Empire in Asia

A New Global History

From Philosophy to Philology

Book Cover

Book Title

From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series, 2001


Elman, Benjamin A.


This book is a revised edition of an original work published in 1984 and 1990. It contains a new preface and additional new chapter, as well as revisions to all the other chapters. The book’s origin is from the author’s own search for understanding the importance of the role of jinwenxue or New Text classical studies to kaozhengxue or “evidential research” studies during the Qing dynasty. Looking at the role of Qing scholars, the book tries to present an overview of the major changes in late imperial intellectual life and the advent of a “somewhat secular academic community” that formed which is different from that of the Western counterpart.

Looking at the structure of gentry society in late imperial China, it attempts to reconsider the nature of Confucianism as a singular entity, showing the complexities instead that underlie the society at the point of study, especially in relation to the ‘literati’. This is substantiated by the fact that the literati were not strictly bound by a monastic order, and that western conceptions of religious belief could only be fully understood in the late nineteenth century.

The term Confucianism or Kongjiao is explored in relation to the conceptions of belief of the scholars, and the author finds that it is better to use the terms “teachings of the scholars” instead of Confucianism. Giving an in-depth insight to the scholars and their types of learning, it is able to give its own account whilst also refuting long-standing views about Confucianism.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book covers the period of the Ming and the transition to the Qing in Chinese history. As a revised edition, the book contains chapters looking at the problems of categorizing scholars as part of a particular religious order, as well as the problem of looking at them through a singular lens of Confucianism as a whole. Looking primarily at discourse, and the ways in which scholarship changed over time and created progress in evidential scholarship, the book is able to give an in depth look on the production of knowledge and the ways in which scholars operated in late imperial China.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The book generally attempts to demystify the different types of scholars during this period of Chinese history, and borrows from conceptual schemes of Western scholars such as Thomas Kuhn to illuminate its own analysis. Focusing in on the Lower Yangzi region in particular, the book looks at the academic community that was both fashioned and produced over time through an interpretation of the social origins, patronage system, and types of professionalization. It further goes on to look at the production of scholarly communication and the inter-related phenomena of books production, libraries and scholarship.

Looking at the composition, development and fracturing of the Kaozheng movement, the study is both historical in nature, and further posits a different way to read the community of scholars in the late imperial period. The book is indeed well researched and invites a critical readership.

Annotated by Sandeep Singh