Lecture Fifteen

Intellectual Ferment in the 11th Century

Scope: Perhaps the most critical development in the early Song dynasty was the expansion of the imperial civil service examination system. Examinations based on the Confucian classical texts had been used as part of the process of recruiting men into government service since the Han period, but in the late 10th century, the Song revived the use of exams and made them central to their personnel function. Examinations became the most significant mechanism for identifying men of talent and for placing officials in the highest positions in the imperial bureaucracy. This gave intellectual issues renewed importance in elite circles, and the 11th century became a great age of debate and discussion about literature, philosophy, government, and art. We will examine several key figures in this process and explore the great controversies that shaped the period.


I. As the examination system developed, the class of literary gentlemen, the shi, became the dominant elite in government and society.

A. The men who passed at least one level of the examinations formed the core of this elite.

1. In the course of a regular three-year examination cycle, tens of thousands of men would sit for tests on the local level, but only a few hundred would eventually pass at the highest level and become jinshi, or “presented gentlemen.”

2. Even passing only the lowest level, though, brought great prestige and exemption from certain taxes and legal obligations, for example, exemption from corporal punishment or the corvee labor tax.

B. The examination culture included also men who never passed even the lowest exams but had immersed themselves in the literary tradition by studying for the exams.

1. Some men sat repeatedly for the entry-level exams without ever passing.

2. Many men who failed to pass the exams still became teachers or secretaries for officials.

3. The educated strata in Song Chinese society extended to perhaps five percent of the population.

II. The examination culture gave rise to great debates over the nature of social and cosmic order and the proper role of the gentleman in the world.

A. Three main streams of thought can be perceived among the literati (shi) in the 11th century.

1. Two of these centered on the concept of wen, or literary culture.

2. These can be thought of as the “literary gentlemen” (wenren) and the “statecraft” thinkers (jingshi).

3. The other main group was more concerned with cosmological thought.

B. The wenren and jingshi thinkers shared a faith in the literary textual tradition as the repository of human experience and as the place to look for moral values.

1. The literary gentlemen are represented by such figures as Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072) and Su Shi (1037-1101).

2. These men looked to the writings of the past for inspiration and for insight into how gentlemen of the past had acted in various circumstances.

3. What was most important for these men was good writing, in the tradition of Han Yu in the Tang.

4. The statecraft thinkers also looked to the writings of the past but with a more utilitarian intent.

5. They saw the past as a kind of inventory of experience or, perhaps, a toolbox, from which precedents and examples could be drawn on which to base actions in the present.

6. Wang Anshi and Sima Guang were both exponents of jingshi, though they were bitter political enemies.

7. Wang promoted an ambitious program of government reform to strengthen the central state, while Sima advocated greater autonomy for the local elites, meaning in practice, the landowning shi families across the empire.

C. The cosmological thinkers saw human society in a broader cosmic context.

1. Central to their thinking was the concept of li, meaning naturally occurring patterns, in contrast to the idea of wen, which referred to patterns produced by human action, such as writing or painting.

2. They sought to apprehend the underlying patterns in nature and human society and to derive moral values or principles from a direct understanding of the natural order, rather than on the basis of historical experience.

3. Such men as Shao Yong and Zhang Zai and, especially the brothers Cheng Yi and Cheng Hao, represent the cosmological thinkers.

4. They emphasized the place of human activity within a cosmic system, and for them, moral values were, in effect, natural laws.

III. As we will see in a later lecture, new challenges were emerging that would threaten the survival of the Song in the early 12th century.

A. On the northern frontier, non-Chinese peoples were expanding their power.

B. Before we discuss these challenges, we will consider some of the cultural manifestations of the new ideas we have been discussing, in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Peter K. Bol, This Culture of Ours.

Supplemental Reading:

Robert P. Hymes and Conrad Schirokauer, eds., Ordering the World.

Questions to Consider:

1. If the literary cultural past was the repository for practical knowledge and moral values, what was the role of the shi as bearers of that heritage?

2. Why was there such a strong link between moral discourse and political factionalism?

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