Archiver > LONDON-COMPANYS > 2000-08 > 0966359255

From: Peter Wilson <>
Subject: [London-Companys] Ming Gentry 1368-1644
Date: Tue, 15 Aug 2000 17:07:35 +0000
In-Reply-To: <>

Gentleman Scholars of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in 1952 that understanding the Chinese gentry is
possible only when one conceives of them as families. This view implies
that gentry status is passed on from one generation to the next. The truth
is that gentry status was not hereditary and had to be reinforced by
individuals of each generation. There was considerable social mobility for
each family member in the privileged upper stratum.
³Many families lost their gentry status as a result of a breakdown in
their scholarly tradition. One of the most prominent families in Shangqiu,
Henan province, for instance, the family of the famous early Qing collector
Song Luo (1634-1713) was able to profit from the political accommodation
that the father Song Quan (1598-1652) made with the conquering Manchu
³Another prominent family in Shangqiu, however, had a different fate:
the descendants of Hou Fangyu (1618-1654), who was nationally known as one
of the ³four young scions of late Ming² and celebrated in Chinese literary
history as the hero of the drama ³Taohua shan² (the Peach Blossom Fan),
degenerated into a life of gambling and drinking, completely forfeiting
their claims to belong to the educated elite.
Divided estates undermined two Wang families in Taicang, Jiangsu
province, where the Wangs of Langye were represented by Wang Shizhen, the
undisputed leader of the late Ming intelligentsia, and the Wangs of Taiyuan
were represented by Wang Xijue (1534-1610), a prime minister under the Wanli
emperor and grandfather of the early Qing painting-master Wang Shimin
(1592-1680). In a eulogy presented to Wang Shimin on his seventieth
birthday, the Ming loyalist and famous local scholar Gui Zhuang (1615-1673),
son of Gui Changshi, wrote:
ŒDuring the three hundred years of the present [Ming] dynasty the eight
counties in our prefecture have given rise to nine state councilors. The
most prosperous of the families were able to maintain their eminence for
three generations. The rest declined. Mr. Wang [Shimin] has carried on the
tradition of his ancestors such as the prime minister and the Hanlin
Academician, and for four generations the family has continued to produce
high officials. Nothing of the family¹s great estates and gardens has
changed, nor has its great social eminence.¹
³Such a phenomenon was considered unusual, partly because of obstacles
inherent in the family structure. The low in Chinese traditional society
did not recognize the rule of primogeniture: the eldest son as the sole
heir to family property. According to ³Da Ming Huidian² [Collected Statutes
of the Ming Dynasty], family estates were to be divided equally among the
sons, including sons by concubines. Under this system, large estates were
broken up; divided expenses kept rising, while divided income diminished.
³As a counter-measure, many families of the landed gentry insisted on
principle upon living together, even though frequently this led to the not
very pleasant situation of ³Tongju Yicuan² ( living together but cooking
separately). The gloomy picture of a partitioned courtyard and shared
kitchen, with dogs barking and chickens roosting in the crowded quarters,
was vividly depicted in the much-recited ³Xiangjixuan ji² by the great Ming
essayist Gui Youguang (1506-1571), grandfather of Gui Chang-Shi.
³Ding Yaokang (1599-1669) described how he and his younger brother
divided their meager inheritance, with each person getting 600 mu of poor
land. They decided to work hard at their studies, and once they had passed
the provincial examination, both brothers were able to improve their
fortunes substantially in a few years, buying houses and farmland all over
the county. Their is a good example of how a determined scholar could
recover his place in society through the examination and civil service
³For those family members who were not prepared for an official career,
or who failed to distinguish themselves in the examinations, the choice of
profession was usually limited. A man could lead an idle life if
circumstances permitted, or he could try his luck in the trades, which had
become increasingly acceptable in the late Ming, or he could become a
schoolteacher or a tutor in a private family...
³The country pedant was a favorite subject in Ming painting and
literature. One of the best-known of such characters is portrayed in the
great drama ³Mudanting² (The Peony Pavilion) by Tang Xianzu. When the newly
hired old family tutor appears in scene 4, he introduces himself in a
typical soliloquy²
ŒMumbling of texts by window, by lamplight
Freezes and sours the taste of hopes once bright,
My progress through the halls of examination
Thwarted, here I dither in desperation.
ŒMid sighs for scholarship run down to waste
Only my asthma flourishes apace.¹ ³

Zhou Lijing was a hermit-scholar without official status, but revered
for his broad interests. He wrote on natural history, health, the human
body, and the enjoyment of life, bringing to his poems, essays and drama his
encyclopedic knowledge of his tradition. In one autobiographical essay he
wrote of himself in the style of Tao Qiang¹s ³Gentleman of Five Willows²:
ŒSimple, pure, and reticent, he had a disdain for official life and
material gains. Every day he read volumes ... to attain a serene, heartfelt
understanding. Whenever he came to grasp the true meaning of the texts, he
became so excited that he forgot to eat and sleep.... High-minded in his
pursuits, he enjoyed his days fully. Though his clothes were ragged and
full of mended patches, he did not worry about them, regarding material
needs as illusion. He amused himself by writing little poems or playing
music, not worrying about whether he had achieved anything. He died a very
happy man.¹

ed. Hu-Tsing Li, James C.Y. Watt, ³The Chinese Scholar¹s Studio, Artistic
life in the Late Ming Period,² pp. 29-30 & 38, pub. 1987 by Thames and
Hudson, New York and London.

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