rediscovering Kongzi

October 3rd, 2007

First up, a quick note: Unless otherwise stated, all quotations and page and chapter references in this post are from Selected Philosophical Writings of Fung Yu-Lan (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1991). All references to classical Chinese texts, unless otherwise stated, are as recorded in that same book.

Reading the Analects, I got the impression that Confucius was an arch-conservative of the knee-jerk kind- stuck in a rapidly changing, unstable world, he got all scared and wanted to take everything back to this imagined paradise of the early Zhou, something like the arch-conservatives of the modern Western world and their worship of the 1950s and conviction that the modern world is falling apart.

Maybe I was too hard on the old man. Being back in the village means access to large, heavy books that I would have on hand as reference material, but wouldn’t often read, if we had a house of our own. As it is, it’s much easier for us to keep such books up here in the village, and rotate the books I’m reading between the village and our apartment. Anyway, having access to these books meant that the other day, as lzh was cleaning out the western apartment and I was trying to at least look helpful, I picked up the Selected Philosophical Writings of Fung Yu-Lan (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1991), which I bought several years ago, read a little bit of, but basically just left sitting on the bookshelf. So I decided to have another look, and sifted through the contents pages seeing what would grab my interest.

Actually, apart from what’s written in this book, I have no idea who Fung Yu-Lan was or how accepted his philosophical works are. I was in the Foreign Languages Bookstore one day several years ago looking for decent reading material, and this book looked interesting, so I bought it. That’s all.

What grabbed my interest in the contents page was a section entitled A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, in large part because of the chapters on the origins of Taoism. I’ve always had a soft spot for Taoism since I found an old trilingual (Classical Chinese, Modern Chinese, English) edition of the Dao De Jing in a neighbourhood bookshop in Changsha. It seems this section of my book was originally a book in its own right. So I flipped through to the first page of this section and started reading. Chapters 1, 2 and 3 are The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy, The Background of Chinese Philosophy, and The Origin of the Schools. These chapters had some interesting ideas, some of which I didn’t entirely agree with, but still, fair points, but on the whole I wasn’t particularly taken with these chapters. Then Fung moved on to Confucius and Confucianism. This I found a little odd- doesn’t Taoism predate Confucianism? I was under the impression that if there was an historical Laozi, he was older than Confucius, which explains why Confucius consulted him, and that in any case, the Dao De Jing draws on ideas, beliefs and theories that had already been circulating in China, while Confucius took the Six Classics as scripture and constructed a set of ethics that would preserve what he thought the old order of the early Zhou Dynasty was.

Anyway, Confucius and Confucianism it was, and Fung managed to draw a fuller, more rounded, and more sympathetic picture of Confucius the man and his teaching than the rather shallow and dismissive image the Analects had left me with. I still think Confucius was an arch-conservative, but not quite so much of the knee-jerk kind. I now seem him as an arch-conservative of the more intelligent and genuinely principled kind, whose philosophy, ethics and stand-points have been fully thought through and which he can defend intelligently with reason and logic.

Actually, I quite liked this piece describing Confucius as an Educator, from the section of Chapter IV of that title (p 234):

His primary function as a teacher, he felt, was to interpret to his disciples the ancient cultural heritage.

In the same section, Fung goes on to say that despite his own insistence that he was “a transmitter and not an originator� (Analects VII, 1), Confucius was very much an originator in that, “Confucius gave them interpretations derived from his own moral concepts� (p 235), which confirms half of what I originally thought of him- the half about him inventing a system of ethics that would preserve what he saw as the traditional order handed down from Zhou.

Fung’s translations of yi (义) and ren (�) I found a little odd, but his explications were pretty clear:

Righteousness (yi) means the “oughtness� of a situation. It is a categorical imperative. Everyone in society has certain things which he ought to do, and which must be done for their own sake, because they are the morally right things to do. If, however, he does them only because of other non-moral considerations, then even though he does what he ought to do, his action is no longer a righteous one. (p 236)

Pretty clear, but “oughtness�? Fung also explains yi in opposition to li, which he defines as ‘profit’.

“To use a word often disparaged by Confucius and later Confucianists, he [one who does what he ought to do “because of other, non-moral considerations] is then acting for “profit.� Yi (righteousness) and li (profit) are in Confucianism diametrically opposed terms. Confucius himself says: “The superior man comprehends yi; the small man comprehends li.� (Analects IV, 16) Herein lies what the later Confucianists called the “distinction between yi and li,� a distinction which they considered to be of the utmost importance in moral teaching.

In Zhang Dainian’s Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2002, translated by Edmund Ryden), on page 291, we have this definition of Confucius’ yi:

As Confucius valued benevolence, he also promoted justice. Benevolence is the highest moral norm, whereas yi 義, what is right, refers generally to the existence of moral norms.

Yes, this edition of Zhang’s Key Concepts uses traditional characters. I don’t know if that’s because the original was written in traditional characters or if it’s due to the translator’s personal preferences, or some editorial decision in the hallowed halls of Yale University Press (which seems to have been the original publisher) or the Foreign Languages Press. Likewise, I don’t know the reasons behind the translation of yi as either “righteousness� or “justice�, but both translations seem equally accurate. Zhang makes no mention of li, although I presume it is 利.

Now on to ren:

The idea of yi is rather formal, but that of jen [he uses Wade-Giles throughout the text; jen=ren] (human-heartedness) is much more concrete. (p 237)

Alright, I have to admit I don’t get what Fung means by “formal� and “concrete�, and I don’t understand why he renders ren as “human-heartedness). The Xinhua Zidian bilingual edition gives “�情,�爱 benevolence, kindheartedness�. In the translators introduction to the section of Zhang’s Key Concepts entitled “Benevolence and Justice, Ren-yi, �義�, page285, says of ren:

It is expressive of the relations that should pertain among human beings. Hence it has been translated as ‘humanity,’ benevolence,’ ‘love,’ and, to bring out the sense of relationship, ‘co-humanity.’ It is also the supreme virtue that encompasses all others and so is rendered ‘goodness,’ ‘perfect virtue.’

I guess I should note that that comes with a reference to Wing Tsit-Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Pinceton: Princeton University Press, 1963), pp. 788 – 789, but I have no access to that book, so I don’t particularly care about it right now.

Well, I would’ve thought that “humanity, benevolence� would be more than enough of a definition of ren. “Human-heartedness�, even though I know perfectly well what Fung means, just seems odd. Anyway, Fung explains ren thusly:

But the material essence of these duties is “loving others�, i.e. jen or human-heartedness. The father acts according to the way a father should act who loves his son; the son acts according to the way a son should act who loves his father. Confucius says: “Human-heartedness consists in loving others.� [Analects, IV, 16] The man who really loves others is one able to perform his duties in society. (p 237)

Well, then I managed to get myself all confused by missing where Fung explains the meanings of Chung and Shu.

In other words, “Do to others what you wish yourself.� This is the positive aspect of the practice, which was called by Confucius chung or “conscientiousness to others�. And the negative aspect, which was called by Confucius shu or “altruism�, is: “Do not do to others what you do not wish yourself.� The practice as a whole is called the principle of chung and shu, which is “the way to practice jen.� (p 238)

And then:

The principle of chung and shu is at the same time the principle of jen, so that the practice of chung and shu means the practice of jen. And this practice leads to the carrying out of one’s responsibilities and duties in society, in which is comprised the quality of yi or righteousness. Hence the principle of chung and shu becomes the alpha and omega of one’s moral life. (p 239)

Right. But now that I’ve (belatedly) found that definition, I’m still confused. What are chung and shu? Apart from the use of Wade-Giles, one big disadvantage of Fung is the absence of characters, making it difficult to check words in the dictionary. So I guess I’m going to have to go back to Zhang Dainian. On page 291 of Key Concepts, Zhang provides this short note:

Not doing to others what you would not want done to yourself is also called ‘empathy’ (shu �). Confucius singled it out as one word worth practicing:

Zi Gong asked, “Is there one word which can be practiced throughout one’s life?� The Master said, “It is empathy. What you yourself do not want do not impose on others.� (Analects 15, Duke Ling of Wei #23, p. 301)

Benevolence would seem to contain empathy within it. Empathy is the same virtue taken from a narrow perspective; ‘benevolence’ also expresses the need to establish others and make them outstanding.

Xinhua Zidian defines � as “forgive; pardon�. My big dictionary, A Chinese-English Dictionary (Revised Edition) (Foreign Languages Teaching and Research Press, Beijing, 2002) gives “1: consideration for others; forbearance 2: forgive; pardon; excuse� and a third definition which is not relevant in this context.

Although both Zhang and Fung quote the Analects 6.28, and Fung quotes this paragraph in his discussion of chung and shu, I can’t find any reference to chung in Zhang. And this is where the absence of characters becomes a problem in Fung: It’s going to be quite an effort trolling through the dictionary looking for a possible candidate. Chung could be rendered as either chong or zhong in Pinyin. Here goes:

忠 seems like a likely candidate, considering my big dictionary gives “忠� loyal and considerate: 夫�之�:忠�而已矣。(《论语》)Our Master’s way is simply this: Loyalty and consideration.�

Anyway, regardless of what, exactly, is the chung of which Fung speaks, there seems to be some disagreement here. Fung adds chung to shu, treating the two as a couple (a treatment that my big dictionary seems to support) forming the key part of the practice of ren. Zhang mentions nothing that resembles Fung’s chung and treats shu as a smaller, narrower concept within ‘Benevolence’ (ren). Also, their interpretations of Analects 6.28 seem to be completely different, with Zhang using that paragraph to explain Confucius’ elevation of benevolence to the highest moral principle (Zhang, p 287), while Fung uses it to illustrate chung and shu (p 237). In fact, they use two quite different translations of 6.28, with Zhang using a much longer version which quotes Confucius as responding to a question from Zi Gong with: “Why say only benevolence, such a one must be a sage. Even Yao and Shun fell short of it.� (Zhang, p. 287), and then moving into what seems to be the same passage that Fung uses, although the translation is quite different.

I quite liked Fung’s explanation of Confucius’ concept of fate or Ming 命:

As we shall see, the Taoists taught the theory of “doing nothing,� whereas the Confucianists taught that of “doing for nothing.� A man cannot do nothing, according to Confucianism, because for every man there is something which he ought to do. Nevertheless what he does is “for nothing�, because the value of doing what he ought to do lies in the doing itself, and not in the external result. (pp 239 – 240)

This is important to the introduction of Ming 命 “because Confucius was ridiculed by a certain recluse as “one who knows that he cannot succeed, yet keeps on trying to do it.�� (p 239) So why did Confucius persevere?

He traveled everywhere and, like Socrates, talked to everybody. Although his efforts were in vain, he was never disappointed. He knew that he could not succeed, but kept on trying.

About himself, Confucius said: “If my principles are to prevail in the world, it is Ming. If they are to fall to the ground, it is also Ming� [Analects XIV, 38] (p 240)

So for Confucius, fate or Ming 命 is that huge collective of things beyond our control, but there is still plenty that we can do, and that which we can do, providing it accords with yi (righteousness or justice), we should do. Therefore, because he knew he was fulfilling his social and familial obligations, he was never disappointed despite his lack of success.

Zhang says of Ming 命:

In the early period the term ming referred to the command of God. The divine element decreased, and by the time of the Mencius, ming referred to all that was outside the power of human influence to alter. (Zhang p 125)

So is Fung jumping the gun here? His definition of Confucius’ ming sounds similar to that which Zhang ascribes to Mencius. All that Zhang has to say about Confucius’ ming is:

Confucius claimed that at fifty he knew heaven’s decree [Analects 2, On Administration 4] This decree determined whether the Way was operative or not:

The master said, “Whether the Way is going to be operative is a matter of decree; whether the Was is not going to be operative is a matter of decree.� (Analects 14.38)

A later section of the Analects defines a gentleman in terms of knowing heaven’s decree:

The master said, “One who does not know the decree cannot be a gentleman.� (Analects 20.3)

The Way is an ideal to be sought. Whether it is attained depends on the decree. Although the term ‘decree’ is thus used in the Analects, it is not elaborated on. (Zhang pp. 127 – 128)

Again we have an apparent disagreement, although it is hard to tell whether the disagreement is only apparent because where Fung goes into detail explaining Confucius’ view, Zhang gives a quick definition and moves on. Although, the view Zhang ascribes to Mencius is suspiciously close to the view Fung ascribes to Confucius. Still, Fung does supply a lot more support from his view from the Analects. Also, again both Zhang and Fung quote the same passage from the Analects, but in entirely different translations. It seems to me that in both translations, the general principle is the same and is reasonably clear, but the different translations would seem to have quite different meanings on the surface. Fung’s quotation comes across as Confucius defending himself against “a certain recluse�, while Zhang’s reads as a general statement of principle.

The rest of what Fung has to say about Confucius does not interest me particularly much, except this:

Confucius, however, was already recognized in his own day as a man of very extensive learning. (p 244)

Until I read the section entitled Confucius’ Position in Chinese History (pp 242 – 244), I had this image of Confucius as a lonely and professionally frustrated old man terrified of the instability and constant change of his time wandering around crankily ranting that the world should return to the stability, propriety and good order that existed (or so he believed) in the early Zhou. I guess on that point I was completely wrong. In fact, Fung seems to place Confucius very firmly in the class of ru (儒?) (p 233), or literati or scholars (Fung’s definition) the “teachers of ancient classics and thus the inheritors of the ancient cultural legacy.� (pp 224 – 225)

Well, I have no idea of who is more accurate in his presentation of Confucius and his teaching, Fung Yu-Lan or Zhang Dainian. All I can say is that I’ve enjoyed the rediscovery of Confucius that Fung has provided. I now have a more fully, more rounded picture of the man, his life and his teachings, and he doesn’t seem quite so much like the cranky old sod I used to imagine. In fact, although I could always see how Confucius had some very good points to make, I can now see that he set out a properly thought out and entirely rational set of ethics that in many ways makes a lot of sense.

Confucius is still far too conservative for my tastes, though, and any attempt to revive his philosophy will need to take into account the advances human civilization has made over the centuries.

And I appreciate the clarifications Zhang contributes. Of course, it should be noted that Fung’s and Zhang’s books are completely different in nature and therefore in scope. Where Fung goes into detail, Zhang provides quick definitions and moves on. Fung is aiming to provide a short history of Chinese philosophy (hence the title of this book), whereas Zhang is aiming to outline the history of the development of the key concepts in Chinese philosophy and describe how these concepts have been defined, adapted and used over the centuries by different schools of Chinese philosophy.

After Confucius, Fung goes on to discuss Mozi and his followers. I’d heard of Mozi and the Mohists before, but had never read anything substantial on his teachings, and I found this chapter of Fung’s book fascinating. I think that will be the topic for tomorrow’s long-winded ramble in which I quote other people far more than is generally considered polite.

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