The Chinese Scholar

Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province, is known for a fine higher learning institution, Yuelu Shuyuan, or Yuelu Academy, located at the foot of Mount Yue.  The Shuyuan has a long and distinguished history, having been founded in the Song Dynasty more than one thousand years ago as center of Confucianism learning.  A couplet in the front gate of the Shuyuan states, matter-of-factly, that the best scholars are to be found in Hunan, and inside the Shuyuan in particular. 

For a period of time it was a true claim.  That was a long time ago, when the Chinese scholarship consisted of first, mastery of what Confucius supposedly said and what his disciples said he said, and then, recycled interpretations of what the sage and his followers said with hair-splitting subtleties.  The founder of Neo-Confucianism, Zhu Xi, taught at the Shuyuan in the twelfth century.  He must have been a genius, as he managed to add so much new insights to more than one thousand years of Chinese scholarship before him, to influence future generations of Chinese scholars for hundreds of years to come. 

Yuelu Shuyuan is the only Confucius academy in China that transformed itself into part of a modern higher learning institution, the Hunan University.  Times have changed since Zhu Xi lectured in Shuyuan about scholarship; probably the only department in Hunan University that has something to do with the Shuyuan is the department of Chinese literature.  But the spirit of the Chinese scholarship lives on.  Take for example the universal acknowledgement that the Chinese student respects his teacher.  This is what one would expect in the tradition of Chinese scholarship.  The teacher is the authority as the source of knowledge, and Confucianism is nothing if not respectful of authorities.  While having respectful students sounds like a fine tradition, the flip side is the common criticism heard both inside and outside of China that Chinese students are good at memorizing descriptive knowledge but bad at asking independent questions.  Again, in the context of the Chinese scholarship exemplified by Yuelu Shuyuan, this criticism is hardly surprising.  Chinese scholarship emphasizes knowledge instead of reason.  After all, you have to pretty much memorize the entire Confucius classics first before you start your scholastic career, and the only kind of questions allowed is what Confucius really meant when he said something.  These are probably not independent questions, as they had been asked by generations upon generations of learned Chinese who called themselves scholars.  An independent question that would not have been permitted inside the Yuelu Shuyuan could be something like this: What would Confucius have said to a tyranny like Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, who not only refused to follow the natural moral codes that Confucius laid out for his ideal ruler, but responded to any suggestion he should by killing the messengers and burning their books?  Confucius dreamed up a harmonious society where everyone from the ruler to his subjects does his part in following the ethic rules that Confucius designed to, well, keep the society harmonious. Dynasty upon dynasty of Chinese emperors made Confucianism some kind of state religion, because the state power ensured that the ethic rules were followed by everyone, and because few Chinese scholars were asking why the emperor himself was exempted from Confucius' ethic rules.   

Although few Chinese scholars asked, what Confucius would probably have said was tyrannies like Qin Shi Huang would lose the mandate from the Heaven and perish.  In his time many rulers did perish and he used them as examples for his ideal society.   But what if the Heaven did not intervene, or did not do so quickly enough for the suffering masses?  Apparently Mao Zedong wasn't very patient.   Inside Yuelu Shuyuan, a photo of of a youthful Mao Zedong was displayed prominently, even though he had no direct connection to the Shuyuan.  He received modern primary and secondary education in Changsha that had just become more popular than the classics education in Confucianism.  He never went to college, or abroad, but apparently he was not afraid of asking independent questions.  If knowledge can be subversive, reason is downright seditious.