In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Intellectual Trends in Late Imperial China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources and Anthologies
  • Databases
  • Late Ming Thought
  • The Ming Loyalists (Yimin) and the Ethos of Loyalism
  • Intellectual Change in Social Context

Chinese Studies Intellectual Trends in Late Imperial China
On-cho Ng
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0126


It seems indubitable that Chinese thought experienced notable changes in the late imperial period, roughly from the late Ming through the mid Qing. Although scholars argue over the genesis, content, nature, and significance of the new developments, most acknowledge and recognize the patterned fundamental shifts in intellectual trends and directions. Some of the interrelated traits of the intellectual redirection include the following: (1) fungibility and syncretism in thinking that tended to mitigate the authority of received opinions; (2) palpable impulse to reorder and manage the world, invoking the ideal of ordering the world through practical statecraft and statesmanship (jingshi 經世); (3) general aversion toward metaphysical speculation and moral introspection and the corresponding interest in the pursuit of solid and practical learning, the so-called puxue 樸學 and shixue 實學, giving rise to utilitarian and instrumental notions of scholarship; (4) valuing personal practical experience, academic, political, social, and otherwise, such that one’s actions in the phenomenal and external worlds loomed large; (5) historicization of the classics (jing 經) that had hitherto been revered as sources of timeless authority, rendering them into objects of scholarly scrutiny, thereby breeding in time the meticulous scholarship of kaozheng 考証 or kaoju 考據 (evidential research and learning), which came to dominate the intellectual world in the so-called Qianjia period (the period of the reigns of the Qianlong and Jiaqing emperors, 1736–1820); (6) preference for limpidity, clarity, and simplicity in writing style and language; and (7) new and broadening horizons of the meaning of community, as the literati’s place in state and society was redefined and reconceptualized. To be sure, these interlarded strains of thoughts were by no means new in the Chinese intellectual universe. Yet, from the late Ming on, there seemed to be an unmistakable convergence of the various traits that fostered conceptual commonalities and intellectual confluences out of a socio-intellectual environ that was nevertheless characterized by manifold sectarian affiliations and polemics. Various modes of learning and thinking cohered to forge a new orientation that seemed to give conscious life in the late imperial period an identifiable stamp and identity. Late imperial China also ushered in new sociopolitical milieus in which thoughts and ideas unfolded. The growth of printing technology and the related book trade and culture, for instance, exerted influence on intellectual developments, as did the rise of the merchants and the fostering of an ethos that prized success in the workaday world.

General Overviews

Numerous general surveys are available from which one may glean information on the intellectual trends in late imperial China, but those included here offer some of the best analyses and discussions. Rong 1966, Gong and Shi 2007, and Wang 2010 provide systematic, general coverage of the intellectual trends, some in more details than others; Chen 2003 examines these trends in philosophical terms, whereas De Bary 1989 and De Bary 1991 deal with these in terms of intellectual history. Smith and Kwok 1993 offers a wide range of essays on various aspects of Qing thought. Yamanoi 1980 represents the best of Japanese scholarship on the topic.

  • Chen Lai 陈来. Zhongguo jinshi sixiangshi yanjiu (中国近世思想史研究). Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan, 2003.

    Written by one of the foremost philosophers in China, the second part of this volume concerns various aspects of late imperial Chinese thought. The most interesting and unusual portions are in the chapters 16 and 21 on the intellectual culture that emanated out of the academies (shuyuan 書院), where the scholars lectured and gathered to debate and discuss. Chapter 18 also stands out for dealing with the relations between Confucian ideas and folk religious beliefs.

  • De Bary, William Theodore. The Message of the Mind in Neo-Confucianism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

    This work rejects the artificial division of Song-Ming Confucianism into the so-called school of principle (lixue) and school of mind (xinxue), tracing the development of Cheng-Zhu teachings in the Qing in terms of the central message regarding the primacy of the mind-and-heart (xin)—the xinfa (the message, measure, and method of the mind-and-heart), which constituted the core of the daotong (the transmission and lineage of the Way).

  • De Bary, William Theodore. Learning for One’s Self: Essays on the Individual in Neo-Confucian Thought. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

    This book uses ample examples from the Ming-Qing period to illustrate the centrality of the self in the Confucian project of moral cultivation, which, in its essentials, was premised on locating the realized self in the contexts of family, society, and state, such that knowing one’s self was tantamount to knowing the larger external responsibilities that one should shoulder.

  • Gong Shuduo 龚书铎, and Shi Gexin 史革新. Qingdai lixueshi (清代理学史). 3 vols. Guangzhou, China: Guangdong jiaoyu chubanshe, 2007.

    This three-volume work is part of the state-sponsored, official project of the compilation of the entirety of Qing history. Although the focus is on Neo-Confucian learning (lixue 理学), this work of some 1,600 pages functions as a broad intellectual history of the Qing. It is particularly useful when examining the relationship between thoughts and social and political institutions, such as the examination system, academies, and Confucian temples.

  • Rong Zhaozu 容肇祖. Mingdai sixiangshi (明代思想史). Taibei: Kaiming shudian, 1966.

    A classic text of general reference and a go-to primer that continues to furnish reliable information and serves as a basic introduction to the thoughts and ideas of the Ming thinkers.

  • Smith, Richard J., and D. W. Y. Kwok, eds. Cosmology, Ontology, and Human Efficacy: Essays in Chinese Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1993.

    The title is somewhat deceptive in that it seems to suggest a volume of essays with broad chronological coverage. In fact, with the exception of a couple of chapters 1 and 9, all deal with various aspects of Qing thought and learning, such as evidential research, ideas of ontology and cosmology, popular religio-philosophical tenets, and conceptions of rituals.

  • Wang Xuequn 汪学群. Zhongguo ruxueshi: Qingdai juan (中国儒學史: 清代卷). Beijing: Beijing dauxue chubanshe, 2010.

    Apart from being a competent survey of the some of the major intellectual figures and trends in the Qing, it is particular good in revealing the continued development of Lu-Wang learning associated with the Neo-Confucian school of mind-heart, which is commonly seen to have become moribund. The two substantial chapters 10 and 11 on the reemergence of Gongyang learning as an integral part of Qing learning are particularly informative.

  • Yamanoi Yū 山井湧. Min Shin shisō shi no kenkyū (明清思想史の研究). Tokyo: Tōkyō daigaku shuppankai, 1980.

    These essays show the newness of Qing thought in terms of the rise of the “philosophy of psycho-physical force (qi)” that dislodged the previously influential “philosophy of principle (li)” of the orthodox Cheng-Zhu school. Reveals the de-emphasis on introspective moral cultivation as fervent interests in practical and solid learning, such as evidential textual studies, practical statecraft, geography, history, astronomy, and mathematics, came to the fore.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.