The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Speak for Sages, Print for Profit: The Commercialized Commentaries on Confucian Classics for the Imperial Civil Examination in Qing China

Principal Investigator

PUK Wing Kin

Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC General Research Fund

Abstract of Project

Under the Qing imperial civil examination system, students fanatically practiced writing “eight-legged essays” in a bid to succeed. The gist was not about correct understanding (which was assumed) of Confucian classics but about beautiful literary craftsmanship: an essay that included an introduction, four pairs of couplet paragraphs (hence the name “eight-legged”), and a conclusion. To master the writing of “eight-legged essay”, students needed the help of supplementary materials such as collection of ready-made couplet sentences, model eight-legged essays, collection of exegetical works, etc.. Where there is demand, there is supply. A market was created for such supplementary materials, known as the commercialized commentaries on Confucian classics for the examination. As students feverishly crammed these commentaries into their heads, the eight-legged essays they churned out bore two important characteristics. Firstly, these essays were largely homogenous as they were but variants of a set of model answers prepared by the commentaries. Secondly, Zhu Xi’s commentaries on the Four Books, in theory the most authoritative textbook for the examination, were in effect “usurped” by these commercially driven and examination-oriented commentaries. If the purpose of the eight-legged essay was to “speak for sages”, the purpose was no longer fulfilled by Zhu Xi, but by a cultural industry that was commercially driven and examination-oriented, one that endeavored to “print for profit”. This project investigates the industry of this commercialized commentaries and evaluates its impact. It sheds new light on a hitherto uncharted terrain of the study of the imperial civil examination.

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