Teaching Module

Late Imperial China

Meng Ch'iu, K'uang Heng bores a hole in the wall Sun Ching shuts his door [Literary Excerpt]

Annotation

"Meng Ch'iu" translates as "Beginner's Guide." This text by Li Han, who lived during the early Tang Dynasty (618-907), presented the stories of famous figures in China's history and legendary tales. It joined a prominent genre of literature for children as one of the many instructional texts that took both history and biography as its focus. Not only would Meng Ch'iu serve as an educational text, it would also have an influence on popular drama through the dramatic stories it shared—thrilling stories that, for critics of a later day, particularly during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), were criticized as lacking in the proper themes for a moral education.

The following excerpt offers the tale of young men who grow to achieve success in China's famous civil service examinations. These exams, offered by the imperial state as it sought to staff its own bureaucracy of scholar-officials, were one of the surest paths to family success and social prestige. The two stories presented here reveal the duty of a son to his family as well as the possibility of social mobility that was celebrated in much of later imperial Chinese history. Here we have a glimpse upon the concerns and expectations of a poorer family and the dreams that their own son would fulfill. At the same time, this text also offers a view toward the humor and slap-stick levity that accompanied many of the tales offered in the Meng Ch'iu text (and which may have earned it a later critique and abandonment by those looking to educate their children in the Ming and Qing dynasties).

Source

Li Han and Hsü Tzu-kuang. Meng Ch'iu: Famous Episodes from Chinese History and Legend. Transl. by Burton Watson. New York: Kodansha International, 1979, 23–4.

Primary Source Text

K'uang Heng bores a hole in the wall
Sun Ching shuts his door

K'uang Heng of the Former Han, whose polite name was Chih-kuei, was a native of Ch'eng in Tung-hai. His father and his ancestors before him had been farmers, but K'uang took a great liking to learning. However, because his family was poor, he hired himself out as a day laborer in order to meet expenses. In diligence and energy he far surpassed others. The Confucian scholars used to say to each other, "Don't try to lecture on the Book of Odes – leave it to K'uang. When he expounds the Odes, he makes people laugh so hard they unhinge their jaws!" He passed the civil service examination in the first category and was selected for public office, and in the reign of Emperor Yüan [48-33 B.C.] was promoted to the post of chancellor.

The Hsi-ching tsa-chi or Random Notes on the Western Capital records that when K'uang Heng was hard at work on his studies, he had no lamp to read by. The house next door had a lamp, but its light did not reach to K'uang's house. K'uang thereupon bored a hole in the wall of his neighbor's house and read his books by the light that came through.

In the village there was a prominent man named Wen Pu-chih, who was very rich and owned many books. K'uang went to work for him, but refused any compensation, asking instead that he be allowed to read his way through the man's library. The master of the rich family, much impressed, kept K'uang provided with books to read, and in this way he was eventually able to become a great scholar.

According to the Ch'u-kuo hsien-shien-chuan or Biographies of Former Worthies of the State of Ch'u, Sun Ching, whose polite name was Wen-pao, always kept his door closed and spent all his time reading books. If he felt himself growing drowsy, he would tie a rope around his neck and loop it over the rafters so he would be sure to stay awake. One time when he went to the marketplace, the people in the market, seeing him, all called out, “Here comes Professor Closed Door!” He was invited to take public office but declined the summons.

How to Cite This Source

Sue Fernsebner, "Late Imperial China," in Children and Youth in History, Item #221, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/teaching-modules/221 (accessed September 2, 2014).