From 'Awe-Inspiringly Beautiful' to 'Patterns in Conventionalized Behavior': The Historical Development of the Metacultural Concept of Wen in Pre-Qin China.

Author:Bergeton, Uffe


The word wen [phrase omitted] as it occurs in pre-Qin texts has been given a bewildering number of different translations, ranging from 'decorative pattern', 'ornament', 'embroidered emblem', 'sign', 'graph', 'writing', 'text', 'literature', 'principle', 'culture', 'cultured', to 'civilization' and 'civil', just to name a few. (1) While the term wen does indeed have many different contextual meanings, additional layers of confusion have been added by the lingering tendencies in the traditional commentarial tradition to project Zhanguo-period meanings into pre-Zhanguo times. This paper aims to dispel some of this confusion by tracing the historical stages in the development of uses of wen to refer to language-specific conceptualizations of 'culture' as 'ideal patterns in conventionalized behavior' from Western Zhou (1045-771 BCE) to the end of the Zhanguo period (481-221 BCE).

Most studies of wen published in English mention that wen can be translated as 'culture'. Indeed, the quasi-equivalence of wen and the English word culture has become a widely accepted factoid in the secondary literature on pre-Qin thought and society. One of the most frequently cited instances of wen translated as 'culture' is Lunyu [phrase omitted] 9.5.

[phrase omitted] (2) When the Master was threatened in Kuang, he said: After King wen had died, did wen not remain here? If Heaven was going to destroy this wen (si wen), those of us dying after [King Wen] would never have been able to participate in this wen. And since Heaven has not yet destroyed this wen, what can the people of Kuang do to me? Most English translators of the Lunyu since Lyall's translation from 1909 render wen as 'culture' in this passage. (3) Arthur Waley's sweeping claim that "wen means something like our own word culture and served many of the same purposes" seems to have exerted great influence on the way this term is translated into English. (4)

Assuming semantic equivalence between the Old Chinese word wen and the Modern English word culture is problematic. As observed by Martin Kern, Peter Bol's translation of the expression si wen [phrase omitted] in Lunyu 9.5 as "this culture of ours" may be appropriate for Tang and Song times. (5) Whether it correctly translates the meaning of si wen in pre-Qin times is an open question which has so far eluded scholarly attention. In this paper I outline an answer to this question by providing an analysis of the different stages in the chronological development of wen in order to address to what extent it is used to refer to pre-Qin conceptualizations of 'culture'. (6)

In order to avoid the hermeneutical problems related to using the modern Anglophone category of 'culture' to study pre-Qin texts, I will analyze the use of wen referring to 'ideal patterns in conventionalized behavior', such as Lunyu 9.5, as a metacultural term. Greg Urban's theory of metaculture, which has served as inspiration for the notion of 'metacultural terms' proposed here, defines metaculture as the reflexive process of culture commenting on itself, or "culture that is about culture." (7) For example, a book review is a concrete manifestation of metaculture since it is a cultural entity which comments on or evaluates another cultural product (i.e., the book under review). In this paper, I use the term metacultural terms to refer to language-specific expressions, such as the English word culture and Old Chinese wen, that refer to tradition-specific conceptualizations of '(sets) of conventionalized behaviors'.

The coining of words is a process of prepackaging reality into discrete tradition-specific concepts associated with language-specific terms. Two of the most prominent meanings of the modern English metacultural term culture are (i) the nineteenth-century notion of 'high culture' defined as the universally valid values and practices of human civilization, popularized by Matthew Arnold (1869) among others, (8) and (ii) the anthropological concept of 'culture' defined as the set of transmitted practices of a specific group, as per Tylor (1871). (9) Rather than being neutral and universally applicable analytical categories, these parochial concepts of 'culture' emerged in particular historical contexts and represent collectively shared conceptualizations of specific groups of people with particular agendas in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain and North America.

Similarly, metacultural wen is a language-specific term for a tradition-specific concept of 'ideal patterns in conventionalized behavior' which differs in important ways from Modern English notions of 'culture'. One of the advantages of the theory of metacultural terms proposed here is that it allows us to engage in comparative study of metacultural concepts and trace historical changes in conceptual frameworks through changes in language-specific metacultural terms, without having to rely on the modern English metacultural concept of 'culture', which is, after all, no less parochial and language-specific than the Old Chinese term wen.

Since exhaustive study of wen in the entire pre-Qin corpus is not feasible in a single article, I focus on tracing the development of metacultural uses of wen in the Shijing [phrase omitted], the Zuozhuan, the Lunyu, and the Xunzi I use these four texts for two reasons. First, each of them contains enough instances of the term wen to reconstruct a coherent theory of its uses and meanings. Second, these texts can be seen as representing the intellectual milieus of three different periods: (i) the Shijing (ca. tenth to sixth century BCE), (ii) the Zuozhuan (late fifth and early fourth centuries BCE) and the Lunyu (fifth to fourth centuries BCE), (10) and (iii) the Xunzi (third century BCE). (11) To mitigate the problems related to the dating of received texts, recently discovered manuscripts will also be discussed.

This paper contributes to our understanding of the term wen in two ways. First, in section 1, I argue that metacultural uses of wen did not exist in texts from before the Zhanguo period. I also propose that pre-Zhanguo uses of wen referring to positive attributes of individuals of noble or royal birth meant 'awe-inspiringly beautiful', rather than 'accomplished' or 'cultured', and that they derive from the basic meaning 'decorative pattern' through regular historical processes of metaphorical extension and abstraction. That is, pre-Zhanguo uses of the term referred to physical appearance rather than acquired moral traits. The analysis proposed here thereby offers new insight into the social importance of externally visible beauty in early Zhou society. Second, in section 2, I show that, as far as we can tell from our sources, metacultural uses of wen referring to the abstract concept of 'ideal patterns in conventionalized behavior' (e.g., Lunyu 9.5 discussed above) emerged in the Zhanguo period. (12) This process can be broken down in three steps. First the pre-Zhanguo adjectival meaning 'awe-inspiringly beautiful' became reinterpreted in moral terms and started to refer to 'morally refined' individuals. Second, adjectival wen in the meaning 'morally refined' started to be used to describe whole dynasties. Third, wen started to be used as a noun referring to the abstract concept of 'ideal patterns in conventionalized behavior' of an entire dynasty or of social practices in general. By providing a chronology of these changes, I avoid the anachronistic interpretations of wen proposed in the commentarial tradition which continue to influence the contemporary translations of the term in pre-Zhanguo texts.


    Metacultural uses of the term wen are not attested in pre-Zhanguo texts. (13) The three main attested uses are (a) as a word referring to concrete 'decorative patterns' on physical objects, (b) as a word referring to rank-indicating embroidered 'emblems' on garments and flags, and (c) as a word meaning 'awe-inspiringly beautiful' used in expressions referring to ancestors and in posthumous titles. In this section, I briefly describe these uses of wen and argue that (b) derives from (a) and (c) derives from (b).

    Wen occurs in the basic meaning 'decorative pattern' in a few passages in the pre-Zhanguo corpus. A typical example is the poem "Xiao Rdng" (Mao 128) in the Shijing, which contains a description of war chariots which, among other attributes, have 'patterned-decorated (wen) floor-mats' (wen yin [phrase omitted]). (14) The Shiming [phrase omitted], a lexicographic work from the Eastern Han, defines wenyin as "made from tiger skin and having patterned colorings" [phrase omitted]. (15)

    The use of the word wen to refer to 'rank-indicating emblems'--which consisted of 'embroidered patterns'--derives directly from the basic meaning 'decorative pattern'. Mao 177 contains a description of 'woven' (zhi [phrase omitted]) 'patterned markings' (wen) on flags: "[the flags] have woven pattern-emblems (wen) and bird insignia and the white banners were brilliant" [phrase omitted]. (16) Thus, here 'emblems' (wen) refer to a special kind of institutionalized embroidered 'decorative pattern' (wen). (17)

    I suggest that the use of wen to refer to rank-marking decorative patterns on emblems gave rise to the use of wen to refer to people of high rank--who would have carried status-indicating emblems (wen) on their robes--as 'awe-inspiringly beautiful' through metaphorical extension. A similar metaphorical extension from a word referring to physical decorations to a more abstract term referring to high rank is exemplified by English term decorated, as in McArthur is a highly decorated officer. Mao 299 contains a passage which provides support for the reading of wen as 'awe-inspiringly beautiful' in the pre-Zhanguo period.

    [phrase omitted] (18) Solemn, solemn is the Marquis of Lu, respectfully bright [is] his charismatic...

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