The Rise of Hanlin Academicians in the Tang and Song Dynasties


A review of The Rise of the Hanlin Academicians: The political history of the imperial secretaries during the Tang-Song, 783-1082, by Chang Wook Lee.

Chang Wook Lee’s dissertation is a thorough history of the Hanlin Academicians and their role at the imperial Chinese court from their origins until the Ming dynasty, although as the title indicates, the focus is on the three centuries from 783-1082, when the Hanlin Academicians were most influential. By focusing on this institution, which persisted across dynasties, Lee presents a new perspective on mid-imperial Chinese political history, one in which the emperors are but one factor in a shifting and evolving balance of political power in imperial government.

Chapter 1 introduces the topic by vividly depicting the role of the Hanlin Academician Lu Zhi assisting the Tang Emperor Dezong during a military rebellion in 783. Lee argues that this marked the moment at which Hanlin Academicians began to acquire political authority in addition to their cultural status, and that this political influence continued into the Northern Song dynasty despite the imperial upheavals of the Five Dynasties period. Chapter 2 provides historical background on earlier academic institutions in imperial China from the time of Emperor Han Wudi through the early Tang, which were involved in cultural activities such as compiling histories but did not participate in making policy. It also includes interesting cross-cultural comparisons to studies by Jim Bradbury, Robert Fawtier and others on medieval society in Capetian France.

In chapter 3, Lee describes the founding of the Hanlin Academy and its shifting fortunes in the early Tang, a period during which the extent of its authority with respect to the officials of the outer court was often unclear. Lee also notes that the positions of expositor-in-waiting and reader-in-waiting, which were so influential in later periods, were actually established in the late Tang, only to be abolished by the eunuchs in the 840s. Throughout the chapter, biographies translated from primary sources such as the Old Tang History, the New Tang History and The New History of the Five Dynasties illustrate the lives and careers of particular Hanlin Academicians. These biographies are balanced with numerous charts and tables showing statistical trends in the careers of Hanlin Academicians and changes in the organizational structure of the institution itself. Lee also draws on current western scholarship (Mark Lewis, Patricia Ebrey), Japanese scholarship (Tanigawa Michio, Kawakatsu Yoshio) and Chinese scholarship (Mao Hanguang, Wu Zongguo). Chapter 4 describes the Later Jin’s “two-drafting” system to clarify the responsibilities of the Hanlin Academicians and the outer court officials, an innovation that continued into later times. This chapter also includes biographical information from the tenth-century New History of the Five Dynasties on the famous statesman Feng Dao to illustrate the new type of military elite who emerged in this period.

In chapter 5, Lee traces the growing influence of Hanlin Academicians in the Northern Song, until the reforms of the 1080s. This period saw the re-establishment of the Classics Colloquium in which Hanlin Academicians were appointed to educate the emperor in the histories and classics, providing an opportunity for them to voice criticisms of current policies by analogy. Also during this period Hanlin Academicians were appointed to the Censorate and Remonstrance posts where they were given more autonomy to criticize and investigate high officials. Throughout earlier periods the interests of the Hanlin Academicians were allied with those of the emperor in opposition to officials of the outer court, Lee argues, but under the reign of Song Emperor Shenzong the Hanlin Academicians were opposed to the Emperor’s promotion of Wang Anshi’s New Policies. Drawing on the work of scholars including Li Huairui and Zhang Guogang, as well as Paul Smith’s research in The Cambridge History of China volume 5 and Li Zhiliang’s Songdai jingchao guan tongkao. Lee suggests that not only did this turning point mark the first moment when the Hanlin Academicians opposed the interests of the Emperor, it also was the impetus for Shenzong to curtail their political authority. The effects of Shenzong’s reforms would continue to restrict the Hanlin Academicians from that point on.

Chapter 6 gives an overview of later developments in the history of the Hanlin Academy, and makes the important point that the Jurchen’s Jin dynasty continued the precedents set by the Northern Song and contributed more to the development of the institution than the Southern Song did. This chapter also provides a good summary of the dissertation. An appendix includes useful tables of information on all known Hanlin Academicians from the Tang and Song dynasties.

Chang Wook Lee’s study The Rise of the Hanlin Academicians: The Political History of the Imperial Secretaries During the Tang-Song, 783-1082 will be useful for students and scholars of imperial Chinese history. By focusing on the enduring institution of the Hanlin Academy and its changing role as a cultural and political authority, this dissertation sheds light on the evolution of the Chinese imperial court and the organization of political power in China.

Jeff Rice
Department of History
The College of New Jersey

Primary Sources

(Tang) Li Zhao 李肇. Hanlin zhi 翰林志.
(Later Jin) Liu Xu 劉昫 et al., eds. Jiu Tangshu 舊唐書
(Song) Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 et al., eds. Xin Tangshu 新唐書
(Song) Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 et al., eds. Xin Wudai shi 新五代史
(Song) Sima Guang 司馬光 et al., eds. Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑑

Dissertation Information

Binghamton University of the State University of New York. 2013. 541pp. Primary Advisor: John W. Chaffee.

Image: Image of bookshelf by Chang Wook Lee.

1 comment
  1. I was almost suggested as a reviewer.I thought that it was an excellent piece of scholarship, and so would have loved to review it myself, except that I am not really qualified to discuss the subject. I am glad this excellent dissertation did find a reviewer in the end.

Leave a Reply

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

You May Also Like