Yan Shengli (1090-1160): The Unaccomplished Reformer

Yan Shengli was born in 1090 C.E. to a military family; his father was a soldier in the Song army. His father had named Shengli; which means victorious, in the hopes that he would achieve military fame. Shengli, however, had no interest in joining the military. From the age of 3, Shengli was frequently playing with calligraphy pens, and drew wherever he went. Shengli’s grandfather commented that Shengli would become a scholar instead of a soldier. Shengli’s father was not happy with that observation and sought to make his son a soldier. But it was clear from the first days of training that Shengli would be a hopeless soldier; he could not shoot anything that was further than 10 feet away from him and he was clumsy when holding a sword. His father gave up trying to make him a soldier and allowed Shengli to follow his passion in literature. Shengli studied the classics of Confucius and strived to make himself the best man. In 1009 C.E., Shengli sat for his first attempt at the jinshi exam and passed at the age of 19, and was given a job as a clerk at the registrar office in Kaifeng.

Shengli disliked working as a clerk and hated the injustice he felt. He felt deceived of a higher government position; he was second in his class when he took the exam, but was given a low ranking position because he was not of high standing. He was also deeply upset at the cheating that happened during the exam and the effect of the shadow privilege. As Valerie Hansen, author of The Open Empire summarizes, “shadow privilege was granted to the male kin of the office holders. Depending on one’s rank, one’s sons, grandsons….could sit for an easier examination with a higher pass rate—often close to 50 percent—than the open examinations” (The Open Empire, 243)[i]. The shadow privilege started in the early Song period and it gave an advantage to men of high power, some of these men did not even want to be an official. They were taking the exams just to please their family. No one seemed to want to be the best man. Shengli strove to change these policies so he applied for a job at the local school in Kaifeng and started teaching his students moral ethics. He was very adamant about how important it was for them to understand that learning was a long process. It was about understanding the ideas of others, and cheating did not help with this process. It might speed up the process, but, ultimately, they were not learning anything. Over the course of the next seven years, when Shengli was not teaching, he wrote many commentaries on the injustice of the examinations and how the government favored and pardoned the powerful families too often. He kept these commentaries hidden from prying eyes, to reveal them at a later time. However, a competitive teacher at the school happened to walk by one day and saw an unfinished commentary on Shengli’s desk and took it. The imperial palace soon learned of Shengli’s commentary and ideas on the government, when the teacher handed the commentary to an imperial guard, who in turn gave it to his general. The general considered the commentary an act of treason, and had Shengli arrested. Emperor Huizong saved Shengli from execution because the emperor was a great admirer of fine art and calligraphy. From The Open Empire, “The reigning emperor, Huizong devoted himself to collecting.…A serious painter himself, well known for his distinctive calligraphy” (The Open Empire, 253)[ii]. Emperor Huizong was given Shengli’s commentary and he admired Shengli’s well-written argument and calligraphy, and the emperor hired him as a calligraphy tutor for his young sons. Emperor Huizong convinced his advisors that hiring Shengli would allow them to watch him closely, and it allowed his sons to receive an education from someone that Emperor Huizong felt was worthy to teach the princes. The other imperial tutors were inadequate to teach the princes because they were much older and had no patience with their royal students.

During his eight years as a tutor in the palace, Shengli became close friends with the crown prince, Qinzong and his younger brother, Gaozong. They both turned to Shengli for his opinion on small matters. He taught them calligraphy that impressed their father and secretly taught the princes the importance of moral ethics. When the princes became too old for tutors, he was dismissed and he returned to the local school. The emperor and his advisors let Shengli return to his old life with the promise not cause any more problems. Shengli taught for a year at his old school before realizing that he was not doing enough to spread his ideas of education reform. In 1125 C.E., Shengli travelled to Jiankang where he began searching for land to build his school on. He picked a poorer neighborhood of Jianking, so that children from lower economic status also had a chance of taking the exams. He officially moved to Jiankang with two other teachers from the old school after the completion of his school, which he named Quiet Swallow Academy. Shengli heavily emphasized the importance of reading The Analects and understanding what Confucius was trying to teach his followers. But in 1128 C.E., Shengli was summoned to Hangzhou to be an advisor for the new Emperor Gaozong. The Jurchens had invaded and taken northern China, including Kaifeng, the capital of the Song Dynasty in 1127 C.E. Families had fled to the southern parts of China to escape the invaders, and the new capital of Song was now Hangzhou. Gaozong never forgot his old tutor and appreciated the way he thought and requested that he become one of his advisors. Gaozong saw that Shengli was wise beyond his years, and thought that he could help rebuild the Song dynasty.

But Shengli saw this as an opportunity to reform the exam system and abolish the shadow privilege. He did not want to take advantage of his former pupil, but it was the only way to formally make changes to the corrupted system. When Shengli arrived at the new palace, he saw that many of the men of Gaozong’s court were military men, and realized then that he would not have as many supporters as he would like to help him change the exam system. These men cared more about taking revenge against the Jurchens and regaining lost Song territory. One very prominent leader for this cause was Yue Fei, a general of the Song army who won most of the battles he fought in and was known for his military brilliance, making him Gaozong’s favorite general.  Shengli was wary about the power that the generals had over Gaozong, especially that of Yue Fei. They were constantly making war plans about fighting the Jurchens that fueled Gaozong’s idea of saving his father, brother, and mother, who were kidnapped during the Jurchen invasion. Shengli warned Gaozong not to agree to all of Yue Fei’s military campaigns because the Song army was not ready to fight against the Jurchens. Gaozong agreed with what Shengli suggested, but knew that he needed Yue Fei’s acceptance first, so Gaozong developed this persona, John E Wills, author of Mountain of Fame describes, “The emperor seemed warlike, enthusiastic about moving ahead against the lake bandits. This did not mean, however, that he was fully on the side of those like Yue” (Mountain of Fame, 174)[iii]. Shengli grieved when he heard that Gaozong’s brother, Qinzong, was kidnapped. Shengli had watched both princes grow from small boys to young men and Qinzong was only emperor for two years before he was taken, making Gaozong the new emperor.

As Shengli spent more time in the palace, he realized that Gaozong was not the same boy he taught just several years ago. This man was more power hungry and it made Shengli uneasy. Gaozong on the outside seemed to care about bringing his brother back, but it was actually a power play. He wanted to make sure that Qinzong would not take over the throne and one way was to make sure that the citizens of Song and Gaozong’s court could see that Gaozong was a better emperor than his father and brother. He began to win the trust of his generals by going along with what they suggested. Gaozong began to slowly win the trust of the people by playing the role of the filial son. Shengli was disappointed to see Gaozong follow this devious path, but supported him in order to win Gaozong’s favor.

Shengli had not forgotten about why he agreed to be part of Gaozong’s court. He began studying past reforms and was influenced by Fan Zhongyan’s attempt to reform the exam system. He was one of the few that focused on this topic. A century before, in 1042 C.E., Fan Zhongyan managed to introduce a change to the exam system, but it did not last long before another reform took its place. John E. Wills summarizes Fan Zhongyan’s reform,“ But more important to him than efforts to directly strengthen the state and improve to him the lot of its people were his proposals for changes in examination and bureaucratic recruitment” (Mountain of Fame, 153)[iv] and “Examiners should take into account information on the moral character of the examiners” (Mountain of Fame, 153)[v]. Zhongyan’s reform was heavily based on finding people with good morals to receive high government positions that matched with the Confucian idea of being the best man. Shengli was biased towards agreeing with Zhongyan’s reform since he was also very influenced by Confucius, but he, nonetheless, agreed with the changes Zhongyan suggested. Shengli began studying why Zhongyan’s reform failed and how to make his own better.

Unfortunately, Shengli had not spend that much time perfecting his reform when Gaozong was forced to step down from the throne. A coup of soldiers and several powerful generals decided to overthrow Gaozong. Yue Fei and several other generals who still supported Gaozong were able to fight off the rebellious soldiers. Shengli and the other advisors quickly hid Gaozong in a farmer’s house. They spent a day there before they decided to move the emperor to Shengli’s house in Hangzhou. Shengli and the other advisors returned to the palace and worked with the other generals to remove the traitor generals from power. It was easy to remove the soldiers who worked for the renegade generals because many were celebrating at the local brothel and were caught by surprise and outnumbered. Yue Fei and his soldiers quickly forced the soldiers to either pledge their loyalty to Emperor Gaozong or they would be killed. They gave the soldiers a chance to redeem themselves because the Southern Song army was currently small and weak after the Jurchen invasion. Many reverted their allegiance to the rightful emperor. The generals were harder to convince, so Gaozong had them executed to prevent another military mutiny. They placed Gaozong back on the throne a month later.

For the next 3 years, Shengli helped Gaozong establish his position on the throne and spent his spare time working on his reform. Towards the end of his 4th year in Gaozong’s court, Shengli completed an extended version of Zhongyan’s reform. He included Zhongyan’s idea of hiring men of good standing and morals to join the emperor’s advisors. But he had the radical idea of eradicating the shadow privilege. When Shengli presented this to Emperor Gaozong and the other advisors he was met with quick refusal from the advisors. These advisors mostly came from powerful families and relied on the shadow privilege to pass the exams. Undeterred, Shengli came up with another idea that was simpler, to make the exams anonymous; as explained in The Open Empire, “a piece of paper was pasted over the name of those taking the exams, and examinations were recopied so that those grading them would not favor someone whose handwriting they recognized” (The Open Empire, 271)[vi]. Shengli thought that making the exams anonymous allowed all the exam takers to have a more even ground of succeeding since the graders could not purposefully pick a certain student to pass. He struck a deal with the other advisors; if they agreed to his new plan, he would leave the court. The other advisors felt that Shengli’s new idea would not harm their sons’ chances of passing the jinshi exam, and they wanted to remove Shengli because he was too close to the emperor. What they did not realize was that Shengli was already planning to leave the palace because he could not stand the competitive atmosphere and unsophistication of the other advisors. Many of the advisors in Emperor Gaozong’s court only wanted to manipulate him to get more wealth; they did not care about making the small empire better. So in early 1134 C.E., Shengli presented his new idea to Emperor Gaozong and his court. This time the court was in unanimous agreement towards his new proposal and it was used in the next jinshi exam. Later that year, when Shengli requested to leave court, Gaozong reluctantly allowed him to leave because out of all his advisors, Gaozong trusted Shengli the most, but after being overthrown by some of his generals, Gaozong constantly switched out the members in his court.

The next 25 years of Shengli’s life are a mystery. Some sources claim that he was still living within the palace and aiding the emperor in secret, while others say that he returned to Hangzhou to resume teaching at his school. But there has not been concrete sources found that confirm where and what Shengli was doing this time.

It was through the notes of Zhu Zi that Shengli would appear once again in history. In 1158 C.E., Shengli met a young Zhu Zi in his hometown. Shengli had heard from a fellow teacher and friend that he had a student, Zhu Zi, who shared some of the same ideals as Shengli. Shengli met Zhu Zi, and it was like meeting an old friend. Both of them immediately began sharing ideas and commented on how people were losing the way of thinking. Together, they developed an early version of what will eventually be known as Neo-Confucianism. They also created a new way of testing the students’ true understanding of the books they read. From The Open Empire, “using question-and- answer format….ignored the usual rules of composition so that they could express their ideas” (The Open Empire, p. 271)[vii]. This format was similar to the way The Analects was written; Confucius’s disciples did not write down word for word what their master told them, but what they learned from Confucius. Shengli and Zhu Zi thought that this was the better way to test if students were learning from what they read. Unfortunately Shengli died two years later in his sleep, and did not get to see how the Han Chinese received the idea of Neo-Confucianism. He died feeling unaccomplished, that he did not do enough to bring equality among the wealthy and the poor, and teaching the importance of good morals.

Shengli did not change much during his lifetime except for his biggest accomplishment, equalizing the exam. Due to Shengli’s persistent attitude to make the jinshi exam fairer for the less wealthy, his idea changed the exam for the better and lasted far longer than Zhongyan’s reform; as mentioned in The Open Empire, “by the twelfith century, the idea of anonymity had triumphed” (The Open Empire, 271)[viii]. He also helped Zhu Zi create the basis of Neo-Confucianism, but was not well known for his hand in developing it. since Zhu Zi revised the idea of Neo-Confucianism after Shengli’s death. Zhu Zi kept some ideas that Shengli had come up with, but the main points of how we understand Neo-Confucianism now is different from the first draft they created together.


[i] Hansen, V. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York; W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2000. Print. Page 243.
[ii] Hansen, 253.
[iii] Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1994. Print. Page 174.
[iv] Wills, 153.
[v] Wills, 153
[vi] Hansen, 271.
[vii] Hansen, 271.
[viii] Hansen, 271.

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MELISSA WU is a sophomore at the University of Rochester; studying business. She is from New York City, but loves nature and running through grass. When she isn’t studying; you’ll probably find her playing with her dog or reading a book. More by Melissa