A number of your published works deal with Confucianism. What is Confucianism?
It’s best to think about Confucianism as a kind of classical learning. It is a largely secular tradition focusing on politics, government, and society--how human beings should live, what’s the best way to organize a society and a state, how morality should inform a society. It’s somewhat analogous to the classical traditions of Greece and Rome that Europeans valued so highly. I think the term “Confucianism” sort of mystifies things (it was the Jesuits, not the Chinese, who first called this body of learning “Confucianism”). Confucius was a teacher who is thought to have lived in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E. His followers used five texts attributed to him: a book about divination and natural studies (Yijing); a book of poetry; a book of rituals; a book of history, which deals with documents and writing about history; and finally a historical chronicle in which Confucius supposedly praises and blames his age. Beginning with the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E. to 220 A.D.) the Chinese state was organized according to these texts.
In my first two books I was interested in advancing this idea of Confucianism as classical learning. In the first, From Philosophy to Philology (1984), I was writing about the last tradition of Confucianism in the 17th and 18th centuries, when Chinese scholars began to question the received Confucian texts. This was akin to biblical criticism going on in Europe at about the same time, where scholars began to challenge elements of scripture that had accrued over the centuries, arguing that they were not authentic. Chinese scholars at this time shifted toward philological research, in which they attempted to reconstruct the original texts. You can see how this activity might have had political implications. My second book, Classicism, Politics, and Kinship (1990), examined an important shift in the way the Confucian texts were interpreted in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 2000 you published a large study of the civil examination system in late imperial China. Why were these exams so important?
The Chinese imperial state was a vast hierarchical structure comprising around 17 provinces and about 1,300 counties. There was a huge bureaucracy to be staffed, about 25,000 offices during the late imperial period, 1400 to 1900. And the state was the main arena in which one could advance and achieve fame and fortune in China. The best and the brightest aimed to become state officials. Now, this entire examination system was based on the body of Confucian learning we were just talking about. Mastery of Confucian learning was the requirement to become an official, and so the examination system became the way in which Confucian thought was institutionalized. Education based on classical studies was the dominant mode of learning in China from the early empire forward. Or to put it differently, Confucianism was the voice of politics; it was the constitutional framework of the state for order in society, and it was always appealed to as the ideal. By analogy, think of how many members of our government have been trained as lawyers. Lawyering and government overlap, just as classical learning and political power went hand in hand in China.
What were the tests like?
Writing was essential. Early on poetry was very important; for instance, examinees had to memorize classical poetry. Later, essay-writing mattered a great deal more. During the last two dynasties one of the most famous exercises was something called the “eight-legged essay”--an essay composed of eight sections. (One might compare this with the new five-paragraph essay being used on the SAT.) The exams also asked about more practical matters, such as policy questions on taxation and statecraft.
Was this really a meritocracy?
Yes and no. Over time the idea that officials should be chosen based on talent, not birth, became established. The process by which these government posts were filled was extremely competitive. In the period that I study, 2 to 3 million people were tested biennially at the local level; of them about 150,000 people went on to compete at the provincial level; and then a finalist group of about 6,000 competed for posts in the imperial bureaucracy in the capital. This was the first real examination system in the world.
On the other hand, because the exams were based on classical Chinese, a written language that was not the vernacular, they excluded about 90% of the male population, not to mention all women. A young man who could read classical Chinese was most likely from a well-off family who could afford to educate him. Suppose the SAT were written in Latin.
Your most recent book, On Their Own Terms, is about Chinese science. How did you come to this topic?
Over time I began to appreciate that so-called Confucianism had included scientific learning and mathematics: the study of the natural world and the study of morality or literature were considered all part of the same set of learning--in much the same way that Western classical learning had included natural science and mathematics. The Chinese were obsessed with the calendar, for instance, because the calendar was the symbol of the emperor’s rule over the world. It was expected that the emperor could predict events like eclipses accurately; if he failed to, the legitimacy of his rule was called into question. There was a revival of Chinese scientific learning during the 17th and 18th centuries under the influence of Jesuit missionaries, and then in the 19th century what we would call modern science began to develop in China under the influence of Protestant missionaries. By focusing on this period, I wanted to broaden our notion of Confucianism to include fields like medicine, astronomy, and mathematics, and I also wanted to see how Chinese science had changed as a result of this encounter with European science.
How would you describe the encounter?
It was remarkably interactive. The Chinese had already made significant technological and scientific accomplishments before 1600; the Chinese, as is well known, had invented gunpowder, the magnetic compass, paper, and the printing press. Chinese techniques for the production of textiles, silk, tea, and porcelain were unparalleled in the pre-industrial world, and these were very much of interest to the Europeans. Chinese mathematics were very sophisticated as a result of interactions with the Islamic world, especially during the period that the Mongols ruled China.
The Europeans never had the power to conquer China, as they did in other places, so they had to convince the Chinese of the value and power of their learning. Both the Jesuits and the Protestants used scientific knowledge to preach the benefits of the West and of Christianity, arguing that science and Christianity went hand in hand. An interesting dialogue developed between the two groups. In effect the Chinese said, We’re not so interested in your religion, but we like the science a great deal. Some Chinese scholars even argued that Western natural studies had originated in ancient China. The Chinese did not wholeheartedly adopt the modern Western scientific framework until about 1900. Until then, they translated European scientific learning according native natural studies. But in the 20th century modern science emerged in full force in China, with some of its roots going back to the 17th and 19th centuries.