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Constructing New Knowledge under the Old Regime: An Investigation of Zhang Zhidong Literati Circle (1884-1907)

This monograph is intended as an investigation of Zhang Zhidong張之洞(1837-1909) Literati Circle, which lasted from 1884 to 1907, with a strong influence of the Pure Stream Movement (Qingliu清流) during the Tongzhi and Guangxu period.  After the formation of the “Weak Central and Strong Provinces” (Neiqing waizhong內輕外重) situation in Late Qing China, with their provincial academic tradition and local executive privileges, the viceroy groups seemed much more effective than the Manchu central government in the fields of the leading of literati tradition, the constitution of educational system, the construction of academic organization and the control of public opinion.  Zhang Zhidong Literati Circle might be the most eminent one of these viceroy groups.  Although not as sensitive as the reformers to the new knowledge from abroad, the scholars of Zhang Zhidong Literati Circle were so good at the systematization and popularization of the modern experience, making the new knowledge more acceptable to the majority of the traditional literati society and the Manchu Confucianism regime, which is called “buffer mode”.

The Pure Stream Movement, which blossomed around the end of Tongzhi period and the beginning of Guangxu period, is regarded as the major resource of Zhang Zhidong Literati Circle, since Zhang himself had once been enrolled into the movement.  After the Sino-France conflict in 1884, the Pure Stream members had taken a bad knock from their political foes, while Zhang was fortunately dispatched as the Viceroy of Canton.  Some Pure Stream Scholars took part in Zhang’s private bureaucracy (mufu幕府), prompting Zhang’s circle to find a new way of Chinese modernization which attached more importance to the literati and educational reformation.

The provincial academic tradition led by his precursor Ruan Yuan阮元(1764-1849) and Zeng Guofan曾國藩(1811-1872) had great influence upon Zhang Zhidong’s circle.  During his early career as a provincial educational officer (xuezheng學政), Zhang Zhidong took Ruan and Zeng as models to expand the localization of Han Classical Learning(Hanxue漢學).  However, after he assumed viceroy in Canton and Huguang, Zhang and the literati around him intended to transcend the experiences of Ruan and other precursors, with a strategy of reinterpretation of the local academy sources such as Dongshu東塾 School and Nanjing南菁 School, and founded a series of new academies like Guangya Shuyuan廣雅書院 and Lianghu Shuyuan兩湖書院 to practice their eclectic academic opinions.  All these provincial academic experiences were stimulated in Zhang Zhidong’s circle and prompted the latter to occupy an essential position in the modern transformation of the traditional education system.

Zhang Zhidong Literati Circle also played an essential role in the foundation of modern China educational system, against the background of the educational reform competition between the Jiang-E江鄂 group (led by Zhang Zhidong and Liu Kunyi劉坤一) and the Beiyang北洋 group (led by Li Hongzhang李鴻章 and then Yuan Shikai袁世凱). Both sides deemed it necessary to learn the Meiji Japan model.  However, there was still a subtle distinction between Jiang-E and Beiyang about how to preserve the traditional Chinese learning (Zhongxue中學) under the new educational system.  Zhang’s circle insisted Confucianism Classics (Jingxue經學) was the most important part of Chinese tradition, while the Beiyang group stressed Chinese literary writing as the representation of the whole Chinese culture.  Zhang Zhidong and some of his followers participated the revision of the 1902 School Regulation (Renyin Xuezhi壬寅學制) in 1903.  And in the new regulation (Guimao Xuezhi癸卯學制), Zhang not only again emphasized the necessity of importing Meiji Japan experience, but also planned the curriculums of both Confucianism Classics and traditional Chinese literary writing (Zhongguo wenxue中國文學).

Around the 1898 restoration, the radical reformer Kang Youwei康有爲(1858-1927) and Liang Qichao梁啓超(1873-1929)’s opinion about learning new knowledge through Japanese translation works was very popular in the Chinese new intellect society, which brought the fashion of writing Japanese Style (Ribun wenti日本文體) articles.  Under the influence of the General Staff Office of Japanese Army (Sanbō honbu參謀本部) and the Pan-Asianism organizations (Kōa dantai興亞團體), Zhang’s circle also once advocated the Meiji Japanese learning (Dongxue東學) and the route of Japanese writing/translation works (Dongwen東文).  However, after the 1898 coup d’état, in order to draw a line from the radical reformer groups, Zhang Zhidong Literati Circle tried to build a fire wall against the Meiji Japanese experience while still holding a warm relationship with Japanese government and the Pan-Asianism organizations.  The ideal of “the common writing system” (Tongwen/Dōbun同文) was gradually replaced by the new education concept “National Literary Writing” (Guowen國文), which was carrying both the modern nation-state consciousness and the traditional Confucianism loyal ethics.

This monograph focuses on the “buffer mode” of Zhang Zhidong Literati Circle from the perspectives of succeeding academic tradition, planning new education system and mapping new writing style, with an intention to find a new route of constructing modern knowledge under the old regime of Late Qing China.



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