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Rulin waishi, or Unofficial History of the Scholars (Chinese: 儒林外史; pinyin: Rúlín Wàishǐ; literally: 'Confucians Woods External History'), is a Chinese novel authored by Wu Jingzi and completed in 1750 during the Qing dynasty. It is considered one of the six classics of Chinese literature.

Rúlín wàishǐ
The Unofficial History of the Scholars
AuthorWu Jingzi
Original title儒林外史
Rúlín wàishǐ
(lit. Confucians Woods External History)'
Publication date
Media typePrint

Set in the Ming period, The Scholars describes and often satirizes scholars in a vernacular style now called báihuà. The first and last chapters portray recluses, but most of the loosely connected stories that form the bulk of the novel are didactic and satiric stories, on the one hand holding up exemplary Confucian behavior, but on the other ridiculing over-ambitious scholars and criticizing the civil service examination system.

Promoting naturalistic attitudes over belief in the supernatural, the author rejects the popular belief in retribution: his bad characters suffer no punishment. The characters in these stories are intellectuals, perhaps based on the author's friends and contemporaries. Wu also portrays women sympathetically: the chief character Du treats his wife as a companion instead of as an inferior. Although it is a satiric novel, a major incident in the novel is Du's attempt to renovate his family's ancestral temple, suggesting the author shared with Du a belief in the importance of Confucianism.

The language of the novel is based on the speech of contemporary Nanjing. Classical phrases (wényán) appear occasionally, but only in the speech of elite characters. The novel was a favorite of 20th-century language reformers, who used it to support the view that wényán was a form of snobbery.[1]


Content, meaning and ideologyEdit

The Scholars describes the life activities of various Chinese Confucius scholars, mostly under the early Jiajing period of the Ming dynasty. Most of them are corrupted scholars, however. Some of them are overly obsessed by the fame and glory of civil service to the point of losing all sanity and became mentally unstable. Some of them are theoretically dogmatic, rigidly follow the old writing style and denied all flexibility and innovation. Some of them are hypocrites, spending days talking about morality and ethics but actually live a despicable and useless life. Some of them are corrupted by fame and glory, they are eager to sacrifice relatives and family for more fame, more glory. Via the corrupted Confucius scholars, Wu Jingzi indirectly criticized the civil service examination and education system under the Qing dynasty. The author could not directly attack the ruling Qing dynasty which could lead to capital punishment, therefore he chose to portray his story in the Ming period, which was increasingly dogmatic and meaningless, criticized the cruel government officials who treated the people with violence and exploited them brutally, and criticized the backward feudal "moral codes" which confined people in an ideological prison.

Wu Jingzi did create several "good" characters as model for an ideal Confucius scholar, they uphold a moral life, they cannot be corrupted by fame or money, and they despise the contemporary civil service of Chinese feudal government. One of them, the scholar Du, is strikingly similar to the author: descended from a well-to-do family, spent all of the family assets and became poverty-stricken, hated the civil officials, expressed progressive ideas and was strongly critical of the popular Zhu Xi's Neo-Confucianism dogma. Via the character Du, Wu Jingzi portrayed women sympathetically as Du treated his wife kindly and equally in the time when women were considered inferior to men.


Chinese commentators have traditionally seen The Scholars as having a loose structure. The famous author Lu Xun wrote that "the novel has no central linking element" and is more like "a group of short stories". Hu Shih echoed this view, writing that the novel "lacks a general structural basis". The same opinion has been put forth by Western scholars. James R. Hightower described the work as "amorphous and plotless".

However, more recent scholarship by Zbigniew Slupski detects organization in The Scholars on three levels. The first is the anecdotal level, in which the work can be divided into various "units" centered around a comical fact or occurrence. The second level is that of biography, in which the author constructs a multifaceted view of main characters in the work. An example is the portrayal of Zhou Jin, the elderly examination candidate. The final level is that of autobiography, the author's attitude toward the events of the story. This is revealed in chapter titles, poems, and occasional narrative interludes.[2]

Chapter 37Edit

Chapter 37 of the novel depicts in great detail a Confucian ceremony honoring a Confucian sage of antiquity, Wu Taibo. Both modern and Qing dynasty commentators have noted that this chapter constitutes the "high point" and "structural apex" of the novel. Shang Wei believes that the chapter points to Wu Jingzi's simultaneous desire to follow Confucian ritual and his need to critique it.[3]


The earliest extant edition of The Scholars is the 1803 Wo Xian Caotang edition, commonly referred to as the "Wo" edition. This was followed in 1816 by the Qingjiang Pu Zhu Li Ge ("Qing") and Yi Gu Tang ("Yi") editions, which are both essentially copies of the Wo edition. The Suzhou Fan Shi Chao ("Chao") edition was the personal reading edition of a Qing Dynasty official. While this edition was quite rare, the following Suzhou Qun Yu Ji ("Su") edition was quite popular, and there are many extant versions of it in circulation. The first Shen Bao Guan ("Shen One") edition corrected the mistakes of previous editions, and the second Shen Bao Guan edition ("Shen Two") carried these corrections further.[4]

In addition to further corrections, the Ji edition greatly shortened the text, by for example deleting characters' titles. The Zeng Bu Ji Sheng Tang ("Zeng Bu Ji") edition added four additional chapters of text to the novel. The Commercial Press edition of the novel was arranged according to the Shen Two edition, and made further corrections to the text. The Yadong edition was first published in 1920, and reissued a number of times in subsequent years. The 16th edition was released in 1948. This version of the text has greatly influenced modern printings of the novel.[4]


  • The Scholars (tr. Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang) HC ISBN 0-231-08153-7 PB ISBN 0-231-08153-7
  • Wu Ching-Tzu. The Scholars, tr. Yang Hsein-yi, Gladys Yang. Foreign Language Press, Beijing: 2004. ISBN 7-119-01213-4.


  1. ^ SHANG Wei, "Baihua, Guanhua, Fangyan and the May Fourth Reading of Rulin waishi," Sino-Platonic Papers, I 17 (May, 2002).
  2. ^ Slupski, Zbigniew (June 1989). "Three Levels of Composition of the Rulin Waishi". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Harvard-Yenching Institute. 49 (1): 5–53. doi:10.2307/2719297. JSTOR 2719297.
  3. ^ Shang, Wei (December 1998). "Ritual, Ritual Manuals, and the Crisis of the Confucian World: An Interpretation of Rulin waishi". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Harvard-Yenching Institute. 58 (2): 373–377. doi:10.2307/2652665. JSTOR 2652665.
  4. ^ a b 李,漢秋 (2010). 儒林外史:彚校彚評 (in Chinese). 上海: 上海古籍出版社. pp. 1–13. ISBN 978-7-5325-5557-4.

Further readingEdit

  • Paul S. Ropp, Dissent in Early Modern China : Ju-Lin Wai-Shih and Ch'ing Social Criticism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981).
  • Timothy C. Wong, Wu Ching-tzu (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978).
  • Wei Shang, Rulin waishi and Cultural Transformation in Late Imperial China (2003).

External linksEdit