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Learning vital to social mobility in Tang-Song Era

XING TIE | 2021-12-02 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTO: This painting shows a banquet held for successful candidates in the imperial examination in the Tang Dynasty. 

The tradition of family learning (jiaxue) in ancient China took shape in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220) and didn’t decline until the late-Qing Dynasty and modern times. During the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties, the inheritance of family learning was quite mature. With the cultural integration of south and north China as well as the development of the imperial examination (keju) system, the features and role of family learning became prominent. It was usual that prestigious clans evolved into hereditary scholar families and then entered the scholar-official (shidafu) stratum. Family learning, the imperial examination, and hereditary scholars were in an interactive relationship. Examining the evolutionary process and the relationship from the perspective of social mobility can reveal the real conditions of family learning inheritance and the upward mobility of common people into the scholar stratum in the Tang-Song Era. 
Inheritance of family learning
In ancient China, ordinary families would leave land, estates, and property for later generations in order to continue the bloodline. Officials and the nobility would also pass their power and status on to their descendants by institutional and non-institutional means. In the upper class of hereditary scholars, extra consideration was given to the inheritance of patrimonial scholarship, or family learning, in addition to land and estates, power and status. There had been a popular saying in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) that it is better to bequeath offspring a classic than a basket of gold. 
Ancient Chinese valued family learning. Those with the family learning tradition cared much about how to pass it on. Since learning could bring government posts, wealth, and high social standing, family learning also represented a property, and it was best to hand it down within families or clans. 
There were generally three ways to transmit learning or knowledge within families. The first, also the most common, way was that fathers and elder brothers taught their children and younger brothers. Second, wise mothers educated their children. In ancient China, a woman would be regarded as an understanding wife and wise mother when she was able to assist her husband and teach children. Particularly in hereditary scholar families, mothers were obligated to not only bear and raise children, but also teach them to learn, mostly primary knowledge though. In the third way, family learning was inherited with handed-down books as a carrier, which was essential to accumulating knowledge and engaging in scholarship. 
The inheritance of family learning in ancient China can be examined from the dimensions of regions and scholarly disciplines. In the context of when the economic center was shifted southwards and the cultures of south and north China blended, a review of family learning inheritance in south and north China could unveil some regional characteristics in that regard. 
North China was marked by a small number of scholarly or learned families, but each was big in size. Most of them studied Confucian classics. In the south, however, there were many small literate families, which were committed to learning Confucian classics, literature, and history, though mostly literature. 
Scholarly families had a long history in north China, mainly consisting of established hereditary scholar families since the Han and Wei (220–266) dynasties, when family learning had been commonplace and was being passed down in an orderly fashion. In the south, literate families were clans of official-scholars who rose by way of the imperial examination in the Tang and Song dynasties. In order to prevent the clans from going downhill due to failures in the examination, these families attached significant importance to the cultivation of their children, paying attention to the inheritance of scholarship when family learning was in the making. 
The family inheritance of disciplinary knowledge against the backdrop of the development of the imperial examination in the Tang and Song dynasties indicates that Confucian classics were serious learning for hereditary scholars. Studying to enter government service referred primarily to learning Confucian classics. Many Confucian scholars were indebted to the inheritance of family learning, so Confucian classics were a good fit for being transmitted within families. 
Conversely, literature was about personalized creation by talented people. It was difficult to pass it on to later generations. History was a specialized learning subordinate to Confucian classics.
Techniques and artistry, including medicine, mathematics, law, agronomy, calligraphy, and painting, were also prone to family inheritance. However, they entailed raw talent, and were marginalized under the imperial examination system, so there were few successors in these fields. 
In the Sui Dynasty (581–618) and the early Tang Dynasty, a heavy emphasis was laid on literature in the imperial examination, but the focus was gradually shifted to Confucian classics. The family inheritance of Confucian classics was very common and smooth. Apart from the test content of the imperial examination, the inheritance of each discipline or study was also subject to the heredity of qualities, which should also become an important perspective to explore family learning inheritance. 
From humble origins to scholars 
Social stratification and mobility theories in sociology are illuminating to ordinary people’s evolution into scholars. Social strata in sociological terms refer to “status groups” formed naturally by people of similar standings in wealth, literacy, power, and reputation. Hereditary scholars and ordinary people were two different social strata. Their difference was not only manifested in wealth, power, and marriage, but more on the intellectual level, such as literacy (family learning) and prestige (family reputation).
In a stricter sense, hereditary scholars were not only aristocratic in terms of wealth and privilege, but they were also intellectual nobles. Renowned hereditary scholar families originating from the Han and Wei dynasties generally followed a three-stage evolutionary path, from riches to nobleness and on to intelligence. In a typical case, their ancestors worked hard to thrive and become respected clans with political and economic privileges. Then they fostered family learning and reputation to turn into hereditary scholar families, while their descendants inherited family learning and optimized their genetic qualities. After the imperial examination system was instituted, they made their way to the officialdom by virtue of their advantages, continuing to keep their social standing or even earning a higher status. 
Although examples abounded that the commoners, even the poor, shot to fame through the imperial examination and thus changed the fate of their families or clans, these are extreme cases documented for being rare. 
According to the custom of not recording common occurrences, cases of wealthy and noble people ruining their families were also real, but they were undoubtedly uncommon. They were generally referred to as a warning to others, and therefore were not a universal occurrence. 
Ordinary people’s evolution to scholars was a complicated historical process under the imperial examination system in the Tang and Song dynasties. It is not advisable to simplify it into a few inspirational or cautionary anecdotes. The learning required by the imperial examination was for a minority culture more suited to elites, instead of popular culture. Those who sat for and passed the examination were a small proportion of people with the most brilliant intellectual qualities. This determined that the imperial examination mattered only to the upper class. Offspring of hereditary scholar families with advantageous family learning and excellent hereditary qualities were always the major force in the examination. 
The imperial examination was originally instituted to provide every stratum with opportunities for upward mobility, not deliberately suppressing hereditary scholars nor giving preferential treatment to the commoners. It aimed at pooling talent from all strata to serve the central court. 
In other words, the examination was designed to screen original elites through scholarly tests to eliminate those who had fallen behind and admit elites that had come to the fore, in order to form a new elite class. In the history of the Tang and Song dynasties, it went like this: those who achieved a smooth official career were not budding gifted literati, but still descendants of hereditary scholars who had inherited family learning; the influential clans didn’t face downfall entirely, but faced stratification. While some waned, some carried on their official careers through the imperial examination system by dint of inherited family learning advantages and genetic qualities, bringing into being a new scholar-official stratum together with elites who stood out from among ordinary people. 
The screening was not a one-time process. It was continual. Scholarly honors or official ranks gained from the imperial examination were not hereditary. Descendants of the new scholar-official class formed out of the examination, whether they were from scholarly or ordinary families, were likely to be weeded out at anytime for failing in the imperial examination. Therefore, cultivating more descendants to raise the possibility of passing the examination became the only way to keep their class, prompting them to value the inheritance of family learning even more. 
The family learning tradition and its inheritance existed only in ancient China. Regarding family learning as a property and passing it down along the bloodline was a product of the small-peasant economy. In the late Qing Dynasty and modern times, when Western learning was introduced to China on a massive scale, the content of learning was rapidly expanded and restructured. Not only were science and engineering knowledge not suitable for a certain family or clan to study and impart, but the research and learning of Confucian classics and history also became science-oriented, taught in schools of all types and levels in a concentrated manner. In addition to the all-dimensional socialization of people’s production and life, traditional family learning had gone out of fashion, and so had ways of inheriting it. 
Xing Tie is a professor of history from Hebei Normal University.