Book Burning and the Ideal Scholar – The Scholars, Part 1

Our next reading selection is the Rulin Waishi (儒林外史), or The Scholars, by Jingzi Wu (1701-1754). Written in 1750 during Qing Dynasty rule, the author sets it in the Ming Dynasty in order to critique his own social milieu without repercussions. My personal literal translation of the title would be something like An Additional History of Scholarly Circles. The edition we will be looking at is The Scholars, by Jingzi Wu, translated by Gladys Yang, available in English below (Ching-Tzu is an earlier Romanization of the author’s name):

According to the novel’s preface, Jingzi Wu came from an illustrious family of government servants that had fallen into decline, and he himself ended up in poverty. Most of the satire of his novel is aimed at the corruption of the scholarly class and the joke that the civil service exam had become under the Qing. What is interesting from a more detached historical perspective is that Jingzi Wu lived during some of the most illustrious Qing rulers, such as Kangxi and Qianlong. Yet he was unimpressed with their reigns, at least compared to what might be expected given their stature in history. The Scholars was written 15 years into Qianlong’s reign. The preface mentions some bloody massacres of the literati during their reigns, including punishment of scholars who compiled a glowing Ming Dynasty history that the Manchus felt threatened by. The Manchu Qing rulers were very hypersensitive that they were being slighted by the Han population they ruled and purged the literati more than other Chinese rulers, though literati purges were not uncommon throughout Chinese history.

Qianlong in particular burned many offending books and killed many scholars through his strict policies, though his worst period was a few decades after Jingzi Wu’s death. According to researcher Weiguo Zhao in his essay “On the Autocratic Cultural Policies Concerning the Banning of Novels in Emperor Qianlong’s and Emperor Jiaqing’s Time” (赵维国的«论乾嘉之际小说禁毁的文化管理政策»), Qianlong burned books 24 times from 1774 to 1782, totaling 13,862 books, and his policies were in place until 1788. However, Qianlong wasn’t the only Emperor who banned books. His grandfather Kangxi promulgated a notice banning popular novels he considered obscene in 1714. Emperor Yongzheng codified it into Qing law in 1725, and he was considered the pinnacle of autocracy in Chinese history. Therefore, it was likely developments under Kangxi and Yongzheng that colored Jingzi Wu’s view of his times when writing this novel.

Chapter one of the novel, titled “In Which an Introductory Story of a Good Scholar Points [to] the Moral of the Book,” indeed lays out the author’s intent in writing the story. Mian Wang comes from humble beginnings. Since he is too poor for his widowed mother to send to school, he is hired to watch his neighbor’s buffalo. He spends that time buying books and studying while sitting in the fields, and eventually, he decides to study painting lotus flowers, becoming a celebrated painter in the region through word of mouth. He doesn’t take the imperial exam. In spite of his fame and learning, Mian Wang flees from acquiring an appointment as a civil servant. Even his favor with the new Ming ruler Emperor Hongwu (1328 – 1398 AD), known in the novel variously as Yuanzhang Zhu or the “Prince of Wu” who comes to Mian Wang for advice when he is still a fighting warlord setting out to conquer all of the country, cannot persuade him to take an appointment. The signs in the natural world all suggest to Mian Wang, according to his Confucian outlook, that political upheaval was coming. He assumes a fake name and dies as a hermit on Huiji Mountain.

One thing to note about this ideal of an accomplished scholar fleeing the world is that it comes from a long tradition of honest literati who were either banished from court and exiled or who chose to not serve as ministers in governments they felt were too corrupt. These men, even those in exile, contributed to the cultural flowering of their eras. As the following link for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art explains in its virtual gallery of Chinese landscape painting, a major influence for the motifs of this blog, this tradition goes back to the Tang Dynasty: “Faced with the failure of the human order, learned men sought permanence within the natural world, retreating into the mountains to find a sanctuary from the chaos of dynastic collapse.” Be sure to read this wonderful site and examine the paintings in their virtual gallery for an explanation of the model Mian Wang presents.

For readers interested in the setting of this chapter, which is around 1300 AD as the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty fell and the Ming Dynasty took its place, the 2004 Chinese TV costume martial arts drama “Wu Dang” starring Carman Lee and Vincent Jiao is a good introduction to Emperor Hongwu before he became Emperor; it focuses on the relationship between Hongwu when he was known as Yuanzhang Zhu and the legendary founder of Tai Chi, Sanfeng Zhang. This show has not been subtitled in English, unfortunately.

It fits with that historical backdrop that Mian Wang would flee any potential civil appointment by Hongwu once he became Emperor. Before Hongwu’s death, he threw out all of the people he had selected for civil service, purged scholars who he felt had slighted him and had established an extensive spy network, so Mian Wang would have been subjected to that ultimately even if he had taken advantage of his influence with Hongwu. Running to the mountains gave him a more tranquil life.

Part one of a five part series.


About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization since 2007 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards.
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