Teaching Module

Ancient China


1. Compare the biographies of Mencius and Empress Deng (Primary Sources 1 & 4).

The fascination with precocity in the Later Han dynasty seems linked to developments in the civil service system and the testing of candidates for various posts, a system not that alien to our own civil service exams or SAT and GRE testing. As the Later Han bureaucracy became more entrenched along with abuses of the system, precocity came to stand for basic administrative promise and also for the possibility of stemming the tide of corruption. One of the general standards of moral behavior against which a candidate was measured was the requirement of incorruptibility. The virtue of incorruptibility in an official implied that he would remain pure in the company of less scrupulous individuals and in spite of temptations to abuse the power granted to him. Although the connection between incorruptibility and precocity is not immediately obvious, a statement of Confucius makes it clear in what sense early moral discretion may have vouched for an individual's integrity.

Confucius said that the highest form of wisdom is seen in those who are born wise. Furthermore, according to the Analects, only those possessed of extreme goodness cannot be changed. To claim that a child was born wise, and therefore good, was subtly to suggest that he was at the same time incorruptible, because a child born with a superior natural endowment could not be changed and thus tainted by even the most impure environment. Thus, the manifestation of moral traits in an infant or small child may have served as evidence of his inborn goodness, and by extension, as an indication of his imperviousness to corruption--a highly attractive prospect for those seeking honest officials for employment.

Finally, far from illustrating a belief in the importance of birth over merit, the motif of the child born wise is associated with the struggles of worthy and often obscure or socially challenged figures in the establishment of a divinely sanctioned or at least superior order. The biography of Empress Deng, in this way suggests that although she is a mere women and lacking in aristocratic credentials, the merit of her family has gained Heaven's favor, but only because she is seen as a fitting person to lead the world into a new and higher order. When such a hero or heroine rises from obscure or humble beginnings to a key historical role, he empirically 'proves' that the world is ultimately governed by virtue after all, despite all evidence to the contrary.

On the other hand, Han Confucian thinkers charted a child's intellectual and moral progress along a gentle upward curve that began its ascent at conception. By the time of early adulthood, the moral and intellectual abilities were considered complete, but only in the sense that the child was now a fully functioning adult. From this state of readiness, the mature cultivation of virtue could begin and was supposed to continue throughout the course of a lifetime. Like schematizations of the child's moral progress, Confucian attempts to chart the child's biological development also stress the incomplete nature of the infant and the body's gradual evolution into fully human form. This tendency stands in sharp contrast to the propensity to focus on well-developed capacities in young children.

In summary, then, early Han Confucian descriptions of a child's intellectual, moral and biological development are generally based on the notion that a virtuous adult is the culmination, and perhaps, the triumph, of a long, gradual process which begins at conception. While ignoring childhood as a valuable stage of human development per se, the emphasis placed upon the undeveloped nature of the infant and the child also represents a bold challenge to the notion that privilege is a matter of birth alone.

While the emphasis on merit accumulated over the course of a lifetime rather than privilege based on birth that may have originally served to warn young power-holders about the dangers of complacency, it also paved the way for poor but determined boys to rise to positions of national importance. It is historically documented, for example, that a boy named Ni Kuan (fl. 120 BCE), for example, who hired himself out as a manual laborer to pay for his education, and who "carried a copy of the classics with him as he hoed," eventually rose to the status of imperial counselor. Thus, according to Former Han Confucian thought, a boy's future social worth depended not upon pedigree alone but on the gradual accumulation of virtue and learning as well. And though family wealth must have frequently determined a boy's access to education, the path to privilege, at least in theory, was open to all boys who could match Ni Kuan's perseverance.

2. Compare gender roles as described in Source 4 (Empress Deng bio) and Source 6 (Early Education).

These two readings illustrate how we should question:

  • the extent to which people in real life adhered to the dictates of prescriptive texts, and
  • how writers in early China justified women whose behavior was not in keeping with traditional gender roles.

One of the key elements in the biography of Empress Deng seems to be the merit and virtue of her male kin and the empresses' seeming and seemly lack of ambition. She turns down her first opportunity to enter the court in order to mourn the death of her father, demonstrating her prioritizing filial piety over thirst for power.

How to Cite This Source

Anne Kinney, "Ancient China," in Children and Youth in History, Item #187, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/187 (accessed August 10, 2021).