Skip to main content

Zhang Xuecheng


ZHANG XUECHENG (17381801), Chinese historian and philosopher. A native of Shaoxing (Kuaiji district), Zhejiang Province, and son of a district magistrate, Zhang went to Beijing as a student in 1762, and in the next ten years became acquainted with many of the leading writers of the day. Among his associates and mentors were, notably, Zhu Yun (172981), whom he acknowledged as his master, and the philosopher and philologue Dai Zhen (172477), whom Zhang admired for his philosophical essays but criticized strongly for his opposition to the ideas of the Song dynasty Confucian moralist Zhu Xi (11301200). As a youth Zhang developed a keen interest in the art and theory of historical writing, admiring the Tang dynasty historiographer Liu Zhiji (661721). As early as 1770 he had begun to formulate a theory of the development of civilization based on the Han court librarian Liu Xin's theories of the history of types of writing. In 1778 he passed the examinations for the highest civil service degree (jinshi ), but he never took office, and supported himself usually through teaching appointments in local academies, commissions to compile local and family histories, and research and writing sponsored by patrons (notably Bi Yuan, 173097).

Zhang articulated his vision of the human past in his local history of Hezhou (1775; only fragments are extant), his Jiaochou tongyi (Philosophy of Bibliography, 1779), and especially in his monograph-length essay Yuandao (The Analysis of the Way, 1789). He saw all moral conventions, institutions, traditions of learning, and genres of writing as taking form in an early state of the human condition in which there was no distinction between public (official) and private aspects of life, when all kinds of writing were naturally beautiful or useful according to their function, anonymous and unmarred by personal vanity. This ideal state of affairs ended some centuries before Confucius. Thereafter, "officials were no longer teachers," and there was no longer a "unity of government (zhi ) and doctrine (jiao )"Zhang's idiom (following the Song polymath Ouyang Xiu, 10071072) for saying that the primal unity of the human spirit was sundered forever, in an alienation of intellect from action. Intellectual history since that time has been a dialectical process of always incomplete vision of the truth, ages of philosophy, of scholarship, and of literary art succeeding each other endlessly, each age blind to the values it fails to realize. Zhang crystalizes his vision in the famous one-line evaluation of the Confucian Classics, opening his collected essays, Wenshi tongyi (General Principles of Literary and Historical Criticism): "The Six Classics are all history." By this he means that they are not authored books that formulate the dao of human society, but are exemplifications of this dao, being documents, residues of the functioning of the ancient society and state, an age when "the dao and its embodiments were one" (dao qi heyi ). This dao cannot be reduced to "empty words" (kong yan ) and formulas; it must be grasped intuitively through the study of institutions and human acts, which the historian must present just as they were, without bias.

In this aspect of his thought Zhang is close to the Ming dynasty Confucian moralist Wang Shouren (Wang Yangming, 14721529); but unlike Wang he never himself had a religious drive toward self-cultivation. Zhang had several Buddhist friends, whom he teased good-naturedly, but he was open-mindedly willing to own that Buddhism might be saying something true and valuable in its own way. He could hardly be called a Daoist, but his vision of intellectual history owes not a little to Zhuangzi. He had strong conservative prejudices about the status of women, expressed in several vigorous essays attacking the poet Yuan Mei (17161798). Zhang was impatient with the philological scholarship fashionable in his time, his thinking being more akin to the so-called Tongcheng circle of literary men. He much admired the early Qing historian Huang Zongxi (16101695) and other Zhejiang authors, and is sometimes classed as a "member" of an "Eastern Zhejiang school" of historical learning.

See Also

Wang Yangming.


Demiéville, Paul. " Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng and His Historiography." In Historians of China and Japan, edited by W. G. Beasley and E. G. Pulleyblank, pp. 167185. Oxford, 1961.

Nivison, David S. The Life and Thought of Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng, 17381801. Stanford, 1966. Includes an annotated bibliography of important Chinese and Japanese sources.

Yü Ying-shih. Lun Dai Zhen yu Zhang Xuecheng. Hong Kong, 1976. An English edition of this work is forthcoming.

New Sources

Mann, Susan. "Women in the Life of Zhang Xuecheng." In Chinese Language, Thought, Culture: Nivison and His Critics, edited by Philip J. Ivanhoe. LaSalle, Ill., 1996.

Nivison, David S. "The Philosophy of Zhang Xuecheng." In The Ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese Philosophy. La Salle, Ill., 1996.

Wong, Young-tsu. "Discovery or Invention: Modern Interpretation of Zhgang Xuecheng (17381801)." Historiography East and West, 1 (September 2003), 178203.

David S. Nivison (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Zhang Xuecheng." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 19 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Zhang Xuecheng." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (January 19, 2019).

"Zhang Xuecheng." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved January 19, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.