Liberal Education as Radical Proposition in the Late Ming

(A talk for the 2016 Weissbourd conference, “Does Liberal Education Need Saving?”)

Just at the moment when the liberal arts are under attack in America as being a merely ornamental excrescence, Chinese university administrators are trying to reform the curriculum in order to include more general education and more seminar-style teaching. Cao Li 曹莉, a professor and dean at Tsinghua University, finds this risky. “Many universities,” she says,

are rushing to join in the adventure of internationalizing higher education with foreign capital. All these shifts and transformations pose severe challenges to the Chinese university, one of which is the problem of how the identity of a Chinese university can be defined and upheld. In this regard, liberal education cannot ignore the strategic importance of maintaining national identity and cultural self-consciousness…. [T]he model of the American university is being invoked to rationalize and standardize university of education. We will have to realize that one of the most disturbing results of globalization is the standardization and homogenization of cultures, which threatens to deconstruct nationality and dismantle national consciousness as well as cultural confidence…. To break out of such a globalizing paradigm both culturally and intellectually is a challenge to all nations and their educational enterprises.[1]

But as Cao offhandedly recognizes, the Chinese university is itself something of a foreign implant, having been developed out of the traditional imperial academies in the late nineteenth century on a largely German and American model, then revised under Soviet influence to be more tightly articulated with national economic planning, and since the late 1970s subject to a variety of sometimes contradictory directives. The Chinese university does not have, in other words, much of a “subjectivity” (zhuguanxing 主觀性, to use the Chinese cant word employed by Cao [159]) to refer back to, no consistent survival of an academically-based cultural essence. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If no one can deny that liberal education in its present form is an American intellectual export deriving ultimately from the Yale College Report of 1828 [2], an application on Chinese soil of American models, at least there is no antithetical model of the truly Chinese university that might be invoked to resist it.

Or is there? In thinking about China it’s never a good idea to be too present-minded. The Chinese empire, which has the advantage over all others in terms of longevity, is gone but certainly not forgotten. And for about two thousand years, that empire recruited its administrators through a network of educational institutions concentrating on mastery of a specific set of texts. For much of that period, the portal of recruitment was a series of examinations, held locally and nationally at regular intervals, testing the “faculties of the mind” through timed essay questions. These essays were read anonymously and graded by panels of experts; extra points were awarded for membership in previously disfavored groups; the subjects to be covered in the exams as well as the priorities and stances of the graders were regularly rejiggered. The question of what liberal education would mean in a long-term Chinese context is somewhat muddled by the fact that the texts with which candidates were expected to be familiar are broadly “humanistic”: i.e., historical, philosophical, and literary works of antiquity. To see the problem of liberal education from the point of view of a Ming-dynasty dissident intellectual, for example, we have to put aside the content of the educational system and concentrate on its form and goal, namely, preparation for the most rewarding career possible, that of administrator in one or another department of the vast imperial bureaucracy. The Chinese state was, of course, the largest employer in the country; moreover, it held the monopoly, or very nearly so, on prestigious careers for young men. Under such conditions, it is no surprise that education was not always seen as an end in itself; pure learning might have actually benefited from having a less heavy chain of rewards attached to its restless and nimble feet.

In the Ming Dynasty, the rewards began to come off the feet. Prosperity, resulting from a growing global economy, gave more young men the opportunity to study and compete in the examinations. At the same time, political factors led to a shrinking of the numbers of candidates rewarded with actual posts and careers; there were a great many disaffected intellectuals with all the titles but no prospects. One candidate who studied hard, received top marks, and did get one of the most prestigious jobs in his year might have remained a mere unexceptional name in a list of names had he not done something counter to type. Li Zhi, whose dates are 1527 to 1602, was that extraordinarily successful young man who later turned his back on the whole system that had made him a success. In an autobiography written in the third person, Li Zhi tells that as a student he

found himself confused and unsettled. He studied the commentaries and annotations but did not critically examine himself. … He blamed himself and wished to give up studying altogether. But with a great deal of time on his hands and nothing for him to do to pass the days, he sighed and said, ‘All this is nothing but playacting. My studies are no more than plagiarizing and superficial reading. Not even the examiners understand each and every detail of Confucius’s teachings!’ And so he sought out the most popular and widely-read examination essays of his time, and recited several of these each day. By the time of the examinations he had memorized nearly five hundred essays. When the examination topic was given, he merely copied, transcribed, and recorded what he had memorized. He received high middle honors.[3]

Unlike many, Li Zhi went on to a series of good jobs. But after more than a decade of positions in the Imperial Academy and the Ministry of Justice, Li resigned his commissions and went to live with a family of educated provincials, purportedly as tutor to their sons but mainly as in-house philosopher. After quarrelling with the elders of that family, he moved into a Buddhist monastery as a lay brother—a shocking thing for a former official to do. From this marginal position he wrote sarcastically about the sort of person he had been, contrasting present-day career-minded Confucians with the Sage himself and his one understanding disciple:

When Confucius ate coarse rice and Yan Hui lived in a humble alleyway, were they not one in spirit with [the legendary culture-hero] Yao? After Yan Hui passed away, Confucius’s subtle words were cut short, sagely learning died out, and [genuine] Confucianism was no longer transmitted. This is why Confucius said, ‘Heaven is destroying me!’ Why so? Because even though all his remaining disciples were learned, they didn’t regard ‘hearing the Way’ as the heart of their concern, so what was left to prevent them from being led astray by the wealth and status they gained by serving powerful nobles?… Thus today, those who have no talent, no learning, no accomplishments and no insight, yet wish to achieve great wealth and status, have absolutely no choice but to profess the ‘Study of the Way.’ And those today who truly wish to discuss the study of the Way—to grasp the point of the Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist transcendence of the world and avoid the suffering of wealth and status—have absolutely no choice but to shave their heads and live as monks!

That is, the apparent triumph of Confucianism has destroyed its inner meaning by linking it to wealth and status. Only those who dare to drop to a far lower rung on the social ladder and become Buddhist monks have any chance of pursuing learning for its own sake—of accomplishing the ends of liberal education, more sinico.

This is one form of Ming-dynasty protest against educational careerism. Another takes the frustration of most educated men and rotates it around the axis of gender. With the increase in wealth and ease, particularly in the southeastern provinces of China, more and more women began to gain access to the kind of education that their fathers, brothers and sons had enjoyed. But no woman could sit for the examinations: theirs was, perforce, learning for its own sake. Li Zhi imagines a scene in which such a woman occupies the examiner’s seat, invoking, with his usual irony, Confucius as his witness against all latter-day Confucianism:

Suppose there exists a person with a woman’s body and a man’s vision. Suppose she delights in hearing upright discourse and knows that uncultivated speech is not worth listening to; she delights in learning about the transcendent and understands that the ephemeral world is not worth becoming attached to. If men of today were to meet with such a woman, I fear that they would all feel shame and remorse, sweat profusely, and be unable to utter a single syllable. It may have been in hopes of encountering such a person that the Sage Confucius wandered the world, desiring to meet her just once but unable to find her; and for such a person to be dismissed as a mere woman, a ‘shortsighted creature,’ isn’t this unjust?[4]

I would not wish any of you to follow the fate of Li Zhi (he committed suicide in a jail cell while being taken to Beijing for questioning, his provocations having finally provoked the wrong people). But his analysis, even down to its sarcasm, and his personal history do fit, I think, the typical relationship between career education and liberal education through most of world history. Learning for its own sake and asking open-ended questions are generally a thinly-rewarded way of life, often a violently dissuaded one, and instrumentalization of study as an enhancement of fungible human resources has always been the norm. We are fortunate to have lived in a bubble or parenthesis of time when the choices have not been so stark. This moment requires militancy from the mild-mannered army of the liberally educated, a group of habitual non-joiners who can nonetheless recognize a common threat. May the right-hand parenthesis never close on the favorable period for the liberal arts that we have been lucky enough to experience. Let us not only push back at the attempt to close it, but strive to hold the parenthesis open for more and more people to follow. Several speakers have already pointed to the strategic points in the American polity where we might exert pressure. I for one would be delighted if the international educational marketplace were to spawn, by a massive perverse effect, thousands of new Li Zhis and a China ready to listen to them.



[1] Cao Li, “Redefining ‘Liberal Education’ in the Chinese University,” 153-163 in Brett de Bary, ed., Universities in Translation: The Mental Labor of Globalization (Traces, vol. 5; Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), p. 160.

[2] Reports on the Course of Instruction in Yale College (New Haven: Hezekiah Howe, 1828), available at

[3] Li Zhi, A Book to Burn and a Book to Keep (Hidden): Selected Writings, translated by Rivi Handler-Spitz, Pauline Chen Lee and Haun Saussy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), pp. 76-77.

[4] Li Zhi, A Book to Burn, pp. 30-31.