Zhu Xi's Proposals for schools and Official Recruitment

This text comes from Zhu Xi (1130-1200), the most important thinker of the Neo-Confucian school, who greatly influenced late imperial literati culture. The text here, written in 1187, was meant as a memorial to the throne but was never sent. It gives in great detail Zhu's views about the educational and examination system. Because of its length, we see here only the introduction and a selection of the body, in which Zhu criticizes how scholars of the day approached the classics and the examinations.


Personal Proposals for Schools and Official Recruitment

The system of schools and official recruitment in high antiquity began in the localities and finished in the capital. Students were instructed in virtuous behavior and the arts of the Way, which brought forth the good and the able. Thus those who stayed (in the schools) had no odd residences, those who governed had no odd techniques, and those who appointed them had no odd methods. Thus the scholars had firm wills and no peripheral interests. Day and night, they were diligent, fearing only that their virtue would go uncultivated and not worrying that they might not receive titles and stipends. It was as Confucius said, "He who seldom gets into trouble about what he has said and seldom does anything that he afterwards wishes he had not done will be sure incidentally to get his reward," (The Analects, II:16) and as Mencius said, "Men of antiquity bent their efforts toward acquiring honors bestowed by Heaven, and honors bestowed by men followed as a matter of course." (Mencius, 6A: 16)

Now, at the very least, the teachings and arts of the Three Ages still had their practical functions, which could not be dispensed with. The cohesiveness of its system was also enough to assist in regulating the mind and nourishing one's qi, as well as promoting the recovery of one's moral nature. This is how the ancients' method could polish human ability, nurture customs, govern the world's affairs, and bring forth the Great Peace.

The method of the present day is not like this. Although we have the local examinations, the quotas for selecting people are unbalanced. Further there is established a single road, the material temptations of the National University, and the deceptive shortcuts, the industrial prefecture examinations, the office examinations, and the supplemental examinations. They arouse the desire to rush and roam hither and yon. (Note) This happens because what is taught is not based on the truth of virtuous behavior, and because the so-called arts, furthermore, are all useless, empty talk. What is extremely harmful is that the so-called empty talkers, which are deluded and groundless, are enough to destroy the ambitions of scholars. Thus talent declines daily, and customs worsen daily. At the court, the prefecture, or the county, every time there is something to be pondered over, the dukes, ministers, great lords, officials, and various functionaries look at each other with fear and alarm, not knowing what to do. This can be demonstrated and is the result of (contemporary) teaching.

Those who discuss this situation, however, do not know where the root of the problem lies. They instead worry about the poor quality of test answers and advocate the mixed-entrance method, which will worsen the problem. (Note) Some know this method will not work and want to discuss implementing the Chongning era's Three Halls System for prefectures and counties, in which students at the prefecture level would be sent annually to the National University. (Note) This approach is said to be better than the mixed-entrance method. Were it to be carried out, however, then students seeking entrance into prefectural schools would be numerous, and the financial resources of prefectural schools are limited. If we were to enlarge the quota, then their resources would be insufficient. If we were to continue with the old way, then the disparity of the situation, the difficulty of selecting candidates, and the narrowness of the road to success would be even severer than the prefectural quotas of earlier times. Any smaller, and it will be intolerable. If the mixed-entrance method were used, then it would have those within the system comparing and calculating their advantages day and night, unable to find any peace for the slightest period. Not only would there be no benefit, but there would be no greater harm. It would not be a successful plan.

I have thought about this, seeking to use the opportunity to change the system. If we are to gradually restore the past of the ancient kings and improve contemporary customs, then we must act according to Master Mingdao's Xining era proposals. (Note) Later, we can expand and rectify the fundamentals, and completely eliminate the problems of the superfluous riff-raff. If people say, "There is no time to implement Mingdao's plan," then for now we should equalize quotas for all prefectures to stabilize the students' ambitions, and establish courses in virtuous conduct to nurture their fundamental character. We should eliminate the tests on poetry and poetic composition, and assign materials on the classics, the philosophers, the histories, and the issues of the day, to complete their knowledge. Moreover, those who study the classics must adhere to a school of interpretation. The test questioners should cite the text's paragraph and sentence. The answers should be thoroughly familiar with the text of the classics, list one by one the many interpretations, and then conclude with one's own view. The schools should carefully select men of true morality, who concentrate on guiding men of true learning who have come to the schools. They should reduce the prefectural quota and cease the absurd proliferation of privileges to block the road of material temptation. With regard to the categories of the decree examinations, poetry examinations, and the military examinations, they should thoroughly investigate their strong and weak points, and reform them considerably. Then there will be fixed ambition and none of this prevailing trend of roaming about hither and yon. There will be true behavior and no problems of empty talk. There will be true study and no men of useless abilities. This is the general summary. Its details will be related forthwith. . .

. . . Students of the classics must specialize in the learning of a school. The principle that orders the world does not stray from the single human mind. Yet (in understanding) the words of the sage worthies, there is the profound Erya dictionary, and students may not interpret (the texts) arbitrarily. Their systems, their terms, the affairs they discuss, and the order of their organization cannot be understood (on the basis of) what is seen and heard today. Thus students of the classics must base themselves on the finished interpretations of earlier scholars and extend them. If it is said, "it is not necessary to exhaust the meaning of the texts," one still should plumb the sources of their strong and weak points, and then later turn to one's own mind and correct their mistakes.

This is how the various Han Confucians were able to specialize in a famous school. Each adhere to their masters' interpretation and did not dare to change it lightly. However, there was a problem in that they adhere too excessively and were unable to think meticulously and distinguish clearly in the pursuit of the truth. Yet, because of this, the customs of the time were pure and honest.

In present times, customs are irresponsible. There are no masters in intellectual life, and students of the classics do not reread the original texts of the classics. When they read the transmitted commentaries of previous scholars, they only take the works of those who recently passed the civil service examinations, reciting and imitating them. They select the sentences in the classics which might be examination topics. In their own restlessness, they create absurd readings, knowing clearly that they are not the meaning of the classics. They only take what is convenient for writing essays, taking no time to correct their interpretations. All classical scholarship is like this, but the situation regarding the Spring and Autumn Annals is particularly serious.

Examination officials not only do not know that these answers are absurd, but also believe that they are excellent and assign them to the superior levels. They have become accustomed to it, and it has become the prevailing trend. In transmitting the image and teaching of the ancients, they abuse the sage's words, and the situation grows more serious by the day. In name, they are classical scholars, but in reality, they are bandits of classical study. In form, they are writing literature, but in reality, it is literary trickery. One cannot idly sit by and look on this and not correct the situation. If we seek to correct it, nothing is more important than discussing the various interpretations of the classics. For each classic, there are the established teachings of various schools, with the commentaries and explanations being most important. . .

(Translated by Mark Halperin)