Dialogue Forms in the Taiping jing (Scripture on Great Peace).

Author:Hendrischke, Barbara
Position:Critical essay

The authors of the Taiping jing [phrase omitted] (Scripture on Great Peace) often present their ideas in the form of a dialogue, in the sense of a "discussion between two or more people or groups, especially one directed towards exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem." (1) When used as a literary device, dialogues in the Taiping jing, as elsewhere, have several functions. One is to address readers' skills in handling concepts and logical reasoning. Dialogues structure the line of argument; points are divided up among speakers for clarification. The other is to increase the relevance of what is discussed. In the course of a dialogue, teachings and opinions may become enmeshed with the speaker's personal history and characteristics or with individual experiences and expectations. Specific interests shine through a speaker's contribution. This may enhance the subject under discussion with personal relevance for readers. Thereby dialogues address feelings and convey messages that reach beyond the topic under discussion and the openly declared aim of the author's argument. In both respects dialogues are apt to increase the accessibility of what is said and are therefore protreptical, as has been discussed in detail for Plato's dialogues. (2) Moreover, dialogue elements enlarge an author's message beyond what is actually said. They accompany the main line of an argument in commentarial and often also critical fashion. The authors do not theorize this function but it becomes clear to readers when they juxtapose the main content of a dialogue with its introduction and conversational elements or a junior speaker's interjections with the main speaker's line of argument. This paper intends to investigate the role that the authors of the Taiping jing attributed to the literary form of dialogue in developing, formulating, and propagating Great Peace (taiping [phrase omitted]) teachings. (3) At times dialogue elements contain information on the authors' agenda that is not openly expressed in the lectures and essays that make up the bulk of the text. At other times they expressly accentuate aspects of this agenda. This will be documented in three ways. The first concerns the character of the student, who acts as the junior partner in all discussions. Dialogue elements reveal that he has personal interests beyond his role of dutifully learning all that he is taught. Secondly, it will be shown that the multiplicity of speakers allows the presentation and discussion of unorthodox positions. Thereby dialogues become an essential tool for situating Great Peace teachings in their intellectual environment. Lastly, the dialogue form is well adjusted to the missionary project that is thematized at all levels of Great Peace teachings. As the text's interlocutors gain clarity about this project, their attempts become a model of how everyone is expected to gain such clarity. The dialogue form is set up as a token of that general communication which, in the authors' opinion, alone can save the world. (4)


To start with, due attention must be given to the history of the materials contained in the Taiping jing. It has been transmitted in the Daoist canon and was part of this canon from the late sixth century C.E. (5) The Taiping jing's origins are unclear. Language places it in the neighbourhood of early Buddhist translations from the late second and early third centuries C.E. that are said to be close to the language spoken in the city of Luoyang at that time. (6) When compared to texts from Han dynasty times that were written by educated authors of cultural and social rank, the Taiping jing is written in a less elegant style. Sentences are clumsy and verbose; there are many three-character combinations and superfluous particles; there is much repetition. This style of writing has hardly any parallels in transmitted texts from early and medieval China. The text's content makes it Daoist despite considerable points of disagreement with the teachings of the early Daoist congregation that existed in a region of present-day Sichuan towards the end of the second century C.E. (7)

The transmitted text is the product of several editors who were members of Tao Hongjing's [phrase omitted] (456-536) school and active in the sixth century C.E. (8) At that time a number of Daoists attempted to recover old texts in order to strengthen their own scholastic and social position. (9) For the Taiping jing, it is well documented that the transmitted version goes back to the text that originated in the sixth century. (10) The sixth-century editors followed Daoist hagiographical sources and identified their text with a second-century Great Peace text that the prominent local scholar Xiang Kai [phrase omitted] submitted to the imperial court in 166 C.E. (11) There are no reliable sources that would allow us to establish a link between the Great Peace text from the sixth century and that from the Han dynasty. (12)

The transmitted version of the Taiping jing consists of several textual groups. (13) The main group reports how a heaven-sent Celestial Master meets a number of students, who come to beg for instruction. The other major group introduces a practitioner in conversation with spirits, and in particular with someone entitled the Great Spirit (dashen [phrase omitted]). It also depicts spirits talking to each other. It is not accidental that in both groups dialogues take place among speakers who are not equal but who relate to each other as teaching and learning, commanding and obeying, or leading and following. This by Eastern Han dynasty times is the case for most Chinese philosophical dialogues. (14) In earlier times dialogues between philosophers and powerful political figures, as in the Mengzi, matched partners that were on more level ground. So did the Zhuangzi, with its contempt for social status. (15)

Most sections of the Celestial Master group of texts contain dialogue elements. Often a speaker's utterances are represented as embedded in his general conduct. From this perspective passages that are placed between focused discussions, conversational though they may be, gain importance. They throw some light on the speaker's personality. Such passages often introduce a section, as in the following example. A student greets the Master devotedly and begs to ask a question:

"I am an ignorant pupil and my great stupidity is getting worse from day to day. I bow twice before you. Now there is another question that I would like to ask the Celestial Master, who is a spirit man of supreme majesty." [phrase omitted] (16) It is left unclear whether an individual student speaks for himself or for a group of students. What is clear is the polite distance between speakers. It appears to be bigger than is customary in philosophical dialogues. (17) This may be based on the scripture's colloquial nature. It may also be grounded in the perception that the Master is indeed heaven's special envoy and part of a sacred world of spirits. Students beg for permission before speaking, refer to themselves as yu sheng [phrase omitted] "foolish pupils," and continue to be apologetic before raising further questions in the course of a dialogue. The remarks they make are usually followed by the Master's evaluation, for example, "Good. We may say by the way you ask you show understanding for what majestic heaven thinks" [phrase omitted], or "Yes, you have always been truly foolish and dumb, your vision blurred, and your understanding hampered" [phrase omitted] (18) Distance and hierarchical positions remain the same when the Master initiates the dialogue by raising a question:

"Step forward, Perfected. You have come here to learn. Does it take few items or many to obtain extensive knowledge of what Dao means?" "Well, its prerequisites are many." "Oh! Deep down your knowledge of Dao's essential meaning is not yet extensive." [phrase omitted] (19) The student reacts to this critical remark by a long reflection on the eternal damnation that will await him, as someone who has failed his master. (20) The ending of each dialogue, and in most cases of a section, is initiated by the Master: "All right. Work hard! Our talk is finished. You'd better go." "Yes, I will." [phrase omitted] (21)

Within the Celestial Master group of texts there are big differences in the intensity of dialogue elements. (22) Some sections consist of lectures that are surrounded by short greetings and farewells and interspersed with brief standard formulas like "'You understand, don't you?' 'Yes, we do. Excellent!' 'All right, you have grasped it.'" [phrase omitted] (23) At other times students have a lot to say and may be responsible for a dialogue's topic and the direction of the argument. Or the dialogue becomes particularly lively because the Master is depicted as enraged with the students' lack of understanding. In general, the amount of space devoted to the interchange between speakers is exceptional when compared to other Han dynasty texts of instruction. (24) In early philosophical texts dialogues may present the full range of the interlocutors' characteristics and intentions. (25) This is not achieved in the Taiping jing but its dialogues still work in this direction. The literary quality of the Taiping jing has next to nothing in common with the great books of the pre-Qin era, but the role played by dialogue elements hints at these texts rather than at "Han Classicists writing in dialogue," to use Michael Nylan's term. (26) She uses the term in relation to Yang Xiong's Fa yan (Model Sayings, ca. 9 C.E.), Wang Chong's [phrase omitted] Lun heng [phrase omitted] (Balanced Discussions, ca. 80 C.E.), and Ying Shao's [phrase omitted] Feng su tong yi [phrase omitted] (Comprehensive Discussion of Customs, ca. 200 C.E.). For the purpose of this paper, Xun Yue's [phrase omitted] Shen jian [phrase omitted] (Extended Reflections...

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