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Common, but differentiated pursuit of Confucian scholar-officials

ZHU HANMIN | 2017-05-12 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Seven Sages are Ji Kang , Liu Ling, Ruan Ji, Ruan Xian, Xiang Xiu, Wang Rong and Shan Tao. As is traditionally depicted, the group wished to escape the corrupt court life during the politically fraught Three Kingdoms period. They gathered in a bamboo grove in Shanyang, in present Henan province, where they enjoyed the simple and rustic life, as reflected in their works.


Unlike Zhuang Zi of the Taoist School and other hermits who avoided politics and distanced themselves from imperial rulers, Confucian literary intelligentsia actively sought to enter the political arena and took it as the way to realize their political ideal.

The social identity of Confucian literary intelligentsia, however, was defined by their dual role—as scholars, they carried out cultural creation and as officials, they engaged in political governance. By examining the features of Confucian literary intelligentsia’s identities, the Confucian pluralistic value orientation and ideology may be better understood.


Scholars, officials
Confucian literary intelligentsia, first of all, were scholars who devoted themselves to the creation and spread of culture and knowledge. Scholars, as intellectuals and literati, generally committed themselves to constructing value systems and creating knowledge. The scholarly class was a relatively independent group of intellectuals not attached to a specific political group. Therefore, to some extent, they tended to uphold a transcendent view of thought and politics. 

More often than not, their political ideas were abstract and idealistic. Confucian scholars in the pre-Qin period (prior to 221 BCE) were able to maintain independent thinking and theoretical innovation, pioneering an array of abstract ideas and value systems, precisely because of their relative independent status.

Confucian scholars had a strong aspiration to climb the power ladder and become bureaucrats because in their opinion only by participating in “governing the nation and pacifying the world,” could their ideas, values and ideals be realized. Therefore, Confucian scholar-officials aspired to cooperate with feudal rulers and participate in governing.

Once these scholars became officials of the imperial courts, they began to assume corresponding political governance responsibilities and social responsibilities in national politics. In this way, their social identities and perspectives changed, so did their political ideas and value orientations. If a typical scholar represented idealism and value rationale, then a typical official reflected practical and pragmatic rationale.


Ideals, missions
The roles literary intelligentsia should play were put forth by Confucius when he established the Confucian School, and eventually appeared as a mature system when Confucianism became the national ideology in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). 

Confucian literary intelligentsia rebuilt the social order and cultural values by refining the theories and practices of benevolent governance and other cultural ideals in remote ages, thus creating a full set of value systems, political institutions and social formations. Seeing themselves as the saviors of society, they dedicated themselves to the goal of “governing the nation and pacifying the world,” criticized political realities and rebuilt society, spawning significant intellectual traditions for being a qualified Confucian scholar-official.

Pre-Qin Confucian scholars adopted political views different from those of the other philosophical schools, such as Legalism and Taoism. Some schools, such as Legalism, kowtowed to rulers, while Zhuang Zi’s school of Taoism and other hermit groups distanced themselves from the power center. Unlike all these extreme political attitudes, Confucian scholars preferred to cooperate with the imperial rulers.     

As a consequence, Confucian literary intelligentsia were usually able to preserve their political ideals and cultural missions. As Confucius put it, “A true scholar should set his heart upon the Way [of pursuing personal virtues and serving the public interest].”

On the whole, Confucian scholars aimed to introduce their values, such as benevolent, good kingcraft, and people-orientated governance, into the existing political systems, ideology and governing practices. All these demonstrated Confucian scholar-officials’ practical and pragmatic rationale, as well as the tradition of “putting what one has learned into practice.”In fact, through free lecturing and independent writing, early Confucian scholars repeatedly advocated such ideals as kindheartedness, loyalty and sympathetic understanding, good kingcraft, people-orientated governance and great harmony, laying the foundation for such philosophy among the schools of thought.


Differentiated pursuit
Confucian literary intelligentsia combined the social identities of a scholar and an official, which means they performed both duties of cultural creation and political governance.

Confucian scholars might have disagreed with rulers when they adhered to their scholarly philosophy and pursued idealism and value rationality. On the other hand, they also might have formed a close cooperative relationship with the rulers when they pursued political achievements as officials and thus adopted practicality and a pragmatic rationale.

Despite the fact that the Confucian scholar-officials constituted a social group with generally consistent ideas and beliefs, individual scholars placed varied emphasis on the different social identities as scholars and officials. In other words, the differences of ideas and various schools with Confucianism resulted from the different social identities as scholars and as officials. Various forms of Confucianism that emerged in the past two millennia or so can be traced back to such varied stress on the different social identities.


Two Schools
Take Imperial Court Confucianism and Mountain and Forest Confucianism for example. Since the Han Dynasty, Confucianism was recognized by the supreme power of the state and obtained a monopolistic position in politics. Confucian scholars and academic ideas were divided into two distinct forms.

A portion of Confucians joined imperial courts and became high ministers, making their ideas the national standard and official ideology, exploiting the social and political functions of Confucianism to the maximum.

Others stayed with the ordinary people and continued to study and promote Confucianism. Scholars of Imperial Court Confucianism placed greater emphasis on the political responsibilities of an official. Therefore, they paid more attention to political duties of Confucianism, advocating legal and ritual systems, governance and social education in Confucianism.

The typical example of Imperial Court Confucianism is Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BCE) and the New Text School, which studied Confucianism based on Confucian texts orally handed down and later recorded in li shu, or official script in the Han Dynasty. Dong’s studies on the Gongyang School hermeneutics of the Spring and Autumn Annals, a Confucian classic, shaped the national academics and ideology of the Han Empire.

Wang Chong (27-97) of the Han Dynasty was the representative of Mountain and Forest Confucianism, which stressed idea creation and cultural criticism. Wang spent all his life doing academic studies as a civilian. His philosophical work Discourses Weighed in the Balance systematically criticized the superstition of heaven-human interaction, which was popular in the Han Dynasty, and was a fine example of the pre-Qin Confucian spirit of cultural criticism.


Mind, Political Confucianism
On the other hand, some scholars stressed individual spiritual beliefs, virtues and philosophical reasoning, while others paid more attention to social and political issues, focusing on putting what one learns into practice and examining political institutions.

The academic community of the Wei and Jin dynasties (220-420) clearly demonstrated the divisions of these different academic preferences and ideas. The outstanding feature of famous scholars at that time was the awakening of individual consciousness. Whether they were Zhengshi Celebrities, or Zhishi Minshi in Chinese, who were active in the period from 240 to 249 or the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, or Zhulin Qixian in Chinese, they both showed great care for individual lives and the expression of personal emotions.

Through examining the classics of Confucianism and Taoism, such as the I Ching, the Tao Te Ching and Chuangtzu, scholars at the Wei and Jin dynasties enthusiastically discussed metaphysical issues in Mind Confucianism, such as temperament, ethical codes and nature, and mind.  

Though the official ideology in Wei and Jin dynasties was still Confucianism, which is characterized by studying Confucian classics and looking to serve practical politics, other scholars began to gain fame. For example, the great master Wang Su in this period elaborated on why he was different from previous scholars by saying “I write articles to interpret Confucian classics and study the institutions at the imperial court, and I do all these based on what I have seen.” His new hermeneutics of the classics was in essence still related to the political systems and state governance.

Zhu Hanmin is a professor from the Yuelu Academy at Hunan University.