Beginning about the fourth century B.C., ancient texts describe Chinese society as divided into four classes: the scholar elite, the landowners and farmers, the craftsmen and artisans, and the merchants and tradesmen. Under imperial rule, the scholar elite, whose exemplar was Confucius, directed the moral education of the people; the farmers produced food; the craftsmen made things that were useful; and the merchants promoted luxury goods. Because in theory the Confucian elite advocated simple rural values as opposed to a taste for luxury (which they viewed as superfluous, leading to moral degeneration), the merchants who sold for profit, adding nothing of value to society, ranked low on the social scale (though, in reality, economic success had its obvious advantages).
The unique position occupied by the scholar elite in Chinese society has led historians to view social and political change in China in light of the evolving status of the scholar. One theory holds that the virtues of the scholars were appreciated only in times of cultural upheaval, when their role was one of defending, however unsuccessfully, moral values rather than that of performing great tasks. Another theory, relating to art and political expression in Han-dynasty China, offers an analysis of the tastes and habits of the different social classes: “the imperial bureaucracy, not the marketplace, was [the scholar’s] main avenue to success, and he was of use to that bureaucracy only insofar as he placed the public good above his own. … [Thus] the art of the Confucian scholar was … inherently duplicitous and was encouraged to be so by the paradoxical demands [that Chinese] society made upon its middlemen.”
Beginning in the late tenth century, in the early Northern Song, the government bureaucracy was staffed entirely by scholar-officials chosen through a civil examination system. The highest degree, the jinshi (“presented scholar”), was awarded as the culmination of a three-stage process. The examinations produced 200 to 300 jinshi candidates each year. By the late eighteenth century, China’s population had grown to about 300 million. The more than 1,200 counties, divided into eighteen provinces, were governed through an imperial bureaucracy of only 3,000 to 4,000 ranked degree-holding officials. The officials ruled the land with the help of local gentry and locally recruited government clerks. Because the governmental superstructure was so thinly spread, it was heavily invested in the Confucian virtue ethic as the binding social force—and when that failed, in the use of harsh punishment—for maintaining stability and order.
This system operated as a mechanism through which the state replaced entrenched local hereditary landowners and rich merchants with people whose authority was conferred (and could easily be removed) by the state. Scholar-officials, unlike the other three social classes, did not therefore constitute an economic class as such, as their only power resided in their Confucian ideals and their moral and ethical values. Nevertheless, the landowners, the craftsmen, and the merchants were controlled by the state and the state was administered by the scholar-officials, who discouraged entrepreneurial endeavor and the accumulation of wealth with the Confucian admonition that acceptance of limitations leads to happiness.
Government administration and culture were from the outset the two primary concerns of the scholar. Beginning in the late Northern Song, with the growth of literacy but with a fixed quota for civil examination candidates (and therefore limited opportunities for official employment), scholars increasingly turned to the arts, the study of which was considered a path to the cultivation of the moral self. Responding to both perceived and real moral deterioration, governmental corruption, and societal ills and subscribing to the belief that a return to the past, a turning back to the teachings of the ancients, would transform human society, the scholar-artists pursued the study of early calligraphy and painting. Private collections of ancient works were amassed, and scholarship in such fields as archaeology and epigraphy flourished. Scholar-officials also became particularly associated with the Four Accomplishments: painting, poetry, a chesslike game of strategy known as weiqi (go in Japanese), and playing the zither (qin). In the area of paintings, scholar-artists beginning in the Yuan dynasty developed and were closely associated with a highly expressive style of painting that utilized nonrepresentational calligraphic brushwork to create pictures, most typically landscapes, that revealed the inner spirit of the painter rather than a realistic depiction of the subject.