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  • A Reassessment of the National Three Hall System in the Late Northern Song
  • Yongguang Hu

In recent years, a number of historians have reevaluated the reform policies of Cai Jing 蔡京 (1047–1126), the chief councilor of Emperor Huizong 徽宗 (r. 1100–1126), in the early twelfth century. Rather than accepting the traditional view of Cai as an avaricious, corrupted official weakening the empire’s fiscal foundation and bringing the Northern Song to a tragic end,1 their new perspective calls for a reexamination of Cai Jing’s reforms based on a neutral reading of sources “wherever possible.”2 Neutral reading allows scholars to identify potential Neo-Confucian biases in the narratives compiled in the Southern Song and Yuan and then present a more nuanced view of politics and society in that period.3 Scholars also started to study Cai Jing’s reforms [End Page 139] in a larger historical context, in which both Huizong and Cai Jing aimed to create magnificence and set a new hallmark of the empire by a number of policies, such as constructing a lavish imperial garden with exotic Jiangnan stones, sponsoring artistic creation in painting and calligraphy, revising palace music, erecting large size stone tablets throughout the empire, and offering a whole package of educational and social welfare programs. Both the conference volume edited by Patricia Ebrey and Maggie Bickford, Emperor Huizong and Late Northern Song China, and Ebrey’s new biography on Huizong view the above measures as displays of imperial authority.4 Many of these policies attempted to achieve goals never attained in history; in this way, Huizong and Cai Jing could demonstrate that they were taking the empire to a new level of universal prosperity.5

One example is the national Three Hall System (sanshefa 三舍法), an empire-wide government school network actively promoting Confucian education to male students.6 A vast system supporting as many as 200,000 students in 1116,7 it was conveniently ignored in traditional official histories because of Cai Jing’s reputation. Thanks to studies by Thomas H. C. Lee, John Chaffee, Yuan Zheng, and Kondo Kazunari, all of whom relied on court documents to present introductory information about the system, we now have a better understanding of this policy.8 Still, many questions are left unanswered. Did [End Page 140] the government build as many schools as it claimed? How could the state allocate adequate resources to support this system? Did the reformers use the Three Hall System to enforce their brand of political theory throughout the empire? What might be the reasons for its abolishment in 1121? This study utilizes a variety of sources, especially local gazetteers, tomb inscriptions, and scholarly works, to present a more thorough analysis of this institution with the above questions in mind. The main arguments are that the well-supported Three Hall System was a remarkable design which promoted education in the early twelfth century and that this government-controlled institution helped to create an increasingly diverse intellectual landscape in those decades. In the following sections, I will first provide a brief introduction, followed by a detailed study on school building and maintenance based on local gazetteers. After showing the scale and scope of this reform, I briefly discuss why it was ended in the early 1120s. The last section locates individual experiences within the Three Halls and reveals how school became a cultural field that opened opportunities to different interests groups. This might be the most important contribution of this reform to Song society, whether Cai Jing expected it or not.

The Three Hall Policy

In 1102, an imperial decree required every prefecture and county to establish its own school. This was not the first time that the government made school building compulsory, but unlike the cases in previous centuries, in which this type of orders was often ignored by local officials, the 1102 decree did establish a vast government educational network in the empire.9 Hundreds of [End Page 141] schools were built or renovated in the following years. According to the law, each school should have three halls: an outer hall (waishe 外舍), an inner hall (neishe 內舍), and an upper hall (shangshe 上舍), which functioned like grade levels in modern school...


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pp. 139-173
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