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Educational shift had big impact on literary development in Mid-Tang

ZHANG HUA | 2020-07-22
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
A painting depicting teaching in ancient China Photo: FILE
In the history of education in China, the schooling system in the Tang Dynasty (618–907) occupies a particularly important position. Famed Chinese historian Zhou Yutong once said that the Tang school system was more complex and complete than that of any other dynasty in medieval times. The comprehensive system gave rise to far-reaching educational philosophies. 
Throughout the dynasty, school education experienced ups and downs. In the Mid-Tang era, private schooling gradually became the mainstream style of education. The shift in educational models and teaching content exerted significant impact on the literati and their literary creations. 
 
Popularization of home schooling 
When it comes to private schooling, family learning with parents, elder brothers or other clan relatives as teachers was an important form of education. Major literary figures in the late Mid-Tang Dynasty basically studied at home, centering on poetry and prose. 
 
For example, Wei Chuhou, a member of the literati who also served as chancellor of the Tang cabinet, showed great intelligence in childhood. At an early age, his speeches were poem-like, and before long he was able to compose poems. He learnt about Confucian classics from his father and acquired literary and cultural knowledge from his uncle. Both Wei’s father and uncle were high-ranking officials at the time. Obviously his learning environment was superior. 
 
By contrast, in the case of families in poor conditions, mothers were usually the first teachers. Renowned scholar Liu Zongyuan recalled in a piece of prose that when he was four years old, his mother taught him 14 poems and asked him to memorize them. 
 
According to the Biography of Yuan Zhen in the Old Book of Tang, minister and scholar Yuan Zhen lost his father at the age of eight and his mother Lady Zheng, who was born into a literary family, shouldered the responsibility of teaching him. 
 
Similarly, distinguished essayist, poet and official Han Yu, whose father died when Han was very young, was educated by his elder brother and sister-in-law. He began to read books at seven and was capable of poetry composition at 13. 
 
At the same time, the increasing popularity of home schooling also spawned growing numbers of poetic works that encouraged industrious learning. In a poem to educate his son, Han noted that knowledge made people excellent, and knowledge could be acquired only through diligent learning. Otherwise, the brain would be empty. People were born with the same level of intelligence, but they took different paths, depending on whether they learnt studiously or not. In the poem, Han associated scholarly endeavors with individual uniqueness and integrity, underscoring the significance of learning poetry and prose to individual life. 
 
To literati in the Tang Dynasty, the aim of learning was to pass the imperial examination and enter government service. Thus Quan Deyu, also a chancellor and scholar, inspired his younger brother to study hard so that he could gain wealth and fame. 
 
Apart from encouraging learning, Mid-Tang scholars also blended their reflections on life into their works to encourage younger generations to realize their ambitions through a political career. Celebrated poet Bai Juyi, who didn’t hold an important government position until he was 50 years old, referred to his own experience to admonish his younger brother and push him to build a career as early as possible.
 
In addition, many educational poems taught younger generations the philosophy of life. For example, Meng Jiao taught kids ways to communicate with others in the verse “Choice of Companions.” In an instruction to his cousins, Bai Juyi stressed the importance of being neither too unyielding nor too soft when conducting oneself. Integrating these earnest teachings, such poems were one of the most direct manifestations of the educational transformation in literary creation in the Mid-Tang Dynasty. 
 
Revival of teaching 
In the Tang Dynasty, the system of hereditary aristocracy inherited from the Wei and Jin Dynasties (220–420) resulted in a prevailing contempt for teachers and teaching in society. Lamenting this undesirable situation, Han Yu composed the well-known prose work “On Teaching” as a gift to his student Li Fan in 802, in which he called for respect for teachers and teaching. 
 
In 813, Liu Zongyuan, who was demoted to Yongzhou in modern-day Hunan Province for combating corruption and bureaucracy, wrote a letter in response to the request of Wei Zhongli to be his student. Wei had failed the imperial examination several times. In the letter, Liu expressed his sympathy and support of Han Yu for teaching regardless of the general social trend. Thus, while rejecting Wei’s request, Liu tactfully taught Wei how to learn and compose.   
 
Meanwhile, Tang literati, subject to the profound influence of the literary atmosphere in the Six Dynasties (222–589), pursued rhythm and grandiose language excessively in writing, thinking little of the content. Therefore, an Old Classic Movement, or Classical Prose Movement, was initiated to champion a clear and concise style of writing. Major proponents of the literary reform included Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan. In different ways, the two scholars showed a consciousness of the need to transmit knowledge and provide for study, reflecting the progressive establishment of a new teacher-student relationship. 
 
An advocate of classical prose, Han Yu devoted great efforts to writing essays of the classical style, and his students later constituted the backbone of the Classical Prose Movement. Han was famous for rewarding his students, so he had a big following, even during his two demotions. 
 
Not utilitarian, his students followed Han for the sheer purpose of learning about poetry and prose composition. The teacher-student model of the private schooling nature contributed to the thriving of classical prose writing. 
 
The educational form of founding academic schools around teachers was a model of advanced private education. Under the circumstances, a good number of young scholars aspiring to write classic prose gathered around Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan, making the movement enormously influential. 
 
Due to the new teacher-student relationship, the Classical Prose Movement advocated by Han and Liu exerted a huge social impact and furthered the development of literary schools in the Mid-Tang times. 
 
Promotion of literary schools
The literary world in the late Mid-Tang was characterized by the establishment of distinctive and impactful literary schools. Among others, the School of Han Yu and Meng Jiao Poetry featured loose teacher-student relations, and the New Ballad (Yuefu) Movement stemmed from communication among Yuan Zhen, Bai Juyi and other scholars who were preparing for examinations held by the Ministry of Personnel. The schools were all tied up to education, directly or indirectly. 
 
Compared with literati in the early Tang Dynasty, scholars in the Mid-Tang struck a better balance between their political and literary careers. In particular, they had a strong enthusiasm for literary creation. 
 
Yuan Zhen pursued literary composition for a lifetime and he was often proud of that. Bai Juyi said that he was ignorant of everything but reading and composing. Pei Tan was a more typical example. After passing the imperial examination, he delved into the literary realm assiduously for three years before going to assume office in the capital, thus fostering a refreshing writing style. 
Alongside scholars’ passion for literary creation, literary schools in the Mid-Tang strived for innovation in composition. Their enterprising, innovative spirit and vigorous efforts opened up new prospects for literary development in the Tang Dynasty. 
 
However, some textbooks for private schooling also generated negative impact on the literary creation of poets in the mid and late Tang Dynasty. Such primers as Rabbit Garden Imperial Book, Teaching the Ignorant and Great-Grandfather’s Family Instructions were literacy textbooks in simple and unrefined language. 
 
Hu Zi, a literary critic in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), evaluated late Tang poet Du Xunhe’s poetry as “very low-level” for his poems were extremely simple in language and meaning, conjecturing that the poet must have been deeply influenced by the language and thought of Great-Grandfather’s Family Instructions. 
 
All in all, the shift in learning model and content in the Mid-Tang Dynasty exercised lasting impact on the growth of the literati. The change not only fueled scholars’ passion for literary creation, but also advanced literary reforms at that time. 
 
Zhang Hua is from the School of Educational Science at Yangzhou University in Jiangsu Province. 
 
 
 
edited by CHEN MIRONG