China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

1 - Beyond Success and Failure: The Eight-Legged Essay as Research Topic in Nineteenth-Century China

Thursday, March 22
7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Location: Johnson, Mezzanine Level

Nineteenth-century China saw the formation of an unprecedented number of research-oriented academies, which specialized primarily not in instructing students in the standard civil service examination curriculum – the Four Books and approved commentaries, and composition of eight-legged essays – but rather in more in-depth original scholarship on topics ranging from historiography to ritual practice, from phonology to mathematics; the results of this scholarship were often published in correspondences similar in format to those of learned societies in Europe of the same period. This paper focuses in particular on the imagination of the civil service examination essay as an object of legitimate scholarly inquiry in the writings of academics such as Ruan Yuan, Liang Zhangju, Yu Yue, Liu Xizai, and their students. Against a vibrant discourse dating from the mid-Ming that centered on examination essay aesthetics and strategies for success, these scholars counterposed a new emphasis on the history and sociology of the institution itself. Through an inquiry into these scholars’ selection as object of analysis the very institutional raison d’être for the vocational approach to education that they claimed to move beyond, this paper aims to trace the construction of disinterested knowledge as a social good. To what extent can analytic understanding of a system be separated from instrumental or tactical understandings that would allow one to flourish within that system? How does this analytic understanding change and develop at the turn of the twentieth century, as discourses of radical reform and even abolition gain strength?

Alexander Des Forges

University of Massachusetts Boston, Massachusetts

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1 - Beyond Success and Failure: The Eight-Legged Essay as Research Topic in Nineteenth-Century China



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