Photo from Souvenir of Nanking

Photo from Souvenir of Nanking

A series of economic, political, and sociocultural shifts taking hold of late Qing China forced the lives of those like Liu Dapeng (1857-1942), and others in turn-of-century sub-urban Shanxi, to an inflection point. Educational and vocational reforms—the 1905 abolition of the imperial civil service examination, in particular—suddenly overturned centuries of dominant Confucian personal-political meaning, the formal Qing ideology, in favor of an emerging “modern” life, lifestyle, and ethic: limiting social mobility for many of the aspirant classes and engendering a widespread social-ontological uncertainty as a result.

Changes in industry—the migration of economic loci from the rural or sub-urban to the urban, accompanying rapid modernizing efforts—too stripped provincial locales like Shanxi of their cultural, human, and natural capital. It was thus in, and partly because of, such a rapidly shifting environment that dominant Confucian cultural residues were transposed from state prescription to syncretic norm: a culture’s formal aspect, its discrete performances, shifting from the chiefly political in meaning, to the deeply personal in nature. Liu and his family’s oral history bears crucial witness to the punctuated-equilibrious transposition to the newer Confucianism.

Over the course of the nineteenth century’s latter decade, into the twentieth, a number of socioeconomic changes fundamentally challenged a theretofore assumed Confucian template of association. The culmination of these changes is embodied in perhaps no other event than the 1905 abolition of the imperial civil service examination.

Prior to 1905, the three-tiered examination (district shengyuan, provincial juren, and metropolitan/imperial gongshi/jinshi) had been an institution: one that had, for centuries and across dynasties, determined not only the form and function of civil service, but also established the basis for a Confucian hierarchy, one atop which the ordained scholar-gentry class were situated. [1] In her microhistory The Man Awakened from Dreams, Harrison notes the totemic shift and its effect on Liu and others like him, aspirants from sub-urban merchant backgrounds who had vested their futures in scholarship, giving voice to an antipathetic uncertainty:

Then in 1905, the examination system itself was abolished. Liu woke up a few days later “with a heart like ashes” as he realized that his hopes for an official career had now completely vanished. When the sun came up he went out into the village street and found that everyone was talking about the end of the examinations. He talked with them about what a disaster it would be for the country, especially since no one knew what the graduates of the [new] modern schools would be like. Together they wondered about what other changes there would be in the next few years. [2]

The abolition of the civil service examination system, then, deflated the value of a traditional Confucian education, limiting social mobility: transforming channels of economic movement and, alternately, punishing those families who had invested in education. [3] Liu, a teacher of “respectable employment, [with] good living conditions, and a reasonable salary” is faced not only with the reality of a dream vanished but also the loss of his teaching position—by 1906, all the villages in a large area to the south of Chiqiao had closed their schools. “Even where schools were not closed,” Harrison writes, “parents withdrew bright pupils in the belief that they would now be better off in commercial apprenticeships.”[4]

Other concurrent sociopolitical shifts further disrupted the daily lives of those in Shanxi, challenging the given conditions of life and supplying them with a new, “unnecessary” formality. In their commitment to modernity and democracy, the new republican government continued to institute top-down policy changes, many of which were deeply unpopular and lacking in immediate meaning to those of Shanxi. The magistrate’s considerable efforts to enforce the use of the new solar calendar, as opposed to the lunar, is emblematic; Liu begins every new volume with an attack on the solar calendar, writing in Spring 1915:

The 4th year of the Republic began on the 16th November of 1914, but none of the people respect it. They still follow the old calendar and regard today as New Year’s Day. Every household is celebrating the new Year, and everywhere there is nothing magistrates can do except let the people celebrate as before […] The change to the calendar is not in accordance with the people’s wishes, so although [the administration says] they have, they have not really changed.[5]

In startlingly apparent tableau, elements outside of the personal were now shaping the pace and shape of individual life, foreclosing a heretofore a priori human agency for Liu. The Confucian template of association known to those like Liu for entire lives—embodied in the civil service exam, enforced by social norms like adherence to the lunar calendar—was now being eroded. Assumed meaning and guided livelihood were no longer object truths, but now fluid, unreliable.

This is to suggest little of the economic: reforms in industry and commerce too changed the social and geo-vocational topography of Shanxi, bringing, however, little benefit to its towns and villages. [6] Just as the mines mountains were becoming a pastoral haven to Liu’s hermetics, rural Shanxi’s land was subject to increasingly regressive levels of taxation that heavily burdened small economies like that of Liu’s coal industry.[7] Similar duties and tax penalties—due to the Boxer indemnity; on stamps and foot-binding, wine, contracts, and performances alike forced a shift in market toward what Liu himself considered one of runaway “extortion and government intrusion”: “the people’s blood and sweat given to officials to wine and dine on.”[8]

Up to the mid-1920s, the tax burdens were “endurable”, but by the early-1930s, administrators within Shanxi’s provincial government under Yan Xishan became more concerned with rescuing larger modern industries at the expense of their smaller competitors; policies encouraging industrialization favored heavily mechanized, enterprises over existing rural industry.[9] The rural population of Shanxi, once dependent on the province’s commerce and industry, was now sliding into poverty; Liu and his family, with their investments in the small mining industry, were no exception.[10]

It was in this climate of uncertainty, and with a requisite lack of support for any a priori formal condition, that Confucian ideals would be stripped of their political aspect and, through continued discrete performances, be transposed into the realm of the pure cultural, or, perhaps more accurately, that of the personal-performative. In Liu’s case—whether physically, in the mountains or in the fields, or temporally, lacking a formal state-ordained Confucian template of association—a monastic isolation became necessary: a haven into which he could retreat and in which he could envision himself as not simply a teacher, or merchant or laborer, or service-exam failure, but as a proper scholar and a gentleman.[11] Hinged to a distant Confucian orthodoxy and written in his maligned calligraphy, his oft-longing diary became a literal and figurative text, a scripture for his lonely universe.[12]

Liu’s filial piety is, too, an example. Following the Mid-Autumn Festival, Liu drafts a poem for his parents, decrying his inability to repay his filial debt, the most taxing of burdens: “‘When I face the sages of old I feel regret for my lack of achievements. I think anxiously of how to comfort my loving parents.’”[13] It is a feeling partly ingrained by state function, but also by a deeply personal, piety-oriented Confucian precept, that “filial piety is the root of all virtue and the source of all teachings.”[14] The poem, with a painterly characterization and identification, gives voice to nuance: that of Liu’s family life and the nature of his filial gratitude. Liu is driven, in other words, to his welcome filial submission, not by any prescriptive norm, past or present, but from a deeply personal, autonomous place—an impulse that at times chafes at the wider world.[15]

Autonomy is an important function here: Liu’s adherence to a heretofore Confucian orthodoxy and his performance of their rituals, liturgical or otherwise, provided him and others like him with the means to parse meaning and express agency in an uncertain time. As the state no longer provided emphasis on ritual obligation, the result, in Shanxi, was to increase the demands for “an emotional expression of filial piety in the villages,” even at a time when the entire system of Confucian morality was under attack. “Thus even as Confucian morality was detached from the state and condemned as feudal,” Harrison writes, “it came to be associated with the rural areas.”[16]

Liu’s diary bears witness to this shift. It is not solely a text concerning with self so much as it is with vision of self: Liu finding a role for himself and overcoming the tension between his “own feelings and experiences and the demands of that role”[17] The cultural identity Liu created for himself in his diary, then, embodied a newer, more personal understanding—and corresponding syncretic form—of Confucian thought and morality, one that took root in the sub-urban regions of Shanxi during those years of reform and revolution. Confucianism, during this period, was a dominant cultural element amid a forced sublimation: it was becoming a new cultural residue.

[1] Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 3rd ed., Paperback (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013). 57.

[2] Henrietta Harrison, The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man’s Life in a North China Village, 1857-1942 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005). 86-7.

[3] Harrison, 87-88.

[4] Harrison, 87.

[5] Harrison, 97.

[6] Harrison, 91.

[7] Harrison, 128.

[8] Harrison, 131.

[9] Harrison, 132.

[10] Harrison, 135.

[11] Harrison, 129.

[12] Harrison, 57-58, 76.

[13] Harrison, 65.

[14] Harrison, 52.

[15] Harrison, 54.

[16] Harrison, 80.

[17] Harrison, 15.

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