Wu Ching-tzu Analysis

Other literary forms

The most important extant writings of Wu Jingzi (woo jihng-dzee), other than The Scholars, is a collection of poems he wrote before he was forty years old. The collection, known as Wenmu shanfang ji (1931, 1957; collection of the mountain retreat of literary trees), was secured in 1921 by the scholar Hu Shih, who first established Wu’s authorship of The Scholars. This work includes strongly autobiographical poems in various traditional forms as well as seven informative prefaces by Wu’s acquaintances and poems by his eldest son, Wu Lang. As a result of renewed interest in the People’s Republic of China after 1954, twenty-three additional poems were discovered and published in 1956 in the journal Wen-hsüeh yen-chiu chi-k’an. Three other poems and two prefaces to works of friends make up Wu’s extant oeuvre, which would be undistinguished if not for his novel.


Wu Jingzi wrote his novel at a time when fiction occupied the lowest rung on the Chinese literary ladder. The dominant Confucian ideology stressed morality in literature; fiction, especially when written in the vernacular language, was considered frivolous, essentially “the gossip of the alleyways and marketplaces,” not worthy of serious attention by men of letters. This was the attitude, even though, at least three centuries before Wu, long fictionalnarratives of artistic complexity and merit were already being produced and widely read. Moreover, since the early seventeenth century, defenders of such writings were becoming more vocal and more noticed, even though they continued to be regarded as eccentrics. There is good reason to believe that Wu himself was casual about his fiction writing and, following the practice of his time, passed his manuscript around his circle of friends as a source of amusement. Nevertheless, he injected a serious and idealistic morality into his narrative, which he rendered with a quiet and subtle wit. The result was the first piece of extended satire in Chinese vernacular fiction.

In many formal ways, Wu’s fiction retains the trappings of its lighthearted and entertainment-oriented tradition: the omniscient narrator, formulaic commentary, a stringing-out of episodes with few causal linkages, and the vernacular language so different from the elliptical and allusive classical one employed in all serious writings of the...

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Chang, H. C. “Young Master Bountiful.” In Popular Fiction and Drama. Vol. 1 in Chinese Literature. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1973-1983. Chang’s collection of critical studies and translations of Chinese literature includes a chapter on Wu Jingzi’s classic novel.

Hsia, C. T. “The Scholars.” In The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction. 1968. Reprint. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, East Asia Program, 1996. Hsia studies six Chinese novels, including The Scholars, providing analyses of their structure, style, characters, and moral and philosophical themes

Lin, Shuen-fu. “Ritual and Narrative Structure in Ju-lin wai-shih.” In Chinese Narrative: Critical and Theoretical Essays, edited by Andrew H. Plaks. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. Lin’s analysis of the narrative structure of The Scholars was first presented at the Princeton Conference on Chinese Narrative Theory held at Princeton University on January 21-22, 1974.

Roddy, Stephen J. Literati Identity and Its Fictional Representations in Late Imperial China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998. Roddy examines three works of Chinese vernacular literature, including The Scholars, written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, demonstrating how these works reflect new perceptions of the Confucian scholar-gentry.

Ropp, Paul S. Dissent in Early Modern China: “Ju-lin wai-shih” and Ch’ing Social Criticism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981. Ropp’s examination of The Scholars places the novel within the context of social and intellectual developments in eighteenth century China, demonstrating how Wu Jingzi used parable and example to criticize Chinese society.

Shang, Wei. “Rulin waishi” and Cultural Transformation in Late Imperial China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, Asia Center, 2003. In his analysis of The Scholars, Shang shows how the novel reflects the intellectual and literary debates in eighteenth century China. Also shows how Wu Jingzi depicts the Confucian elite’s attempts to retain moral and cultural authority. Includes a character list, a bibliography, and an index.

Wong, Timothy C. Wu Ching-tzu. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Contains a chapter about Wu Jingzi’s life, as well as discussion of the satire in his work and the “eremitic ideal” in The Scholars. One of the introductory overviews in Twayne’s World Authors series. Includes a bibliography and an index.