the State in Ming China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

(45.) See, for example, Wu Jingzi, The Scholars, trans. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1973), chapter 2.

(46.) Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China, 361. See also Allan Barr, “Pu Songling and the Qing Examination System,” Late Imperial China 7.1 (June 1986): 87–111.

(47.) Elman, Civil Examinations and Meritocracy, 119.

(48.) See Evelyn Rawski, Education and Popular Literacy in Ch’ing China (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979).

(49.) John Meskill, Academies in Ming China: A Historical Essay (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1982), 109.

(50.) For a succinct treatment of these intellectual developments, see John Berthrong, Transformations of the Confucian Way (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 130–136.

(51.) See Joanna F. Handlin, Action in Late Ming Thought: The Reorientation of Lü K’un and Other Scholar Officials (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), especially 143–146.

(52.) Elman, A Cultural History, 380–389.

(53.) This view of the “eight-legged essay” has been complicated by scholars such as Benjamin A. Elman. See Elman, Civil Examinations and Meritocracy, 51–64.

(54.) See, for example, Kai-wing Chow, Publishing, Culture, and Power in Early Modern China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), chapter 3.

(55.) Beverly Bossler has scrupulously surveyed extant writing by women in the Song and Yuan in her Courtesans, Concubines, and the Cult of Female Fidelity: Gender and Social Change in China, 1000–1400 (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2012).

(56.) Patricia Ebrey, “The Book of Filial Piety for Women Attributed to a Woman Née Zheng (ca.730),” in Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History, eds. Susan Mann and Yu-yin Cheng (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), 47–69.

(57.) Julia K. Murray, “Didactic Art for Women: The Ladies’ Classic of Filial Piety,” in Flowering in the Shadows: Women in the History of Chinese and Japanese Painting, ed. Marsha Weidner (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1990), 27–33.

(58.) Jian Zang, “Women and the Transmission of Confucian Culture in Song China,” in Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan, eds. Dorothy Ko, Jahyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R Piggott (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 137.

(59.) Dorothy Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 236–240.

(60.) Susan Mann, “The Education of Daughters in the Mid-Ch’ing Period,” in Education and Society in Late Imperial China, 1600–1900, eds. Benjamin A. Elman and Alexander Woodside (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 21–27.

(61.) Susan Mann, “‘Fuxue’ (Women’s Learning) by Zhang Xuecheng (1738–1801): China’s First History of Women’s Culture,” Late Imperial China 13.1 (June 1992): 40–62.

(62.) Mann, “The Education of Daughters in the Mid-Ch’ing Period,” 21.

(63.) For one example, see Clara Wing-chung Ho, “The Cultivation of Female Talent: Views of Women’s Education in China during the Early and High Qing Periods,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 38.2 (1995): 216.

(64.) Mann, “The Education of Daughters in the Mid-Ch’ing Period,” 27–35, 37–39.

(65.) Francesca Bray, “Chinese Literati and the Transmission of Technological Knowledge: The Case of Agriculture,” in Cultures of Knowledge: Technology in Chinese History, ed. Dagmar Schäfer (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 324.

(66.) See Roslyn Hammers, Pictures of Tilling and Weaving: Art, Labor, and Technology in Song and Yuan China (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2011). See also Francesca Bray, “Agricultural Illustrations: Blueprint or Icon?,” in Graphics and Text in the Production of Technical Knowledge in China, eds. Francesca Bray, Vera Dorofeeva-Lichtmann, and Georges Métailié (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007), 521–567.

(67.) Roslyn Hammers, “Picturing Tools for a Perfect Society: Wang Zhen’s ‘Book of Agriculture’ and the Northern Song Reforms in the Yuan Dynasty,” Journal of Song-Yuan Studies 42 (2012): 282.

(68.) Bray, “Chinese Literati and the Transmission of Technological Knowledge: The Case of Agriculture,” 312.

(69.) Angela Ki-che Leung, “Medical Instruction and Popularization in Ming-Qing China, Late Imperial China 24.1 (2003): 130–131. See also Angela Ki-che Leung, “Medical Learning from the Song to the Ming,” in The Song-Yuan-Ming Transition in Chinese History, eds. Paul Jakov Smith and Richard von Glahn (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003), 374–398.

(70.) See Charlotte Furth, A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China’s Medical History, 960–1665 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 266–300.

(71.) William T. Rowe, “Political, Social, and Economic Factors Affecting the Transmission of Technical Knowledge in Early Modern China,” in Cultures of Knowledge: Technology in Chinese History, ed. Dagmar Schäfer (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 25–44.

(72.) For a perceptive study of the relationship among orality, written texts, and memorization, see Christopher M. B. Nugent, Manifest in Words, Written on Paper: Producing and Circulating Poetry in Tang Dynasty China (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011).

(73.) Jack W. Chen, “On the Act and Representation of Reading in Medieval China,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 129.2 (2009): 59.

(74.) Chen, “On the Act and Representation of Reading in Medieval China,” 60.

(75.) Li Yu, “Learning to Read in Late Imperial China,” Late Imperial China 33.2 (2012): 1–39.

(76.) Stephen H. West, “Time Management and Self-Control: Self-Help Guides in Yuan,” in Text, Performance, and Gender in Chinese Literature and Music: Essays in Honor of Wilt Idema, eds. Maghiel van Crevel, Tian Yuan Tan, and Michel Hockx (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009), 113–114.

(77.) Daniel K. Gardner, “Transmitting the Way: Chu Hsi and His Program of Learning,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 49.1 (1989): 141–172.

(78.) Benjamin A. Elman, “The Social Roles of Literati in Early to Mid-Ch’ing,” in The Cambridge History of China, Volume 9, Part One: The Ch’ing Empire to 1800, ed. Willard J. Peterson (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 393–394.

(79.) See Benjamin A. Elman, On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550–1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

(80.) See, for example, Benjamin A. Elman, From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1984).

(81.) See, for example, Wolfgang Franke, The Reform and Abolition of the Traditional Chinese Examination System (Cambridge, MA: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University, 1968).

(82.) Johanna Meskill, ed., The Chinese Civil Service: Career Open to Talent? (Boston: Heath, 1963).

(83.) He Bingdi, The Ladder of Success in Imperial China: Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368–1911 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962). He’s approach and argument extended that of a much earlier (1947) article by Edward Kracke, who used two extant jin shi lists from the Southern Song (1148 and 1256), with background on each successful candidate’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Kracke likewise had proposed that there was a high degree of mobility in Song China via the examination system. See E. A. Kracke Jr., “Family Vs Merit in the Chinese Civil Service Examinations under the Empire,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 10.2 (September 1947): 103–123.

(84.) Probably the best known statement of this is in the work of Robert Hymes, Statesmen and Gentlemen: the Elite of Fu-chou, Chiang-hsi in Northern and Southern Song (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

(85.) See, for example, Hillary J. Beattie, Land and Lineage in China: A Study of T’ung-ch’eng County, Anhwei, in the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

(86.) Two closely related works appeared in 1985: John W. Chaffee, The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China: A Social History of Examinations (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985); and Thomas H. C. Lee, Government Education and Examinations in Sung China (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1985).

(87.) Peter Bol elaborates on this point in a review article on Chaffee. See his “The Sung Examination System and the Shih,” Asia Major, 3rd series, 3.2 (1990): 149–171.

(88.) For a succinct version of this approach, see Benjamin Elman, “Social, Political, and Cultural Reproduction via Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China,” Journal of Asian Studies 51.1 (February 1991): 7–28.

(89.) Elman, A Cultural History. A condensed and updated version of this book is Elman, Civil Examinations and Meritocracy.

(90.) 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).

(91.) Peter K. Bol, “This Culture of Ours”: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992); and Hoyt Cleveland Tillman, Confucian Discourse and Chu Hsi’s Ascendancy (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1992).

(92.) Thomas A. Wilson, Genealogy of the Way: The Construction and Uses of the Confucian Tradition in Late Imperial China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).

(93.) For example, Chow, Publishing, Culture, and Power in Early Modern China; Chia, Printing for Profit; and Cynthia J. Brokaw and Kai-wing Chow, eds., Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China (Berkeley and Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2005).

(94.) Benjamin A. Elman, On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550–1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); and A Cultural History of Modern Science in China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

(95.) See, for example, Yuan-chu Lam, “The Civil-Recruitment Chapter in the Yuan History,” Monumenta Serica 56 (2008): 293–372.

(96.) Wilkinson, Chinese History, 292–304, 808–820.

(97.) Wolfgang Franke, An Introduction to the Sources of Ming History (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1968), sect. 6.7, pp. 197–198.

(98.) Joseph Esherick and Ye Wa, Chinese Archives: An Introductory Guide (Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, 1996).

(99.) Zhao Suosheng 赵所生‎, Xue Zhengxing 薛正兴‎, eds., Zhongguo li dai shu yuan zhi 中国历代书院志‎, 16 vols. (Nanjing: Jiangsu jiao yu chu ban she, 1995).

(100.) For example, [Ming] Wu Daoxing 吴道行‎, [Qing] Zhao Ning 赵宁‎, eds.; Deng Hongbo 邓洪波‎, Yang Daichun 杨代春‎, annot., Yue lu shu yuan zhi 岳麓书院志‎ (Changsha: Hunan sheng Xin hua shu dian, 2012). See also Deng Hongbo, ed., Zhongguo shu yuan xue gui ji cheng 中国书院学规集成‎ (Shanghai: Shanghai wen yi chu ban she, 2011), an edited collection of academy “school rules.”

(101.) Herbert Franke, ed., Song Biographies, 3 vols. (Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner verlag, 1976); L. Carrington Goodrich and Fang Chao-ying, eds., Dictionary of Ming Biography, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976); and Arthur Hummel, Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period (1644–1912) (Taipei: Chengwen Publishing Company, 1970).