Education About Asia: Online Archives

Teaching Wu Jingzi’s The Scholars

Download PDF



692 PAGES, ISBN 0231081537, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by Ihor Pidhainy

It is always pleasant to be able to assign a work that is both iconic and fresh. 1 Wu Jingzi’s (1701–54) The Scholars is just such a work.2 It is rightfully considered an important novel in the Chinese tradition, and yet it is not a work that students are familiar with.3 This novel is ideal to use in either literature or history survey courses for its unique representation of late imperial Chinese culture and society.

The Scholars is a sprawling series of vignettes about the adventures of approximately one hundred scholars. These scholars, all men, (only men were allowed to write examinations in imperial China), had passed a series of exams based on the Confucian classics. Having passed these exams, they were uniquely eligible for holding bureaucratic office, and thus specially privileged and quite powerful in society. The difficulties of the exam system were notorious, and the usefulness of this system, particularly in the later imperial period (from the fourteenth century on) was much questioned.4 Wu used a decidedly sarcastic brush in his description of this sliver of the population, and both the humor and hyperbolic qualities of the text make it a most appealing read.

The Scholars is readily taught as a work of social criticism. The scholars of the novel are for the most part all too human. Many of them are pedants, many are scam artists, and others possess much worse traits. Reading the book as a critique of class structure comes across pretty well. One can also approach it as an attack on the world of gongming fugui (success, fame, wealth, exalted position), which is the main concern of these scholars. This particular phrase is repeated a couple of times in the opening chapter and can be readily referred to with textual support. In addition, the work looks at the difference between idealistic and pragmatic Confucianism. The most famous example is that of the character Wang Yuhui, who, as an author on ritual and philological texts, urges his recently widowed daughter to commit suicide. And yet, when she has done so, he is despondent by the stupidity of his idealism. Other contemporary social ills, such as concubinage, foot-binding, and the exam system, are also critiqued. The general malaise that Chinese intellectuals of the Qing felt toward traditional culture is well on display


1. My teaching of The Scholars has been influenced by Richard Lynn and Milena Dolezelova.

2. The only complete translation of the novel is by Gladys Yang and Yang Hsien-yi (Yang Xianyi), The Scholars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). I have used pinyin transliteration in place of the Wade-Giles transliteration used in their translation.

3. For an introduction to the novel, see C. T. Hsia’s The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), 203–244.

4. For an overview of the examination system, see Ichisada Miyazaki, China’s Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981).