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date: 03 June 2020

(p. 91) Institutions of Literary Culture

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides a historical examination of education and the examination system in China from the Former Han period through the tenth century. Particular educational practices and attitudes to education played an essential role in shaping elite culture. The civil service examination was equally fundamental as both an institution and a cultural ideal or motif. The chapter begins with an overview of educational systems (public, private, and religious) before turning to methods of recruitment and evaluation, including the civil service examinations. The chapter provides a special emphasis on the connection between the civil service examinations and literature, analyzing the development of new genres associated with the exams and the emergence of the examinations as a literary trope.

Editor’s Introduction (Xiaofei Tian)

If the last four chapters of this volume aim to demonstrate that literature cannot be separated from its physical manifestations, the five chapters in this subsection represent a series of inquiries, all interrelated, into the institutions of literary culture from early through medieval China. The themes of these chapters include education and the civil examination system, commentary, encyclopedia and epitome making, and libraries and book catalogues. The keyword is literary learning, and the central issue shared by the chapters is the state’s relationship to literary culture and the educated elite’s use of literature as cultural capital. The story is, simply put, one of a tug of war between the state’s monopoly and private individuals’ desire to break down that monopoly.

Much of the early and medieval literary tradition was tied to the court, which remained the center for cultural production well into the eighth century. The state, embodied in the person of the ruler, acted as the custodian of culture, and affirmed its political legitimacy by playing such a role. The state sponsored large, synthetic scholarly projects, including the compilation of literary encyclopedias and anthologies as well as the translation of Buddhist scriptures. In the Tang, the state also oversaw the writing of dynastic histories and the consolidation of previous scholarship on Confucian classics in the form of commentaries. The chapters in this section all manifest the great influence of the court on, and its vested interest in, literary culture.

(p. 92) The arena of education is where social relations are reproduced through the dissemination of knowledge. Education, especially advanced education in the cultural curricula of a society beyond a basic level of literacy, was always a privilege of a special social class. The civil service examination that emerged in early medieval times and matured in the Tang (618–907), though designed as a system to recruit men into government service based on merit, was not exactly an effective venue for true social mobility, especially in the period covered by this volume. Nevertheless, it did bring about some measure of upward movement for lower-level elites. The composition of poetry and poetic expositions or rhapsodies (fu) was incorporated into the examination in the late seventh century, and despite sporadic suspension, continued to be a popular component of the examination throughout the dynasty. The impact was profound for literary culture. Literature, politics, and intellectual life were closely connected through the examination system in many ways.

Gender and class were important factors in premodern education that played out in intricate dynamics. Although only men could participate in the civil service examination, women of upper social classes in medieval times more often than not were well educated and undertook the elementary education of their children, and some of the notable developments in the civil service examination were instituted under the leadership of a female ruler, Empress Wu Zhao 武曌 (624–705), better known as Wu Zetian. If state-sponsored and private education was largely geared toward preparing men for civil service, religious establishments such as Buddhist monasteries provided a venue for both men and women from humble backgrounds to pursue an education and sometimes even to achieve cultural prominence. Large Buddhist monasteries were often a storehouse of texts and, because they were a sanctuary in chaotic times, a place where conscientious authors deposited a copy of their works for better preservation.

Commentarial tradition was first developed as a way of teaching and instructing students in a given classic. The preservation of an early text is often inseparable from the particular version of that text used and transmitted by a certain exegetical tradition, such as in the case of the Shijing. In early medieval times, commentaries on belletristic writings such as poetry and rhapsodies began to appear. Li Shan’s 李善 (d. 689) commentary on the sixth-century literary anthology Wen xuan 文選, which glosses words by citing from earlier texts, exerted a great influence on subsequent literary commentaries. Nevertheless, the attempt to present the same usage of a word or phrase in the earliest source texts available, though appropriate in Li Shan’s time, would prove much more problematic—even “disastrous,” as Stephen Owen calls it—when a much later commentator followed suit thoughtlessly, because a literary work produced in a later time might in all likelihood make an allusion to an earlier literary work, but not necessarily to the earliest available source text.

Both chapters on text and commentary in this section take pains to stress that commentaries are, contrary to common perception, not necessarily subservient to the (p. 93) original text and indeed have their independent value in the literary tradition. This observation applies just as aptly to later fiction and drama commentaries, which are important works of literary criticism in their own right. In the period covered by this volume, particularly noteworthy is an author’s commentary on his own work, which, as far as we know, first appeared in the late fourth and early fifth century. In the case of Yan Zhitui’s 顏之推 (531–ca. 591) autobiographical rhapsody, the text in rhymed prose and his commentary in plain prose form two distinct voices that deliberately offset each other and constitute a striking phenomenon in literary history.

With the widespread use of paper came the ease with which texts were disseminated and books were produced; with the proliferation of books appeared the book trade and private libraries, as opposed to the predominance of the imperial library in the early period. In the fifth century, records indicate that there was a robust book market in Jiankang 建康 (modern Nanjing), the capital of the southern dynasties, and merchants carried books back and forth across the border separating the north and south Chinese empires. From the fifth century on, the early medieval Chinese elite developed a penchant for the artful use of dense allusions in their literary writings, a development that by necessity depended on personal book collections as much as on impressive feats of memory. The preference for using allusions in writings, the rise of belletristic literature, and the proliferation of books together gave rise to encyclopedias (leishu 類書) in this period. A leishu is a compilation of extracts classified under different categories, and it was a depository of received knowledge to primarily serve the needs of writing. The import of leishu nevertheless goes far beyond its immediate purpose. The best-preserved and best-known medieval encyclopedias were all imperially commissioned and sponsored, large-scale group projects; they aimed to demonstrate the cultural power and political legitimacy of the state as embodied by the monarch who had commissioned such works. For us they preserve many literary texts that would otherwise have been lost and present the medieval Chinese conception of the cosmos in its comprehensive, structured arrangement of ideas, concepts, and things.

Unlike Rome, China did not develop a public library; the antithesis of private libraries was the imperial library, supervised by learned elite members appointed by the emperor. The first project of ordering the received textual legacy in Chinese history, commissioned a little more than a decade after the founding of the first public library at Rome, took place in the imperial library of the Western Han (206 bce–8 ce), as the great empire was unifying and ordering the massive and messy textual legacy inherited from the short-lived Qin and the much longer period of division before Qin. Liu Xiang 劉向 (79–8 bce) and his son Liu Xin’s 劉歆 (d. 23 ce) work was comparable to that of the scholars at the famous library of Alexandria in their ordering of the mass of Hellenic texts. The results were “standard editions” of classical works to be passed on to posterity as well as an impressive descriptive book catalogue, which, though lost, provided the foundation for the bibliographical chapter of the Han shu (History of the (p. 94) Former Han) from the first century ce, which has survived. The father and son’s work is the first bottleneck in the history of the Chinese book through which earlier literature had to pass.

In subsequent centuries through the Tang, catalogues and bibliographic notes were compiled for the imperial library collections; it was not until the Song (960–1279), outside the temporal range of this volume, that private book catalogues began to appear and survive. And yet, it is remarkable that the greatest medieval book catalogue of its day, which claims to have incorporated the titles in both imperial library catalogue and the catalogues of private collections, was put together by a private individual who adamantly refused to serve in court despite his high aristocratic background and imperial kinship connection. In the catalogue’s preface, which is extant, the compiler Ruan Xiaoxu 阮孝緒 (479–536) strikingly asserts that he had compared the catalogues of private book collections he had obtained with the imperial library catalogue and found that many titles were missing from the latter. The state’s struggle for control over textual tradition and the ever-proliferating books, and the books’ constant eluding of such control, are mirrored in the individual’s resistance to the state’s power. In some ways, this struggle continues in contemporary mainland China, where the government’s desire to “order and arrange ancient works” (zhengli guji 整理古籍) and its enormous financial investment in this regard can be better understood if situated in its historical context, while the individual scholars constantly lament that, if they want state funding and support, they must engage in those projects proposed and sanctioned by the government.

Finally, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that most of the titles recorded in early and medieval catalogues and bibliographies are lost or exist only in fragments, and the awareness of that immense textual legacy enables a better assessment and understanding of the tradition. The customary Chinese literary historical landscape is dotted by extraordinary figures standing in isolation, yet these figures represent no more than a fraction of the world “out there” and need to be re-examined in the context of that lost world.