Competing Institutions: Community Schools and "Improper Shrines" in Sixteenth Century China
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Competing Institutions:
Community Schools and “Improper Shrines” in Sixteenth Century China

If we look at the mess village customs are in, it is all because many do not have primary schools . . . Today, the authorities do not take responsibility for this . . . If there are abandoned community schools, they make them into granaries and stables, or reduce them to vegetable plots . . . There are plenty of Buddhist and Daoist temples in places without one academy or primary school . . . 1

In 1375, following a Yuan precedent, the first Ming emperor mandated the establishment of a public primary school in every village and neighborhood throughout China to teach basic literacy and obedience to the law. Five years later he rescinded the “community school” policy because clerks, administrators, and local rich families were using them to oppress the poor. 2 In the place of officially-managed schools, Zhu called for virtuous commoners to open schools. 3 In the mid-1400s, the central government again promoted [End Page 85] community schools, particularly in connection with border pacification and recruitment of talent for government service. From the 1470s to the 1550s, they were enthusiastically established by some magistrates, subprefects, and prefects (hereafter simply magistrates) as a way to improve popular morality. 4

Community schools provide one window onto the process of Ming state-building at the local level. Ideally, the central government---court and upper bureaucracy---set policy about local institutions; local administrators carried out the policies; and local subjects then benefitted from or at least had to accept the institutions. The history of community schools points up several flaws in that ideal process. First of all, even though every village and town was supposed to have a community school, most magistrates apparently made no attempt to establish or maintain them. Magistrates who did establish schools, therefore, must have had more complex motives than simple obedience to a central directive. Secondly, the central community school policy was always vague about who should attend and teach schools, how schools should be funded, what should be taught, whether tuition should be charged, and so on. Magistrates who established schools therefore improvised on the form and funding of the schools. 5 Third, the schools often collapsed soon after the establisher left his post. 6

The history of community schools also shows that state-building did not take place in a vacuum. Schools often competed directly with local religious [End Page 86] institutions, as the epigram suggests. The usual expression of this competition was to describe an official as having “destroyed improper shrines [to] establish community schools (hui yinci li shexue).” The first man whose activities were described this way was a Yuan official in Hejian prefecture, and the first Ming official was Zhang Bi, Prefect of Nan’an from 1478 to 1484. 7 According to gazetteers, more than a hundred Ming officials active all over the empire “destroyed improper shrines,” and about forty of them also “established community schools.” 8 The competition between schools and shrines was clearly expressed by the activists. For instance, one official admonished local leaders : “Family schools and village schools are the system of our dynasty modeled on the perfect Zhou. How can you instead have divine halls and Buddhist quarters?” 9 And in about 1532, Xu Jie began a long harangue to the pupils of the Yungai Community School about their duties as Confucians by referring to the fact that the school building replaced a humble, cramped “improper shrine,” set up by what he called “miscellaneous Daoists and Buddhists.” He admonished the pupils: “If you know the origin of this [school] building, then do as I charge you.” 10

There were at least three motives behind Xu Jie’s speech. First, it was engraved on stone to assure the survival of the school by commemorating its founding. Second, the speech stressed that the community school replaced the shrine, fighting heterodoxy by physically occupying its space, displacing its practitioners, and re-educating youngsters in the Confucian religion. Third, at the time, Xu Jie was in exile from the capital, serving as a lowly [End Page 87] judge or acting prefect in Fujian. His activities there, including destroying improper shrines and establishing community schools, earned...