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date: 22 July 2017

Local Elites and Scholarship in Late Imperial China

Abstract and Keywords

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 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, 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.

Keywords: academies (shuyuan), evidential research (kaozheng), gazetteers (difang zhi), late imperial China, literati (shi), local elites, Neo-Confucianism, scholarship

Local Elites in Late Imperial Chinese History

For much of imperial Chinese history, elite scholarship was a court-centered activity. In the later imperial period, however, beginning in the Song dynasty (960–1279), although the court continued to play a prominent role in setting scholarly trends, a great deal of scholarship was produced outside the court by local elites. This shift in the locus of scholarly production was the result of a transformation in the nature of the elite in imperial China, the literati (shi), between medieval and late imperial times. More specifically, historians emphasize changes between the Tang (618–907) and Song dynasties, and, within the latter, between the Northern Song (960–1127) and Southern Song (1127–1279).

Historians writing in English tend to characterize the literati elite of Tang China as a kind of bureaucratic aristocracy. Nicolas Tackett describes two types of sociopolitical elites in Tang China, the first one a capital elite centered on the capital cities of Chang’an and Luoyang in northern China. They were members of so-called great clans (surnames associated with particular places of origin) that predated the Tang, and they had family traditions of holding office that continued generation after generation. As seen in residence and marriage patterns, these elites were clustered in the capital region, but by dominating the upper echelons of both the capital and provincial bureaucracies, they were also highly mobile. The ability of these capital-based elites to maintain their dominance of the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, together with the importance of pedigree in maintaining their status, has led historians to conceive of them as a type of aristocracy. There was a second type of elite in Tang China, a local elite or what Tackett calls provincial elites. Their power was largely limited to their home regions, outside of which they rarely held any bureaucratic posts.1

This distinction between two types of elites is crucial because, during the Tang, cultural elites, the producers of scholarship and the arbiters of taste, were drawn from the capital-based elites rather than the local elites. In other words, in Tang and earlier times, elite culture in China was to a very large extent a capital-based, or court-based, culture. Because local elites lacked status to compete with capital elites, and because capital elites circulated throughout the empire as officials whereas local elites did not, Tackett describes a kind of “colonial relationship” between state and society, with political and cultural elites circulating between the capital and provincial posts.2

This capital-based, aristocratic elite did not survive the transition from Tang to Song. Some historians trace the decline of the great clans to the mid-Tang, pointing to the increasing importance of the civil-service examinations or the impact of the An Lushan Rebellion (755–763). More recent work suggests that this elite, concentrated in the capital region, persisted into the 9th century but was largely physically eliminated in the destruction of the capital region in 880 by Huang Chao’s rebel army. The demise of the old elite was solidified by developments in the Song dynasty. As the civil-service examinations became a more prominent means for entering the bureaucracy, the criteria for determining literati status shifted from the maintenance of family pedigree and consistent service in office over generations to cultural mastery demonstrated either in the civil-service examinations or through the production of scholarly works outside of the examinations.3

The final stage in this Tang–Song transition in the nature of the elite involved not so much the emergence of new elite families but a change, between Northern and Southern Song, in strategies for achieving and maintaining elite status. As characterized by Robert Hymes, elites in the Northern Song pursued a national strategy, that is, trying to place as many sons as possible into high office. In contrast, Southern Song elites embraced a localist strategy, “seeking occasional office as one element of status but not concentrating on bureaucratic position above all else.”4 In tandem with this shift of focus from court to local society, local elites in Southern Song promoted or patronized a set of local institutions meant to renovate local society and presented as alternatives to state institutions of the Northern Song, particularly those associated with the activist minister Wang Anshi (1021–1086). One such institution was the private academy (shuyuan), promoted by Southern Song local elites as an alternative to what many saw as the failed government schools of the Northern Song. Because of this shift in focus from the capital to local society, “local elites” as producers of scholarship have primarily been the subject of historians working on the Southern Song or later dynasties.

It is important to note that the transformation in the nature of the elite from Tang to Southern Song was accompanied by a broader demographic shift of the core of China’s population from northern China to southern China, from the Yellow River basin to the lower Yangzi River basin. Moreover, during the Southern Song, northern China was occupied by conquest dynasties, and in consequence northern elites had less access to new scholarly trends in the south. Accordingly, much that has been written about local elites and scholarship in late imperial China has focused on places in southern China, though in recent years a few studies of northern scholarly traditions have appeared.

This transformation in the nature of the literati elite, what could be characterized as the emergence of local elites as producers of potentially nationally prominent scholarship, is a hallmark of late imperial Chinese society. Some scholars see a furthering of this trend, Timothy Brook, for example, pointing out that in the late Ming (1368–1644) dynasty there appeared new terms to describe gentry elites as “county gentry” or “local gentry.” In general, in the late imperial era local elites played important roles as sponsors and producers of scholarship.

There are at least three ways to conceive of the relationship between local elites and scholarship. First, scholarship emerged as one part of the new localist strategy of late imperial elites, as scholarly production became an important means of asserting elite status. Yet such scholarship might not necessarily be focused on a particular locale; rather, the local might simply have been the arena in which scholarship was produced. Second, a particular brand of scholarship might come to be identified with a particular locale, or one or more scholars in a network, giving rise to a local or regional “school” of scholarship. In the late imperial period, local schools of scholarship blossomed, even though in many cases the schools were only so characterized posthumously and would not have been recognized by participants. Third, local elites might produce localist scholarship, that is, scholarly works that celebrated a particular locale, or constructed a local identity. This kind of localist scholarship flourished at particular moments in the late imperial period, particularly when the imperial state ceded or otherwise lost initiative in the cultural realm.

Fluctuations between State and Local Initiatives

The rise of local elites as producers of scholarship is an important long-term development beginning in the Song and continuing through the end of the imperial era. Nevertheless, during the nine and a half centuries from Song through Qing (1644–1911), there were also fluctuations in the source of initiative behind the production of scholarship, between the imperial state and local elites. Historians have characterized these fluctuations alternately as statist and localist turns.5

Southern Song and Yuan

The initial localist turn, and the one that set the pattern for late imperial Chinese history, occurred in the Southern Song and Yuan (1279–1368) dynasties. During the Southern Song, newly emergent local elites proposed such institutions as private academies as alternatives to the statist institutions of the Northern Song. Thus, a localist turn followed a period in which the imperial state had taken the initiative in education and scholarship, and other areas.

This shift from statist to localist agendas, as well as the emergence of local elites as producers of scholarship and of the local as an object of scholarship, may be seen in the emergence of new genres of texts. Gazetteers (difang zhi) are the prime example of such a new genre. These texts evolved from geographical works that the central state collected from its subordinate administrative units and used as sources of information to compile geographies of the empire. By the Southern Song, gazetteers, now more appropriately described as local histories, emerged as a distinct genre.6 As Peter Bol has noted, gazetteers constructed histories of local places—provinces, prefectures, counties, and townships—that transcended dynasties, making gazetteers distinct from the court-centered dynastic histories.7 Other locally oriented genres that emerged in the Southern Song and Yuan include anthologies of local literature and collected biographies of eminent local figures.

In many aspects of life, the Yuan represents a statist period. In scholarship, however, at least for literati in southern China, the localist orientation prevailed. Under Yuan rule, southern literati lost much of their previous access to political power, and civil-service examinations were only reinstituted in 1313. Therefore, much of the activity of local elites, including scholarship, remained based in the local arena, rather than at court. Nevertheless, the Yuan state did take initiative in mandating the production of one of the new genres that had emerged in Southern Song, gazetteers. This may be seen as a statist appropriation of a genre of text that in other contexts were localist texts.


The early Ming represents a period in which initiative in scholarly production shifted to the state. For example, gazetteer compilation became a statist project, as the Ming government ordered county-level units to produce gazetteers that then became sources of information for gazetteers of higher-level administrative units.8 In the Yongle reign (1403–1424), the court sponsored the production of a massive encyclopedia, Yongle dadian, as well as two compendia of Neo-Confucian scholarship, Wujing sishu daquan (Great Collections on the Five Classics and Four Books), and Xingli daquan (Great Collection on Nature and Principle), which set standards for the civil-service examinations. In the context of this state initiative, the production of localist texts by local elites declined precipitously. The latter half of the Ming witnessed another localist turn, as the initiative in compiling gazetteers, for example, shifted from state officials to local elites. In tandem with this, anthologies and other types of “localist” texts proliferated from the 16th century and even into the early Qing. Along with the production of such localist texts, private academies flourished in the 16th century.


A new statist turn occurred in the 18th century, when the Qing Manchu emperor Qianlong (r. 1736–1795) attempted to assert more control over cultural production. For example, the state not only took the initiative in the production of gazetteers, but also took some measures to assert control over their content. Seunghyun Han finds some evidence of pre-publication censorship in the compilation of gazetteers in the late 18th century.9 As in the Yongle reign of the Ming, during the Qing Qianlong reign, the court sponsored scholarly production on a large scale. This is best exemplified by the massive anthology, Siku quanshu (The Complete Library of the Four Treasuries), compiled in the 1770s. In summaries of books collected for the anthology, literati employed as editors for the project embraced a skeptical attitude toward localist scholarship as tending to promote parochial interests, an author exaggerating the accomplishments of his own ancestors, for example. The compilation of the Siku quanshu was accompanied by a literary inquisition aimed at locating and eliminating works that expressed anti-Manchu sentiments. Although Kent Guy and Benjamin Elman have shown that literati had a surprising amount of freedom in promoting particular scholarly agendas under the Qianlong regime, even in the production of the Siku quanshu, the court nevertheless played a much more central role in cultural production under Qianlong than it would in subsequent reigns.10

A new localist turn set in with the end of the Qianlong reign. From the beginning of the 19th century, and through the end of the dynasty, there was a proliferation of scholarly and literary works that were framed around the local. They ranged from gazetteers compiled on the initiative of local elites, to anthologies of local literature, to histories of ancient local regimes, to collected biographies of local eminent people, to studies of local geography, local products, or local epigraphic sources. This proliferation of localist texts was accompanied by a devolution of power from the court to local elites that began in the early 19th century but became more pronounced in the aftermath of the Taiping-Qing War (1851–1864) and other mid-century conflicts. Although this trend does represent a devolution of power from state to local society, this interpretation is complicated by the fact that some high Qing officials played prominent roles in promoting the production of local scholarship. In the early 19th century, for example, the provincial official and evidential research scholar Ruan Yuan (1764–1849) promoted the production of local studies both in his hometown of Yangzhou and in many of the places where he served, such as Hangzhou, Guangzhou, and Kunming.11

Against the backdrop of the long-term emergence of local elites as producers of scholarship beginning in the Song, then, lies a pattern of fluctuation between statist and localist initiatives in scholarly production. Each localist turn followed a period in which the imperial state sought to assert greater control over cultural production, and each localist turn in some sense represents a devolution of power from the central state to local elites. If localist turns were efforts to subvert state control, statist turns represent attempts to appropriate localist initiatives.12

Regional Variations

Just as the initiative in scholarly production fluctuated over time between state and local elites, so upsurges in scholarly production by local elites varied from one region to another. The flourishing of scholarship by local elites, particularly scholarship concerned with the local, tended to coincide with places that were experiencing economic prosperity, often linked to commerce or at least commercialized agriculture. Moreover, these places tended to produce a disproportionately high number of high-degree winners in the civil-service examinations, thereby producing literati elites who were having some political or cultural impact nationally. In other words, relative economic prosperity and flourishing literati culture were preconditions for the widespread production of localist texts in any particular locale. For most of late imperial Chinese history, these places were located in the south, and several of these places have been the subject of dedicated studies.

For the Southern Song and Yuan, the prefectures of Fuzhou in modern-day Jiangxi province and Wuzhou (later renamed Jinhua) in modern-day Zhejiang province are two places that exemplify the elites’ localist strategy and the scholarly production of localist texts. Fuzhou was not a nationally prominent prefecture before the Song, but during that dynasty it was known as a relatively wealthy prefecture, based on the export of rice, and it produced a disproportionate number of jinshi-degree winners.13 Wuzhou was also gaining prominence during the Song, producing a growing number of literati and gaining a national position of prominence. The newfound importance of places like Fuzhou and Wuzhou was related, of course, to the fact that the Song state was driven from its northern capital and confined to the south after 1127. In the mid- and late Ming, when Wuzhou, renamed Jinhua, experienced a second wave of local cultural production, the prefecture had also experienced renewed economic expansion as evidenced by the increased number of private academies established in the prefecture.14

During the Ming, a similarly prominent place, and one that has received a fair amount of scholarly attention, was Ji’an prefecture, including one of its constituent counties, Taihe, in modern-day Jiangxi. During the Yongle reign, a vastly disproportionate number of Taihe men climbed into the highest echelons of the Ming central government. In his study of Taihe, John Dardess argues that the period in which Taihe men dominated government, in the early to mid-15th century, coincided with a proliferation of writings by Taihe men about their county and its landscape. This “emotional identification with native place” served as “useful psychic capital” while striving in the highly competitive and dangerous world of court politics in Beijing.15 Conversely, when Taihe men lost their political power at court, the local no longer mattered. Ironically, then, local pride in Taihe, as measured by the production of texts by Taihe men writing about Taihe, flourished during the statist turn of the early Ming. Some more recent work on this place, however, suggests that Taihe local pride in the early Ming was very much located not in Taihe but at the capital. Many of the literary celebrations of their home county that Taihe men wrote, for example, were composed while they were serving at court, and these texts lack any evidence of a close personal connection to the local Taihe place or institution about which they wrote. Furthermore, when Taihe men no longer dominated court politics in the mid- and late Ming, the localist texts that they produced were very much centered on Taihe.16

One prominent example of the connection between economic prosperity and scholarly production by local elites in the localist turn of the late Ming is Huizhou prefecture, in modern-day Anhui. In the 16th century, migrant, or “sojourning,” merchants from Huizhou gained a place of prominence, particularly in the salt trade, in many of the wealthiest cities of southern China, including Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Yangzhou. Unsurprisingly, this coincided with the strengthening of patrilineal lineages in Huizhou and the projection of Huizhou as a cradle of Neo-Confucian learning, drawing attention to Huizhou as the ancestral home of the Southern Song Neo-Confucian thinker and activist Zhu Xi (1130–1200). In the late Ming, Huizhou literati produced localist texts ranging from lists of prominent local lineages to records of the prefecture’s Neo-Confucian scholars.

During the 18th-century statist turn, the new scholarly trend of kaozheng (evidential research) was based both in the capital, benefiting from court patronage as exemplified by the Siku quanshu project, and in the prosperous cities of the greater Jiangnan region, including Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Yangzhou. These three southern cities were also at the forefront of the localist turn after the demise of the Qianlong emperor. Whether during the statist phase of the 18th century or the localist phase of the early 19th century, commercial wealth underpinned a large proportion of scholarly production in these cities. Salt merchants were particularly important patrons of individual scholars, of academies, and of various compilation and publication activities.17 Likewise, in other regions where one finds a proliferation of local scholarship during the ensuing decades of the 19th century, such as the provinces of Guangdong and Hunan, one also finds emergent literati cohorts that were making an impact in wider cultural or political circles. In Guangdong, an emerging cultural elite in Guangzhou, largely made up of in-migrating and socially ascendant families, benefited from the financial backing of the city’s wealthy maritime merchants and the patronage of the Qing official Ruan Yuan.18 A revival of interest among Hunanese elites, primarily based in Changsha prefecture, in their province’s scholarly forebears was spurred by the newfound prominence of Hunanese men in the Qing provincial bureaucracy during and after the mid-century rebellions.19

The emergence of local elites with national prominence and the proliferation of localist scholarship have thus largely been seen, with good justification, as linked phenomena that appeared in economically prosperous and culturally important southern prefectures. Nevertheless, some new studies have shifted focus to other parts of late imperial Chinese empires, and in the process have drawn attention to “statist” aspects of cultural production that studies of local elites and scholarship in culturally prominent places in the south do not emphasize. Places in northern China offer one kind of alternative. Despite the fact that the aristocratic great clans were eliminated by the end of the Tang, local elites along the Wei River and Yellow River basins in southern Shaanxi, southern Shanxi, and northern Henan continued to derive a great deal of prestige from their region’s place in national history, from its political and cultural centrality.20 Perhaps because of this legacy, local elites here tended to embrace a statist orientation, and court-centered initiatives in scholarly movements, at times when local elites in the south did not. Whereas the Neo-Confucian movement in the south during the Southern Song and the Yuan is often associated with a localist strategy, advocates of Neo-Confucianism in the north under Yuan rule envisioned a court-centered cultural order.21 Only beginning in the late Ming did such places in northern China begin to produce localist texts such as anthologies and collected biographies that celebrated local traditions of scholarship. At the opposite end of the spectrum of political centrality, places on the frontier offer another alternative to culturally prominent places in southern China. On the frontiers of the expanding Ming and Qing Empires, the production of both literati elites and scholarship at the local level took on a statist tinge. Through the administration of civil-service examinations, the state sought to foster the growth of a literati elite loyal to the state. Likewise, gazetteers of newly consolidated counties on the southwestern frontier both trained nascent literati elites in the cultural production of the dominant center, and celebrated the spread of imperial Chinese culture to the frontier or, conversely, the incorporation of a previously uncivilized place into the civilized cultural order.22

Local Elites, Scholarship, and Physical Mobility

The emergence of local elites as producers of scholarship might leave an impression of late imperial China as an empire made up of a large number of otherwise unconnected, parochial local societies. In fact, just the opposite is true. This phenomenon was made possible by the physical circulation of literati elites through the empire. In the first place, local elites moved among different local places, and between their locales and the capital, both as candidates in the civil-service examinations and, for the successful ones, as officials in the bureaucracy. This situation was very different from what Nicolas Tackett describes for the Tang, in which a capital elite circulated as officials among the provinces whereas local elites rarely served outside their provinces. Second, in the late imperial period, literati also traveled through the empire as teachers (or students) and as tourists, practices identifiable in the Southern Song but becoming especially prominent from the late Ming. In general, local elites flourished in the context of an increasingly mobile, commercialized society. The localist strategy thus did not preclude travel and other contacts beyond the locale.23

Similarly, the production of localist texts as well as the construction of local identities was based on an assumed relationship not only between particular local places and the imperial center, but also between particular local places. Local cultural production also relied on the spread of new genres and the circulation of specific texts. In turn, texts about local places became important tools for literati travelers. The gazetteer was a genre that was well suited to the needs of literati travelers, serving as useful guidebooks to culturally important sites and as a means of forging relationships with fellow literati.24 Another genre that emerged in the Song, the cultural geography, was also a useful tool for travelers. Peter Bol introduces one such cultural geography, Yudi jisheng (Record of the Best Sites in the Realm), compiled by a literatus from Wuzhou prefecture in 1227. With one chapter devoted to each prefecture in the empire, this text conveys the notion that each prefecture contains sites of unique interest worth a visit by traveling literati.25 Another new genre, route books, emerged in the late Ming and targeted an audience of merchant as well as literati travelers. By organizing local places according to a logic of commercial importance, Yongtao Du argues, such works “re-arranged local places in a way that undermined the centrality of political capitals.”26

In the localist turn of the 19th century, if not earlier, many localist texts evinced a keen awareness about claims that corresponding texts produced by local elites in other places had made about themselves, their locale, or its products. In claiming that its scholars were more upright, its flowers more beautiful, or its fruit more delicious, for example, local scholars competed in asserting the specialness of their locales vis-à-vis other locales. These sorts of parochial claims are not parochial in at least one sense: the men who made them most often had traveled not only between their home region and the capital, but also to other local places, where they had (perhaps reluctantly) met scholars, viewed flowers, and tasted fruit. In this respect, local identity as expressed in localist scholarship was a product of physical mobility.

Local Elites and Schools of Scholarship

In particular times and places in late imperial China, the intellectual movements of Neo-Confucianism and evidential research, and their offshoots, played a central role in local elites’ scholarly production. In addition, these intellectual movements shaped the formation of local schools of scholarship. Such schools might be organized through shared scholarly or literary ideals, or through particular teacher–student relationships, but they were often associated by name with a particular locale.27 It was often the case that schools were constructed as such long after they were active by anthologists, such as Huang Zongxi (1610–1695) in Mingru xuean (Cases on Ming Confucianism), or by local elites who wished to frame their own scholarly agendas by situating themselves as heirs to an imported or a local scholarly tradition.

Neo-Confucianism and Its Offshoots

As the Neo-Confucian movement spread during the Southern Song and into the Yuan, it provided intellectual justification for localist, rather than statist, strategies for renovating society. By the Yuan, literati of some places published texts that presented their locales as hosts of particularly worthy local Neo-Confucian schools of scholarship. An exemplary work in this regard is Jingxiang lu (Record of Reverence for Our Locality), by the Wuzhou literatus Wu Shidao (1283–1344). In this collection of biographies and writings of Wuzhou literati through the Southern Song dynasty, Wu presented Wuzhou as a bastion of Neo-Confucian learning whose scholars were the true heirs to Zhu Xi.28

In the late Ming, Huizhou literati made similar claims for their locality, emphasizing Huizhou as the ancestral home of Zhu Xi. This began in 1508 with compilation of Xin’an xuexi lu (Record of Xin’an Lineages of Learning), referring to the name by which Huizhou was known during previous dynasties.29 By grouping Huizhou’s Neo-Confucian scholars in such a way, the anthology constructed a Huizhou school of Neo-Confucian scholarship. A century later in northern China, the Xi’an prefecture (centered on the old Tang capital of Chang’an) native Feng Congwu (1556–1627) compiled a similar anthology for his region, entitled Guanxue bian (Cases of Guanzhong Learning). Feng constructed this Guanzhong lineage of learning in an ambitious way, devoting an introductory chapter to four of Confucius’s disciples believed to have been native to the Chang’an region. Subsequent chapters covered noteworthy local Neo-Confucians from the Song to Ming and gave pride of place to the Northern Song Neo-Confucian thinker Zhang Zai (1020–1077).30

Whereas literati in places such as Wuzhou, Huizhou, and Chang’an produced texts that placed their locales within orthodox lineages of Neo-Confucian learning traced to Zhu Xi or his Northern Song predecessors, by the late Ming, literati in other places made a name for themselves by associating with new Neo-Confucian traditions that had emerged in the Ming. Many leading literati in Ji’an prefecture, home of Taihe county, for example, embraced the new learning of Wang Yangming (1472–1529). Ji’an literati promoted their own brand of Wang’s learning as a Jiangyou (Jiangxi) regional tradition, in contrast to the version of Wang Yangming learning in Wang’s home region of Jiangnan.31 Likewise, in Guangzhou prefecture, a number of academies and shrines devoted to the Ming-era Cantonese philosopher Chen Baisha (1428–1500) helped to construct Chen’s learning as a local school of scholarship. By 1609, the gazetteer of Chen’s home county, Xinhui, contained a chapter devoted to Chen’s local disciples.32

Evidential Research and Its Offshoots

During the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of local schools of scholarship coalesced around proponents of evidential research or, especially in the latter century, its critics. In his work on evidential research in the 18th century, Benjamin Elman describes an academic community centered on Jiangnan, which offered commercial wealth and a network of libraries, academies, and publishing enterprises. But this broader academic community consisted of a number of urban or family traditions of learning, in Suzhou and Yangzhou, for example. The Changzhou school, centered on the Zhuang family, was important for the development of New Text Confucianism, which gained national popularity in the late 19th century.33

By the early 19th century, as the influence of Jiangnan-based evidential research spread, in other parts of the empire new local traditions of learning emerged as local literati in those areas either embraced the new mode of learning or criticized it. In Guangzhou, an in-migrating, socially ascendant elite associated with the Xuehaitang (Sea of Learning Hall), founded by Ruan Yuan, largely embraced evidential research and the type of writing that Ruan promoted, parallel prose. They turned its methods toward the study of Guangdong’s local history, thereby establishing a place for themselves in Cantonese scholarly circles.34

In other regions, however, literati constructed local traditions of learning that took aim at evidential research. The earliest such school of scholarship was identified with Tongcheng County, Anhui, in the mountainous periphery surrounding Jiangnan. Here, scholars promoted Zhu Xi’s brand of Neo-Confucianism and favored the ancient prose style of writing over parallel prose. Based in Shaanxi province near Xi’an (former Chang’an), Li Yuanchun (1769–1854) published a number of anthologies, including a new edition of Feng Congwu’s Guanxue bian, in an attempt to promote Neo-Confucianism as the scholarly tradition of his home region and to prevent evidential research from making any inroads there.35 In Hunan’s Changsha prefecture, in the midst of national crises in the early 1840s and again in the early 1860s, a group of statecraft scholars worked to republish the writings of the Hunanese scholar and Ming loyalist Wang Fuzhi (1619–1692). The republication of Wang’s works, which had been banned in the 18th century, helped to construct an identity of politically engaged defenders of Confucian orthodoxy for the clique of Hunanese literati who rose to national prominence during the suppression of the mid-century rebellions.36

Discussion of the Literature

Studies of local elites and scholarship in late imperial China began to appear in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the convergence of two streams of historiography, one on social history and the other on intellectual history, and a concomitant shift of geographical scope from empire-wide studies to local studies. Social historians interested in the nature of the Chinese political and social elite, whether characterized as scholar-officials, gentry, or literati, found that the elite was radically transformed between the Tang and Southern Song dynasties. Most notable is the work of Robert Hymes, building on Robert Hartwell’s pioneering studies. In a book focusing on Jiangxi’s Fuzhou prefecture, Hymes described the basic characteristics of the new local elite and its “localist strategy,” as well as offering a model for doing local studies.37 Timothy Brook, in his study of gentry patronage of Buddhism in the Ming, including literary patronage in the form of writing essays and poems, and monastic gazetteers, emphasizes the cultural component of gentry status.38

Meanwhile, in contrast to earlier studies typically devoted to a single Confucians scholar’s often decontextualized thought, intellectual historians sought to situate their subjects in specific historical contexts. For example, Peter Bol framed his study of the rise of Neo-Confucianism within the larger context of the transformation of the literati between the Tang and Song. Further pursuit of this question has led him to a series of studies based on one local place, Zhejiang’s Wuzhou (Jinhua) prefecture. Similarly, for the Qing, Benjamin Elman placed great emphasis on the regional context of Jiangnan, with its unique social and institutional networks, in his effort to explain the rise of evidential research.39

These two streams of scholarship—the social history of elites and contextualized intellectual histories—have inspired a number of studies, produced in the past two decades, of local elites and cultural production in particular places. Two local studies of Yangzhou, by Tobie Meyer-Fong and Antonia Finnane, are partly concerned with local elites and the production of scholarship about the local.40 In recent years, a number of studies, several by students of Hymes or Bol, have focused on other areas beyond the lower Yangzi River basin. These include works on Guangzhou by Steven Miles, on Hunan by Stephen Platt, and on northern China by Chang Woei Ong and Khee Heong Koh.41

Although there seems to be a good deal of consensus among these studies, with recent works on areas outside the Yangzi River region complicating rather than debunking the notion of localist turns in the production of scholarship in the Southern Song, late Ming, and 19th century, some unresolved issues remain. First, John Dardess’s study of Taihe potentially challenges common understanding of a statist turn in the early Ming followed by a localist turn in the latter half of the dynasty. Dardess argues that, in the early Ming, Taihe literati, through writing about their home county, expressed a strong sense of connection to Taihe; however, after Taihe men lost power at court their Taihe identity waned. Anne Gerristen has offered a different interpretation, suggesting that literati from Taihe, or, more broadly, from Ji’an prefecture, during the late Ming were in fact more strongly connected to their native place than before, writing about their home region from personal experience and constructing the Jiangyou school of Wang Yangming Confucianism, for example.42

A second problem is the challenge of accommodating an interpretation that sees a long-term and perhaps ever-growing localist turn beginning with the Southern Song and continuing through the end of the imperial era, on one hand, with an interpretation that sees fluctuations between statist and localist turns, on the other. Studies based on particular dynasties, whether the Song, Ming, or Qing, tend to find a growing power of local elites in the production of scholarship as an initially powerful central state recedes over time in each case. Broadening the chronological range of study results in a different picture, perhaps of “natural” periods in which local elites are powerful interspersed by periods of high state initiative, or vice versa. But what of cumulative change? Peter Bol makes a case for such change, suggesting that localist initiatives in the Southern Song and Yuan, in the late Ming, in the 19th century, and perhaps even beyond the imperial era, had a cumulative impact.43 Seunghyun Han’s study may suggest otherwise, as he paints a convincing picture of state initiatives to control cultural production in the 18th century.44

Finally, recent work on book history may point the field in new directions. By focusing on one particular genre, gazetteers, Joseph Dennis has been able to approach the question of scholarly production from a new angle. He also finds fluctuation between localist and statist initiatives in gazetteer production; however, the outward and downward spread of generic conventions and printing technology offered the possibility of cumulative change.45,46

Primary Sources

The particular set of primary sources that researchers should utilize in studying local elites and scholarship in late imperial China will depend upon how researchers frame their projects. Because local elites played such important roles in the production of scholarly works in a period that saw significant social and geographical dispersal of printing technology, there is a vast array of possible sources. One strategy for narrowing this range of sources down to a manageable size is to focus on one locale or school of scholarship. This has been a common strategy since the appearance of Robert Hymes’s study of Fuzhou appeared in 1986. Once a particular place has been identified, gazetteers are a logical place to begin. Other sources might include anthologies, genealogies, and stone inscriptions. The collected writings (wenji) of individual literati either native to the targeted area or who served as officials there are invaluable sources. Many such texts will be found in published collections at major academic libraries, but fieldwork is a useful method of collecting such texts as genealogies and inscriptions. That said, the possible range of useful sources for studying a local elite is potentially so broad that it is almost doing a disservice to potential researchers to try to list them all, for fear that by doing so other fruitful sources will be ignored. Guo Qitao, for example, has shown how useful local operatic texts can be.47 A second strategy for narrowing the range of sources down to a manageable size is to focus on one genre, and to read them broadly across locales, as Joseph Dennis does with gazetteers and Hilde De Weerdt with notebooks.48

As important as discovering new primary sources is, however, a great deal also depends on how the researcher uses them. In the first place, the researcher can mine primary sources in order to reconstruct networks of local elites. Such work is highly amenable to the emerging field of digital humanities. Second, the researcher can approach primary sources with questions informed by scholarship on the history of the book. Is the genre of a particular text new for the period under study? What can one glean from the text and “paratext” about the intended audience of a particular gazetteer or anthology, for example? Whereas historians working on other topics may be tempted to gather information from a text and move on, historians of local elites and the scholarship that they produce will benefit from reading a text holistically, paying special attention to prefatory material.

Archival sources have until recent years not been especially important for historians working on local elites and scholarship. For historians of the Song through Ming dynasties, of course, few archival sources exist. Historians of the Qing, however, have access to large archival collections at the First Historical Archives in Beijing and at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. As documents produced by agents of the imperial state, these archives are perhaps more useful in researching the highly “statist” 18th century, but Seunghyun Han has used them to show how local elites in the 19th century asserted greater freedoms in local cultural production.49

Further Reading

Bol, Peter K.“This Culture of Ours”: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Bol, Peter K. “The Rise of Local History: History, geography, and Culture in Southern Song and Yuan Wuzhou.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 61.1 (June 2001): 37–76.Find this resource:

Bol, Peter K. “The ‘Localist Turn’ and ‘Local Identity’ in Later Imperial China.” Late Imperial China 24.2 (December 2003): 1–50.Find this resource:

Brook, Timothy. Praying for Power: Buddhism and the Formation of Gentry Society in Late-Ming China. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1993.Find this resource:

Dardess, John W.A Ming Society: T’ai-ho County, Kiangsi, Fourteenth to Seventeenth Centuries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.Find this resource:

De Weerdt, Hilde. Information, Territory, and Networks: The Crisis and Maintenance of Empire in Song China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Dennis, Joseph R.Writing, Publishing, and Reading Local Gazetteers in Imperial China, 1100–1700. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Du, Yongtao. The Order of Places: Translocal Practices of the Huizhou Merchants in Late Imperial China. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.Find this resource:

Elman, Benjamin A.From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1984.Find this resource:

Elman, Benjamin A.Classicism, Politics, and Kinship: The Ch’ang-chou School of New Text Confucianism in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Gerritsen, Anne. Ji’an Literati and the Local in Song-Yuan-Ming China. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.Find this resource:

Han, Seunghyun. After the Prosperous Age: State and Elites in Early Nineteenth-Century Suzhou. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Hymes, Robert P.Statesmen and Gentlemen: The Elite of Fu-Chou, Chiang-Hsi, in Northern and Southern Sung. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Koh, Khee Heong. A Northern Alternative: Xue Xuan (1389–1464) and the Hedong School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Meyer-Fong, Tobie. Building Culture in Early Qing Yangzhou. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Miles, Steven B.The Sea of Learning: Mobility and Identity in Nineteenth-Century China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center, Harvard University Pres, 2006.Find this resource:

Ong, Chang Woei. Men of Letters Within the Passes: Guanzhong Literati in Chinese History, 907–1911. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Platt, Stephen R.Provincial Patriots: The Hunanese and Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Tackett, Nicolas. The Destruction of the Medieval Chinese Aristocracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2014.Find this resource:


(1.) Nicolas Tackett, The Destruction of the Medieval Chinese Aristocracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2014), 72, 87.

(2.) Tackett, Destruction of the Medieval Chinese Aristocracy, 182.

(3.) Peter K. Bol, “Neo-Confucianism and Local Society, Twelfth to Sixteenth Century: A Case Study,” in The Song-Yuan-Ming Transition in Chinese History, eds. Paul Jakov Smith and Richard von Glahn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2003), 244.

(4.) Robert P. Hymes, Statesmen and Gentlemen: The Elite of Fu-Chou, Chiang-Hsi, in Northern and Southern Sung (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 119.

(5.) Peter K. Bol, “The ‘Localist Turn’ and ‘Local Identity’ in Later Imperial China,” Late Imperial China 24.2 (December 2003): 1–50.

(6.) Joseph. R. Dennis, Writing, Publishing, and Reading Local Gazetteers in Imperial China, 1100–1700 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2015), 23–24.

(7.) Peter K. Bol, “The Rise of Local History: History, geography, and Culture in Southern Song and Yuan Wuzhou,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 61.1 (June 2001): 53.

(8.) Dennis, Local Gazetteers, 36, 117.

(9.) Seunghyun Han, After the Prosperous Age: State and Elites in Early Nineteenth-Century Suzhou (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2016), 151.

(10.) Benjamin A. Elman, From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1984), 13; and R. Kent Guy, The Emperor’s Four Treasuries: Scholars and the State in the Late Ch’ien-lung Era (Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University Press, 1987), 122.

(11.) Tobie Meyer-Fong, Building Culture in Early Qing Yangzhou (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 114–127.

(12.) Bol, “The ‘Localist Turn,’” 14.

(13.) Hymes, Statesmen and Gentlemen, 24–26.

(14.) Bol, “The ‘Localist Turn,’” 16–18.

(15.) John W. Dardess, A Ming Society: T’ai-ho County, Kiangsi, Fourteenth to Seventeenth Centuries (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 33–34.

(16.) Anne Gerritsen, Ji’an Literati and the Local in Song-Yuan-Ming China (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007), 117.

(17.) Elman, From Philosophy to Philology, 12.

(18.) Steven B. Miles, The Sea of Learning: Mobility and Identity in Nineteenth-Century China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center, Harvard University Press, 2006).

(19.) Stephen R. Platt, Provincial Patriots: The Hunanese and Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

(20.) Chang Woei Ong, Men of Letters Within the Passes: Guanzhong Literati in Chinese History, 907–1911 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2008), 11.

(21.) Khee Heong Koh, A Northern Alternative: Xue Xuan (1389–1464) and the Hedong School (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2011), 7–8.

(22.) Dennis, Local Gazetteers, 52, 54.

(23.) Hymes, Statesmen and Gentlemen, 101–102.

(24.) Dennis, Local Gazetteers, 302, 340.

(25.) Bol, “The Rise of Local History,” 54–61.

(26.) Yongtao Du, The Order of Places: Translocal Practices of the Huizhou Merchants in Late Imperial China (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015), 4–5.

(27.) Benjamin A. Elman, Classicism, Politics, and Kinship: The Ch’ang-chou School of New Text Confucianism in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 2.

(28.) Bol, “The ‘Localist Turn,’” 8, 11.

(29.) Du, The Order of Places, 38.

(30.) Ong, Men of Letters Within the Passes, 172–173.

(31.) Gerritsen, Ji’an Literati, 219; Bol, “The ‘Localist Turn,’” 41.

(32.) David Faure, Emperor and Ancestor: State and Lineage in South China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 99.

(33.) See Elman, From Philosophy to Philology; Elman, Classicism, Politics, and Kinship.

(34.) Miles, Sea of Learning.

(35.) Ong, Men of Letters Within the Passes, 187–189.

(36.) Platt, Provincial Patriots, 24–28.

(37.) Hymes, Statesmen and Gentlemen; Robert M. Hartwell, “Demographic, Political, and Social Transformations of China, 750–1550,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 42.2 (1982): 365–442.

(38.) Timothy Brook, Praying for Power: Buddhism and the Formation of Gentry Society in Late-Ming China (Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1993), 15, 176–181.

(39.) Peter K. Bol, “This Culture of Ours”: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992); Elman, From Philosophy to Philology.

(40.) Meyer-Fong, Building Culture; Antonia Finnane, Speaking of Yangzhou: A Chinese City, 1550–1850 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2004), chapter 11.

(41.) Miles, Sea of Learning; Platt, Provincial Patriots; Ong, Men of Letters Within the Passes; Koh, A Northern Alternative.

(42.) Gerritsen, Ji’an Literati, 117.

(43.) Bol, “The ‘Localist Turn,’” 6.

(44.) Han, After the Prosperous Age.

(45.) Dennis, Local Gazetteers.

(46.) In her study of political communication in the Southern Song, with a particular focus on the emerging genre of notebooks (biji), Hilde De Weerdt calls into question the degree to which literati became localized during a period often seen as the height of the first localist turn. She shows that in notebooks and other texts local elites in the Southern Song were still very much concerned about court politics and the empire as a whole.

(47.) Qitao Guo, Ritual Opera and Mercantile Lineage: The Confucian Transformation of Popular Culture in Late Imperial Huizhou (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005).

(48.) Dennis, Local Gazetteers; De Weerdt, Information, Territory, and Networks.

(49.) Han, After the Prosperous Age.