Analysis: The Scholars

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While it has long been out of fashion to link an author’s life too closely to his or her created work, the sometimes puzzling fiction produced by Wu Jingzi does become far more understandable when examined in the light of his biography. Written in a tradition that has always played down fictionalization in favor of factual truth, much of Wu’s novel can best be seen as a commentary on the actual social conditions of his times and as an apologia for his own decision to live apart from the limitations they imposed. While modern critics generally do consider The Scholars in terms of the former, few accord the latter more than perfunctory attention.

Confucian influences

The Confucianist eremitism Wu practiced differs greatly from conventional Confucianism, which is generally contrasted with Daoism by its affirmation of social values and by its justification of active service to the state. Wu’s novel clearly criticizes such active service, even as it continues to preach uncompromising adherence to the fundamental Confucian virtues of humanity (jen), righteousness (yi), propriety (li), and, especially, filial piety (hsiao), in a way that would be alien to the relativistic and iconoclastic principles of Daoist doctrine. Confucianism has always had an idealistic side, one that cites the sage Mencius to justify the refusal to serve when such service is considered detrimental to the full development of a person’s intellect and morality. That The Scholars has been regularly misunderstood in modern times can be traced to the ignoring of its basic commitment to this dimension of Confucian doctrine.

This commitment can be seen from many parts of Wu’s biography, beginning with his grandfather’s and father’s relative lack of success in career matters and the justification of their lives in terms of their practice of virtue. For Wu, the age-old conflict between the Confucian directive to render public service and the equally Confucian requirement to be filial occurred almost from the moment he competed in the examinations: He had to leave a dying father in order to do so, and what little success he achieved was tied forever to a great personal tragedy, his father’s passing. The image of the dying father figure is prominently featured in his novel, usually voicing warning against the seeking of worldly gains. Moreover, a common criticism the novel advances against examination candidates is their slighting of filial duties once they experience the sweet taste of success.

Critics have also recognized that the biting depictions of small-town gentry in various parts of The Scholars can be traced to Wu’s residual disgust for the greed, the empty status-seeking, and the general maliciousness of his Ch’üan-chiao neighbors. Clearly, it was such maliciousness that led to his bitter self-exile and premature retirement. By opposing the quest for wealth and status with the full development of morality and intellect, Wu can be seen to be expressing in his novel his condemnation of the Ch’üan-chiao gentry, who ridiculed him for his descent into poverty and obscurity. Away from such provinciality, Wu was free in urban Nanking to devote full attention to the practice of humane virtue and the study of traditional classics, which he equated in his later years with “the sun and the moon in the heavens” for their ability to illuminate the myriad changes in the human world.

In chapter 37 of The Scholars, Wu includes an account of the temple sacrifices that marked his final commitment to Confucianist eremitism. In this account, however, he exercised his prerogative as a writer of fiction, changing the sage honored from Ts’ang Chieh to T’ai-po, an ancient prince praised by Confucius for running away to the then-barbaric south in order to yield the throne to a younger brother. The legend recalling the incident also attributes the civilizing of all southern China to this act of idealistic generosity. By referring to T’ai-po, Wu is thus advancing the moral message of his...

(The entire section is 1674 words.)