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Resurgence of cliques brought tumult to Song politics

By Jiang Xiaotao | 2015-12-17 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The painting shows official candidates taking part in the imperial examinations in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).


From the Five Dynasties (907-960) to the Northern Song Dynasty (906-1127), especially during the reign of Emperor Renzong (1023-63), the Chinese state evolved as civil officials began to replace military officers in the halls of government, restoring the traditional political role of the scholar-bureaucrat. As intellectuals and officials experienced a renewed sense of self-awakening, cliques in traditional politics began to gain ground and exhibit new features, influencing the political landscape of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). 

Rebuilding tradition
The Song Dynasty was characterized by long-term stability and prosperity, which can be largely credited to the civil administration. Emperors Taizu (960-975) and Taizong (976-997) adopted policies that favored academics and civil officials, establishing a precedent for later generations  throughout the Song Era. The civil service in the Song Dynasty has even been deemed superior to the bureaucracies of the Han (206 BC-AD 220) and Tang (618-907) dynasties. 


Emperor Renzong built upon the tradition established by his predecessors by reviving the imperial examinations and placing unprecedented emphasis on culture and education. During his reign, the court was dominated by civil officials, who enjoyed high status. 

From 1023 to 1031, the backbone of officialdom under Emperor Renzong was made up of those who had earned a degree of jinshi, which means Presented Scholar. Officials were granted this title for displaying literary ability and the capacity to apply classical precepts and historical precedents to discussions of practical government problems.

Their presence could be regarded as a turning point in the political development of the Song Dynasty, marking the resurgence of the scholar-bureaucrat and the reawakening of their self-consciousness.

Song intellectuals and civil officials were spirited. They had new characteristics in terms of their academic origins, writing, dispositions and working styles, but they were inexperienced and lacked political savvy. Serving as censors and remonstrators or as scholars in academies and institutes, they held themselves in high esteem and regarded themselves a model for justice and integrity in the court, so they were rather courageous about speaking their minds.

They injected a hefty dose of ethics and morality into their political stances, advocating legitimism and upholding reputation and integrity. Daring to speak truth, they not only directed their attacks at conservative senior politicians but also argued vociferously for their positions before the emperor.

When internal and external problems became increasingly severe, outstanding members of the group emerged as bold political reformers, making up the mainstay of scholar-bureaucrat political traditions and moral notions. 

Emerging cliques
In addition to a professional scholar-bureaucrat class, the rule of Emperor Renzong also brought with it the rise of political cliques in officialdom. Although partisanship was not an issue unique to the Song Dynasty, it was a persistent problem in the political history of the Song Empire. 

Throughout Chinese history, pengdang, meaning “clique” in Chinese, has never had a positive connotation. At first, it referred to people of the same kind who colluded with each other for selfish purposes, and later it was extended to mean scholars and officials who banded together to contend with rival factions for power. 

To ancient Chinese people, cliques were cabals formed out of selfish interests. They had nothing to do with morality or justice. To satisfy their selfish desires, members of the same clique would recklessly frame those who were not members, contaminating officialdom and disrupting the ruling order. 

To rulers, cliques were detrimental. If powerful enough, they would undermine the empire and lead to its demise. Because of this deeply rooted view, accusations of clique affiliation meant ostracism, the end of one’s political career and an unsavory reputation. Therefore, accusing opponents of being in a clique was a powerful weapon in the contest between bureaucratic political factions.

With the self-awakening of scholars and bureaucrats, inter-factional fighting during the reign of Emperor Renzong was distinct in terms of content and significance. It was first manifested in the struggle between powerful ministers and ambitious young scholars and officials. Then it evolved into internecine conflict within the whole group of scholar-bureaucrats. 

Unlike political factions in previous dynasties, alleged clique members in the Song Dynasty attempted to challenge the negative connotations associated with the term and justify it. For instance, renowned Song statesman and essayist Ouyang Xiu (1007-72) wrote an essay On Cliques, arguing that cliques should be divided into “gentlemen’s groups” and “villainous cabals.”

Regardless of traditional views, he and his fellows styled themselves as members of the gentlemen’s clique and took pride in that.

However, Ouyang’s gentlemen’s clique failed to legitimize themselves, and their actions had severe consequences.

First, because most of them supported reform, many people mistakenly concluded that all reformists and advocates of new policy were part of the clique. 

Second, Confucius held that gentlemen are not partisans, and it was not uncommon for political rivalry to bring about disaster, so some rulers cracked down on factions to maintain their authority. 

Considering the traditional negative view of cliques, Ouyang’s argument was obviously not convincing. Later, he attempted to divide officialdom by characterizing those who agreed with him as gentlemen and his opponents as villains. 

He even petitioned Emperor Renzong to recruit virtuous men and dismiss the unworthy, openly creating division and tension in the bureaucracy. As a result, conservatives hated reformists while those stuck in the middle were upset. 

New, inexperienced scholars and bureaucrats also showed their own shortcomings on the political stage, such as idle theorizing, stubbornness and an inability to tell friends from foes. Despite their lofty ideals, they themselves were responsible for many of the barriers on their political path and thus ended up hardly achieving anything. 

Declining scholarship
After Emperor Shenzong (1068-85) came to power, the rivalry between different political cliques became increasingly fierce and degenerated into partisan strife. The so-called new party normally tried every means to exclude dissidents under the guise of advocating reform. It was the same with old parties. 


Consequently, the political atmosphere deteriorated. Ambitious schemers and conspirators used this environment to manipulate the political process and grab power, infecting the government with corruption. 

Ferocious battles in officialdom dealt a heavy blow to young, inexperienced officials. They became disheartened, obedient, timid and overly cautious, totally losing their former spirit. Those who were preparing for civil service jobs also followed suit blindly. With no sense of enterprise or justice, they received education merely for the sake of securing an official position and thereby pursuing their interests. 

Under such circumstances, studying the words of sages and policies of former emperors was merely a means of entry into the bureaucracy, while few scholars were willing to do practical academic research. 

Meanwhile, the defects in the imperial examinations persisted as the test content was increasingly narrowed and rigidified. During the reign of Emperor Gaozong (1127-62), examinees were allowed to raise their own opinions based on ancient and contemporary Confucian theories. 

However, after Emperor Lizong (1225-64) took the throne, Confucian scholar Zhu Xi’s commentaries on the “Four Books,” namely The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Analects, and Mencius, became the standard basis for the examination on Confucian classics argumentation. 

Due to narrowed content, examiners imposed various formats to restrict examinees, requiring opening, amplification and argument of different stages, which later evolved into the “Eight-Legged Essay” typical of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). 

As a consequence, the number of genuinely talented scholars began to decline and the court was overflowing with self-styled idealists. 

Although the scramble between political factions in the Song Dynasty was considered a way for scholars and officials to realize their self-awareness in the political sphere, they failed to break new political ground.

On the contrary, factional battles had a negative influence on the political community and society. Later generations would squarely place blame on partisan strife for undermining government administration and reform.

Jiang Xiaotao is an associate research fellow at the Institute of History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.