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date: 22 June 2017

Local Elites and Scholarship in Late Imperial China

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.

Before the end of the Tang dynasty, cultural production was largely a court-centered activity. This began to change as the nature of China’s political, social, and cultural elite, the literati (shi), was transformed by the Southern Song dynasty. Henceforth, the elite of China was primarily a local elite, occasionally producing holders of high office but primarily focusing on activities in their home areas to achieve and maintain their status. One important activity of the literati was scholarship, which involved such activities as establishing private academies (shuyuan) and the production of texts such as gazetteers and anthologies, many of which were concerned with the locales in which they were produced. The late imperial period, beginning in the Song dynasty, witnessed alternating periods of statist and localist turns, as the initiative in scholarly production shifted between the imperial court and local elites. Intellectual movements such as Neo-Confucianism and evidential research (kaozheng) fed into the production of localist texts and the formation of regional or local schools of scholarship.