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New perspectives help understand the Tongcheng School

By WANG GUANGLU and WU NAN | 2019-06-06 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Confucius Temple in Tongcheng, Anhui Province Photo: FILE


The Tongcheng School is the most distinguished of the mid-Qing Dynasty schools. Its representatives include Fang Bao, Liu Dakui and Yao Nai, who advocated neo-Confcian philosophy and were all natives of Tongcheng County in Anhui Province. In recent years, scholars around the world have been striving to expand the research scope regarding the Tongcheng School to understand it through new perspectives. On this page, two CSST reporters invite Wang Damin, a research fellow from the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Zhang Xiuyu, a deputy research fellow from the Institute of History at Anhui Academy of Social Sciences, to talk about the latest achievements in the field, such as the Tongcheng School’s categorization, its relationship with the New Culture Movement and its local history. They also shed light on preserving the school’s legacy.


CSST: Is the Tongcheng School a literary school or an academic one?

Wang Damin: The Tongcheng School is not only a literary school, but also an academic school. Apart from remarkable achievements in literary history, theory and writing, many Tongcheng scholars were masters of Confucian classics, history, philosophy and literature. As an academic school, it followed the teachings of Cheng-Zhu neo-Confucianism. Ever since the late Qing Dynasty, Zeng Guofan and other Tongcheng scholars called upon learning from Western countries. After the formation of the Republic of China, Xu Shichang introduced the practical Yan-Li School into the Tongcheng School. The new doctrine was a philosophical school founded by Yan Yuan and expanded by his disciple Li Gong during the early Qing period. Its most important concept was “learning by practice.”


CSST: Some scholars hold that the Tongcheng School started with Dai Mingshi and Fang Bao and concluded in the May Fourth Movement, whose leading figures included Chen Duxiu, Hu Shi and Qian Xuantong. When was the beginning of the Tongcheng School?

Wang Damin: It is usually argued that Fang Bao, Liu Dakui and Yao Nai are the founders of the Tongcheng School. In some cases, Dai Shiming is also included. In fact, Yao Nai was the one who first aimed to start a new cultural faction, and he added Fang Bao and Liu Dakui, as his distinguished fellow villagers, to the Tongcheng literary system.

Regarding literary history, Gui Youguang, a Ming literatus renowned for prose writings, followed in the footprints of the eight great prose masters of the Tang and Song represented by Han Yu and Su Shi. Gui had a big influence on Fang Bao and Yao Nai. Yao inducted Gui into his system, the sole scholar from the Ming Dynasty, at the very origin of the Tongcheng School. Currently, academics are split on the commencement of the Tongcheng School. It may be a more straight-forward way to start writing the Tongcheng School’s literary history by introducing Gui.

CSST: What changes have the Tongcheng School undergone since modernization?

Wang Damin: Since the reigns of the Daoguang Emperor and the Xianfeng Emperor, the Tongcheng School adhered to the concept of changes and a practical approach to dealing with the world. It opened a century-long chapter of transformation following the tide of Chinese modernization. In terms of politics, Zeng Guofan and Xu Shichang pioneered China’s transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. As for literature, the Tongcheng School shifted to theory, genre and the language of vernacular literature while exerting their best efforts to preserve excellent traditional elements. When it comes to dissemination, the school penetrated into newspapers, journals and publications and established literary groups in order to expand its influence and speed up its transformation. A number of female writers, such as Yao Yiyun, Wu Zhiying and Fang Lingru, entered the literary field as major players despite their orthodox family backgrounds.


CSST: What’s the role of the Tongcheng School in the New Culture Movement and the May Fourth Movement?

Wang Damin: There is a lot of consistency between the New Culture Movement and the May Fourth Movement in that the Tongcheng School and the new culture advocates are useful to compare. After the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, senior scholars of the Tongcheng School, such as Wu Runlun, Lin Shu and Yan Fu, continued Zeng Guofan’s trajectory, seeking approaches from the West and proposing drastic reforms. Later, they and their young followers supported reforms while insisting that a handful of excellent traditional elements should be kept as the cornerstone for rebuilding Chinese civilization. From the perspective of intellectual history, the senior scholars of the Tongcheng School and the new culture advocates such as Chen Duxiu, Hu Shi and Qian Xuantong all received classical education and adopted an open attitude towards the Western world. The Tongcheng scholars had deeper feelings for classical learning while the new culture advocates suggested complete abolition. In the New Culture Movement, the new culture advocates formed the left-wing group and the Tongcheng School was the right wing. The two sides shared cultural roots but opposed each other. They contributed to the Chinese modernization and shaped the nation’s new spirit. The new culture advocates failed to  recognize the Tongcheng School’s endeavors to reform, causing a disagreement.

In the May Fourth Movement, the Tongcheng politician Xu Shichang’s refinement and tolerance, and the understanding of and support from such Tongcheng celebrities as Fu Zengxiang, Zhang Shizhen, Yan Xiu, Ma Qichen and Yao Yong were the decisive factors for its success.


CSST: In the past decade, you have been working hard in the field of the Tongcheng School. Please talk about your current research direction.

Zhang Xiuyu: The Tongcheng School and regional culture have been my research fields in recent years. At present, my studies mainly fall into two categories. I collate and research the documents about the Tongcheng School. Also, I investigate the social life of modern Tongcheng scholars. My documentary research started in 2010 where I did a number of case studies based on Anhui Provincial Library’s rich collection of local documents about Tongcheng. In 2013, I participated in the compilation of the Dictionary of the Tongcheng School. I was responsible for the terms of the writers in Zhejiang, Fujian and Japan, involving about 200 figures in history and their biographies and works, as many as 1,000 entries.


CSST: In addition to literature, the Tongcheng School has explorations and writings in many other fields. At present, is the depth and breadth of research expanding?

Zhang Xiuyu: At present, the study of the Tongcheng School has expanded from classical Chinese to poetry, history, classics, academic history and many other fields. Academic projects on the Tongcheng School are becoming wider and wider with more and more intersecting issues. Many scholars now oppose considering the Tongcheng School merely as a classical Chinese school or literary genre, because there are no fixed and recognized standards to define the Tongcheng School due to its long period, vast geographical distribution and numerous representatives. A handful of writers in the Tongcheng School have indisputably great consistency, but no systematic and persistent ideas are prevailing among its more than 1,000 members, according to On the Origin of the Tongcheng School by Liu Shengmu.

At the same time, the ancient writings of the Tongcheng School are intimately associated with their achievements and ideas related to lixue and the classics. They have made important contributions to Confucian classics, history, military geography, translation and education. It is not reasonable to study a single writer, let alone the whole school, from the perspective of only literature. Therefore, Tongcheng School research is bound to expand.


CSST: In light of history and regional academic culture, what is the Tongcheng School’s relationship with Tongcheng culture and the history of Anhui? How should we account for its legacy?

Zhang Xiuyu: Anhui is home to many great figures in the fields of philosophy, politics and science in modern times. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Tongcheng was a force to be reckoned with in the prosperous Anhui culture. Experts and scholars were committed to discovering and promoting ancient sages, their stories and related cultural traditions, fulfilling the responsibility of inheriting traditional Chinese culture. Meanwhile, we must avoid such views as “everything ancient is good” or “everything created in the past is superior.” An equal and objective speech environment is crucial to academic research. Regardless of research direction, every scholar has the goal of getting closer to historical fact.


CSST: How can scholars maintain a legitimate and objective attitude when they study the Tongcheng School?

Zhang Xiuyu: The Tongcheng School has many accomplishments and a far-reaching influence. It is worthy of study and observation. However, some Tongcheng School proposals were unfeasible in the Qing Dynasty. Many people were Sunday saints and Monday sinners who actually ran after fame and fortune. In many cases, the advocates of some true scholars failed to obtain a better country or a stronger military force. Science and democracy were the right choice. Intellectuals also made this choice after the end of the Qing Dynasty. Scholars of the Tongcheng School not only learned from sages, but also advanced science and Western ideas. Now, we emphasize a Tongcheng study with the primary goal of inspecting its gains and losses. In this respect, it is equally necessary to investigate the scholars who didn’t belong to the Tongcheng School.


​edited by MA YUHONG