Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Canon ball

The course on Confucian ethics for which Lang students didn't sign up is unfolding quite nicely! We intrepid few are reading a lot of Confucian material, but reading it in ways which are truer to the tradition than many treatments - we've been reading and thinking about readings of these texts, too, including our own. (It's a commentarial tradition, after all, and in our own vaguely vicarious way we're participating in that.) I'm working out the details as we go along, but here's what we've done so far.

We started with a mini-lecture on the Confucianism problem in religious studies. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith famously quipped in The Meaning and End of Religion half a century ago, "the question 'Is Confucianism a religion?' is one that the West has never been able to answer, and China never able to ask." Why would it matter? Can we ask better questions - about ethics, religion, traditions, and the place of rujia (儒家) in Chinese culture? And why are we asking? What's in it for non-Chinese inquirers in 2017?

Our first reading was the influential recent celebration of the continued relevance of Chinese philosophy, Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh's The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us about the Good Life. We concentrated on the discussions of Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi but explored the book's larger argument and stakes, and got our first crumbs of Confucius, too. What can a Chinese tradition teach American students today, and what does it take to open yourself to it? Since one of the students is a philosophy student we also tossed around the chestnut of "what is philosophy?" - good to get that out of our system.

Then it was into the Analects (論語)! But not just any Analects. Our main text has been The Four Texts: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition, which reproduces the structure of the Confucian canon established in the 12th century by Zhuxi, and we read not just Gardner's selections but the snibbets of Zhuxi's commentary he includes with it. We didn't focus on Zhu's take, just on the fact that nobody in classical China would ever have encountered Analects on its own, without interlinear commentary. The main focus of our discussion was the situated character of Confucius' remarks: what out of context look like general principles are always couched in particular terms in response to questions from very particular people. I also brought in the first poem from the Book of Odes (詩經), the cornerstone of the learning Confucius practiced and recommended to others.

For a second session on the Analects I had students read other modern repackagings of the Analects: Tsai Chih Chung's Confucius Speaks: Words to Live By, Herbert Fingarette's Confucius: The Secular as Sacred and Yu Dan's Confucius from the Heart. Together with The Path that gave us two American and two Chinese takes, and let us start asking questions about how each in their own setting appropriated Confucius. All imply that Analects can profitably be read as a stand-alone text, and resituated Confucius' claims in contemporary contexts.

It was all a little too easy for me, so I moved forward some critical readings for the next session, Richard Madsen's "Obstacles to the Globalization of Confucianism" from Confucianism: A Habit of the Heart and Eske Møllgaard's "Chinese Ethics?" from the Blackwell Companion to Religious Ethics. Unlike our other readings, these were critical. Møllgaard thinks all Chinese ethical traditions authoritarian in a dangerously mystifying way, while Madsen suggests that various elements of Confucian tradition and recent history make it unappealing beyond the sinosphere. By contrast with these readings, our earlier interpretations were revealed to be perhaps culpably apolitical, as if public service and political advice weren't central to the tradition - including the Analects. We also read the short "Great Learning" (大學) which Zhu Xi placed first in his Four Classics, which makes it more understandable that one might think the tradition essentially about moral self-cultivation and only in an ancillary way about public service.

Time, then for Mencius (孟子), again in Gardner's selections with Zhu Xi's commentary. How was this different from Analects, we inquired? Mencius is defending a philosophy against specific others, asserts the goodness of human nature, and gives a much richer sense of the king's duties to his people. But as a reminder that this was still a tradition which studied the classics, I brought in another Ode. This one, #101, is cited in a much-cited passage (5A2) about how Shun exemplified filial piety by marrying without telling his father, as his father would not have permitted him to wed. It's an interesting and involved case, made only more complicated by the use of the Ode. (Image from Mencius Speaks: The Cure for Chaos, 69 - the only part of 5A2 Tsai Chih-Chung sees fit to include.)

And today we closed the circle. Well, we read excerpts from the last of Zhu Xi's Four Masters, what Gardner renders as "Maintaining Perfect Balance" (中庸), along with Gardner's account of Zhu Xi's crafting the new "core curriculum" of the Four Books - displacing the Five Classics. Zhu was insistent not only that scholars should start with the Four, but that they do so in a very specific order (Gardner xxv):


We didn't read them in that order, but that enabled us today to see the contrivance of Zhu's editing. Placing Analects in a Mencian frame given Neoconfucian resonance by his glosses on "Great Learning" and capping it all with suggestions in "Maintaining Perfect Balance" that the Sage has an almost divine capacity to unite Heaven and the Ten Thousand Things, Zhu presents a coherent tradition uniting statecraft, family, cosmos and ritual, basing it all in cultivation of the "inborn luminous virtue" ("Great Learning" 1, Gardner, 3) shared by all.

You might not arrive at these understandings of these texts - let alone see them as flowing seamlessly into each other - if you took them on their own... which was just my point. It's important to know Zhu's canon, since it was this which centered Chinese culture for the next six centuries. It's valuable to appreciate the iconoclastic nature of tearing Analects out of this context, without Zhu's commentary or the companions he chose for it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing. One should know what one is doing.

Perhaps it all makes more sense to me than to the students. We have been swooping and looping around a lot in time, from our time to that of Confucius and Mencius, back from there to the time of the Odes and forward to the time of the Neoconfucians... who take us back to the Great Learning, etc. It'll either clinch things or break the camel's back when, next week, we read Xunzi - who chronologically comes after Mencius and long before Xhu. Xunzi was valued as an interpreter of Confucius in the Han, was marginalized by the Neoconfucians, but has returned to favor in the aftermath of the heyday of Zhu's canon. It's the perspective The Path ends up finding most congenial. What will we think?

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