The society of the late imperial China consisted of many strata. However, one of them, which can be described as Gentry, presents the highest interest. Consisting of the people that have passed difficult exams, i.e. the best of the best, this group, which is known as literati, has defined the efficiency of the entire governmental system of China. This fact makes it possible to view its representatives as the officials. However, their vast knowledge also makes it possible to consider them as the members of intelligentsia. The following essay is dedicated to the definition of meaning of being a literati in China, namely during its late imperial period, the impact this status had on the citizen’s life, and the comparison of the literati to the representatives of modern intelligentsia.
First of all, it should be noted that the literati of China was not a monolithic group of people. They also had their own hierarchy that depended on how many exams they have managed to pass. People prepared for the exam on the lower degree of Xiucai, namely school graduates and the seekers that have studied the canons by themselves, gathered annually in the district center. Under the watchful eye of senior officials, the tests were conducted. The competition was harsh, and a rigid quota was present – usually, no more than five examinees were able to pass. Those who passed won the coveted and highly valued right to be examined for the second degree (Juren or Gongshi, depending on the scale of exam). Even tougher requirements were presented there. By having passed through these tests successfully, the literati were able to take the exams to receive the highest degree of Jinshi. These exams were held in the capital, being supervised by the Emperor. The ranks of people that have managed to receive a third degree were a source of candidates for the key posts in the Chinese bureaucratic administration. As a result, the way to higher-level positions, honor, fame, and fortune was open for them. Those who had the degree of Juren or Gongshi did not have such privileges. Nevertheless, they still enjoyed rather high prestige, being candidates for secondary bureaucratic positions. As a result, they exerted a considerable political influence within their towns or districts. In addition, they had various sources of income, especially from the traders that considered it useful to be acquainted or connected with the high-ranking officials. Even the owners of Xiucai degree felt the attention and respect of neighbors and relatives, the willingness to take their opinions into consideration, and use their advice and assistance from the local authorities.
Thus, the class of literati has played a role of dominant privileged class in China but it was never a social class in the strict sense of the word. Anyone who has penetrated into it, especially by getting at least one academic degree, acquired tangible social and material privileges. Therefore, the literati were wealthy people, mostly landowners (money in the imperial China were almost always invested in the acquisition of land). However, wealth itself did not provide an immediate access to the ranks of literati, although, for the son of a wealthy man, it was easier to get an education and become one of the literati. In addition, the characteristic practice of wealthy Chinese families – the abundance of sons and the absence of the principle of primogeniture – did not contribute to the increase of the ranks of literati. By the third generation, even the most significant wealth may be counted only by hundredths of its share, becoming rather small. As a result, the very social layer of literati has always been mobile. People who were more successful and persistent managed to get into it. On the contrary, the ones that inherited a small portion of the property of their fathers or grandfathers and did not succeed in passing highly competitive exams were left behind. However, the system of political administration of the empire did not suffer in any way. In contrast, the ranks of literati were renewed by new persistent, capable, and ambitious members. In turn, the key positions in the Chinese Empire usually ended up in the hands of the Confucians that were rather proficient in business. For them, the inviolability of the existing system was a guarantee of their personal success and prosperity.
At the same time, people that did not manage to pass the exam often found themselves being outside of the ruling class, and, as a result, the entire governmental system of the imperial China. Being school graduates or self-taught seekers that had a significant level of knowledge, they were unsatisfied with their current position. As a result, they were forced to seek for a new social status and new sources of income. They primarily filled the audience of the rapidly growing number of Chinese universities and constituted a significant part of people that were leaving China to study abroad. They went to the military schools and occupied the officer positions in the fast-growing militaristic armies. They filled up the ranks of the people of the so-called liberal professions that have received a new status and a new field of activity in China. Most importantly, they became the functionaries and activists of newly created political parties and public organizations. It does not mean that the new social classes were replenished only by people that failed to become literati (i.e. did not manage to pass the exam). Of course, the representatives of many other social groups contributed to the formation of intelligentsia in China, but the ranks of would-be literati provided the most prepared people that were quite active in terms of their social reorientation.
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In this regard, an example of Liang Qichao, a prominent Chinese philosopher that lived at the turn of the XIX and XX centuries can be provided. In 1890, Liang traveled to Beijing to take the exam for the third academic degree – Jinshi – but failed. On the way back to Guangdong, he went to Shanghai, where he was able to get the translations of Western books on geography and engineering, which greatly expanded his horizons. In the same year, he met Kang Youwei, becoming his disciple and one of the leaders of the liberal reform movement in China.
As a result, it is possible to say that the Chinese literati were rather close to intelligentsia in its modern meaning. Indeed, both of them were the social group of people who had a critical way of thinking, a high degree of reflection, and the ability to systematize the knowledge and experience. Moreover, representatives of both groups were professionally engaged in the intellectual (mental) activity, claiming the role of the carriers of higher ideals (e.g. the principles of Confucianism). At the same time, there are features that allow drawing a line between the Chinese literati and the modern intelligentsia. First of all, it is worth noting the adherence to traditions of the first ones. As was mentioned before, the representatives of the Chinese literati were interested in preserving the existing way of things, as their well-being depended on it. Such a way of thinking is reflected in the education system of the late imperial China. In particular, Lu Xun, the famous Chinese writer of the first half of the XX century, has noted that the classic subjects were the only proper thing the future literati were supposed to be studying at the time. Anyone that strayed off the course, namely by studying such foreign subjects as natural science or geography, was looked down at by the people. The modern intelligentsia is far from such radical attitude. However, the most significant difference is in the power and privileges provided to the Chinese literati. On the contrary to the representatives of the intelligentsia, after passing the exam, the literati automatically became the highly respected members of the society, having a significant authority no ordinary intellectual possesses. Moreover, unlike the representatives of intelligentsia, they were the primary candidates for the prestige positions in the governmental system.
In conclusion, it is possible to say that despite not being a social stratum in the strict sense of the word, the Chinese literati played a significant role in life of the empire, being highly privileged representatives of intelligentsia. Indeed, they were the people professionally engaged in intellectual activities that claimed the role of the carriers of higher ideals. In particular, the made sure the core principles of Confucianism were followed properly, thus ensuring the stability of the governmental and political system of China. At the same time, the rigid quotas and harsh competition during the exams, as well as the abovementioned family traditions, did not contribute to the growth of their ranks. Moreover, they have ultimately resulted in the emergence of a completely new social class, which was rather close to the modern intelligentsia, and stood at the origins of the reform movement in China, changing the country forever.