Advice from Xu Gan in the Balanced Discourses

Over the holidays I had a chance to read John Makeham’s translation of Xu Gan’s (170-217 CE) late Han dynasty Balanced Discourses 中論 (Ctext).1 The work is a collection of philosophical essays written at a time when the Eastern Han dynasty was on the verge of collapse. In addition to helpful introductions by both Makeham and Dang Shengyuan, the text was a delight to read thanks to the side-by-side Chinese and English texts and even more so because of Makeham’s wonderful notes, which go into all sorts of delightful tangents beyond the immediate text so that the reader may come away having learned exactly how tallies were used for contracts and issuing orders in early China (p301), the three different types of ming fate during the Han (p309), an explanation of the five skills of archery (p315), and the six classes of script (p316). I confess, in some of Xu Gan’s essays, I found the notes more interesting than Xu Gan’s grumpy school master moralizing. A few thoughts on two of the chapters:

Ch 3. Cultivating the Fundamental 脩本 (Ctext)

This chapter include’s Xu Gan’s take on an old debate on human nature. The great Confucian figure of Mengzi believed that our nature is good (3A1, 6A6), found in all of us in the form of sprouts of benevolence that needed careful nurturing in a good environment. It can be directed right or left, but naturally ran downhill [towards goodness] (6A2). He said we should not be surprised to find that those lacking any “constant livelihood” would fail to have a “constant heart” and that most of us are gentle in years of plenty but violent in years of poverty (6A16). Mengzi is often juxtaposed with Xunzi who believed that “people’s nature is bad,” (Ch 23) but that with a little “steaming and bending” thanks to education (Ch 1), anyone can be put on the path to righetousnessness. If Mengzi was fortunate enough to never meet a psychopath in his life, Xunzi’s view always puzzled me a bit as having the opposite of the “Problem of Evil” – that is, the problem of where goodness comes from (or, in his case, the original impetus towards ritual as a way to offer constraint upon us) if it is the case that we all naturally delight in evil. Did we all stumble onto a few sacrificial vessels and instruments, and suddenly discover restraint and goodness?

Xu Gan offers a nice middle ground to this problem (if you are into this sort of moral reasoning) by choosing a position between Mengzi and Xunzi:

Pearls contain grains of sand and jade harbors flaws. This is their nature. A good craftsman works on them to purify their natures, making them appear as if they had alway been thus. Thus when one sees these two things after they have been purified, one can know that the virtue of humaneness is able to be refined.2


That is to say, we are neither all benevolently flowing water, nor pieces of wicked wood waiting to be bent, but imperfect creatures that need to get the wabi-sabi whacked out of us. Mengzi has a rich sociological approach to virtue in his emphasis on economic well-being and environmental influences on our conduct but is perhaps too optimistic in his evaluation of the universality of empathy and Xunzi has his “the problem of good” Xu Gan, on the other hand, runs into trouble when he moves from individual to society, with a pretty problematic explanation for why things are just awful in the world of the imploding Han dynasty: his concept of bianshu (變數):

In times of order, practictioners of good reap good fortune, while wrongdoors meet with misfortune. In times of chaos, however, practitioners of good do not reap good fortune and wrongdoers do not meet with misfortune. This is caused by departures from regularities.3


Normally, things work the way they should, do-gooders get the goodies. But in ages of chaos, the cosmic correspondence between good deeds and lives of fortune breaks down. In a way, this is Xunzi’s problem up-scaled: that of origins. The great early Western Han dynasty historian Sima Qian once lamented the seeming senseless injustice in the sad story of the starvation of the virtuous figures of Bo Yi and Shu Qi, and thus the presumed lack of a grand moral order standing behind human affairs but it his despair may have helped him build us such a powerful and multi-sided narrative of his past.4 Xu Gan, on the other hand, offers order as a kind of magnetic force that sets the moral poles in their rightful direction. But if it is the 善者, who while reaping their good fortune, are busy maintaining the 世之治, then what brings about the that turns this on its head? Of course, from the perspective of our own times, we have all heard descriptions of the horrors of our time in similar fatalistic terms, while others have been shouting for years that it was in those very “times of order” that there were plenty of wrongdoers who failed to meet with misfortune, and deep systemic flaws that could use more than a little polishing. In other words, far less than his ancient predecessors of Mengzi, or even the Daoist Zhuangzi, Xu Gan fails, in his work, to offer much of a structural analysis of social change.

8. An Examination of Disputation 覈辯 (Ctext)

One of my favorite passages in the 中論, and also one that Makeham reproduces in his introduction, is Xu Gan’s discussion of disputation. Debate is described in early Chinese texts as a zero-sum game of winners and losers and Xu Gan doesn’t contradict this idea, but there is a section of the chapter on disputation () which shows rather more sensitivity to the relationship between two committed discussants.

Disputation is about persuading people in their hearts; it is not about verbal submission. Hence disputation is to articulate distinctions, and also to separate and distinguish different categories of affairs skillfully, so as to arrange them clearly. Disputation does not mean being quick-witted in one’s words and speech to talk over people’s heads…5


And again a bit further down:

Deriving pleasure from letting the other person complete what he has to say, and being skilled at bringing forth the intention behind the other person’s words enables each discussant to achieve fully their wishes, and each interlocutor to understand what the other speaker is saying…6


This is not the rhetorician’s toolkit, but a step back from the point-scoring to appreciate the pleasure one can take in the other’s finished thought. He points out how rare it is that any exchange with someone will produce the change of heart one is aiming for, “…would he be likely to look for victory in a single round of argument?” As I reflect on my own goals for self-improvement in the coming year, I found myself reflecting on room for improvement in my own impatience in conversation on matters I am passionate about. I shall endeavor to heed Xu Gan’s advice to 樂盡人之辭 a little more.

Alas, Xu Gan doesn’t exactly end the chapter on a warm and fuzzy note. After a critique of glibness, he rants against the many wrong people in the world, and reminds us that, in the good old days, those “who recorded what is scandalous and spread it widely, or who followed what is wrong as if it were beneficial were…put to death. This is because, by sowing doubt among the masses and confusing the people, they caused disorder to spill over the supreme way…”7

  1. Xu, Gan. John Makeham trans. Balanced discourses. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.  

  2. Ch 3 p39  

  3. p47 

  4. Ch 61 of Shiji. Stephen Durrant discusses this in his The Cloudy Mirror: Tension and Conflict in the Writings of Sima Qian. SUNY Press, 1995, 20-23.  

  5. Ch 8, p99  

  6. Ch 8, p101  

  7. Ch 8 p103  

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