Han learning began with the "evidential scholarship" (考证 kǎozhèng) movement of the late Ming dynasty, which was a reaction against the so-called "Song Learning", or Neo-Confucianism, which had arisen during the Song dynasty (12th century). Neo-Confucianism had incorporated Buddhist and Daoist influences into the Confucianist tradition, introducing a new cosmology emphasising the moral nature of the cosmos. Neo-Confucianism was adopted as Confucian orthodoxy under the Yuan dynasty and formed the basis of the Imperial examination until nearly the end of the Qing dynasty.
Evidential scholars reacted to the innovations of Neo-Confucianism by turning back to the original classics, employing philological techniques to try and authenticate the real words of Confucius. This involved the comparison of different texts in great detail. This school of learning came to be called “Han Learning” because it sought out Han dynasty commentaries as being closer to the original texts.
The fall of the Ming and the rise of the Qing dynasty was a watershed in the development of this trend of philological thought. Scholars in the evidential scholarship tradition attacked the heterodox and subjective ideals of "Song learning" as having betrayed the true teachings of Confucius, resulting in decadence, individualism, and factionalism in the Ming court. This was blamed for bringing about the fall of the Ming dynasty.
The Han Learning scholars played an important role in many intellectual works sponsored by the Qing court. They were involved in the Siku Quanshu, a monumental encyclopaedic project commissioned by the Emperor Qianlong which involved the collection of the entire Chinese canon of studies on the mind, nature, government and humanity. While this work was firmly grounded in Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, the philological expertise of evidential scholars was drawn on to ensure the authenticity of the canon. Han Learning played a major role in providing annotations and evidential scholarship on regulations and edicts, together with works of philosophers.
By the mid-eighteenth century, Han learning had proved that various parts of the sacred classics were in fact later forgeries of the Han dynasty.
While it may appear to be concerned with philological minutiae, the debate between the Neo-Confucianists and the adherents of Han learning had considerable repercussions, weakening the cosmological underpinnings of the imperial state, although not its political dominance. Han Learning and Song Learning were eventually blended into a new school of thought during the late Qing.