Even Barbarians can become good

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:05 am

How does one become a good person? That is a question that crops up a lot when one reads the Confucians. In fact, for Confucians the processes of self-cultivation and the questions surrounding it are absolutely central. Needless to say, Yen Chih-t’ui has stuff on this.

Partly one becomes good by hanging with good people. As Confucius put it

To live with good people is like staying in a room of orchids where, after a long time, one would naturally be sweet-scented; To associate with bad people is like living in a dried-fish shop, where one would unavoidably become imbued with the odor.p.461

Study (and self-cultivation more generally) are also important. One issue that comes up a lot is how ‘universal’ Confuican concepts of human perfectability are. Can anyone become good? Even Barbarians? How about women? Do we all become the same sort of good?

In the Ch’i dynasty (550-577) a eunuch and a palace attendant, T’ien Peng-luan, 田鹏鸞, was originally a southern barbarian. When he became a eunuch at the age of 14 or 15, he already had a desire for study. He always hid a book in his sleeves and would recite it in a low voice day and night. His position was low and the service toilsome: however, at any short respite he would hurry off to find some one he could question. Whenever he came to the Hall of Literary Galaxies, he panted and perspired and would say nothing beyond asking questions from books. When he saw some heroic or loyal deed of the ancients, he was always deeply moved, meditating for a long time. I had deep compassion and love for him and gave him double encouragement. Later on he was known and loved by the emperor, who granted him the name Ching-hsuan 敬宣, and raised his position to that of chamberlain with an independent office. When the last emperor of Ch’i fled to Ch’ing-chou [Shandong], The army of Chou captured him and asked the whereabouts of the Ch’i emperor. He deceived them, say that [the emperor] had already gone away and estimated that he should be beyond the border. Suspecting him of lying, they beat and lashed him to force him to submit. As each of his limbs was cut off, his speech and appearance became more severe than before; when his four limbs were cut off, he died. That a young barbarian boy by study could achieve such fidelity! How inferior are the generals and high ministers of Ch’i to this slave Ching-hsuan. p.73

So Yen, at least, claims that barbarians and eunuchs are capable of becoming good. Actually, they are even better than Yen himself, since he ended up serving four dynasties.
1 This quote is from 孔子家语, 4, 8b This makes it doubtful that the quote is actually from Confucius, but of course would have been regarded as his.


The World before Google

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:26 pm

One of the reasons I write this blog is to preserve things, mostly for myself. I often come across something that might be useful to teach with later, and blogging about things forces me to think things out a bit before I file them away. If you are the type of person that tends to procrastinate about thinking about things having a blog forces you to think a bit more promptly.

The other nice thing about blogging is that once you blog something you always know where it is. No hunting around your hard drive or god forbid filing cabinet to find a quote or an idea, just Google it up. Its like having an artificial brain.1

Being able to use technology to substitute for your lack of memory is a fairly new thing. Memory used to be the way people retained knowledge. Two examples. In Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters there are a number of George Orwell’s bits of literary criticism. At a number of points he quotes a bit of verse and says “I’m quoting from memory.” When I first read this I thought Orwell was a show-off. Eventually I figured out that he was being apologetic. All of these were fairly standard poems that any Englishman of his class would have memorized in school, and he was not bragging, but rather apologizing for being too lazy to go check the quotes. (He was almost always right.) I once saw Anthony Grafton give a paper and he told us that Italian Renaissance writers often misquoted the classics in their writing, as a way of asserting that they were working from memory, rather than looking up quotes like a bunch of clerks. (Of course these misquotes never involved mistakes in Latin grammar.) To be an educated person was to have memorized a lot of stuff. Part of this I suppose was the cost of books and the lack of standardized editions. If you found something worth knowing it behooved you to memorize it or, in Europe, to write it down in your commonplace book. Chances were you would never see it again. Modern scholarship tends to be built around remembering where to find stuff, rather than collecting it like a jackdaw.

Chinese literati also paid a lot of attention to memory. Memorizing the classics was part of becoming educated, and memorizing other things was valuable for lots of reasons. One of them is that education is a portable. In his Family Instructions Yen Chih-t’ui (531-591 C.E.), tells his children that

Those who have learning or skill can settle down anywhere. In these disordered times I have seen many captives who, though lowbred for a hundred generations, have become teachers through knowledge and study of the Lun yu and Hsiao Ching. Others, thought they had the heritage of nobility for a thousand years, were nothing but farmers or grooms, because they were unable to read and write. Seeing such conditions, how can you not exert yourselves? Whoever can keep steadily at work on a few hundred volumes will, in the end, never remain a common person. p.54

Yen lived in a society where being literate would mark you out even among aristocrats. He himself managed to serve under four dynasties, which is proof that you can get a long way by being educated. Part of the purpose of education is transforming yourself into a particular type of person (the Confucian self-cultivation thing) but part of it also is knowing enough stuff, and knowing it well enough, that you can use it in your conversation and writing. The ability to interact well with other aristocrats is pretty important. I think when he says you can go a long way by knowing Lun yu and Hsiao Ching. he does not just mean you should have read them. (They are pretty basic texts.) What he means is that you need to know the text, the commentaries, and the textual traditions associated with them well enough that you can hold your own. You need to become thoroughly conversant with things, and stay that way from constant review.

When a man is young his mind is concentrated and sharp; after maturity his thoughts and reasoning powers are scattered and slow. For this reason we should be educated early, so as not to loose the opportunity. When I was seven years old I could recited the fu poem describing the Ling-kuang palace, and by reviewing once every ten years I can still recall it. After my twentieth year, if I put aside for a month the classics I had read, then my memory was vague or confused. p.61

In fact the thing that he seems to be most worried about is that his family will embarrass themselves by committing a solecism.

Old literary allusions cited in speeches and writings should be personally checked, not based on hearsay. The so-called scholar-officials in the villages south of the Yangtze are usually not well educated, but as they are ashamed to appear mean and uncultured, they write what they know from hearsay evidence, using ill-fitted classical terms to embellish their sentences.p.77

He then goes on to list a bunch of silly mistakes caused by “learning by ear.” Access to texts, i.e. wealth and connections is part of getting to be properly educated. There more to learning than money, however. Lots of things are not clearly explained in texts. Classical allusions are not self-evident. Someone has to teach them to you, and you have to remember them. Place-names, proper pronunciations, and the origins of words, you need to know all of these. What if you mistook the 荇菜 plant for the 苋菜 plant? Or thought that a hill associated with an ancient hero was just a regular hill? Is it proper to refer to the owner of a puppet show as ‘Kuo the Bald?’ To us these sorts of questions don’t matter much because we see names as arbitrary. Yen is obsessed with questions of philology and phonology because he thinks understanding words will help us to understand the universe.Knowledge is not just a bunch of facts you can google up, or owning a bunch of reference books you can look for things it. It is becoming a type of person, and this is something that you can only do in your head.

1 Of course one drawback is that everyone and their brother can look into your brain


Six Dynasties blogging

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:04 am

One of the things I have been doing for fun this summer is reading Family Instructions for the Yen clan 顏氏家訓by Yen Chih-t’ui 顏之推 (T’eng Ssu-Yu trans Leiden 1968) Yen Chih-t’ui (531-591 C.E.) was a literatus and court official under the Liang dynasty the Northern Ch’i, the Northern Chou and the Sui. He wrote extensively on religion, etymology, phonology etc.

He was also apparently a blogger, or at least that is what I gather from reading the section in the Family Instructions entitled “On Essays”

As for writing essays to mold your own nature and spirit or to give others unembarrassed advice, if you penetrate to the interesting part, it is also a pleasure. If you have leisure after your other activities you may practice essay writing.

Being able to write good essays does not necessarily bode well for your career. He points out that “many men of letters have suffered from a light (mind) and a sharp (tongue).” He then lists a litany of famous essayists who came to bad ends, including Ch’u Yuan who ended up drowning himself when the king disregarded his words, Li Ling, a general who was captured by barbarians, Feng Ching-t’ung who was not promoted and then was dismissed because of his unstable personality and Wu Chih who calumniated and alienated his fellow countrymen. Perhaps most interesting was Tso Ssu who, in order to produce good poetry had his house and garden furnished at every turn with tables and materials for writing so that he could write down his ideas whenever they occurred to him. (obviously he needed wi-fi in the house) When Tso Ssu finished his fu poem describing the capitals of the Three Kingdoms so many people wanted to copy it that there was a shortage of paper in Loyang. (sort of an early version of a server overload.)

While there are some essay-writers who have come out well, both in a career sense and in a moral sense most of them come out badly.

. . . a body of essays exhibits the writers interests, develops his nature, and makes him proud and negligent of control as well as determined and aggressive.

The main problem is that they seem to get wrapped up in their own wonderfulness

A proper expression of one fact or a clever construction of one sentence make their spirits fly to the nine skies, and their pride towers over (the other writers) of a thousand years. They read aloud again and again for their own enjoyment, forgetting other persons nearby. Moreover, as a grain of sand of a pebble may hurt a person more than a sword or spear, their satirical remarks about other persons may spread faster than a storm.

Some of them in fact get so tied up in themselves they loose all touch with reality. Specifically, they can’t tell if they are writing nonsense or not.

In this world I have seen many people without the slightest literary talent who consider themselves elegant, flowery stylists, while spreading their awkward and stupid writings. . .Recently in Ping-chou an aristocratic scholar liked to compose ridiculous poems, challenging Hsing, Wei, and other eminent writers. All of them mocked and falsely praised him; but he was so excited that he prepared feasts to entertain those with literary reputations. His wife, an intelligent woman, admonished him against (this folly) even with tears. The gentleman said with a sigh, “Even my wife cannot appreciate my talents; how can I expect much from strangers?”

Yen also includes various small tips about writing. One should avoid the use of the phrase 敬同 -respectfully echoed (indeed). One should also beware of misusing literary allusions. This is more tricky than you might think, since “”the miscellaneous tales of the many schools of philosophy are occasionally different, and their works have usually been lost or unavailable.” He then lists a series of little errors he has found in the writings of others. Needless to say he thinks these errors of his opponents are worth being preserved for the next thousand and a half years, and so he includes them, supposedly as a form of instruction, but I think just as a bit of pettiness.

It really is a fun book.


Happy Father’s Day

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:10 pm

There are lots of Western holidays that don’t translate well to China. Christmas shows up a bit, especially since all the ornaments are made in Asia, but Easter, Halloween, Canada Day etc. don’t mean much. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day do translate however, and Mother’s Day has at least some popularity in Taiwan and Hong Kong and I think in China too. Father’s day is a harder sell, because the relationship between Chinese fathers and children is supposed to be fairly distant. Confucius’s relationship with his son Po-yu is the locus classicus

Analects 16.13

Ch’an K’ang asked Po-yu, saying, “Have you heard any lessons from your father different from what we have all heard?”

Po-yu replied, “No. He was standing alone once, when I passed below the hall with hasty steps, and said to me, ‘Have you learned the Odes?’ On my replying ‘Not yet,’ he added, If you do not learn the Odes, you will not be fit to converse with.’ I retired and studied the Odes.
“Another day, he was in the same way standing alone, when I passed by below the hall with hasty steps, and said to me, ‘Have you learned the rules of Propriety?’ On my replying ‘Not yet,’ he added, ‘If you do not learn the rules of Propriety, your character cannot be established.’ I then retired, and learned the rules of Propriety. “I have heard only these two things from him.”
Ch’ang K’ang retired, and, quite delighted, said, “I asked one thing, and I have got three things. I have heard about the Odes. I have heard about the rules of Propriety. I have also heard that the superior man maintains a distant reserve towards his son.” translation here

That a father should have a distant relationship with his son became a standard belief.
Mencius 4a18 expands on this a bit

Kung-sun Ch’âu said, ‘Why is it that the superior man does not himself teach his son?’
Mencius replied, ‘The circumstances of the case forbid its being done. The teacher must inculcate what is correct. When he inculcates what is correct, and his lessons are not practiced, he follows them up with being angry. When he follows them up with being angry, then, contrary to what should be, he is offended with his son. At the same time, the pupil says, ‘My master inculcates on me what is correct, and he himself does not proceed in a correct path.” The result of this is, that father and son are offended with each other. When father and son come to be offended with each other, the case is evil. ‘The ancients exchanged sons, and one taught the son of another. ‘Between father and son, there should be no reproving admonitions to what is good. Such reproofs lead to alienation, and than alienation there is nothing more inauspicious.’translation here

In other words, the teacher/student relationship and the father/son relationship are sufficiently different that they can’t be reconciled. A student can hate being criticized by a teacher (in fact they probably should), a student can see and even point out the hypocricies of a teacher’s behavior. None of these are appropriate with a father. There is supposed to be affection between fathers and sons, but fathers are never supposed to display it.

In the Family Instructions of the Yen clan the dangers are spelled out (all these from the Teng translation pp. 4-5)

Relations between parents and children should be dignified without familiarity; in the love between blood-relations there should be no rudeness. If there is rudeness, affection and fidelity cannot unite; if there is familiarity, carelessness and disrespect will grow. After sons receive official appointment, they and their father should occupy different apartments.

If this is not the case bad things will happen. A father may fail to discipline his son.

In the time of Liang Yuan-ti (r.552-54) there was a gifted and talented youth; his father loved him so much that his training was neglected. A single well-chosen word the father would praise for a whole year wherever he went; each evil act he would conceal and gloss over, hoping for self-reform. When old enough to marry and serve the state he became daily more rude and arrogant. It is said that Chou T’i disemboweled him for his ill-considered speech and consecrated a drum with his blood.

Also, there are things that a father should not discuss with his son.

Someone asked “Why was Ch’en K’ang fond of hearing that men of virtue kept their sons at a distance?” “That was” I replied. “due to the fact that men of virtue did not personally teach their sons.” The satirical couplets in the Book of Songs, the warnings against jealousy and suspicion in the Book of Decorum, the cases of rebellion and disorder in the Book of History, the ironic comments on depraved deeds in the Spring and Autumn Annals, the symbols of procreation in the Book of Changes, all these should not be mentioned between fathers and sons, and so were not personally taught.

Although the nature of the Chinese family changed a lot between the time of Yen Chih-t’ui (531-591 CE) and the present, but even in modern China a father is supposed to be pretty distant and disciplinarian. Mao had a famously rocky relationship with his father, in part I think because he was not willing to accept his father’s constant upbraiding. As Michael Sheng points out most of the stories of oppression that Mao told were fairly standard Chinese father stuff.


Mao vs. Hitler

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:43 am

I’m not trying to make this blog all Mao all the time, but as we seem to be discussing him a lot, and Johnathan just brought up the issue of popular memory again, I thought I would toss in an interesting comparison. In Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones he interviews the actor/director Jiang Wen. Jiang was just coming out of a period of partial exile, and he was talking about his desire to make an honest movie about Mao. He was fascinated with him because

He’s a tragic figure – the most tragic in Chinese history…..Mao was more tragic then Hamlet. Mao was an artistic person, not a political person. He should have been a poet and a philosopher; he should have been creating things instead of dealing with politics….I think Mao has something to do with every Chinese person….He represents many Chinese dreams and many Chinese tragedies.p.349

The thing I find interesting about this is that it is the best expression I have seen of Mao as China’s national Rorschach test, the person Chinese people use when they want to think about China’s 20th century transformations. I think this is why American reactions to Mao and Chinese ones are always so different. In American popular memory to the extent he exists at all it is as a great monster like Hitler or Stalin. For Jiang Wen at least he is someone who is good to think with, in the sense that by thinking about him you can think about pretty much any of the issues in China’s recent history you are interested in.

Americans at least don’t really invest themselves in history that way. There was a big spat about Thomas Jefferson a few years back, over the question of his fathering a child with one of his slaves. His defenders wanted to claim that he did not, so we could shove him back on the family altar with Washington and the other plaster saints. He opponents wanted to make him out as Simon Legree. Coming to a popular understanding of Jefferson as a beacon of liberty and a slaveowner was just not going to happen.

I wonder if Mao may have passed his sell-by date in Chinese popular memory, however. Intellectuals of my age and older can still debate “Mao 60 percent good 40 bad or vice versa” through many bottles, but Jiang Wen seems to fantasize about making a big movie that would make this a public conversation and make himself what Michael Moore would like to be. Would younger people really care? Does he really work to help you think about the things that bother Chinese people today? I suppose he does, in that some of his statements about egalitarianism and anti-bureaucratism would still have a lot of resonance. Plus, using Mao to think with puts the party in a bad position.


Forty Years Ago

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 7:44 pm

The New York Times has a short interview with two women who played pivotal roles in the Cultural revolution

NIE YUANZI was an ambitious college professor whose “big character poster,” displayed on the grounds of Beijing University, was said to have ignited the Cultural Revolution, a prairie fire of violent purges and denunciations that quickly spread across the nation.

Wang Rongfen was a student of German at Beijing’s elite Foreign Language Institute who was imprisoned after writing a bold letter to Mao challenging his judgment in unleashing the self-destructive frenzy of his young vigilantes, the Red Guards.

The article says very little except that the Cultural Revolution is still something of a cipher in Chinese official history and even popular memory. What it doesn’t say, though it illustrates it reasonably well, is that the ever-so-slightly more open society which has emerged over the last decade or so has made it possible for these discussions to take place, to fill in some of the gaps.

Something which I’ve been pondering since Alan asked what the audience for revisionism is is somewhat clarified by this and by other revisionism I’ve seen lately. To some extent I think we academic historians overreact to overstated revisionist claims because what’s “under attack” is a much broader popular consensus sustained — in the case of China — by official orthodoxy and censorship. I think we need to continue to respond vigorously to new sources and new arguments — absorbing them where they are credible and publicly rejecting them where they are not — but I’m getting, I think, a little more sympathetic to those who are engaging with bad history in the popular and official arena.


A simple Miscellany

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:03 am

Ralph Luker‘s uncovering of the wonderful linguistic debunkings of 1421 by Bill Poser and friends (in two parts; note: Is Menzies just making up words in Chinese, and if so, why do so many Chinese people seem to take him seriously? theory: he’s exploiting the linguistic uncertainty of diverse dialects.) reminded me that I’ve got a few other interesting links tucked away.

The archaeo-biological investigation of an imperial garden from the Southern Yue state (a breakaway from Qin not reconquered by the Han until 111 bce) has produced another claim of Chinese origins (the “wax gourd”) as well as some fascinating detail about foods and garden design. Also, more Koguryo finds in the oddly contested region (subscription required: this one’s free) will undoubtedly be cited by both sides.

Speaking of anniversaries: Andrew Meyer notes the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre and muses on its meanings. I don’t have anything new to say on the subject, so go read him.


Thank you for not smoking

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:01 pm

Today is 6-3 anti-opium day in the Nanjing period and Anti-Smoking Day on Taiwan. It commemorates Lin Zexu’s destruction of the British Opium at Humen. In honor of the occasion I ask our readers to limit themselves to legal intoxicants for the weekend.
Lin Zexu

p.s. does anyone have a picture of Hsu Zilin, the hip Taiwanese cartoon guy who urges young Taiwanese not to smoke?

My Great Helmsman is Charlton Heston

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:39 am

In an interesting article on the gun trade and state control of weapons in Guangdong province in the 1920’s Qiu Jie and He Wenping make an interesting argument about the role of guns in Chinese politics. The article as a whole attempts to get at the level of armament in the province, which is of course difficult to do. Weapons came in from all sorts of places, military weapons, local production, the British in Hong Kong trying to stir up trouble. Guangdong produced a lot of overseas sojourners (the article focuses on the Pearl River delta) and they liked to help out the folks back home by buying them guns. Although guns flowed into the province throughout the 20s prices kept going up, (locally made rifles went from 40 yuan apiece in 1912 to 170 in 1928. Prices of handguns rose more slowly) indicating that there was still lots of demand. After some speculation on total numbers of guns the authors focus on the Guomindang Canton government’s attempt to license and tax weapons. This was initially a revenue move. During the warlord period states taxed almost everything and guns were a particularly attractive thing to tax. Gradually attempts to license guns came to be more focused on denying weapons to opponents of the state, most notably the Merchant Corps of Canton, which was always difficult to control.

The most interesting thing about the article is the conclusion. The authors conclude that Guangdong did not see the emergence of really serious local oppressors, (土皇帝) or of large-scale banditry because as a fairly prosperous area it was a well-armed area. As a result it was hard for any one family to dominate a local militia and hard for the state to control the people. Thus local independence grows out of the barrel of a gun.

I’m not sure I entirely buy this. I’m not sure things in Guangdong were really that good, or that this single explanation really explains it. Guangdong does seem a good deal less disastrous than many other areas during the warlord period, but then so does the Shanghai area, and I suspect this has more to do with the presence of a major urban area than with guns per se. What I do find interesting is the almost libertarian emphasis on guns and popular power. Chinese scholarship usually seems pretty state-centered, i.e. looking from the point of view of the state at the problem of controlling the people. (Or regarding the Nationalist state as evil and assuming the existence of a Communist counter-state) I don’t have much problem with a state focus, since the process of state-building was one of the most important parts of China’s 19th and 20th century, but it is nice to see civil-society type ideas being applied outside Shanghai.

邱捷,何文平1920 年代广东的民间武器” in 一九二0年代的中国,社会科学,北京, 2005

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