The Scholars, or Rulin waishi, is a fifty-five-chapter novel written by the Qing dynasty author Wu Jingzi. It is known for its successful portrayal of scholars living at the end of China’s imperial age and for its vivid descriptions of the exam system, feudal rites, and corruption. The Scholars is a model of pre-modern Chinese satirical literature.
Wu Jingzi (1701–1754), whose courtesy name was Minxuan, was from Quanjiao, Anhui province. As a member of a family known for excelling at the civil service examinations, he was well educated; unfortunately, he never passed the imperial exams. Due to the unfair distribution of his family’s property, Wu Jingzi lived a humble life. Impoverished, he grew extremely sensitive to snobbery and hypocrisy he encountered. In turn, this aroused his rebellious spirit and critical consciousness. The Scholars reflects Wu Jingzi’s observations and thoughts about scholars and the exam system.
The civil service examination was established during the Sui dynasty (581–618) to select officials and enlist talented people. Scholars who passed the exam would become local or imperial officials. Their social status and quality of life would also become immeasurably different from those who failed the exam. During the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, the defects of the exam system became more and more obvious. Scholars were devoted to the “eight-legged essay” (a style of essay that had to be mastered to pass the civil service examinations; it was so named because it was divided into eight sections) so much that they had no interest in any practical knowledge. Gradually, they became musty, pedantic scholars who made no contributions to society. The exam system had deleterious effects on social customs because students treated the examination as the only means to success. As a result, cheating was rampant. Under the corrupting influence of the civil service examination, the scholarly world was in chaos. Wu Jingzi, with his caustic words, depicted many different figures of his time: students hungry for academic distinction, pedants with ossified thinking, and petty, greedy men craving praise.
The honor and wealth of a scholar and his family were closely tied to the civil service examination. Therefore, many of them were under intense pressure to succeed and if they should fail, the pressure would mount even more. Some felt that studying such stultified forms as the eight-legged essay for so many years addled the brains of the students and made them useless for anything else. The protagonist, Fan Jin, has a personality and life story that is representative of the misery of scholars during the Ming and Qing dynasties. In the novel, he is a poor scholar who for decades repeatedly fails the exams; this destroys his self-esteem and confidence. To make matters worse, everybody despises him because he is a good-for-nothing whose only skill is writing eight-legged essays. Finally, at the age of fifty-four, by chance he passes the exam for juren (literally “recommended man,” a title for people who passed the triennial provincial exam). As a juren, Fan Jin is given an official post, but he is ill-prepared and ignorant of even basic facts; for example, he has not even heard of the famous Northern Song scholar Su Dongpo (1037–1101). Taken at face value Fan Jin seems to be an honest man but is in fact a hypocrite and someone who bends regulations for personal gain. The novel is filled with a number of representative characters such as the sophisticate Zhang Jingzhai, the cunning Yan Gongsheng, tightfisted Yan Jiansheng, hypocritical Quan Wuyong, the dullard Yang Zhizhong, and the fusty Mr. Ma Er. The Scholars not only reveals and attacks the dark side of the scholarly world, it also expounds a brilliant ideal. In the second half of the novel, “real scholars” Zhuang Shaoguang and Du Shaoqing, are introduced; they are knowledgeable and virtuous literati who shun fame. They reflect the ideal scholars of Wu Jingzi’s imagination.
The Scholars is a satirical classic. Its subtle ironies and euphemisms express the author’s likes and dislikes and its descriptions are detailed and realistic, fully taking advantage of realism, the essence of satirical literature. The style of its language is humorous with burning satire, and the author is skillful at grasping representative details to reveal the inner worlds of the characters. Its innovative structure—a long novel consisting of a group of short stories—helps the author exert his satirical talent freely and vigorously.
The Scholars has been translated into English, French, German, Russian, Japanese, and Italian, showing that it is gaining popularity all around the world.