Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

History and Sources

How have Confucianism and Literati traditions intersected?

Confucius was one of the Literati, but he and the movement that bears his name have also had a life of their own. The Literati were the social class most responsible for maintaining all the mechanisms of the imperial administration. One of their chief tools was an elaborate system of training that culminated in “civil service” examinations (the grandfather of all civil service systems) and the awarding of degrees. When the imperial examination system was abolished in 1905 in favor of more modern educational methods, the Literati began to disappear as a social class. In 1911, the last emperor was deposed, ending three millennia of Chinese imperial rule. But Confucius did not die with the Literati and the Empire, for over the centuries he had become an integral part of Chinese culture. He was both a symbol of the best in Chinese tradition and a man revered religiously. There is some overlapping, therefore, among these three developments—Confucianism, the Literati tradition, and the CIT—but they are not identical. Think of them as a railway that has sometimes run along a single track and sometimes branched off into two or three parallel tracks along the same broad right-of-way. In short, all Literati were Confucians, and since CIT in general incorporated the Confucian philosophy, the Literati became the official “staff” of CIT. But not all those who consider themselves Confucians are Literati. And with the end of the empire came the end of the Literati as a cultural/religious elite.


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