It is difficult to fathom “laboring at study by a cold window,” an idiom known to many Chinese that reflects, both then and now, the life of a student who perseveres in the pursuit of knowledge. But for the Manchu imperial sons who were brought up in the palace and literally “born with a silver spoon in their mouths,” training in both academic and military skills were just as rigorous, if not more. Their student life was not nearly as easy-going as many people nowadays might think or imagine.
“A-ge” is the Manchu term referring to direct lineal sons in the Qing dynasty imperial clan. After the Manchus became established in China Proper and influenced by Confucian culture, they began to emphasize the importance of educating A-ge to cultivate them into those who would inherit the throne and as talents to govern the country, thereby allowing the Manchus to consolidate and extend political control and authority for the long term.
But how exactly did Qing imperial A-ge spend their student days? What was school like for them, and what did they actually learn in class? Who were the teachers and others who accompanied A-ge for years? And what kind of influence did they have on A-ge? To answer these questions, this display is divided into three sections: “A-ge Go to School,” “The Curriculum of A-ge,” and “The Teachers of A-ge.” Through documents and archives in the National Palace Museum collection, we can catch a glimpse into the actual student life of A-ge in the Qing dynasty.
According to the records by Qing dynasty authors, A-ge from the age of six would rise at three in the morning every day to go to their studies. In addition to the required readings shared with students in society, including such traditional texts as the Four Books and Five Classics, A-ge also had to take the basic Manchu courses of “national language and equestrian archery.” National language referred to Manchu and equestrian archery to the skill of archery while riding a horse. In the Qing dynasty, special emphasis was placed on physical education in paddock hunting trips beyond the Great Wall. And with increasing contact between the Qing Empire and the West, such courses as astronomy and mathematics were added to the curriculum of A-ge, offering an understanding of the world outside China.
The class schedule of A-ge emphasized both academic and military skills, the curriculum intertwining Chinese and Western sciences as well, marking a departure from imperial education in Chinese history before that focused on traditional studies. In fact, it can almost be likened to the diversity of learning among students today. And even though A-ge did not have to take examinations or have the same pressure to advance as many students nowadays, records indicate that A-ge still had to go to class all year round. They had no winter or summer recess, only five days off in a year; their studies could certainly not be said to be light. This exhibition attempts to unveil some of the secrecy behind the education of these Manchu imperial sons and the rigors of their studies, a comparison with modern education perhaps providing new ideas and insights.