Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Excavating the Genealogy of Classical Studies in the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-8 C.E.)

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Excavating the Genealogy of Classical Studies in the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-8 C.E.)

Article excerpt

Before the founding of the Han dynasty, thinkers of every stripe cited the Five Classics to legitimate their ideas. But the transmission of the Zhou's cultural heritage was not clearly documented until Sima Qian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (second century B.c.E.) traced the study of the Five Classics back to Confucius. (1) Although Confucius's disciples--and later Mencius and Xun-zi--all distinguished themselves by textual expertise, Sima Qian claimed that the study of the Five Classics generally declined during the Warring States and Qin periods. During this chaotic time scholars in the states of Qi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Lu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] were said to have saved the classics from destruction, but none of their names was recorded and little is known about their social backgrounds.

The ambiguity of these beginnings seems to dissipate with the dawn of the Western Han dynasty. From that point on Sima Qian's efforts provide us with a line of transmission for each classic. Following suit, later scholars relied on genealogies as the basic framework to map the history of classical studies and Confucian communities. They documented an unbroken line of transmission that survived wars and plagues, extended through social and economic change, and shaped four hundred years of intellectual and political history from the establishment of the Western Han till the end of the Eastern Han. (2)

In this paper I question the alleged continuities in those seemingly well-documented genealogies, contending that the accepted account of textual transmission often conflated multiple historical narratives. Unfolding these different layers, I present a more complex and challenging history. Instead of a seamless narrative, there emerges a story of fragmented learning communities buffeted by political and social change under Emperors Zhao ba, Xuan A, and Yuan t. The era essentially transformed classical studies as various interpretive schools were established, enormous scholarly works produced, and new hermeneutics formulated, all of which set an intellectual tone for centuries to come. During the subsequent flourishing of classical studies, Confucians sought to refashion their obscure past, a project that culminated with Ban Gu in the first century of the Common Era and which continues to shape perceptions of Han Confucianism to the present.



In around 90 B.C.E. Sima Qian finished writing "The Collective Biographies of Confucians (Rulin liezhuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])," an essay that summarizes classical learning from the beginning of the Western Han to the end of the reign of Emperor Wu. (3) When we look closely at this narrative, it becomes evident that the Five Classics were not passed from master to disciple in a smooth and unbroken chain. According to the essay, the first scholars who applied themselves to the study of these works were all obscure figures, their family backgrounds unclear and their scholarly credentials dubious. Six of those ten figures are known only by their nicknames or surnames.

Scholar Fu (Fusheng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), a man whose full name is unknown, is said to have lived for more than ninety years and to have been solely responsible for the transmission of the Documents during the chaotic transition from the Qin to the Han dynasty. As to the study of the Records of Rites (Li ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), it originated with Scholar Gaotang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Scholar Xu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of Lu, whose full name, like that of Scholar Fu, was not recorded. Scholar Huwu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] was said to have taught the reading of the Spring and Autumn Annals approved by the Gong yang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] tradition in the Qi area, while Scholar Jiang of Xiaqiu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] was the first person in the Han to specialize in the Guliang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] tradition. …

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