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Intellectual Trends in Imperial China  

Chang Woei Ong

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.


Schools and Learning in Imperial China  

Linda Walton

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.