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  • Community Schools and the State in Ming China
  • Hilde De Weerdt (bio)
Sarah Schneewind. Community Schools and the State in Ming China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006. x, 298 pp. Hardcover $55.00, ISBN 0–8047–5174–9.

“In Hongwu 8 of the Ming [1375], the authorities were ordered to establish community schools and invite teacher-scholars to teach the commoners’ boys. This is seen in the standard history’s ‘Basic Annals’ and the Wenxian tongkao. The evidence is solid—they were all there.”1 Sarah Schneewind’s Community Schools and the State in Ming China is especially effective as an incisive critique of the myth surrounding the establishment and subsequent abolition of community schools (shexue ) under the first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang. This myth was propagated in local gazetteers, as in the excerpt from Nanhai xianzhi translated above, and has also been adopted among twentieth-century historians of imperial China. Through the exposure of this myth, and the larger one of the Ming legacy of autocracy, Schneewind aims to redefine Ming governance as a “relation between state and society” (p. 3) or the Ming state as “a field for social cooperation and competition” (p. 5).

After a brief introductory chapter, chapter 2 sets out the problem with Zhu Yuanzhang’s policies on community schools. The author gathers and interprets the remaining evidence of Zhu Yuanzhang’s pronouncements on community schools and contrasts it to fourteenth-century records concerning their construction as well as imperial and modern interpretations of the pronouncements. She finds, based on a survey of the total number of community schools built during Zhu Yuanzhang’s reign, that few counties (between fifteen and thirty-five) responded to his 1375 edict calling for the establishment of community schools under the supervision of prefectural and county authorities. Such community schools were to serve fifty families at most. The emperor’s subsequent edict in 1380 to shift the control over the schools from local officialdom to the local people was inspired by his distrust of the former and represented an attempt to bypass them and empower local villagers. Contrary to later narratives of decline, the withdrawal of direct state intervention in primary education did not signal the end of community schools in Ming China. Subsequent chapters detail in chronological order the various uses to which community schools were put by different social and political groups.

With Zhu Yuanzhang’s role greatly diminished in the history of the community schools, Schneewind turns to top-ranking officials, Neo-Confucian activists, and local subjects. Chapter 3 traces the resurgence in community school building during the mid Ming period (1430–1470). After a lapse of about three decades, high court officials incorporated the community schools into the civilizing mission of the Ming state, calling for the construction of community schools in areas such as Sichuan, far removed from the political and cultural centers of the Ming [End Page 209] empire. Mid Ming advocates of community schools were, according to Schneewind, also chiefly responsible for the bureaucratization of the schools. Contrary to Zhu Yuanzhang’s later instructions, they called for schools run by officials and a broad liberal arts curriculum, which turned them into feeder schools for the county and prefectural schools and ultimately for the civil service examinations.

“Neo-Confucian heroes,” the main protagonists of the next two chapters, replaced high court officials as the principal founders of community schools in the high Ming (1470–1530). These men were a small group of lower-level officials who built schools and advertised their support for them in commemorative records and local gazetteers as part of a larger effort to reform society. According to Schneewind, this activism “was an expression of religious commitment to Neo-Confucianism” (p. 89), a proposition that she supports with evidence of the Neo-Confucian appropriation and redefinition of buildings and practices associated with Buddhist, Daoist, and other local religious traditions.

Chapter 5, titled “Philosophy and Politics in Community School Curricula,” examines the community school plans of three (high-ranking) officials active toward the end of the mid Ming. Schneewind contrasts the visions of Wang Yangming, Gui E, and Wei Jiao for the schools and their larger social impact...