What good is ritual?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:24 pm

Rites (li禮) are something that you talk about a lot when you teach Chinese history. Usually the word is translated as “ritual,” which is a pretty accurate translation but not one likely to inflame American students. For any right-thinking American “ritual” is always proceeded by the prefixes “dead” and “meaningless.” For most educated people in traditional China, especially the ru (Confucians, if you must) it was a tremendously important thing. Ritual was what the ancient kings used to bring order to the world, and it was what fathers used to mold their sons into good sons. Rulers used it to mold their ministers into proper officials, and officials used it to mold rulers into good rulers. Finagrette Confucius-The Secular as Sacred (p.9) uses the example of handshaking as a modern example. Handshaking and small talk are actually a fairly complex ritual performances that force others to behave in a civil fashion. Someone can refuse to shake your hand, but only at the expense of completely rejecting civility. Ritual properly performed gives you the power to make people behave themselves. A proper system of rituals is a social technology that creates and orderly society. (Law does the same thing, but it is less effective.)

Of course you need a good story to illustrate this, so here is one, from Nylan The Five “Confucian” Classics p.176 It is a story from Sima Qian about Liu Bang, the first Han emperor. He had been a village policeman, but in the chaos at then end of Qin he did well for himself and founded one of China’s best-known dynasties. At this point he is trying to turn his rabble of followers into an imperial court.

Liu Bang’s followers were given to drinking and brawling over their respective achievements. When in their cups, some would shout wildly and others would draw their swords and hack at the pillars [of the palace], causing the High Ancestor [that is, Liu Bang] distress over their behavior.

Shusun Tong, realizing that the emperor was becoming increasingly disgusted with the situation, persuaded the emperor [to take action]: ..”I beg to summon scholars from Lu, who can join with my disciples in drawing up court rituals.”
“Can you make them not to difficult?”
“The Five Emperors of antiquity all had different types of court music and dance: the Three Kings [of Xia, Shang, and Zhou] did not follow the same ritual….They did not merely copy their predecessors. I intend to pick a number of ancient rituals and some Qin ceremonies, to make a combination of these.”
“See what you can do,” replied the emperor. “But make it easy to learn! Keep in mind it must be the sort of thing I can perform.”

Shusun Tong then summoned some thirty-odd scholars from Lu [the home state of Confucius]…. With the more learned imperial advisors and his own disciples, numbering over a hundred men, he worked out the rituals. When they had practiced for more than a month, Shusun Tong felt that it was time for the emperor to come take a look…”I can do that all right!” exclaimed the emperor when he had watched them carry out the rituals, so he ordered all his officials to practice them so that they could be used in the New Year festivities.

In the seventh year of Han, at the completion of the Eternal Joy Palace, all the nobles and officials attended the New Year’s formal audience…During the ceremony, every single person, from the assembled nobles on down, trembled with awe and reverence. During the drinking which followed the formal audience,…no one dared to quarrel or misbehave in the least. At this, the High Ancestor announced, “Today, for the first time, I know how exalted a thing it is be an emperor. “


Drop the book and step away from the scholarship

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:45 am

Apparently Homeland Security is monitoring Interlibrary Loan. A UMass student was questioned for having ordered a copy of the Little Red Book. According to the story the fact that he had traveled overseas was also a tip-off. I sort of wonder where he went. Does any foreign travel count? Or do you have to go someplace specific?

I wish I could say that this type of thing surprised me, but given all the stuff that has happened in the last few years I am not. I -am- a bit surprised by the level of incompetence this shows. The Little Red Book? Not exactly how to build a dirty bomb or even single spark to start a prairie fire. Are they running computer checks on everyone who orders books by Mao, Marx, Clinton etc?

Via a Crooked Timber post on how Chinese people are using web sites to comment on Lu Xun’s In Memory of Ms. Liu Hezhen to comment on Dongzhou


danger + opportunity

Filed under: — katrina @ 5:56 am

This entry on pinyin.info looks at the misunderstanding of the construction of characters. This tendency – particularly among the writers of motivational/new age books it seems! – to interpret every hanzi character as imparting some kind of philosophical lesson is fascinating. I suppose it is part and parcel of the ‘Eastern Wisdom’ fetish, which also includes sanskrit tattoos.


Do we want to judge?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:40 am

Caleb Mc Daniel has a nice post on President Bush, and his recent claims that his policies in Iraq can only be judged by future historians. Caleb points out that this is a common dodge for politicians, but at the same time he, like me, seems a bit smitten by the high status this gives to historians. (Proper historians, of course, not revisionists.)

I must say I am a bit more conflicted about this than Caleb is. One of the things that my advisor was very satisfied with towards the end of his life was the way that the study of Republican China was becoming an academic issue. Fewer and fewer students wanted to re-fight the battles of the Civil War in his class, he did not have to worry about his relatives in Taiwan when he published stuff, he was not in any danger of being hauled in front of HUAC for his academic work. (He was a Fairbank student) There were benefits to the politicization of history (none of the grad students doing Ancient Greece got defense department money to do their language work,) but he was happy to see it go. I think he was happy with the change on a personal level and also on an intellectual one. 1949 happened. The Communists came to power. Nothing that was said now could undo that, and while attempts to use history as ammunition in American political battles were probably inevitable they were not a good thing for history. Actually, given the American political culture it was somewhat odd that “Who lost China” had such a long run in American politics.

On the other hand, while the passage of time helps to turn history into an academic subject, I don’t think it actually accomplishes anything in itself. With the passage of time more documents become available, and in many cases they become easier to search, but of course no new evidence is created. Eventually a secondary literature is created that helps you to figure out what you are looking at. None of this is necessary, however. Well, at least that was Sima Qian’s position. Sima was the Han dynasty historian who was castrated for his defense of a general whom the emperor had condemned. I’ve always assumed that this was in part because of factional situations at court, but it also grew out of Sima’s theories of history. He judged generals and ministers and emperors all the time and placed them in categories of good and bad. Like Ranke, Sima saw the historian as God, passing out judgments, and for Sima the standards you judged people against were eternal. Not only could historians judge the present, it was something they were ideally situated to do. This is not how we see historians today, of course, but Han Wudi was not disagreeing with Sima about the validity of praise and blame history. He agreed that standards were eternal, he agreed that judgment had to be made, but he disagreed with Sima about who got to be the judge. For him revisionist history was lesse majeste

So I suppose that if we are honest historians we have to stand up like Sima Qian and insist that historians alive today are just as good at writing the history of today and praising and blaming as the historians of 100 years hence will be able to.


Cheng-Zhu or Chengs v. Zhu?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:37 pm

I didn’t make a big thing of it in class, and nobody seems to have noticed the discrepancy, but there’s something of a disparity between my World History textbook (Brummet, et al., Civilization: Past and Present, 11e) and my own understanding of the development of Neo-Confucianism. Now that the semester’s (almost) over, I’d like to throw it open for comment.

My understanding, based in no small part on the new editions of the Columbia Sourcebooks, is that Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi were largely in agreement on the matter of li [principle] and qi [essence, force, energy, etc.], but that Cheng Yi emphasized qi as the most important consideration in personal development while Cheng Hao emphasized jen [humaneness] as the key to education and moral understanding. Zhu Xi, then, while a student of both brothers, was more a follower of Cheng Yi, focusing on the function of qi; thus the term Cheng-Zhu Confucianism.

Cheng Hao, on the other hand, was the progenitor of the Cheng-Lu strain, emphasizing, along with Lu Xiangshan, the unity of xin [mind, soul, heart, etc] with the Ultimate substrate of existence and the li principle. This is important particularly because it’s the foundation for the development of Wang Yangming thought, which was very influential in Japan.

Civilization, though, puts the Cheng brothers together as developers of li-qi theory, and claims that Zhu Xi “differed from the Chengs by ascribing greater importance to li over qi and by positing the existence of a Supreme Ultimate to which all li was connected.” (304)

Am I splitting hairs to see the textbook as oversimplifying to the point of error? How do you teach the Song Renaissance?


Asian History Carnival 2

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:22 am

The 2nd installment of the Asian History Carnival is coming next week, December 12th. The announcement is out a bit late but send your nominations to konrad [at] lawson.net. I’ll be hosting the carnival at my own Muninn.net

See the full details on submission in the official announcement. If you missed the first carnival, take a look here. Also, pass on the word! Unlike the excellent bi-weekly History Carnival, our own bi-monthly carnival is just getting off the ground! I hope Frog in a Well readers will take a moment to make a nomination or two of good Asian history related postings by midnight December 11th EST.

UPDATE: The new Asian history carnival is now up over at Muninn. The next carnival will be February 2nd, 2006. Please contact me at konrad [at] lawson.net if you are interested in hosting the third installment of the Asian History Carnival.


Provincialism and democracy

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:43 am

Everyone is talking about the protests in Hong Kong, for good reason. What I find most interesting is the official response. (All links via Simon’s World, the one-stop shop for China stuff.) Xinhua’s take was almost comical, pointing out that bus routes were disrupted and giving no idea what the protests were actually about. Much more interestingly, Donald Tsang, the Beijing-appointed Chief Executive seems to be making noises about democracy.

“I am 60 years of age. I certainly want to see universal suffrage taking place in Hong Kong in my time,” Mr Tsang said.

I find his remarks interesting because I wonder what they say about center-local relationships and the relationship of democracy to power in China. He could of course just be throwing a sop to the protesters, but it is more interesting to wonder if he is telling the truth, that is that he wants an expansion of democracy. As is pretty well-known, the Chinese central government has been claiming that China will eventually become democratic, and elections, if often problematic ones, are held at the local level. The central government likes this because it makes it harder for low-level party bureaucrats to entrench themselves in power and it helps to re-constitute order in a place At the very least they favor a bit of democracy for instrumental reasons.

On local democracy in China see Susan Ogden Inklings of Democracy in China

More interestingly, I assume at some point these local leaders are going to take advantage of the greater legitimacy democratic elections give them to defy the center. That is basically what happened in 1911, provincial assemblies that claimed to “represent” “the people” (it’s really complicated) took their provinces out of the empire. The provincial assemblies had considerably more legitimacy and influence than the central government, and for that reason, among others, the revolution was relatively quick and bloodless.

That the center and the provinces bicker a lot today is not news, although it takes a serious Zhongnanhai-ologist to know what is actually going on. Adding democracy into the mix seems to be almost inevitable, and very bad for the center. Eventually Hong Kong will have its first freely elected Executive, and this will potentially give him a lot of power in relation to the Beijing. I think that is why the center is so nervous about this. If you look at the structure they are talking about it seems that even a freely elected Executive would be pretty constrained in a formal sense. Hong Kongers seem to generally buy the government line that order and national power are more important than individual liberties, and my guess is that anyone who was elected would be pretty agreeable to much of what Beijing wants. Hong Kong is not France, or even the U.S. Still, once you let democracy jump to the provincial level its hard to see how it can be contained, other than by more democracy. I think the most encouraging thing about the demonstration is that Beijing really is afraid, and they have good reason to be.

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