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An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Qing Period - Literature

Mar 19, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

The Qing emperors understood themselves as patrons of artists and writers. Especially the Kangxi Emperor promoted the collection of all knowledge and writing of China. He had published the History of Ming Dynasty (Mingshi 明史), the partially illustrated encyclopedia Gujin tushu jicheng 古今圖書集成, the Collection of Tang poetry Quantangshi 全唐詩 and Tang prose writings Quantangwen 全唐文, the character dictionary Kangxi zidian 康熙字典, the rhyme dictionary Peiwen yunfu 佩文韻府, and the collection Siku quanshu 四庫全書, a vastcompendium that tried to subsummize all existant writings that had ever been published. Already the Kangxi Emperor, but much more his two successors, tried to ensure the correct legitimation of their rulership by ruthless "literary inquisitions". But not only critics of the Qing government were punished. The literary index of the Qing rulers also enclosed demoralizing writings, even the widespread popular novels that were written in vernacular language and not in classical Chinese. The landscape of Qing novels is therefore very different to the splendour and everyday-language of Yuan and Ming novels. Qing novels like Cao Xueqin's 曹雪芹 Hongloumeng 紅樓夢 "Dream of Red Chamber", Wu Jingzi's 吳敬梓 Rulin waishi 儒林外史 "The Scholars", and Xia Jingxu's 夏敬渠 Yesou puyan 野叟曝言 "Words of an old peasant sunning" are written in a very subtile language with many reminiscences to the old literature that can only be understood by highly educated people. Likewise are the short story collections like Pu Songling's 蒲松齡 Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋誌異 "Strange accounts from the Leisure Study" , Yuan Mei's 袁枚 Zibuyu 子不語 "What Confucius did not say", and Li Yun's 紀昀 Yueweicaotang biji 閱微草堂筆記 "Essays from the Short Grass Hall" . Less popular anthologies are Pu Songling's Xingshi yinyuan "Matrimonial causations awakening the world" 醒世姻緣....... In the sphere of high-class theatre, we also find a subtle and romantic style in the plays of Li Yu 李漁 (the erotic novel Rouputuan "Carnal prayer mat" 肉蒲團 is attributed to him), Hong Sheng 洪昇 (Changsheng Dian "Hall of Everlasting Life" 長生殿) and Kong Shangren 孔尚任 (Taohuashan "Peach Blossom Fan" 桃花扇). Not all scholars, officials and writers were conformists with the Qing regime. From the end of 18th century on, the private correspondence between scholars was written in a very free and unpolitical style (for example, the autobiography "Six records of an unsteady life" Fusheng liuji 浮生六記 by Shen Fu 沈復), and even in the public sphere, we find writers that did not hesitate to show their unconventional standpoint, like the poet and essayist Yuan Mei and Li Ruzhen 李汝珍 (writing the novel "The causal connection of a flower and its mirror reflection" Jinghuayuan 鏡花緣) who both supported thoughts of equal rights for women. For the scholars that lived during the conquest of the Manchu, the downfall of the Ming regime was a prove for the abuse of authoritarian power of the central government in Beijing. But these people did not only criticize the Ming autocracy - and thereby supporting the new Qing rulers. Thinkers and philosophers of the new age (mid 17th century to 18th century) also criticized the traditional, sterile and impeding the style Confucian classics had been interpreted by the Neo-Confucianists of the Song and Ming eras. Criticizing the authoritarism of the Ming meant also doubting the legitimacy of the new Qing rulers. Many scholars were punished to death for opposing the Qing regime, like Jin Shengtan 金聖嘆, but others stayed unmolested, like the important history criticist Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲, the evolution theoretician Wang Fuzhi 王夫之, Fang Yizhi 方以智, and Gu Yanwu 顧炎武. All of these philosophers were oriented to practical sciences (shixue 實學) and interpreted philosophy only as one part of a cosm of sciences, the study of classical Confucian writings and their interpretations were by no means the heart of education. Practical science and knowledge was propagated by Gu Zuyu 顧祖禹, Mei Wending 梅文鼎, Yan Yuan 顔元, Li Gong 李塨. The school of thinking that lead to a deepgoing change in the life of Confucian classics was the movement of text criticism that came up during the second half of 17th century. The Rites of Zhou (Zhouli 周禮) and the Book of Documents (Shangshu 尚書) were identified as later compositions than they purported to be, many histories and stories about early Confucian saints and rulers were detected as being later inventions. The Book of Songs (Shijing 詩經) did not only contain hymns for the Zhou rulers, but also simple love songs. Confucius and the writings attributed to him were dethroned by man like Wan Sida 萬斯大, Yan Ruoqu 閻若璩, Hu Wei 胡渭, Yuan Mei 袁枚, Wang Zhong 汪中, Cui Shu 崔述, and Hui Dong 惠棟. This movement was quite similar to the first researches of the Greek and Hebrew original texts of the bible, a book whose Latin version had been sacrosanct since the being of Christianity. Zhang Xuecheng 章學誠 was one of the first historians to lay stress on the importance of local history of the huge empire of China. Every document, he said, had to be incorporated into a historiography, and not only annals and edicts like the official histories did. Historiography should also be a personal work - although there might be subjective interpretations (compare the greatest histores that were all composed by more or less a single person: Shiji, Zizhi Tongjian). Probably the most important writer and scientist of early and middle Qing period was Dai Zhen 戴震, a universal scholar, mathematician, philologist, one of the editors of the collection Siku quanshu, and philosopher: the most objective and earnest criticist of Neo-Confucian interpretation of the classical writings and their nature philosophy. His most important philosophical writing might be "The Origin of Goodness" Yuanshan 原善. Instead of the Neo-Confucian universal order (li 理), he interpreted any being as guided and lead by breath, odem or matter (qi 氣) that help the abstract cosmic order (dao 道) to manifest all appearances. Books about practical science and philology were not only written and published by scholars or offials, but also by rich merchants that patronized writers and artists and that engaged themselves in studies about geography, chronology, epigraphy, mathematics, philology, and the Confucian Classics. The places for scholars preparing for the state examinations were provided by private academies (shuyuan 書院). Private studies and patronage only ended with the financial and economical ruin of the rich merchant families of the lower Yangtze era at the end of 18th century.