Yamin XU

Bai Juyi (772–846). This famous poet of the Hanlin Academy was known for his bleak style. Poets, along with alchemists, diviners, shamanists, astrologers, physicians, fortunetellers, were on hand at the academy to serve the Emperor’s needs.

Founded as a personalized consulting group for the Tang emperors, Hanlin yuan (??? Hanlin Academy)—a common variant for Hanlin xueshi yuan (Institute of Academicians)—later evolved into a prestigious cultural and secretarial apparatus staffed with the best educated and most ambitious elites involved in imperial politics at the highest levels of both the inner and outer courts.

The Chinese character han in hanlin (“a grove of han”) literally means “feathers” and, by extension, “Chinese writing brush” and then “professional writer.” Since the beginning of the Tang (618–907 CE), a group of so-called talents awaiting orders (daizhao) was summoned to serve the emperor’s offhand needs. The group included writers (cixue or wenci), classical scholars, alchemists, diviners, shamanists, astrologers, physicians, fortunetellers, Buddhist and Daoist priests, calligraphers, painters, and chess masters. Over time some writers were singled out to become academicians in attendance (Hanlin gongfeng) and later, by 738, Hanlin academicians (Hanlin xueshi). The Hanlin Academy (Hanlin xueshi yuan) was duly established under Emperor Xuanzong (reigned 712–755) to organize these academicians.

The office of the Tang Hanlin Academy was near the imperial inner quarters. Academicians served as the Tang emperors’ personal advisers and edict drafters. Beginning in the late Tang, most Hanlin academicians were selected from the top degree holders emerging from civil service examinations. As the most promising cultural and political elites, they were not only instrumental to the growth of the Tang monarchical power but also dominated high posts in the central government, with more than 40 percent of them becoming counselors-in-chief.

Evolution of the Hanlin Academy

During most of the Song dynasty (960–1279), Hanlin academicians stayed in the imperial inner quarters, as they were still largely regarded as the “private men of the Son of Heaven” (tianzi siren). However, unlike their Tang predecessors, Song academicians, beginning with the Yuanfeng period (1078–1085), were formally ranked and thus were formal officials. Continually recruiting academicians from the scholars who had earned the jinshi degree in civil service examinations, the Song Hanlin Academy became a more complex institute. Following the Tang career model, nearly half of the Song Hanlin academicians became counselors-in-chief.

The Hanlin Academy moved out from the inner imperial quarters in the early 1440s under the Ming (1368–1644). Its relationship with the imperial house became more distant and formal, as the Ming emperors ruled more directly through other apparatuses, such as the highly personalized Grand Secretariat (Neige). As a formal bureaucratic institute, the Ming Hanlin Academy further expanded to include more than a dozen ranked posts, all with designated duties that included drafting edicts, helping emperors to study and write, educating princes, editing books, and compiling dynastic histories. This bureaucratic tendency continually developed under the Qing (1644–1912). In its full organizational capacity, the Qing Hanlin Academy retained 119 people, about half of whom were office clerks.

Most of the Ming and Qing Hanlin scholars came from the top three tiers (jia) of the jinshi degree holders. The first tier automatically became Hanlin senior (xiuzhuan) and junior (bianxiu) compilers, and the second and third tiers, if qualified after an additional examination, were accepted as Hanlin trainees (shujishi) for future appointments. As expected, powerful officials, such as the Ming grand secretaries (Neige daxueshi), the privileged Qing “serving personnel” (xingzou) of the imperial Southern Study (Nanshufang), or the Qing grand councilors (junji dachen), were always chosen from Hanlin academicians.

Ancient Air

A poem by Li Bai, one of the most famous Daoist poets of the Hanlin Academy.

Climb high gaze four seas

Heaven earth how vast

Frost blanket crowd thing autumn

Wind blow big desert cold

Magnificent east flow water

10,000 thing all billow

White sun cover elapse brilliance

Float cloud without certain end

Wutong nest swallow sparrow

Thorn jujube perch yuan luan

Moreover again return go come

Sword sing travel road difficult

I climb up high and look on the four seas,

Heaven and earth spreading out so far.

Frost blankets all the stuff of autumn,

The wind blows with the great desert’s cold.

The eastward-flowing water is immense,

All the ten thousand things billow.

The white sun’s passing brightness fades,

Floating clouds seem to have no end.

Swallows and sparrows nest in the wutong tree,

Yuan and luan birds perch among jujube thorns.

Now it’s time to head on back again,

I flick my sword and sing Taking the Hard Road.

Source: Li Bai. (n. d.). Ancient air. Retrieved March 13, 2009, from http://www.chinese-poems.com/lb19.html

Further Reading

Di Yongjun. (2002). Qingdai hanlinyuan zhidu [The Hanlin Academy under the Qing dynasty]. Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe.

Guy, R. K. (1987). The emperor’s four treasuries: Scholars and the state in the Late Ch’ien-lung Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Council on East Asian Studies and Harvard University Press.

Hong Zun. (1991 [1173]). Hanyuan qunshu [A collection of writings about the Hanlin circle]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

Lui, A.Y. (1981). The Hanlin Academy: Training ground for the ambitious, 1644–1850. Hamden, CT: Archon Books.

Mao Lei. (2000). Tangdai Hanlin xueshi [Hanlin scholars of the Tang dynasty]. Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe.

Qing huidian guan (Ed.). (1991). Hanlin Yuan [The Hanlin Academy]. In Qing huidian guan (Ed.), Qing huidian shili [Collected governmental institutes of the Qing dynasty] (12 vols.) (pp. 1044–1054). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju. (Original work published 1899)

Yang Guo. (1996). Zhongguo Hanlin zhidu [A study of the Hanlin Institute of China]. Wuchang, China: Wuhan daxue chubanshe.

Zhou Bida. (1987 [1182]). Yutang zaji [Miscellaneous records from the Jade Hall (Hanlin Academy)]. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe.

Source: Xu, Yamin (2009). Hanlin Academy (Hanlin Yuan).
In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1001–1003. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Li Bai (701–762) was one of the most famous Daoist poets of the Hanlin Academy. He is said to have died while drunkenly seeking to touch the moon’s reflection in a lake.

Hanlin Academy (Hanlin Yuan) (Hànlínyuàn ???)|Hànlínyuàn ??? (Hanlin Academy (Hanlin Yuan))

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