Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Confucian Worldview and the Odes

I have a basic introduction to the Confucian worldview over at ReligiousLeftLaw* that I wanted to let readers know about because in the near future I plan on posting something at the Literary Table on one of the Five Classics of the “Confucian” canon, namely, the (book of) Odes (also called the Books of Songs or Book of Poetry). Familiarity with my fairly abstract and stylized rational reconstruction of the Confucian worldview can thus serve as a propaedeutic backdrop, if you will, to this forthcoming piece on the Odes for the Table.

My status as an ardent amateur with regard to Chinese worldviews (i.e., my standing as an academic and intellectual parasite) means I depend mightily on the scholarly labors of others, in this case, Michael Nylan’s absolutely brilliant book, The Five “Confucian Classics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001). For a taste of things to come, I quote from her introduction:

“For most of the time from 136 BC to 1905, the study of the Five Classics of the ‘Confucian’ canon—the Odes, the Rites, the Changes [Yi Jīng/I Ching], and the Spring and Autumn Annals—formed at least part of the curriculum tested by the government examinations required of nearly all candidates for the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. Thus the more cultured members of society in premodern China, even those who had failed the examinations or had passed but never held office, enjoyed a familiarity with the Classics that afforded them a common story of knowledge. As successive governments throughout East Asia came under the cultural sway of the Chinese system, the Classics came to influence thought and politics in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, so that the collection as a whole once occupied in East Asia a position roughly analogous to that of the Bible in the West, its compelling arguments couched in elegant formulations, ‘subtle phrasing with profound implications’ (weiyan dayi). These texts associated with the Supreme Sage, Confucius, were thought to set the pattern of what it was to become a fully developed human being, and also the principles that allowed for the complex and interrelated processes of political, social, and cultural reproduction. Thus, generation after generation tied the maintenance of the state and of personal identity to the propagation of this textual tradition. [….]

The modern rubric ‘Five Confucian Classics,’ however, has tended to skew understanding of these texts, as it implies both a direct connection with the historical Confucius (551-479 BC) and a closer connection among them than is warranted by their early histories. Most of the texts were evolving in oral as well as written forms for centuries before they acquired the designation ‘classic’ or ‘Confucian;’ hence vastly differing approaches to social, political, and cosmic issues are discernible among and even within the texts. Beginning in Han (206 BC-AD 220), state-sponsored classical learning—often dubbed ‘Confucian’ when ‘orthodox’ or ‘official’ would be more appropriate—drew freely on the teachings of many non-Confucian thinkers, the better to cope with the complexities (many unforeseen by Confucius) of ruling an empire [I would hasted to add that Confucius was not first and foremost concerned with ‘ruling an empire,’ even as he hoped to persuade ruling elites of the moral and political importance of teachings he believed sanctioned by tian and the sages of old].”

*Please see The Confucian Worldview: A Rational Reconstruction.

Image: Seven Scholars Going through the Pass, Li Tang (Chinese, ca. 1050s-after 1130) Ming dynasty.

Description: “Accompanied by a small group of retainers on foot, seven gentlemen riding mules, horses, and an ox leave behind the gate of a pass and casually proceed along a wintry riverbank. Six of the men are dressed against the cold in identical white robes and wide-brimmed hats worn over dark shoulder-length hoods, while the seventh is clad in gray and wears an official’s black cap. Some of the men turn to talk with each other, gesturing with their whips, but there is no urgency in their manner. The bundles of scrolls, umbrellas, and food utensils carried by the retainers—together with the ubiquitous wrapped qin (zither)—suggest that the group is venturing forth on a daytrip to some nearby scenic location.”

This is just the sort of thing I’ve imagined in my mind’s eye taking place with Confucius and his students: on a daytrip to a scenic location to sing and dance, including recitations from the Odes, in other words, a far cry from the rather staid and stern portraits one often finds of Confucius.


Anonymous American Serf said...

Would be interested to hear what you think of Hall & Ames, "Thinking Through Confucius."

11/29/2012 9:15 AM  
Anonymous American Serf said...

Would be interested to hear what you think of Hall & Ames, "Thinking Through Confucius".

11/29/2012 9:16 AM  

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