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The New and Old Text Schools of Confucianism

posted 28 Jan 2014, 18:48 by Jim Sheng   [ updated 1 Feb 2014, 13:18 ]
In 136 B.C. Confucianism became the only officially recognized state doctrine in China. The Imperial University (Taixue 太学) was established as a state-supported center for the teaching of orthodoxy and was staffed by Erudites (boshi 博士) who taught Classical texts written in the current or "new" script of the time. In the same period there were in circulation texts written in archaic or "old" script which were not officially recognized. By the end of the Western Han period students of the two different types of texts had formed bitterly hostile camps, with the New Text faction stubbornly defending its position of authority while the Old Text school struggled for official recognition. The disagreements between the two groups involved not only the scripts in which their texts were written but also their attitudes toward scholarship and hermeneutics. It is their differences in philological approach which are of special concern to us.

The New Text Erudites, as the upholders of orthodoxy, eschewed originality and innovation of any sort. The Boshi and their pupils, chiefly concerned about the maintenance and improvement of their positions, had long abandoned individual thought and had gladly submitted to the discipline required of them, which consisted in respecting the opinions of the former masters and expatiating on them. And again, Official scholarship, refusing new stimulants and content with the traditional ways, tended to become sterile and addicted to the endless and senseless expatiation. On the other hand the Old Text scholars were unrestrained by official orthodoxy and accepted interpretations. Their texts were neither sacrosanct nor immutable, and they could collate, edit, and determine the best text versions and readings. Their freedom to follow their own lights and develop independent critical approaches led naturally to an interest in philological techniques of exegesis. Since a text had no orthodox version or interpretation, it was possible to question its meaning, to suggest that obscure points in it might be due to temporal or geographical origin, to consider the possibility that it might be corrupt, and to propose emendations or new interpretations based on such suppositions. It seems very likely that the Eastern Han loangraph glosses are products of the strongly philological approach of the Old Text School.