Asking Stupid Questions… so you don’t have to

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:51 pm

My father, in his brief teaching career, used to say to his students “If you have a question, you have to ask it. Odds are good that other people have the same question, and they’ll be grateful to you for asking.” He also said that “There are no stupid questions. Only stupid answers.” So, I appeal to the wisdom of the collective….

In a recent article, Tom Englehardt wrote

When a dynasty fell in ancient China, it was believed that part of the explanation for its demise lay in the increasing gap between words and reality. The emperor of whatever new dynasty had taken power would then perform a ceremony called “the rectification of names” to bring language and what it was meant to describe back into sync. We Americans need to lose the emperor part of the equation, but adopt such a ceremony. Never have our realities and our words for them been quite so out of whack.

The rectification of names is an old established Confucian principle, to be sure, and I can believe that it plays a role in the Chinese historiography (though I admit I haven’t spent a lot of time reading traditional Chinese histories of the ends of dynasties, so I can’t be sure), but I really wonder about the ceremonial aspect of this. Did the Imperial institution actually reify the principle into ritual?

It also came to my attention recently that the famous Chinese Communist quip on the effects (or success) of the French Revolution — “It’s too soon to tell” — is variously attributed to both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai (a.k.a. Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai) (Ho Chi Minh gets mentioned sometimes, too). The Zhou stories seem to have a bit more detail to them (though he wasn’t alive on the Revolution’s bicentennial, the sesquicentennial’s a possibility), but both attributions range from the pre-’49 era to the 1970s, have various interlocutors (mostly “a journalist,” though Kissinger comes up a lot, too) and I can’t find any specific citations. Does anyone have a specific citation which might pin this down?

Update: In the absence of answers, I’ve now thrown the question to the H-Asia folks. We’ll see if they come up with something interesting.

6 responses to “Asking Stupid Questions… so you don’t have to”

  1. Alan Baumler says:


    The short answer is no, I am not aware of any such ritual. Some of the people on H-Asia probably know more about imperial ritual than I do. That forms and names xing ming and rectification of names zheng ming are big ideas in Confucian thought is of course not news. Xunzi 22 is all about Rectification, and Lewis talks about it in Writing and Authority. It does seem to be something that Western writers pick up on and misunderstand, however.

  2. Alan Baumler says:

    Regarding Western writers not understanding Rectification of Names, here is a quote from David Hackett Fisher Historians’ Fallacies p.22

    Witness the legendary Ming emperor who dealt with a dangerous river of a sort of semantical flood control project. Instad of building dikes and dams, he changed its name from “The Wild One” to “The Peaceful One.” So common have such “rectifications of names” been in that country, from Confucius to Chou En-lai, that this form of error might be called the Chinese fallacy.

    Fisher cites Hans Konigsburger Love and Hate in China Clearly neither of them has any idea what they are talking about. The idea that Chinese are people who sit in pavilions discussing meaningless philosophy while the floodwaters rise seems to have a deep hold in the west. Also, which of the Ming emperors is legendary?

    In Fisher’s defense he does have a great quote on the confused relationship between names and reality, courtesy of the White Knight

    “Is it very long?” Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.

    “It’s long,” said the Knight, “but it’s very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it–either it brings the tears into their eyes, or else–”

    “Or else what?” said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

    “Or else it doesn’t, you know. The name of the song is called ‘Haddock’s Eyes’.”

    “Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?” Alice said, trying to feel interested.

    “No, you don’t understand,” the Knight said, looking a little vexed. “That’s what the name is called. The name really is ‘The Aged Aged Man’.”

    “Then I ought to have said ‘That’s what the song is called?'” Alice corrected herself.

    “No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The song is called ‘Ways and Means’: but that’s only what it’s called, you know!”

    “Well, what is the song, then?” said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

    “I was coming to that,” the Knight said. “The song really is ‘A-sitting on a Gate’: and the tune’s my own invention.”

  3. Sam Crane says:

    On fitting names to realities, one of my favorite quandaries is Analects 6.25 (from Ames translation): The Master said, “a gu ritual drinking vessel that is not a gu ritual drinking vessel – a gu indeed, a gu indeed.” This suggests that social context and intention play important roles in naming (i.e. the thing referred to here is probably not a standard gu, but some other sort of cup being used as a gu, but because the use is following proper ritual and the intention is good, it is a gu, indeed).

    On dynastic fall and reconstitution, I imagine that underlying questions of power and policy – defeating the forces of the old and constituting a new, effective coercive apparatus; and addressing whatever social dislocations that might have caused the previous dynasty to fall – were of greater importance to newly established power holders than name rectification. But, then again, I am a sucker for more materialist historical explantions…

  4. Alan: I can’t believe I didn’t notice Fischer when I read him last year; maybe I just chalked it up to ‘legendary’ and left it at that. It’s kind of like the quote source I’m looking for: he’s cited “everyone says” and left it at that. Not good practice for a writer of historical logic…. but I love the Carroll quote, too.

    Sam: The best dynasties, by all accounts, were the ones which took care of both the “materialist historical” issues as well as the ritual/rhetorical ones. I’ve always been struck, when I do read histories like Huang’s 1597, how much time and energy some Emperors spend convincing their “followers” in the bureaucracy of their legitimacy and lobbying for policy.

  5. Jonathan,

    I noticed you recently commented on acephalous about social darwinism in Asia. I’ve been looking at materials on the issue in China, but I’ve grown curious about Japan’s reception of Spencer, Huxley et al. especially since so much material reached China via Japan. If you could email me a few recommendations, I greatly appreciate it – especially anything that compares and contrasts Meiji era interpretations with those of the Chinese Qing reformers, such as Yan Fu.

  6. […] Though I highly doubt that Jonathan Dresner could ask a stupid question, he’s “asking stupid questions…so you don’t have to” about the ceremony of “rectification of names.” […]

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