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‘This Culture of Ours’: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China
‘This Culture of Ours’: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China
‘This Culture of Ours’: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China
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‘This Culture of Ours’: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China

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This book traces the shared culture of the Chinese elite from the seventh to the twelfth centuries. The early T'ang definition of 'This Culture of Ours' combined literary and scholarly traditions from the previous five centuries. The late Sung Neo-Confucian movement challenged that definition. The author argues that the Tang-Sung transition is best understood as a transition from a literary view of culture - in which literary accomplishment and mastery of traditional forms were regarded as essential - to the ethical orientation of Neo-Confucianism, in which the cultivation of one's innate moral ability was regarded as the goal of learning. The author shows that this transformation paralleled the collapse of the T'ang order and the restoration of a centralized empire under the Sung, underscoring the connection between elite formation and political institutions.

Release dateAug 1, 1994
‘This Culture of Ours’: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China
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    ‘This Culture of Ours’ - Peter K. Bol


    Stanford University Press

    Stanford, California

    © 1992 by the Board of Trustees

    of the Leland Stanford

    Junior University

    Printed in the

    United States of America


    CIP data are at the end

    of the book


    Perhaps in no other country would an intellectual history of six centuries be simultaneously a political history, a history of social elites, and a study of literary values. I am writing at the interface of these, from a conviction that intellectual, political, social, and literary history as separate disciplines are all necessary to understanding intellectual change during the T’ang and Sung dynasties. I am also writing about the intellectual life of the T’ang and Sung from the inside, using terms and ideas from the time. Translation is not a transparent medium, but the interpretation of writings in context enables us to see how the questions scholars asked changed and how their approaches to shared questions diverged, thus bringing us closer to accounting for historical change.

    In the study of Chinese history, it is still possible to dare to write a book that sweeps through several centuries. I did not begin with a book of this scope in mind. The present work has its origins in a study of Su Shih and his circle and further research on eleventh- and twelfth-century intellectual culture. A search for the sources of Northern Sung elite culture drew me back into the latter half of T‘ang history; to assess those developments, it was necessary to establish a contrast with early T’ang scholarship. As I began to see how the intellectual creativity of the late T‘ang and Northern Sung was related to the demise of T’ang aristocratic culture, it became possible to see what made the Neo-Confucian movement different. The result is a work longer and broader than I had anticipated. It remains, however, a discussion of selected figures and texts from particular moments undertaken in support of certain arguments—too much writing has been left unread and too many figures have been left unmentioned for this to be a survey of intellectual culture.

    I owe a special debt to the scholars of Chinese history and literature whose research during the past decade has made it possible to think about the six centuries discussed here. Without David McMullen’s study of T’ang scholarship, Steven Owen’s writings on poetry, and studies in social history by John Chaffee, Patricia Ebrey, Robert Hymes, and David Johnson, this work would not have been possible. I have also profited greatly from conversations with Michael Fuller and Steven Owen over the years and from the comments of Albert Craig, Patricia Ebrey, Ronald Egan, Michael Fuller, Philip Kuhn, David McMullen, and Denis Twitchett. I have appreciated John Ziemer’s work as an editor and, especially, his suggestions as a critical reader. Finally, I thank the Fellowship in Chinese Studies Program of the Wang Institute of Graduate Studies for the grant that made a year’s leave possible.


    Table of Contents

    Title Page

    Copyright Page


    Chinese Dynasties and Various Rulers

    1 - Introduction

    2 - The Transformation of the Shih

    3 - Scholarship and Literary Composition at the Early T’ang Court

    4 - The Crisis of Culture After 755

    5 - Civil Policy and Literary Culture: The Beginnings of Sung Intellectual Culture

    6 - Thinkers and Then Writers: Intellectual Trends in the Mid-Eleventh Century

    7 - For Perfect Order: Wang An-shih and Ssu-ma Kuang

    8 - Su Shih’s Tao: Unity with Individuality

    9 - Ch’eng I and the New Culture of Tao-hsueh

    APPENDIX - The Ch’ao Family of the Northern and Southern Sung

    Reference Matter



    Chinese Character List


    Chinese Dynasties and Various Rulers

    The first sages of tradition

    (Fu Hsi)

    (Shen Nung)

    (Huang ti)



    The Three Eras of antiquity




    Western Chou 11th century—771 B.C.

    Eastern Chou 770—256

    Spring and Autumn Period 722—481

    Warring States Period 403—221

    The first imperial state

    Ch’in 221—207

    (Western) Han 202—A.D.

    Wang Mang’s usurpation: the Hsin dynasty 9—23

    (Eastern) Han 25—220

    The Three Kingdoms 220—80

    (Western) Chin 266—316

    Period of Division 316—589

    The Northern and Southern Dynasties 317—589

    In the north, 386—581: (Northern) Wei 386—534, which divided into the Eastern and Western Wei, which were succeeded by Northern Ch’i and Northern Chou

    In the south, 317—589: Eastern Chin 317—420, followed by Sung, Southern Ch’i, Liang, and Ch’en

    Unification of north and south

    Sui 581—618

    T’ang 618—907

    T’ai-tsung 626-49

    Kao-tsung 649—83

    Empress Wu 684—705: the Chou dynasty 690—705

    Hsuan-tsung 712—56

    Su-tsung 756—62

    Tai-tsung 762—79

    Te-tsung 779—805

    Shun-tsung 805

    Hsien-tsung 805—20

    The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period of north-south division

    The five dynasties of the north 907—60: Later Liang, followed by Later T‘ang, Later Ch’in, Later Han, and Later Chou

    The ten kingdoms included in Szechuan the state of Shu and in the southeast Southern T’ang, Wu-Yueh, and Min

    The Sung dynasty and the non-Han dynasties of the north

    the Liao dynasty of the Khitans 916—1125

    Northern Sung 960—1127

    T’ai-tsu 960—76

    T’ai-tsung 976-97

    Chen-tsung 997—1022

    Jen-tsung 1022—63

    Ying-tsung 1063—67

    Shen-tsung 1067—85

    Che-tsung 1085—1100

    Hui-tsung 1100—25

    Ch’in-tsung 1125—27

    the Chin dynasty of the Jurchens 1115—1234

    Southern Sung 1127—1270

    Kao-tsung 1127—62

    the Yuan dynasty of the Mongols 1264—1368

    The later empires

    Yuan 1264—1368

    Ming 1368—1644

    Ch’ing 1644—1911

    People’s Republic of China 1949—



    When under siege in K’uang, the Master said, "With King Wen dead,

    is Culture [wen] not here with me? Had Heaven intended that This

    Culture of Ours [ssu-wen] should perish, those who died later would

    not have been able to participate in This Culture of Ours. Heaven is

    not yet about to let This Culture of Ours perish, so what can the

    men of K’uang do to me?"

    —Analects 9.5

    This Culture of Ours, Confucius notes, has survived the death of the Chou founding king, posthumously known as King Wen. This fact is both a sign of Heaven’s regard for this culture and a guarantee of Confucius’s safety, as a participant and carrier of that culture. But what is wen? Does it survive in Confucius as the arts and traditions of the Chou dynasty he has mastered? Is it, as many later commentators supposed, a reference to the writings of the ancients they believed Confucius edited and transmitted as the Classics? In the Analects, the term wen can mean external appearances and forms in general as well as normative patterns and models whose authority derived from their Chou dynasty origins. But in this account of Confucius in K’uang, we do not need to know the exact meaning of wen to see that Confucius is making two claims: participating in ssu-wen, this wen that has survived King Wen’s death and is esteemed by Heaven (This Culture of Ours), continues the legacy of the Chou founder and accords with Heaven’s will.

    By T’ang (618—907) times, ssu-wen had come to refer first to the textual traditions that originated in antiquity, when the sage-kings translated into human institutions the patterns of heaven, now taken as heaven-and-earth or the natural order. By extension, This Culture included the traditions of proper forms in writing, governing, and behaving that men believed stemmed from the ancients and had been preserved and refined by Confucius in the Classics. T’ang and Sung dynasty (960—1279) scholars participated in This Culture of Ours: they mastered the traditions, they imitated them in practice, and they continued and elaborated on them with their own scholarship and literary writing. They could claim, as Confucius had before them, that by maintaining This Culture of Ours as a cumulative tradition they were according with the natural order of things and continuing the legacy of antiquity.

    Heaven and antiquity or heaven and man, the natural realm in which heaven-and-earth brought things into being and the historical realm in which humans created institutions, came to stand for the two greatest sources of normative values. This Culture of Ours could stand for the idea of a civilization that combined the two, a civilization based on both the models of the ancients and the manifest patterns of the natural order. But T’ang and Sung scholars also saw that at moments of political crisis This Culture could perish. To save it, and to save the times, scholars could always return to antiquity and the natural order as the grounds for shared norms. In the early T’ang the historical and natural were not seen as incompatible. Seventh—century T’ang scholars sought to reintegrate the diverse strands of tradition, and thus to establish a cultural synthesis that would support the newly unified empire. For them the patterns of the cosmos and the civilization of the ancients corresponded. But in the latter half of the eighth century, as the T’ang coped with decentralization and rebellion, the literary intellectuals who tried to save This Culture began to speak of the way of the sage (sheng-jen chih tao) and the way of the ancients (ku-jen chih tao). The sages in this case did not take their guides from the cosmos; their eyes were on human affairs, and they looked to the common needs of the people and responded to them. Scholars supposed that they could infer values for the present from the sages’ actions and writings, that they could manifest these values through writing in an ancient style (ku-wen), and that they could put these values into practice through government. Attempts to formulate persuasive understandings of the Way and the sages continued through the Northern Sung (960— 1126), inspiring a diverse and competitive intellectual culture. In the eleventh century such ideas justified far-reaching efforts to change the relationship between government and society. But the turn away from heaven, the patterns of cosmic process as the ultimate grounds for moral life, also made for a more uncertain world, where normative models were at best provisional and the intentions of the sages were a matter of interpretation. A challenge to the focus on human affairs emerged late in the eleventh century and came to dominate intellectual life in the Southern Sung (1127—1279). The moral philosophers who established Tao-hsueh (the Learning of the Way), Neo-Confucianism in a narrow sense, contended that each individual was innately endowed with the patterns of the integrated processes of heaven-and-earth. It was only necessary, then, that men realize the pattern of heaven (t’ien-li) that was in their own nature, for this was the real foundation for a moral world.

    An account of the shifting grounds for values in T’ang and Sung intellectual life is a vital part of the story this book tells. But to discuss this alone would obscure a far larger change in how scholars conceived of values. Put most simply, early T’ang scholars supposed that the normative models for writing, government, and behavior were contained in the cumulative cultural tradition. Debates over values were arguments over the proper cultural forms. But by the late Sung, thinkers had shifted their faith to the mind’s ability to arrive at true ideas about moral qualities inherent in the self and things, and the received cultural tradition had lost authority. Between the early T’ang faith in the ability of the cultural tradition to provide the models necessary for a unified order and the late Sung belief that real values were innate principles came a period of extraordinary intellectual diversity that began in the latter half of the T’ang and continued into the Northern Sung. An erosion of faith in the possibility of guiding the world by defining correct appearances marked this period. Nevertheless, the most famous scholars during this transitional era insisted that the individual could apprehend an underlying tao with his own mind from the writings and accomplishments of the ancients. This Culture of Ours, as the formal traditions stemming from antiquity, mattered still as the source from which normative ideas could be inferred, even if the ideas transcended the particular forms whence they were known. Intellectual life was beset by a creative tension between a commitment to formal cultural continuity, to maintaining the wen of the past, and a search for the ideas that had guided the sages, to discovering the tao of the ancients. But for the Tao-hsueh thinkers of the Sung the task of the individual was to learn to behave according to the norms innately endowed in all things by heaven-and-earth. In contrast to early T’ang scholars, for whom the received cultural tradition had authority by virtue of its origins, and scholars during the transitional period, for whom the textual traditions of Our Culture were the source from which normative ideas could be inferred, the Tao-hsueh school held that the foundation for true ideas about how to act existed independently of culture. Yet few scholars were unaware of the need to establish something others could share, whether it be correct cultural forms, ideas about correct values, or doctrines about how to learn for oneself. The Sung Tao-hsueh thinkers may have rejected the notion that there was a cumulative tradition of cultural forms scholars had a duty to continue; yet in denying an equation between the received culture and true values, they did not give up a claim to be saving This Culture of Ours. Paradoxically, in their effort to save society by shifting the focus of learning away from cultural activities to the cultivation of ethical behavior, they created a new body of texts, doctrines, and practices that would define This Culture well into the seventeenth century.

    But whose culture was it? For the men who figure in this book, it belonged to that small, elite group in Chinese society known as the shih, and that remained the case even as the role of the cultural tradition was transformed. During most of the six centuries dealt with here, those who called themselves shih, shih-jen, and shih-ta-fu dominated Chinese politics and society. As shih they were members of the elite rather than of the commonalty (shu) or of the populace (min). As a group their function was to serve (shih) in government rather than to farm the land, work as craftsmen, or engage in trade. And they supposed that they had the education and talent necessary to serve in government and guide society.¹ Yet the identity of the shih changed with time. In the seventh century, the shih were an elite led by aristocratic great clans of illustrious pedigree; in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the shih were the civil bureaucrats; and finally, in the Southern Sung, they were the more numerous but rarely illustrious local elite families who provided bureaucrats and examination candidates. The next chapter will trace this transformation and offer explanations for the demise of the aristocracy, the re-emergence of the shih as civil bureaucrats, and the transformation of the shih into local elites in the Sung. I shall argue there that office holding, pedigree, and learning were primary components in the corporate identity of the shih. This implies, I think, that for the shih learning was an area within a broader set of concerns, that it was something shih did as part of their shared identity, and that the values articulated and debated through learning were related to the political and social aspects of shih life. For the moment I note only that I do not think it makes the intellectual life of the shih less valuable to suppose some relation between intellectual change and the rather successful efforts of the shih to dominate Chinese society, politics, and national culture.

    The aim of this book is to determine what changed in elite thinking about values, or how the shih changed that culture of theirs, between the reunification of north and south into a single empire during the late sixth and early seventh centuries and the consolidation of local elite power in the twelfth century. At the same time I wish to account for the changes that took place. Certainly Tao-hsueh was the greatest legacy of the twelfth-century intellectual world. But following the transformation of intellectual life from the aristocratic culture of the early T’ang to the Neo-Confucian culture of the Southern Sung is not easy. Tao-hsueh was not, in my view, a necessary or logical outcome of earlier trends, although it clearly was indebted to earlier developments. The intellectual history examined here begins with early T’ang court scholars as representatives of the medieval world, and it ends with the emergence of Sung Tao-hsueh, the form of learning that dominated intellectual culture until the seventeenth century. But most of this study is devoted to what came between, with a particular focus on the emergence of ku-wen as an intellectual and literary style for the shih in the late eighth century and its great flourishing in the eleventh. In fact, almost half of this book deals with the great intellectuals and statesmen of the eleventh century. In a very general sense I see Northern Sung intellectual culture as the playing out of the tension in ku-wen between individual cultivation and sociopolitical responsibility—a tension apparent in the writings of Han Yü, the founder of ku-wen in the T’ang. Ou-yang Hsiu is a pivotal figure in the eleventh century, I think, because he himself gave full expression to this tension both by harkening to Fan Chung-yen’s call for the transformation of the sociopolitical order through institutional activism and by maintaining a view of culture and morality as the products of individual creativity. It is simplistic, but not misleading, to see the next two generations after Ou-yang as choosing for one side or the other. Wang An-shih and Ssu-ma Kuang, the leading political thinkers and statesmen of their day, both addressed themselves to the sociopolitical order and arrived at very different conclusions; the two greatest intellectuals of the next generation, Su Shih and Ch’eng I, turned toward problems of individual cultivation and creativity and reached equally contradictory conclusions.

    At the most general level, I am interested in what the shih of a given time thought of as hsueh (learning). Shih learning was a historical entity, constituted by men who read many of the same texts, shared many assumptions about the value of what they were doing, and established identities with reference to each other. It was their intellectual culture. More narrowly, I ask for particular moments during the T’ang and Sung, how some thought others ought to learn, how they justified their claims, and how others responded. There were usually several possibilities available to those who wished to influence others. I view intellectual change as resulting in general from some persons persuading others that one possibility among the available choices is better than the rest. An alternative slighted during one period may continue on the margins and later capture the center. I also think that in making a case for neglected ideas, scholars make them speak to the present by transforming them. To see how an old idea can be transformed into something more persuasive, I have tried to ask how certain scholars, literary men, and philosophers established links between learning, the grounds of values, cultural forms, and the political and social concerns of the shih as the elite. The most interesting intellectual figures in this context are those who come to be seen as speaking for something different, who persuade others to choose one view at the expense of another. I have given far less attention to their imitators, although without them the marginal could hardly become central. Similarly, I have inquired into those moments of greatest change, the moments of intellectual crisis when shih found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between incompatible alternatives.

    On at least four counts this study departs from what might be asked of a book on T’ang and Sung intellectual history. First, it is not a history of Confucianism. Second, it fails to deal seriously with Buddhism. Third, it grants literature a central role and treats a number of major thinkers as primarily literary men. Fourth, it ignores most of the early Neo-Confucian moral philosophers. To some extent these decisions stem from my conviction that the history of philosophy does not always represent the history of intellectual culture or adequately describe and account for the ways we establish shared values. More detailed explanations for these choices follow later in this chapter. Now, however, I claim an author’s prerogative and set the issues in a manner that will, I hope, incline readers to accept my arguments. To do this, I compare two books on family life, one from 590 and the other from 1190. They are emblematic of the aristocratic and Neo-Confucian ages, the two worlds between which this book falls.

    The Cultural and the Ethical: From the Sixth Century to the Twelfth

    Yen Chih-t’ui’s (531—91) Family Instructions for the Yen Clan and Yuan Ts’ai’s (fl. 1140—95) Precepts for Social Life may seem unpromising candidates to illustrate an intellectual transformation. The compilation of official commentaries on the Five Classics begun under the Sui dynasty (589— 618) might be a more appropriate subject for the medieval world, and the works of Chu Hsi (1130—1200), the great tao-hsueh thinker, would be a more obvious choice for the twelfth century. Yen and Yuan are useful for my purposes, however, because each wrote about family life from the intellectual perspective of his age. They illustrate the convergence of social and intellectual history.²

    As a member of the Lang-yeh Yen clan, Yen Chih-t’ui had an illustrious pedigree. His twelfth- and eleventh-generation ancestors had established the clan’s dual heritage of service and scholarship at their home base of Lang-yeh in eastern Shantung. They had served the state of Wei (220—65) as prefectural administrators and selectors of personnel in the nine-rank system of appointments and had specialized in studies of certain Classics. In the early fourth century, Yen’s ninth-generation ancestor had moved to Nanking with the Chin (317—420) court; his descendants continued as courtiers of the Southern Dynasties that followed the Chin. Yen’s father was a leading court scholar under the Liang (502—57), one of the most cultured of the Southern Dynasties; his grandon, Yen Shih-ku (581—645), would become a court scholar under the T’ang and write an authoritative commentary on Pan Ku’s History of the Han; Yen Chen-ch’ing (709—84), a later descendant, would become a leading scholar and calligrapher. Yen Chih-t’ui himself became a court scholar under the Liang dynasty; however, he was captured and taken north, where he served the Northern Ch’i (550—77), Chou (557—81), and finally Sui (589—618) dynasties.³ The Lang-yeh Yens were an aristocratic clan. Although the family did not produce a string of truly powerful bureaucrats in the T’ang, as did the Po-ling Ts’uis (some of whom Yen knew) or the Chao-chün Lis, it was probably included on the lists of great clans that defined the aristocracy of the Southern Dynasties.⁴

    Yuan Ts’ai lacked illustrious ancestors. His family lived in Ch’ü prefecture in Liang-che East Circuit (modern Chekiang). Ch’ü was home to a number of shih families, producing almost 600 degree holders during the Sung, with a number of very successful shih lineages or descent groups (40 percent of those degree holders came from 24 lineages). Some of these descent groups had been known as shih-ta-fu since the tenth and eleventh centuries, and some continued to produce degree holders well into the thirteenth century. Yuan studied at the Imperial University (T’ai-hsueh) in Hang-chou in the 1150’s and took a degree in 1163, but only two of his relatives are known to have passed the examinations. In contrast to Yen Chih-t’ui, who served at court, Yuan Ts’ai began as a local administrator and served only once at the capital. He