Ziyao Ma

Faculty Advisers: Benjamin Elman and He Bian

Instituting Ideas: The Reclamation of Scholarly Subjects in the High Qing (1723-1795)


This study investigates Qing institutions and its ventures of conveying ideology in the eighteenth century. It begins with portraying the sovereign’s felt challenges from the scholar-officials’ placement. The Qianlong emperor’s solution utilized commissions to impose bureaucratic trials upon the candidates’ perceived merits. In particular, he made heavy use of the education commissions, which bridged literary policies between the imperial center and the provinces, as the premier venue of evaluation. The commissioners came with the best scholarly credentials. Their omnipresence in compilation, education, and examination tasks had brought ideological production and propagation together under the throne’s heedful observation. Empowered by this new role, the commissioned academicians were able to fulfill an ambitious vision of textual promulgation, moral cultivation, and literary training to achieve an unprecedented level of ideological conformity among the educated sector of the populace. They earned imperial attention and support as a result of the Qianlong emperor’s professionalized approach to a Yongzheng-era reform. In return, newly-minted Classical commentaries produced at the imperial court were distributed through these commissioners to reach the empire’s lettered communities. The outcome, proven by substantial reports, was positive in both the emperor and the commissioners’ favor. Invested in a reciprocal relationship, these commissioners’ efforts were intertwined with the state’s avid agenda for cultivation, education, and examination reforms. This process refreshes our knowledge about this era’s state capacity of ideological practice as well as the state’s institutional integration with scholarly elites during the Yongzheng-Qianlong continuum. The ideological activism of this era was motivated by multiple factors that were highly dependent on the institutional premises. Hence, it was developed as a governing tool as opposed to an imminent need or interest. I use the archives of memorials and edicts to describe and analyze the institutional precondition, logic, setup, function, and logistics of utilizing scholars and delivering ideas. I focus on the institutional changes and their impact on collective performance. I argue for a strong correlation between emperorship and organizational coherence in the use of intellectual projects and the intra-bureaucratic discussions on pertinent topics. Consequently, the institutions of conveying ideology became an organic part of the imperial rule.