The Founder of China’s Scholarly Culture

Professor Confucius and his 72 formally enrolled students
Professor Confucius and his 72 formally enrolled students – a colour ink painting by an ancient Chinese 

Confucius lived in the era when Lao Tzu described how the universe works and Shakyamuni explained how to manage your universe.

As China’s most respected teacher, in a pre-internet age 2,500 years ago, Confucius gained over 3,000 followers China-wide.

Ancient Chinese State-Run University

This life-scale replica of the scene resembles a typical lecture room of the state-run university (国子监) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The students were selected and recommended based on their academic performance and ethical merits.

Once enrolled, they received a generous study and living allowance to cover all their needs.

The professors were usually the best scholars in the country and the emperors were required to give lectures to the students from time to time.

Upon graduation, each student would be appointed to a position in the central government in Nanjing then in Beijing.

Traditional Chinese Scholar Examinations

An essay written on the examination paper by the top prize winner in the state level academic examination in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644).

The academic examinations (also known as scholar examinations) in ancient China ran at three levels: the local, the provincial and the state. Anyone who passed the state-level test would be entitled to a position in government.

The academic examination system was formally established during the short-lived Sui Dynasty (581 – 618) before Tang, and inspired the formation of the public servant exam system all over the world.

Life of Classic Chinese Scholars

This colour-ink painting by a court artist of the late Ming Dynasty (the 17th century) depicts a social gathering occasion by 18 men, some are officials (with hats) and some are just scholars (contract office consultants, private school teachers, self-employed historians or freelance scholar-artists).

Due to the liberal attitudes of the Ming emperors in general, towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, a scholar group became more powerful than ever and engaged in fierce factional fighting, which led to the creation of the first political party (The Eastwoods Party, donglingang) in Chinese history.

Sing-song girl at a night party, by Tang Yin of the Ming Dynasty.

In the old days, there were two elements indispensable for any party or social gathering (mainly joined by men), one was wine (and food, naturally), and another was sing-song girls who were the ones to provide entertainment.

A quality sing-gong girl, regardless of a state-run or privately owned sing-song house, should be able to sing, play pipa, play flute, play qin and play Go (a chess game), and crack jokes.

If she could also compose poems, do ink-paintings and master calligraphy styles, she would be respected as a social girl in high society and often ended up being a lover or concubine to the rich and powerful, provided she was also pretty and not associated with an executed official.

China’s Class Elites – Scholas

Ladies of an elite family in the Ming Dynasty
Ladies of an elite family in the Ming Dynasty, by a Ming artist

In the classic Chinese era, elite households were families with royal connections or of the middle and high-ranking government officials.

On the other hand, the merchants (including and especially the bankers), no matter how rich they might be, their status were traditionally viewed as beneath the peasants and tradesmen. They were prevented by the authority from working at a government office, and their sons were ineligible to participate in the public servant’s exam (scholarly exam).

It is a desperate measure to keep Chinese society away from being influenced by a money-chasing mentality, and it is also a policy designed to encourage the development of the real economy.

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