Ideology and Prototypes

Confucian Thought and Social Structure


he appearance of Confucius toward the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B. c.) was the catalyst for the birth of a new culture. A class of Confucian- educated intellectuals became government officials, and with the political life of the nation in their hands a civil­ian-based feudal order unique to China developed.

During the Han dynasty, Confucianism became the offi­cially recognized state doctrine, and Confucian learning the country’s officially recognized form of scholarship, with which the idea of the Confucian state was firmly estab­lished. A social and political system based on Confucian ideology was to be the hallmark of the Chinese imperial state for the next two thousand years.

Confucianism and the Emperor

Confucian thought holds that the emperor was given life by the gods who rule the universe, and that he was then charged with responsibility for ruling the earth and gov­erning the people in accordance with the gods’ will. It was thought that an immoral or corrupt emperor would be judged by the gods, so the emperor in turn was to act as judge and moral arbiter of people’s lives. Since the task of ruling directly over each individual in the state was too much for the emperor to accomplish alone, this responsi­bility was divided among a number of government offi­cials. Those chosen to be officials were to be the wisest men in the state which, it was hoped, would produce an ideal system of government.

With Confucianism established as the state religion dur­ing the Han dynasty, the most able men were gathered from throughout the country and given official appoint­ments after they had passed an oral examination. The Tang inherited this system and established the keju system of civil service examinations for candidates from both central and outlying regions.

The Keju System of Civil Service Examinations

That someone could enter the civil service with the possi­bility of advancing to its highest ranks purely on the mer­its of his Confucian education, rather than through family ties or personal wealth, is indicative of the difficulty of the keju examinations, and distinguished anyone who passed the exams as a “learned man.” Under these circumstances, having a shifting and hunting became a symbol of an offi­cial’s learning, and a world separate from that of everyday life was created around these buildings. This was a world accessible only to the educated from which ordinary peo­ple were excluded. It is in this social structure that we find the origins of the Chinese ting yuan and yuanlin.

The keju system demonstrated surprising longevity and continued—with modification and changes—to serve as the means of selection of the nation’s officials (in lieu of a system of hereditary aristocracy) until 1904. It was over the course of this period that the style of the private yuan – lin that still exists today first emerged and developed.

What form was the basis, then, for this symbol of the elite? The answer lies in a consideration of the prototype of these exclusive garden spaces.