Hanlin Academicians: The True Pride of Heaven in Ancient China

A coloured illustration from Di Jian Tu Shuo (《帝鑑圖說》, Achievements and Reckless Acts of Emperors), depicting Zhang Fangping (張方平), a member of the Hanlin Academy (翰林), being summoned by Emperor Renzong (仁宗) of the Song dynasty (宋代) for political consultat

The Hanlin Academy was established in the Tang dynasty (唐代), and a complete system of member selection and job responsibilities was formed as a result. Its scholars enjoyed the highest social status and were an elite group representative of excellence in literature. For a long time, Hanlin academicians were able to enter the highest centres of power and participate in important tasks and political affairs. They thus had a significant influence on the politics and culture of ancient China.

Hanlin academicians acted as spokespersons for the emperor and reported to him directly. They also drafted imperial edicts. Since imperial edicts were of great importance to the imperial dignity and were scrutinised by the whole court, the emperor would give his opinions after reviewing the drafts. Hanlin academicians were also given the power to refuse to draft an imperial edict, known as the “power of returning an unfitted order”. The interaction between Hanlin academicians and the emperor was most fully apparent in the drafting of imperial edicts.

The tasks of Hanlin academicians determined the requirement of their profession: they needed to have a strong sense of confidentiality, quick thinking, and extensive knowledge. Although they enjoyed a prestigious status, they were generally not wealthy. There was even a saying in the Qing dynasty (清代) that they were “poor Hanlin academicians”. Their main sources of income were salaries, remuneration for writing or painting, and imperial rewards. In the Qing dynasty, Hanlin academicians would be paid for performing temporary imperial tasks

In the Tang dynasty, the imperial academy was a confidential department responsible for drafting imperial edicts in the Forbidden City (imperial palace). At that time, Hanlin academicians were in close contact with the emperor and held prestigious positions, giving them the opportunity to make major political achievements. These achievements included their opposition to eunuch power and support for imperial authority; their responsibilities to draft imperial edicts and refuse to draft edicts they considered unreasonable on behalf of the emperor.

The post of Hanlin Daizhao (翰林待詔, Hanlin Attendant) was set up in the Tang dynasty who served with their talent in playing qin (琴), a stringed musical instrument, traditional chess, calligraphy, painting, Buddhism, Taoism, theory of yin and yang (陰陽), astronomy, medicine, and composition of poetry and lyrics. In short, they accompanied the emperor for entertainment.  Cixue Daizhao (詞學待詔, Literary Attendant) specialising in poetry was the most noteworthy among different types of Hanlin Daizhao since poetry was fashionable and enjoyed by both the emperor and common people during that time. Indeed, there were many Tang emperors of considerable literary talent and taste. The post of Cixue Daizhao was often taken by outstanding poets, who also enjoyed high status in the Hanlin Academy.

Hanlin academicians were mainly responsible for drafting imperial edicts in the Song dynasty, which were documents of high confidentiality that involved major national affairs. Therefore, the drafting process was very strict. In the Song dynasty, the process of drafting these important documents included overnight duty, receiving orders, drafting and locking the document in the Academy, review by the emperor, and public announcement. As confidential secretaries to the emperor, Hanlin academicians also took various imperial tasks in addition to their routine work, such as serving as chief examiners, participating in diplomatic events, and compiling books.

In the Yuan dynasty (元代), one of the distinct features of the Hanlin system was the concurrent operation of the Hanlin National History Academy and the Mongolian Hanlin Academy. The main function of the Mongolian Hanlin Academy was to translate and polish the edicts drafted by the Hanlin National History Academy for the emperor and Mongolian nobles to read. The three functions of the Hanlin National History Academy in the Yuan dynasty were compiling national history, drafting imperial edicts, and providing advisory service.

The Hanlin Academy in the early Ming dynasty (明代) inherited the system of the Yuan dynasty and held a vital role in politics. However, it was replaced by the Grand Secretariat after Emperor Yongle’s (永樂) reign. Although the political status of the Hanlin Academy declined, most members of the Grand Secretariat were from the Academy, which led to changes in the Hanlin system. The most prominent of which was the selection qualifications for Hanlin academicians. Only Jinshi (進士, scholars who passed the palace exam, the highest level of the imperial examination) were eligible to enter the Hanlin Academy. Among those Jinshi, only the top three were directly admitted to the Academy. It thus served as a platform for delivering senior officials to the Grand Secretariat, and a place for cultivating and nurturing talented minds for the imperial court.

In the early Qing dynasty, the Hanlin Academy was often abolished and re-established. It was not until the ninth year of the reign of Emperor Kangxi (康熙, 1670) that its operation was confirmed. However, with the establishment of the Southern Secretariat and the Grand Council, the position of the Hanlin Academy declined further. With the fall of the Qing dynasty (1911), the final curtain fell upon the Hanlin Academy of a thousand years of history.

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