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‘Scholars should be considered the last of the Four Classes’: The Case of Scholar-official Zheng Banqiao

Pages 219 - 244


Ghent University

1 Translation by Lin Yutang in his The Wisdom of China (London: Michael Joseph, 1949), p. 491. Whenever I refer to a translation of the Family Letters, it will be Lin's translation; see ibid., pp. 483–496, and Zheng Banqiao, Banqiao jiashu (The Family Letters of Banqiao), trans. Lin Yutang (Tianjin: Baihua wenyi chubanshe, 2002), pp. 2–67. Lin translated eleven of the Family Letters – be it partly – into English. Not translated by him are the letters III, IV, IX, XI and XII. For the Chinese version, see, for ex., Zheng Banqiao, Banqiao jiashu. Hutu chenggong daquan 板橋家書.糊塗成功大全 (Beijing: Zhongguo duiwai fanyi chuban gongsi, 2000).

2 For more general background information on the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns, see, for ex., Frederick W. Mote, Imperial China 900–1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 856–948; Willard J. Peterson (ed), The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 9: The Ch'ing Dynasty, Part 1: To 1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 120–309.

3 For a complete English monograph on the artist Zheng Banqiao including a biography and discussion of his collected works, see Karl-Heinz Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao. Poet, Painter and Calligrapher, Monumenta Serica Monograph Series (Nettetal Steyler Verlag: 1990). For Chinese studies on the eccentricity of Zheng Banqiao, see, for ex., Wei Zhiyou 衛志友, “‘Bimo dangsui shidai’, ‘Nu bu tong ren’ – Qianxi Zheng Banqiao zhi ‘guai’” “笔墨当随时代”“怒不同人 — 浅析郑板桥之,” Beijing ligong daxue xuebao 北京理工大學學報 (Shehui kexueban) no. 5 (2008) and Meng Zhen 孟楨, “Zheng Banqiao de maodun renge” 鄭板橋的矛盾人格, Chuanshan xuekan 船山學刊 1 (2006), pp. 59–61.

4 For more on the moral value of the Family Letters, see, for ex., Mi Jiangxia 米江霞, “‘Zheng Banqiao jiashu’ de lunli jiazhi ji xianshi yiyi” “鄭板橋家書”的倫理價值及現實意義, Hexi xueyuan xuebao 河西學院學報 21. 1 (2005).

5 The names and degrees in the imperial examinations were as follows: the first examination was the ‘Government Examination’ (yuanshi 院試), with the resulting title of xiucai 秀才 or shengyuan 生員; the second was the ‘Provincial Examination’ (xiangshi 鄉試), a triennial examination, with the resulting title of juren 舉人, ‘recommended man’ or graduate; the third examination was the ‘Metropolitan Examination’ (huishi 會試) with the resulting title of gongshi 貢士; finally, there was the ‘Palace Examination’ (dianshi 殿試), which took place at the palace and led to the title of jinshi 進士 ‘presented scholar’. See Benjamin A. Elman, “The Social Role of Literati in Early to Mid-Ch'ing”, in Peterson, The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 9, p. 379. For Zheng's career in the examination system, see further below.

6 Until today, art historians disagree on the question who exactly these Eight Eccentrics were. The most commonly accepted opinion includes Wang Shishen 汪士慎 (1686–1759), Huang Shen 黃慎 (1687–1768), Li Shan 李鱓/李鳝 (1686?–1756), Jin Nong 金農 (1687–1764), Luo Pin 羅聘 (1733–1799), Gao Xiang 高翔 (1688–1753), Li Fangying 李方膺 (1696–1755), and Zheng Banqiao. Whatever opinions there are on this issue, the term ‘Eight Eccentrics’ should rather be considered to refer to a group of artists who share certain things in common in their life and art. See Zhang Anzhi, A History of Chinese Painting, Translated by Dun J. Li (Beijing Foreign Language Press, 2002), p. 200. Li Shan seems to have been a very good friend of Zheng Banqiao, and Zheng Banqiao certainly admired Jin Nong, to whom he wrote some letters that were later published For a brief (English) discussion on the Yangzhou Eccentrics, see also James Cahill, Fantastics and Eccentrics in Chinese Painting (New York: Arno Press, 1976), pp. 88–107 (with a reference to Zheng Banqiao on p. 96), and Sun Li 孙立 (ed.; Yangzhou bowuguan 揚州博物館), Yangzhou ba guai (Nanjing: Jiangsu renmin chubanshe, 2003).

7 Until the present day, Zheng Banqiao is glorified for being a moral example for officials, and in the contemporary discourses about him he is often compared with other officials who are celebrated for their moral integrity and smartness such as Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (365–427) and the three Kingdoms Era officer Yang Xiu 楊修 (175–219). There are comic books made about him, and in 1983 the Xinghua Zheng Banqiao Memorial Hall (Museum) 興化鄭板橋紀念館 was established in Xinghua. Also in 1983, his former home in Xinghua was restored to what is now a tourist spot. On the occasion of his 300th birthday, in 1993, a Chinese TV serial about the life of Zheng Banqiao became very popular.

8 I would like to note that this article will not deal with Zheng Banqiao's artistic output that differs from his literary pursuits, nor with his view on aesthetics and literature, but that explorations in these fields would certainly confirm the conclusions offered here. For an elaborate discussion of Zheng Banqiao's life and art, see, for ex., the abovementioned monograph by Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao.

9 For more on institutional adaption during the reign of the early Manchu rulers, see John King Fairbank, China. A New History (Cambridge and London: BelknapPress of Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 146–151.

10 Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao, p. 2. The Yangzhou massacre took place from 20–29 May 1645. There are many works on this tragedy. See, for ex., Mote, Imperial China 900–1800, pp. 830–831. For more on Ming loyalism during the Kangxi reign, see ibid., pp. 850–855.

11 Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao, p. 3.

12 At least on the surface; cf. the impressive book inquisition under Qianlong during the 1770s: despite the relative social stability, the Qianlong emperor – being a ‘barbarian’ himself – still feared Ming loyalism among the intellectual class, and all books with disrespectful references to the Manchu ruling elite were put on an index, banned and burned. See Madeleine Zelin, “The Yung-cheng Reign”, in Peterson, The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 9, pp. 189–191.

13 Other possible reasons why Zheng Banqiao finally took up study for the civil examinations will be discussed later.

14 Gu Yanwu, also known as Gu Tinglin 顧亭林, was a Chinese epistemologist and geographer. His positivist approach to a variety of disciplines and his criticism of Neo-Confucianism had a huge influence on later scholars. See, for ex, Jana S. Rosker, Searching for the Way. Theory of Knowledge in Pre-modern and Modern China (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2008), pp. 92–97.

15 For the literati class, see, for ex., Robert Mortimer Marsh, Mandarins: The Circulation of Elites in China, 1600–1900 (New York: The Free Press, 1961), and Elman, “The Social Role of Literati in Early to Mid-Ch'ing”.

16 Only five percent of all the degree holders could ascend high enough in the examination system to become official. For more on the appointments of officials during the Qing dynasty, see, for ex., Charles O. Hucker, A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), pp. 94–95.

17 For an overview of Qing administration, ibid., pp. 83–96.

18 See Max Weber, The Religion of China. Translated by Hans H. Gerth (New York: The Free Press Macmillan Company, 1964 [1951]), p. 116. For an excellent in-depth analysis of the civil examinations in late imperial China, see Benjamin A. Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). For more on the social stratification in China, see Li Yi, The Structure and Evolution of Chinese Social Stratification (Lanham: University Press of America, 2005).

19 Mary B. Rankin, John K. Fairbank, and Albert Feuerwerker, “Introduction: Perspectives on Modern China's history”, in John K. Fairbank and Denis Twitchett (eds.), The Cambridge History of China. Volume 13, Republican China 1912–1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 29–39.

20 See also note 12 on the book inquisition during the Qianlong reign.

21 Li Yi, The Structure and Evolution of Chinese Social Stratification, p. 31. This expression is more commonly known as wai ru nei fa 外儒內法, ‘Confucian on the outside, Legalistic inside’.

22 For more on the socio-cultural milieu of Yangzhou in the first half of the 18th century, see, for ex., Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao, pp. 27–32; Qin Jin'gen 秦金根, Qing – Zheng Banqiao shu 清 – 鄭板橋 (Shijiazhuang: Hebei jiaoyu chubanshe, 2004), pp. 46–61; John K. Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer, China: Tradition and Transformation (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1979), pp. 230–238; Thomas O. Höllmann, “Eine Allianz von Geld und Geist. Die Salzkaufleute von Yangzhou und die Blüte des privaten Mäzenatentums im China des 18. Jahrhunderts”, in Helga Breuniger and Rolf P. Sieferle (eds.), Markt und Macht in der Geschichte (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1995), pp. 221–240.

23 Zhang, A History of Chinese Painting, p. 200. An example of this ‘eccentricity’ is the innovative free-hand painting of flowers and birds for which the artists of this school are generally known, as well as their artistic stimulation in favor of the development of other new styles. Zheng Banqiao himself is famous for his own particular style called the 'six-and-a-half script' (liu fen ban shu 六分半書). This particular style was a combination of different existing calligraphic styles; its main basis was the latest and most refined variation of the clerical official script (li shu 隸書) of Later Han times, known as the ‘eight parts’ (ba fen 八分).

24 See, for ex., Meng Zhen, “Zheng Banqiao de maodun renge”. For more on individualism and humanitarian trends in the Ming dynasty, see William T. de Bary, “Individualism and Humanitarianism in Late Ming Thought”, in W. T. de Bary (ed.), Self and Society in Ming Thought (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1970). For more in particular on Li Zhi, see ibid., pp. 188–222.

25 Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao, p. 28. For more on the relation between merchant and official from an economic point of view, see Fairbank, China. A New History, pp. 179–182.

26 Lin, The Wisdom of China, p. 496. Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (181–234), a prime minister of the Shu Han 蜀漢 dynasty during the Three Kingdoms Period (220–265), is famous for being a wise strategist with unsurpassed intelligence. He is generally acclaimed as the embodiment of wisdom. Until the present day, he is extremely popular and his person inspired many popular TV serials, films, comics and historical novels.

27 See for instance the poem ‘A poem for my wet nurse’, translated by Jonathan Chaves, The Columbia Book of Later Chinese Poetry: Yüan, Ming, and Ch'ing Dynasties (1279–1911) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 434–435.

28 For the degrees in the civil service examination system see note 5.

29 Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao, pp. 35–36. Zheng Banqiao even wrote an essay on the beauty of the male buttocks, which can be considered as a classic of homoerotic literature. For a translation and for more on his homoerotic tendencies, see, for ex, Wu Cuncun, Homoerotic Sensibilities in Late Imperial China (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), pp. 103–104.

30 Qin Jin'gen, Qing – Zheng Banqiao shu, p. 10.

31 Ibid.

32 For the original text, see Qin Jin'gen, Qing – Zheng Banqiao shu, pp. 225–226. For more on the ‘Ten Songs with Daoist Sentiments’, see Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao, pp. 40, 117–20; Qin Jin'gen, Qing – Zheng Banqiao shu, pp. 28–29; Zheng Dekai 鄭德開, “Zheng Banqiao yu ru shi dao” 鄭板橋與儒釋道, Chuxiong shifan xueyuan xuebao 楚雄師範學院學報 22.12 (2007); Wei Zhiyou, “‘Huanxing chilong xiaochu fannao’, jueren jueshi' – Cong ‘Daoqing shi shou’ guankui Zheng Banqiao zhi fo dao sixiang” “喚醒癡聾,銷除煩惱”, “覺人覺世”–從“道情十首”管窺鄭板橋之佛道思想, Guangzhou guangbo dianshi daxue xuebao 廣州廣播電視大學學報 8.4 (2008), pp. 62–65, and Yin Wen 尹文, “Banqiao daoqing zonglun” 板橋道情緃論, Dongnan daxue xuebao 東南大學學報 (Zhexue shehui kexueban) 4.6 (2002).

33 For more on the anti-Manchu tradition in his family, see Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao, pp. 39–41.

34 See ibid., pp. 37–41.

35 From the Tang dynasty (618–907) onwards, by law a district officer had to be a stranger in the county he ruled. That is to say, he was employed minimum 500 li (about 250 km) away from his birthplace. Other such rules included not being allowed to marry in one's own district nor to own land in that area. This rule was to limit the acquisition of power and unacceptable degrees of autonomy among local officials through ‘interpersonal relations’. See Heirman Ann, Dessein Bart and Dominiek Delporte, China. Een maatschappelijke en filosofische geschiedenis van de vroegste tijden tot de twintigste eeuw (Gent: Academia Press, 2001), p. 150.

36 In practice, only five percent of all degree holders were awarded an official post, so without supportive connections, it was difficult to be accepted into the imperial administration. – According to Zheng Dekai, Lou Jinyuan, a good friend of Zheng and a famous Daoist, played a crucial role in providing Zheng with the post in Fanxian (Zheng Dekai, “Zheng Banqiao yu ru shi dao”, p. 27). Further below we shall briefly return to Lou Jinyuan. – Qin Jin'gen argues that during his first trip to Beijing in 1725–1729, Zheng Banqiao must have been ‘preparing’ a sound network for an eventual later career as an official (Qin Jin'gen, Qing – Zheng Banqiao shu, p. 16).

37 Wang Zhonghan 王鍾翰 (ed.), Qing shi liezhuan, 20 vols. (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1987), XVIII, j. 72, pp. 5882–5883. Translation by Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao, p. 45.

38 Qin Jin'gen, Qing – Zheng Banqiao shu, p. 31.

39 This is probably the most frequently cited and historically most reliable story that describes Zheng Banqiao's concern for the people and his independent and rebellious character. All works about the life and works of Zheng Banqiao cited in the present article, contain this story with more or less the same elements.

40 His letters XIII and XIV, addressing brother Mo 墨, discuss the treatment of servants' and poor neighbors' children as being one's own children. For a translation see Lin, The Wisdom of China, pp. 492–495.

41 Own paraphrase based on Ouyang Xiulin 歐陽秀林, Hutuxue 糊塗學 (Beijing: Beijing dizhen chubanshe, 2006), pp. 12–13. This story has become very popular, to which the English picture story called ‘Zheng Banqiao tries a rock’ testifies. See Huan Shiming, Zheng Banqiao tries a Rock, Stories about Ancient Chinese Literary and Art Figures (Beijing: Morning Glory Press, 1986).

42 Zheng Banqiao had no brothers or sisters, but his paternal uncle had a son whose name was Mo, and who was twenty-four years younger than Zheng Banqiao. Zheng considered him a younger brother and addressed most of his Family Letters to this ‘Brother Mo’.

43 Lin, The Wisdom of China, p. 491.

44 Ibid., p. 487.

45 Qin Jin'gen, Qing – Zheng Banqiao shu, p. 46.

46 For a translation of these poems, see Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao, pp. 223–228, especially the cited excerpt on p. 228 there.

47 Wang Zhongshan, Qing shi liezhuan, j. 72, pp. 5882–5883. At that time, poor health was the only excuse for which an official could retire.

48 Zhou Jiyin 周積寅, “Ershi nian Banqiao yuan” 二十年板橋緣, Nantong shifan xueyuan xuebao 南通師範學院學報 (Zhexue shehui kexueban) 18.2 (2002).

49 Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao, p. 242.

50 See also note 6 and page 228.

51 William Henry Scott, “Yangchow and Its Eight Eccentrics,” Asiatische Studien 17 (1964), p. 11 (cited in Cahill, Fantastics and Eccentrics in Chinese Painting, p. 96).

52 See Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao, p. 59.

53 For some Chinese studies on the relation between the salt merchants as patrons of the arts and Zheng's artistic production, see, for ex., Yang Xianzong 楊賢宗 and Zhu Tianshu 朱天曙, “Yangzhou yanshang yu Banqiao fengge” 揚州鹽商與板橋風格, Nantong shifan xueyuan xuebao 南通師範學院學報 (Zhexue shehui kexueban) 19.2 (2003), and Zhang Jing 張靖, “Zheng Banqiao shufa yu Yangzhou Hui shang” 鄭板橋書法與揚州徽商, Shayang shifan gaodeng zhuanke xuexiao xuebao 沙洋師範高等専科學校學報 6.6 (2005). For more on Zheng's relation with Ma Yueguan, see Zheng Xie, Zheng Banqiao ji 鄭板橋集, 5th revised ed (Shanghai: Guji chubanshe, 1979), p. 157; Pohl, Cheng Pan-ch'iao, p. 58.

54 For an overview of all his commonly used seals, see, for ex, Qin Jin'gen, Qing – Zheng Banqiao, pp. 195–199.

55 Ibid., p. 16. For the original text, see Wang Zhongshan, Qing Shi Liezhuan, j. 72, pp. 5882–5883.

56 The term fengliu was a term associated with the Neo-Daoist discourse in the Wei and Jin periods (3rd to 4th century AD). It refers to men of free spirit who were unbound by the morals and institutions of the Confucian school. For a detailed description of the various meanings of fengliu, see Fung Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. A Systematic Account of Chinese Thought from its Origins to the Present Day (New York: The Free Press, 1997 [1948]), pp. 231–240.

57 Meng Zhen, “Zheng Banqiao de maodun renge”, p. 61.

58 Qin Jin'gen, Qing – Zheng Banqiao shu, p. 60.

59 Translation by Lin Yutang in Lin, The Wisdom of China, p. 495.

60 See Qin Jin'gen, Qing – Zheng Banqiao shu, p. 15. Wufang Shangren stayed his whole life in the “background” of society, unaffected by current conventions. In his younger years, he lived on the Lushan mountains and later became the abbot of Wengshan Monastery in Beijing. During Zheng Banqiao's sojourn in Beijing (1725–1729), he often had long discussions with him. Towards the end of his days, he lived as a recluse. As a consequence of his low-profile life, there are very few historical sources about him. But he was not just an ordinary monk. For all this, see Jin Shiqiu 金實秋, Zheng Banqiao yu fojiao chanzong 鄭板橋與佛教襌宗 (Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua chubanshe, 2001), pp. 69–70.

61 Zheng Dekai, “Zheng Banqiao yu ru shi dao”, pp. 25–26. For a study on Zheng Banqiao and Chan Buddhism, see also Jin Shiqiu, Zheng Banqiao yu fojiao chanzong. Other studies mentioning Buddhism as a source of influence include Qin Jin'gen, Qing – Zheng Banqiao shu; Jin Shiqiu, “Zheng Banqiao fangwai you kaolüe” 鄭板橋方外友考略, Dongnan wenhua 東南文化 3 (1999); Wei Zhiyou, “Huanxing chilong xiaochu fannao”.

62 The theme of xiaoyao you covers the first section of the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi. It is a metaphor for the state of mind of the illuminated man and depicts the ideal of spontaneity resulting from true knowledge of the dao and actualizing one's inner dao, which will automatically bring about a carefree life in harmony with nature. For a translation, see Burton Watson, Chuang-tzu: Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), pp. 23–30.

63 Zheng Dekai, “Zheng Banqiao yu ru shi dao”, p. 26.

64 Lou Jinyuan was also called Lou Zhenren 樓真人, Lou the (Daoist) genuine man'. Zhenren generally refers to the Daoist sage or perfect man, which denotes a person who has ‘actualized’ (realized) his inner self or ‘virtue’ (de 德) in accordance with the dao. He was not just an ordinary Daoist master, but also excelled in medical knowledge. He maintained a very close relationship with the Yongzheng emperor and once was asked to cure the emperor of a serious disease, which he successfully did. Zheng was only four years younger than Lou, and they hailed from the same region. Moreover, their attitude towards life was very similar, which enhanced their friendship even more. See Zheng Dekai, “Zheng Banqiao yu ru shi dao”, p. 27. For an analysis of the life, works and thoughts of Lou Jinyuan, see Kong Xiangyu 孔祥毓 “Miaozheng zhenren Lou Jinyuan de shengping zhuzuo ji sixiang” 真人樓近垣的生平著作及思想, Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 3 (2006).

65 For both translations, see Lin, The Wisdom of China, pp. 492–493. For the original text, see Zheng Banqiao, Banqiao jiashu, pp. 101.

66 Qin Jin'gen, Qing – Zheng Banqiao shu, p. 226. For an extensive inquiry of Buddhist and Daoist elements in the Daoqing shi shou, see Wei Zhiyou, “ Huanxing chilong, xiaochu fannao”.

67 Ibid., p. 60.

68 De Bary, “Individualism and Humanitarianism in Late Ming Thought”, p. 211.

69 Meng Zhen, “Zheng Banqiao de maodun renge”, p. 61.

70 Clifford Plopper, Chinese Religion seen through the Proverb (New York: Paragon Book Reprint Cooperation, 1969), p. 15.

71 A more literal translation would be: ‘on the inside Confucian, on the outside Daoist’. Sometimes also nei ru wai fo 內儒外佛 (‘on the inside Confucian, on the outside Buddhist’) is used. In fact, the format of the saying is adapted to what the user wants to describe, and so there are different versions.

72 Lin Yutang, My Country and my People (Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 2007 [1998]), p. 115.

73 Already at a young age Tao Yuanming (365–427) was torn between ambition and a desire to retreat into solitude. He later served in several minor posts, but his dissatisfaction with the corruption of the Jin Court (317–420) prompted him to resign. He refused to bow to powerful but corrupt officials just for the sake of convenience, position and material gain. As the many allusions to Tao Yuanming in Zheng's writings show, he greatly admired him.

74 De Bary, “Individualism and Humanitarianism in Late Ming Thought”, p. 16.

75 Zheng Dekai, “Zheng Banqiao yu ru shi dao”, 28.

76 Translation by Pohl in his Cheng Pan-ch'iao, p. 230. All of the mentioned men are Song (960–1279) poets. Qin Guan 秦觀 was a student of Su Shi 蘇軾 (also called Su Dongpo 蘇東坡), excelling in ci 詞 songlyrics. Liu Yong 柳永 was also well-versed in that genre and known for his ability to render the sublime accessible in the vernacular, a quality which some critics called ‘vulgarity’. Xin Qiji 辛棄疾 was, apart from being a poet, a famous military leader. Su Shi was a celebrated writer and excellent statesman, famous for his independent and rebellious character. Liu Guo 劉過 called himself Longzhou daoren 龍洲道人 (‘Longzhou Daoist Master’), which betrays his Daoist inclination.


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