Preferred Citation: Tanigawa Michio. Medieval Chinese Society and the Local "Community". Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1985 1985.

Two— The Medieval "Community" and Aristocratic Society

The Autonomous World of the Six Dynasties Aristocracy

The Social Base of the Six Dynasties Aristocracy. As discussed earlier, the structure of Wei-Chin society differed from that of the ancient period in that it took form on the basis of qualitatively new "communitarian" relations. These social bonds should then have been operative throughout the aristocratic system established in this period. In this section, I should like to verify such a prediction.

What was it that gave form to the Six Dynasties aristocracy as a ruling class in this period? Many people have already


pointed out the difficulties involved in seeing a manorial system or a large landownership system as necessary preconditions for this aristocracy. It is more appropriately regarded as a bureaucratic aristocracy or an aristocracy of culture than as a landed aristocracy. I agree that this is undoubtedly true as an expression of the form of the Six Dynasties aristocratic ruling class. But, I feel that two questions have yet to be thoroughly investigated: (1) If we call them a bureaucratic aristocracy, does that imply that their essence as a class was merely as servants to the emperor? and (2) If we call them an aristocracy of culture, what was their relationship to contemporary society?[42] In short, the unresolved problem remains the class basis of the Six Dynasties aristocracy.

There is more to it than this, though, for the very importance of this problem has apparently not been realized as yet. More generally, the issue is one of how class relations existed without the direct mediation of relations of ownership over the means of production. Thus, it would seem as though this may offer an important hint for explaining the distinctive structure of Chinese history. For this reason, I have in recent years asserted the existence of a medieval "community" at the basis of Six Dynasties society, and I have discussed the logical structure of this assertion in other writings.[43] Still, much of the criticism of colleagues regarding my work has disappointed me. They cling stubbornly to their own historical views, and few seem aware of the need for flexible thought in which an understanding of Chinese history is not trapped in preconceptions. In other words, they fail to recognize how postwar studies of Chinese history have become miserably bungled because of a lack of such thought.[44]

To summarize the points thus far raised in connection with this issue,[45] the literati ethic of self-restraint toward worldly desires (wealth and power) brought into existence a "communitarian" cohesiveness in family, patrilineage, and local village—the literati universe. Personal evaluations or hsiang-luncr (evaluation based on local reputation) which revolved around this ethic provided the qualifications for leadership in society. The class position of the Six Dynasties aristocracy was grounded in this hsiang-lun and served as the base for their autonomous status vis à vis dynastic authority.


The ruling structure of the Six Dynasties aristocracy—I shall be looking particularly at the Northern Dynasties—clearly possessed the shared pattern of a "communitarian" bond centered on a moral intelligentsia, as seen in the Taoist and wu groupings. A new orientation toward "community" which becomes evident in the late Latter Han was systematized as the Six Dynasties aristocratic system. More to the point, it was the aristocratic stratum in the Six Dynasties which, riding the crest of this orientation, established itself as a ruling class. The most concrete, structural manifestation of their institutionalization was the Nine Ranks recruitment system for the bureaucracy.

The Six Dynasties aristocracy were superintendents of the moral "community." For people familiar with a historical conception of development modeled on European history, this view may seem exceedingly idealized, but if we are to address the actualities of China's distinctive civil bureaucratic society directly and try to clarify its structure—at the intellectual center of which were Confucian principles—then we must trace the points of contact between this spirit and society. Furthermore, this was not simply a world of ideas. The class basis for the Six Dynasties aristocracy did not form as a direct function of material means but existed at a level in which this was transcended by the spiritual realm. By spiritual realm is meant not simply the universe originally enjoyed by individual aristocrats but the real human relations that brought together an ethically based society (social contacts within family, patrilineage, and local village, and among literati). Here was the essence of the society supporting this aristocratic class as rulers, and it was the essence of this society that enabled the Six Dynasties aristocracy to gain autonomy as a ruling class.

Spurred by the aristocratic spirit, this society formed the foundation that gave clear expression to itself. The antinomian positions of the side spurring and the side being acted on met here, and their synthesis composed "aristocratic society." The aristocratic class was able to achieve autonomy from dynastic authority by being supported by this world. Simultaneously, they enjoyed an independent existence in the formation of this world itself. The aristocracy's spiritual work on behalf of the objective world was not offered merely to gain popularity in public opinion—or even a good post in the


bureaucracy. I cannot claim that such a utilitarian consciousness was totally absent, for it was characteristic of the Chinese not to lapse into an excessive fastidiousness with respect to utilitarianism. However, it seems likely that this spiritual world originally existed among the aristocracy, and the spiritual realm of the Six Dynasties aristocracy existed in a profound way as an issue in their lives. We need to penetrate this internal universe if we are to recognize the strong class autonomy of the Six Dynasties aristocracy and locate its foundation in the moral "community" created by the relations between them and the people.

The Spirit of Transcending the Mundane. When we examine the spiritual way of life of the Six Dynasties aristocracy, we cannot assess it simply as asceticism, as several examples may demonstrate. Ts'ui Po-ch'iencs of Po-lingct was satisfied to live according to the "way of refinement" (ya-tao )cu and refused to have contact with or seek advancement from Ts'ui Hsien,cv a younger member of his clan, who was a powerful official of the Eastern Wei court.[46]

Then there was Lu I-hsicw of Fan-yangcx who, at the end of the Northern Wei, for many years remained in a leisurely sinecure and retained a nonchalant attitude. When urged to meet with important officials and request advancement, he refused, saying: "I have learned the way of the former kings, and I revere the implementation of their will. Why need I seek any wealth and fame at all?"[47]

There is also the following anecdote about Lu. The court favorite of the Empress Ling,cy Li Shen-kuei,cz sought the hand of Lu's daughter in marriage, but Lu rejected the offer and married her into another family. Upon hearing this, the Empress dispatched a secret imperial messenger on the night of the wedding with an order to stop the ceremony. Undaunted, Lu I-hsi showed no sign of being upset. Were he to have sought wealth or glory by any means, then forging a marriage liaison with such an influential man would surely have been a shortcut. At the time, the end of the Northern Wei, such a trend had become rather general. However, Lu was too proud to "seek any wealth and fame at all" and wanted to live according to the "way of the former kings." The case of Ts'ui Po-ch'ien was the


same. Rather than follow the authorities in power and pursue personal distinction, he chose to live peacefully in his own world with the "way of refinement."

As these common examples describe, glory in the bureaucratic world was not necessarily the one and only way of life for concerned aristocrats. The reason they did not boldly pursue their own advancement was not simply out of moral propriety but because they considered it most important that a realm that sustained their attitudes toward life exist and that they live in it. This realm was the "way of refinement" for Ts'ui and the "way of the former kings" for Lu; for both we might call it the realm of the "way" (tao ).da This was a spiritual realm transcending the mundane world, as the term "way of refinement" aptly expressed. Primary for these people was dependency on it and life within it. It would seem that because they possessed this spiritual realm within themselves, they could achieve a freedom from having their minds trapped in the affairs of the mundane world.

What actually constituted this spiritual realm that I have just dubbed the realm of the "way?" Looking again at Lu I-hsi's words, we see that he did not deny wealth and fame in and of themselves. He was too proud to "seek any wealth and fame at all," or to keep after men in authority and gain wealth and fame with their help. For Lu, the position of wealth and fame ought to have been the result of having "learned the way of the former kings and having implemented their will." He considered that a desire for wealth and power which dispensed with these basic principles was shameful for a scholarly man. In this conception, it was the interiority of a human being—his learning and its application—that had to determine that person's social position. And no external element could be vital in the establishment of that position.

The notion that the political position of the aristocracy had to be this way was not limited to Lu I-hsi. The family of Li Hsiao-chendb of Chao-chün,dc who served the Northern Ch'i court, repeatedly formed marriage relations with the imperial household, beginning with his female cousin who became empress to Emperor Wen-hsüandd (r. 550–560). Li's brothers both had attained success through their own literary talents and were embarrassed by the fact that they were [now] maternal relatives."[48]


Also, there was a fascinating exchange between Wei Shoude (author of the Wei-shu ) and Ts'ui Lingdf (from a famous clan in Ch'ing-ho prefecture). Although the two men had been at odds for some time, when Wei as an emissary to the state of Liang passed through Hsü-chou, Ts'ui (the governor of Hsü-chou) sallied forth in a state procession of great pomp to meet him and had another man address Wei: "Fear not the many ceremonial bodyguards; there is strength in cultivation." And Wei responded: "Tell Ts'ui of Hsü-chou that perhaps there is merit in raising troops, perhaps there is some cultivation involved." Always proud of his pedigree, Ts'ui became extremely angry upon hearing these words.[49]

Ts'ui was a man who had reached a high position in the Eastern Wei state through meritorious service at the time Kao Huandg had raised an army (to quell a rebellion against the throne). Wei Shou pointed out that Ts'ui's position as governor of Hsü-chou owed nothing to cultivated learning, and ridiculed him for having gotten it by depending on men in power.

As these two examples demonstrate, the aristocracy of the period were proud of having attained their political positions not by relying on the powers that be but through their cultured talents (cultivation), in which they had trained themselves in literature and scholarship. Wei's aloofness from Ts'ui's mundane concerns represents a common notion among the aristocracy then. There is a certain thread connecting Lu I-hsi's and Ts'ui Po-ch'ien's rejection of "seeking any wealth and fame at all" with the realm of the "way" in which they sought to live. In other words, the notion that a human being's position in society should be based of necessity on this internal realm is common to these cases. Also, it was implicitly clear that learning gave expression to this internal realm as knowledge. In short, it is no exaggeration to say that cultivated learning was what enabled the Six Dynasties aristocracy to have autonomy as a ruling class. This supports the view, mentioned earlier, of a cultivated aristocracy, but we must go on to ask what was meant by "learning" as the intellectual expression of the internal realm of the aristocracy.

The Meaning of Learning for the Six Dynasties Aristocracy. Yen Chih-t'uidu has the following to say in his Yenshih chia-hsün (Family instructions for the Yen clan).[50]


People do not always have the support of a family or local village. If forced into exile, they would have no one to protect them and would have to look out for themselves. The most appropriate skill with which to be equipped under such circumstances, Yen argued, was book learning. This was Yen Chiht'ui's perception of learning, acquired through the lengthy experience of having tasted the bitterness of wandering from the states of Liang to Northern Chou,di and on to Northern Ch'i,dj and from there back to Northern Chou, and on to For Yen, a literatus in search of the final authority upon which to base his life would find it not in the family or in the local village but in the learning he acquired for himself.

Yen's view of learning reflected a social trend of that time when the system of a pedigreed aristocracy was rapidly declining. As Yoshikawa Tadao has noted, one pervasive feature of that time was a belief in a principle that stressed the importance of men of ability.[51] However, the origin of the aristocratic system, in the last analysis, was neither the clan nor the local village, but in fact the very learning cultivated by literati—namely, their autonomous spirit. This point needs further study, but Yen Chih-t'ui's words speak to the value of knowledge of books as a way to make a living. What, after all, was the true objective of book learning or scholarship?

Yen Chih-t'ui gave the following answer to this question: "The reason for reading and studying is primarily to open one's mind and clarify one's vision in order to benefit one's conduct."[52] In other words, the significance of reading and scholarship was that they enabled people to live their lives through the development of knowledge. Yen criticized well-read men who did not live in a fashion corresponding to their learning, and he stressed that knowledge of books should be linked to practice. Yet how are knowledge and practice connected? Yen argued that men who had not behaved in a filial manner toward their parents would learn through books of the deeds of past men who had served their parents devotedly, reflect on themselves and feel a strong sense of shame, and then resolve to act in accordance with prescriptions of filiality.

And this learning would apply not only to parental obedience. Men who had not known to serve a lord would learn from the loyal acts of past men, reflect on themselves, and


resolve to sacrifice themselves in allegiance. Men who had been profligate would study the ethics of humility exemplified in the actions of past men and ponder living that way themselves. Men who had originally been miserly and avaricious would learn, through the deeds of past men, of the generosity of stressing justice, self-restraint, and charity; and then they would strive for these ends themselves. Similarly, men of violence would learn from men of the past the commendable morality of tolerance and change their earlier attitudes; while cowards, inspired by the bravery of past men, would seek to live their lives with courage.

Yen lists many other objectives to learning, but the idea he expressed was that one would realize through the actions of the ancients that one was not living as befit one's character and, through a profound, penetrating self-reflection, take a step to putting such a life into practice. Thus, knowledge was transformed into action through a kind of mental conversion.

What gave rise to this conversion that mediated knowledge and action? Clearly, it was the result of realizing one's immorality in comparison with the ethical behavior of the ancients. If we delve a little deeper into this opposition between morality and immorality, we find a fundamental difference over what constitutes a human being, for a spirit of selflessness impelled men to act morally and egotism impelled men to immorality. For example, in order for filiality—acting in a devoted manner to one's parents—to come into existence, the individuality of the child had to be obliterated. Loyalty to state and sovereign resembled this. Surely, there were a variety of ways of expressing this spirit of selflessness when it came to humility, stressing justice over wealth, self-restraint, giving charity, and acting tolerantly. Also, courage was itself the result of transcending egotism. The moral actions of the ancients were permeated with this spirit of selflessness. In contrast to the pure and noble character of such men, the self was merely the spokesman of a narrow egotism in one's relationship with parents, sovereign, and others. Thus, one became aware of a fierce sense of shame before this degeneration of a selfish humanity which this comparison illuminated. And, on the basis of a change of heart, the determination to put morality into practice was born.

The aim of reading and learning for Yen Chih-t'ui, as we


have seen, was to awaken men to pursue moral and righteous ways through self-reflection. This conversion was an awakening to one's own ignominious bearing, illuminated by the moral acts of past men and cooped up in one's egotism. Thus, "learning" for Yen also possessed a religious nature; or, rather, it was not limited merely to a conception of learning. In the words of Lu I-hsi, whom we met earlier—"I have learned the way of the former kings, and I revere the implementation of their will. Why need I seek any wealth and fame at all?"—learning is also connected directly to practice, and Lu was attempting to transcend the realm of selfishness inherent in "seeking any wealth and fame at all." I have already referred to this as the universe of the "way," a kind of transcendent spiritual realm. The intellectual structure supporting and legitimizing it was learning. This was both the learning of ethical norms and an understanding of history as indicated by the practices of "the ancients" who bequeathed "the way of the former kings." Hence, it was not simply an abstracted metaphysics.

The importance of learning for the Six Dynasties aristocracy may now be a bit clearer. The selfless spirit of the aristocracy became a daily ethic in their appeal to the world around them. It formed the pivot for "communitarian" cohesion in the outside world, and it was learning that nurtured this spirit. In other words, literati learning at that time can be seen as an intellectual system aimed at human education. The ethical activities of the Six Dynasties aristocracy carried on the long and rich tradition of scholarship centered on the classics. Hence, this scholarship was conducted and accumulated with a focus on the realization of the moral "communitarian" realm in Chinese society. The literati, the aristocracy of the day, mediated this learning for society.

Generally, the Six Dynasties aristocracy may be called men of learning, like Yen Chih-t'ui. The famous clans of the Northern dynasties such as Ts'ui, Lu, Li, and Cheng each produced formidable scholars of great erudition. We cannot list each and every one of them, but in the biography of Li Tzu-hsiungdl from Chao-chün it says: "Although his family had for generations established itself through scholarship, Li Tzu-hsiung alone studied equestrianship and archery. His elder brother Tzutandm called him to task for this, saying 'to discard the word


(wen )dn and revere the sword (wu )do is no way for a literatus to be.'"[53] Thus, learning itself was not only the indispensable grounding for a literatus but also a family occupation by which one established oneself with each generation.

To say that learning served as the existential basis for the aristocracy may not be an exaggeration. The fount of the qualifications befitting a leader in society lay in his personal qualities, and what nurtured these qualities was in fact learning. The basic significance of the point that the Six Dynasties aristocracy was an aristocracy of culture should now be apparent. Private ownership of the means of production did not directly establish their social position. Rather, transcending the direct control over the means of production, it was grounded in their being leaders who integrated a society structured around individual owners. Their leadership was accordingly intellectual and moral, and learning served an indispensable function in ruling the people.

In order to clarify the meaning of learning in this context more fully, we have to examine what it actually entailed, but that cannot be done here. If I might add one word though, the essential point for literati learning was of course its moral scope, and thus classical scholarship was of central importance. Yet the Yen-shih chia-hsün deplored the fact that learned men of the day lacked knowledge of jurisprudence and civil administration, to say nothing of their ignorance of architecture or agriculture, and incurred the ridicule of military men and petty functionaries. Literati learning actually included knowledge for practical learning of this sort.

A look through the biographies of Northern aristocrats shows that the learning they attained—yin-yang, astronomy, mathematics, the calendar, medicine, divination, and prediction based on the direction and sound of the winds—while not necessarily orthodox, did include fields in the life sciences. However, we also find the metaphysics of Taoism and Buddhism, as well as literature as a form of expressionism. As noted earlier, learning was itself a form of historical understanding, and with the development of genealogical study, historiography at this time pioneered its own distinctive field. Thus, at the mountain peak of learning stood classical scholarship, and at its foot was an extremely broad mixture of metaphysical and material


fields that seemed to form an expansive system. While this composed the intellectual basis for transcendence by the Six Dynasties aristocracy, it was also the source for praxis in the objective world.

Why did a cultured aristocracy established on the basis of learning result in a system of pedigree? "Learning" was an activity aimed at the formation of acquired character. I have not yet worked out fully my own ideas on this issue, but as we have seen, the intellectual system of that time did not exist simply as objective knowledge but seems to have been an embodiment of an exceptional personalism or transcendence. Thus, if one recognized the need for human qualities to match a mastery of learning, then might this not usher in a status system of pedigree?

There is an inescapable contradiction here, however. One's acquired nature, which is ancillary to learning, conflicts with the innate qualities of a wise man. The emergence of the principle of laying stress on men of talent as opposed to that of pedigree was a necessary process in this sense. That the cultured aristocracy would eventually spawn an examination system should be seen as a natural conclusion. Yen Chih-t'ui's bitterness in decrying the ignorant ways of high-born sons who had earned the ridicule of military men and petty officials ought to indicate negatively the inseparable link between the Six Dynasties aristocratic system and learning.

Two— The Medieval "Community" and Aristocratic Society

Preferred Citation: Tanigawa Michio. Medieval Chinese Society and the Local "Community". Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1985 1985.