Intellectual Trends in Late Imperial China

On-cho Ng

in Chinese Studies

ISBN: 9780199920082
Published online March 2016 | | DOI:
Intellectual Trends in Late Imperial China

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  • East Asian Studies
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It seems indubitable that Chinese thought experienced notable changes in the late imperial period, roughly from the late Ming through the mid Qing. Although scholars argue over the genesis, content, nature, and significance of the new developments, most acknowledge and recognize the patterned fundamental shifts in intellectual trends and directions. Some of the interrelated traits of the intellectual redirection include the following: (1) fungibility and syncretism in thinking that tended to mitigate the authority of received opinions; (2) palpable impulse to reorder and manage the world, invoking the ideal of ordering the world through practical statecraft and statesmanship (jingshi 經世); (3) general aversion toward metaphysical speculation and moral introspection and the corresponding interest in the pursuit of solid and practical learning, the so-called puxue 樸學 and shixue 實學, giving rise to utilitarian and instrumental notions of scholarship; (4) valuing personal practical experience, academic, political, social, and otherwise, such that one’s actions in the phenomenal and external worlds loomed large; (5) historicization of the classics (jing 經) that had hitherto been revered as sources of timeless authority, rendering them into objects of scholarly scrutiny, thereby breeding in time the meticulous scholarship of kaozheng 考証 or kaoju 考據 (evidential research and learning), which came to dominate the intellectual world in the so-called Qianjia period (the period of the reigns of the Qianlong and Jiaqing emperors, 1736–1820); (6) preference for limpidity, clarity, and simplicity in writing style and language; and (7) new and broadening horizons of the meaning of community, as the literati’s place in state and society was redefined and reconceptualized. To be sure, these interlarded strains of thoughts were by no means new in the Chinese intellectual universe. Yet, from the late Ming on, there seemed to be an unmistakable convergence of the various traits that fostered conceptual commonalities and intellectual confluences out of a socio-intellectual environ that was nevertheless characterized by manifold sectarian affiliations and polemics. Various modes of learning and thinking cohered to forge a new orientation that seemed to give conscious life in the late imperial period an identifiable stamp and identity. Late imperial China also ushered in new sociopolitical milieus in which thoughts and ideas unfolded. The growth of printing technology and the related book trade and culture, for instance, exerted influence on intellectual developments, as did the rise of the merchants and the fostering of an ethos that prized success in the workaday world.

Article.  12907 words. 

Subjects: East Asian Studies ; Asian History ; East Asian Philosophy ; East Asian Religions

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