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Zhu Xi Was Here: Family, Academy, and Local Memory in Later Imperial Dongyang

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 41, 2011
pp. 267-293 | 10.1353/sys.2011.0024

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The chapter on local produce in the 1735 edition of Zhejiang’s provincial gazetteer, citing a Dongyang 東陽 county gazetteer, notes that a bright purple flower called Ziyang hua 紫陽花 grows at Shidong academy 石洞書院 in Dongyang, Jinhua 金華 prefecture.1 This flower is not to be confused with Ajisai 紫陽花 (Hydrangea), the flower blossoming from May to June across Japan, despite the use of identical Chinese characters. Rather, its name should be read literally as “Ziyang’s flower.” One of the many honorific references to Zhu Xi (1130–1200), “Ziyang” evokes the image of Zhu as forever connected to the academy. Indeed, the gazetteer briefly adds that it is said to have been planted by Zhu Xi himself when he had lectures there.2

This passing, seemingly neutral remark in the Zhejiang tong zhi 浙江通志 actually adds a sentimental touch to the much larger claim that Zhu Xi stayed and taught at the academy, a claim that helped promote the prestige of the academy and the family of its founder.3 Although I use the word “claim,” as far as locals are concerned it has been firmly established as a historical fact. A modern edition of the Dongyang municipal gazetteer lists a four-character calligraphy work attributed to Zhu Xi that is inscribed on the rock cliff near the academy as a “municipal level important cultural preservation unit.”4 It further notes that in 1198, when Zhu visited Dongyang for the fourth time during the ban on “false learning”—the notorious political persecution of Zhu Xi and his followers—Zhu collated his commentary on the Great Learning at the academy.5 If this account is correct, Shidong academy was nothing less than the birthplace of arguably the most authoritative canon of Neo-Confucianism. Given Zhu Xi’s preeminent status, especially in the later history of imperial China, this claim conferred tremendous prestige on the academy.

During the Southern Song (1127–1279), Dongyang was “the site of a unique cluster” of academies founded by local elite families.6 Four of seven such academies were founded by people sharing the surname Guo 郭, and three of these were in fact closely related.7 However, the fates of these academies were markedly different. Whereas the other three Guo academies disappeared from the local scene, Shidong academy was renovated and reconstructed five times over its history.8 Moreover, out of all the academies ever founded in Dongyang, the reconstructed Shidong academy is the only academy still appearing on modern maps, listed as one of the cultural and tourist sites of the area.9 Doubtless, these continued revivals and final survival of the academy owe much to its alleged affiliation with Zhu Xi. As a token of this prestigious connection, today a statue of Zhu Xi stands in the middle of the main yard of the academy.10

In this essay, however, I will argue that these claims of the academy’s relation to Zhu Xi have little foundation. At most, Zhu was an occasional, reluctant advisor to the academy, who was in fact critical of the scholarship practiced there. I will also show that locals continually appropriated the tenuous links between the academy and Zhu throughout the later imperial period in order to create a version of history that would serve their contemporary interests.

The gap between Zhu Xi’s actual position vis-a-vis the academy and the image that emerges from local Dongyang sources inspires two related questions. First, how did local people “transform” Zhu Xi from a critic to a refugee-patron? If they were not simply shutting their eyes to historical facts in pursuit of a downright forgery, how did they gloss over the gaps in the record in order to make their claims? Second, how has the self-serving claim made by a local family become established as “history”? By answering these questions, I will try to shed light on ways in which collective local memory and history were created in later imperial China.

The Guos in Dongyang during the Southern Song

Shidong academy was founded in 1148 by Guo Qinzhi 郭欽止 (1128–1184). He was portrayed in local sources, albeit sketchily, as a rich and generous man who cared about culture. We are told, for...

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