Rise of the Song Sichuanese Literati Elites


A review of Managing the Territories from Afar: The Imperial State and Elites in Sichuan, 755–1279, by Song Chen.

In assembling and dissecting hundreds of biographical materials relating to the Sichuanese families in and out of Song Sichuan, this dissertation empirically redefines the social and political impact of the rise of literati elites during the Song period (960–1279). The work provides compelling insights into how, despite the overwhelming geographical and linguistic disparities, Chinese states united the various local societies under a single polity.

The dissertation begins by examining relevant works on the subject and the main arguments of the research. Chapter 1, The Rise and Fall of Magnate Dominance, offers a survey of the formation of magnate families in Sichuan from the Han to Tang periods, examining the political distance that separated them from the central government. Given a geographical barrier that hindered the central government from facilitating its administration in Sichuan, and the lack of opportunity to obtain official posts, the Sichuanese magnate families tended not to pursue national-level offices and rather consolidated their status locally. The demise of the Tang and the rise of Former and Later Shu provided the local elite families with more opportunities to enter the official system, while the prominent military offices were monopolized by conquerors from North China.

Chapter 2, Promoting Cultural and Political Participation, explores the first phase of Northern Song rule in Sichuan, from 965 to the 1050s. It explores how the Song court treated the newly conquered Sichuanese officials with ingrained suspicion. The court uprooted officials by preventing any of them from being posted in their homeland, believing this would prevent the consolidation of local power. It was during the reign of Renzong (1022–1063) that the government began to change its repressive policies toward southern elites. The government significantly increased the examination quotas for southern prefectures, established public schools down to the county level, and relinquished the precautionary restrictions on Sichuanese officials. This encouraged Sichuan men to invest in education, hold offices at the national level, and build cultural networks. Successful Sichuanese officials formed a notable political force and vigorously protected the interest of their homeland.

Chapter 3, Delegation of Personnel Powers and Native Incumbency, examines the appointment of local officials in Sichuan, which the government initiated in the 1070s. Geographically too remote and isolated, officials posts in Sichuan were unattractive and official candidates tended to avoid them. This resulted in poor-quality local administration in the area. To rectify this, the government started to allow native incumbency to local offices by delegating high-ranking local administrators such as fiscal intendants and military commissioners to recruit local men to staff the posts under their jurisdiction. This change enabled Sichuan men to pursue a political career while building a power base in their homeland.

Based on ample biographical sources, Chapter 4, Offices, Networks, and Local Prominence, reveals how office-holding became almost a mandatory precursor to local prominence in Sichuanese society as the elite families became increasingly embedded in a nationwide web of intellectual, agnatic, and affinal relationships. Stepping into national politics, Sichuan officials got involved in the nationwide marriage network among the official Song families. Their ranks enabled officials to promote their social status by marrying women from well-established magnate clans, or even challenge the authority of clans that had a long history of settlement and accumulated wealth. The conventionally prominent clans also benefitted from the marriages as they gained connection with officialdom and converted themselves into an educated elite. With educational resources more locally accessible, Sichuan men joined an educated community. Recognized as shi, they undertook a government examination in order to obtain an official rank. In an earlier stage of Song rule, the Sichuanese official families were forced to emigrate out of Sichuan; after several generations, they found they had failed to carve out prominent positions in the areas where they had settled, and at the same time they had lost their connection with Sichuan. After the mid-eleventh century, by contrast, the official families remained deeply attached to Sichuanese kin groups and also expanded the kinship by marriage ties, sometimes even incorporating different clans with the same surname (i.e., sharing the same apical ancestor) and uniting their genealogies. In discussing these developments, this dissertation offers several highly important revisions to previous debates on the “localist turn” of the Song literati. First, pursuing a high office did not necessarily reflect the literati’s “national strategy” to move their power base from home to the national political arena; rather, by holding a high office the new officials sought to strengthen and promote their social status in Sichuan. Second, it suggests that this attachment to the holding of offices distinguished the Song official families from local magnate families of the previous periods, particularly in terms of the ways they used to enhance their local status.

Chapter 5, Cooperate to Build the New Order, examines the building of public schools and examination halls at the prefectural and county levels, and it discusses how Sichuan men cooperated with and assisted the educational policies of the government. Under constant financial constraints, county governments called for contributions from local elites, who actively supported and occasionally even initiated school-building projects. The literati community became widespread through both governmental policies and the willingness of local elites to engage.

Finally, the Conclusion comments on the idea that the Song laid the foundation of China’s political unity because of the integration and participation of local elites to national politics, and the elite’s strong attachment to its home locale. This discussion is a must-read for anybody concerned with the debate on the rise of the Song literati elites that was triggered by the landmark works of Robert Hartwell (“Demographic, Political, and Social Transformations of China, 750-1550,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol.42, No.2, 1982) and Robert Hymes (Statesmen and Gentlemen: The Elite of Fu-Chou Chiang-His, in Northern and Southern Sung, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). The author skillfully updates the debate with new materials and historical perspectives and makes a significant contribution to the field.

Tomoyasu Iiyama (飯山知保)
Assistant Professor
Waseda University

Primary Sources 

・Guojiatushuguan shanben jinshi zu 国家图书馆善本金石组, ed., Songdai shike wenxian quanbian 宋代石刻文献全编, 4 vols., Beijing: Beijing tushuguan chubanshe 北京图书馆出版社, 2003.
・Xinwenfeng chuban gongsi 新文豐出版公司, ed., Shike shiliao xinbian 石刻史料新編, ser. 1-4, Taipei: Xinwenfeng chuban gongsi 新文豐出版公司, 1977-2006.
・Zeng Zaozhuang 曾棗庄, et als, eds., Quan song wen 全宋文, 360 vols, Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe 上海辞书出版社, 2006.
・Zhongguo wenwu yanjiusuo 中国文物研究所 and Chongqingshi bowuguan 重庆市博物馆, eds., Xinzhongguo chutu muzhi: Chongqing juan 新中国出土墓志:重庆卷, Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe 文物出版社, 2002.

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2011. Advisors: Peter Bol, Philip Kuhn, Michael Szonyi, and Orlando Patterson.

Image: 中文: 秉燭夜遊 (Waiting for Guests by Lamplight), by Ma Lin. Circa 1250. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like