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Early Modern or Late Imperial Philology? The Crisis of Classical Learning in Eighteenth Century China

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image of Frontiers of History in China

The discourses of classical scholars during the eighteenth century reinforced a shift from Song-Ming rationalism to a more skeptical and secular classical empiricism. By making precise scholarship the source of acceptable knowledge, Qing classicists contended that the legitimate reach of ancient ideals should be reevaluated through comparative delineation of the textual sources from which all such knowledge derived. This turn to empirically based classical inquiry meant that abstract ideas and rational argumentation gave way as the primary objects of elite discussion to concrete facts, verifiable institutions, ancient natural studies, and historical events. In general, Qing classicists regarded Song and Ming “Learning of the Way” as an obstacle to verifiable truth because it discouraged further inquiry along empirical lines. The empirical approach to knowledge they advocated placed proof and verification at the heart of analysis of the classical tradition. During this time, scholars and critics also applied historical analysis to the official Classics. Classical commentary yielded to textual criticism and a “search for evidence” to refortify the ancient canon. Representing a late imperial movement in Confucian letters, Qing classicists still sought to restore the classical vision. The early modern power of their philology, however, yielded the forces of decanonization and delegitimation as modernist trends, which went beyond the intellectual limits they had imposed on their own writings.


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