'Godly Worm' and the 'Literati Prism' of Chinese Sources.

Author:Chen, Sanping


While archeological findings have played an increasingly important role in the past century or so, not the least in supplying many of the onomastic data used in this study, traditional Chinese literature still represents the leading primary source in Sinology and related studies. This is not only due to the enormity of its volume, but can also be more consequentially attributed to the simple fact that, as far as received primary sources are concerned, for a long time the educated Confucian gentry monopolized almost all genres of writing, not the least historiography, in East Asia. The inherent gentry bias of traditional written sources, though long recognized, still permeates much of modern scholarship. More often than not, we are looking at China's past through a "literati prism."

This "literati prism" has a particularly distorting effect for times when the Confucian elite lost socio-political domination. Early medieval northern China under various "Barbarian" rulers was a case in point. A few years ago, it took me quite some effort to convince several well-versed scholars that the perennial negative connotation associated with the proud ethnonym Han [phrase omitted] was an unacknowledged legacy of the lowly socio-political status of the Han people, especially the Confucian literati, during the Northern Dynasties. Small wonder that the Yuan dynasty gentry author Tao Zongyi [phrase omitted], who experienced a similar humiliating environment himself, first pointed out this long-forgotten fact. (1)

For the early medieval period, one should not ignore Daoist and Buddhist sources. However, firstly there were few influential contemporary Daoist writings, and Daoist authors tended to be cut from the same cloth as the Confucian literati. Or, in the words of Arthur Wright, "neo-Taoist colloquies continued to be a major pastime of the upper class." (2) So much so that, in the winter of 554, after declaring martial law and just days before his capital Jiangling [phrase omitted] fell to a Western Wei [phrase omitted] expedition army, the Southern Liang [phrase omitted] emperor Xiao Yi [phrase omitted] (r. 552-54) was still giving lectures on Daodejing [phrase omitted], with courtiers all attending in military uniforms. (3) Earlier, the Daoist master Tao Hongjing [phrase omitted] (456-536), founder of the Supreme Clarity (Shangqing [phrase omitted]) school of Daoism and author and/or compiler of several early Daoist texts, was so deeply involved with the Confucian-dominated southern court that he was awarded the epithet "grand councilor who resides in the mountains" [phrase omitted]. (4) The famous Wang clan of Langye [phrase omitted] that produced the legendary calligrapher father-son duo Wang Xizhi [phrase omitted] and Wang Xianzhi [phrase omitted], yet was also closely associated with the Daoist Celestial Masters Sect (Tianshi dao [phrase omitted]), is another good example. Furthermore, Chen Yinke [phrase omitted] has pointed out that zhi [phrase omitted], widely used in personal names borne by the Confucian elite, seemingly violating the familial naming taboo, reflected Daoist beliefs. (5)

Secondly, although Buddhist literature, again as Arthur Wright has pointed out, (6) did sometimes provide an alternative perspective not quite consistent with that of the mainstream Confucian elite, received Buddhist literature was still heavily dominated by "intellectual Buddhists" who largely came from the same educated social classes as the Confucian literati. Or, as Timothy Barrett summarized, (7) "Chinese Buddhist sources primarily give a picture of Buddhism as a literary phenomenon worthy of the attention of a highly literate audience," thus containing precious little information about less educated believers. The best example is bianwen [phrase omitted], "transformation texts." Before the early twentieth-century chance discovery of this important genre of writings, which apparently played a critical role in medieval popular Buddhism in China, nobody even knew of its existence, since it is absent from all traditional written sources, both secular and Buddhist.

An important development lost by the literati prism through which we commonly view the Northern Dynasties was the vulgarization, if not debasement, of Chinese high culture. This was similar to what transpired during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, yet was much less recognized. With the fall of the gentry-dominated Western Jin [phrase omitted] court and the court-approved Confucian Canon inscribed in stone earlier (both at Luoyang [phrase omitted]), (8) Chinese writing lost its unifying authority and standard. The phenomenon is most prominent in inscriptional sources, of which over ninety percent are from the north. (9) By one account, on some inscriptions nearly half of the Chinese characters written could be labeled erroneous. (10) While the resulting orthographical chaos has become an extensive subject of scholarship, among all contemporary authors only Yan Zhitui [phrase omitted], who grew up in the gentry-dominated south and moved to the north first as a captured prisoner of war, characterized the rampant vulgarization of Chinese writing in the "Barbarian"-dominated north, "much inferior to that south of the Yangtze" [phrase omitted], as the unfortunate result of political disasters ([phrase omitted]). (11) Earlier, as recorded in Wei shu [phrase omitted], the official history of the Northern Wei dynasty founded by the formerly nomadic group Tuoba [phrase omitted], a literati courtier Jiang Shi [phrase omitted] in a memorial to the throne in 514, while carefully inserting a positive spin on the phenomenon, bitterly complained that many newly coined popular characters, dismissed as "vulgar characters" (suzi [phrase omitted]) by Yan Zhitui, violated the orthography set by "ancient Confucian classics, (12) the great zhuan [phrase omitted] script of Shi Zhou [phrase omitted], the Shuowen [phrase omitted] dictionary by Xu Shen [phrase omitted], and the Stone Canon [phrase omitted]." (13)

Incidentally, the fate of the Stone Canon cited here clearly demonstrates a direct relationship between the loss of an orthographical standard and "Barbarian" rule. Though glossing over the considerable additions during the Three Kingdoms era, (14) Wei shu aptly underscores the most important function of the Stone Canon, as recalled by the Confucian literati under the Tuoba rule: "Back during the Han era, the Stone Canon in Three Scripts was erected at the National University. When students could not write characters properly, they often sought corrections therewith" [phrase omitted], [phrase omitted], [phrase omitted]. (15)

When the Western Jin capital Luoyang was sacked by troops of the Former Zhao [phrase omitted] polity (16) established in 310 by the Xiongnu [phrase omitted] chieftain Liu Yuan [phrase omitted] (d. 310), the National University was burned down, but the Stone Canon steles, though damaged, stood or fell in situ. It was the Tuoba Wei nobles and officials who pillaged these tablets for other uses, especially for building Buddhist temples, causing irreversible losses and devastation of the collection. (17) Even more revealingly, the Confucian literati courtier Zheng Daozhao [phrase omitted], chancellor of the National University [phrase omitted], in a passionate memorial to the throne appealed for the restoration of this national standard for Confucian learning. The request was rejected by none other than Emperor Xiaowen [phrase omitted] (Yuan Hong [phrase omitted], r. 471-99), the most "Sinophilic" Tuoba monarch, who moved the Northern Wei capital to Luoyang and initiated wholesale Sinification reforms. (18) The emperor was probably mindful of the hundreds of "new characters" (xin zi [phrase omitted]) that the Tuoba court had created and promulgated since 425. (19) The destruction of the Confucian orthographic standard constitutes a sharp contrast to the extravagant undertakings, both official and private, in erecting Buddhist statues and monuments in which "vulgar" characters proliferated.

Commenting on an earlier version of this essay, Scott Pearce suggested an intriguing possibility of relating the Northern Wei's officially sanctioned coinage of numerous "vulgar characters" to the Tuoba rulers' reported attempts in creating their own "national language" [phrase omitted]. This indeed can be further linked to the more successful efforts by the Khitan and Jurchen rulers of the Liao [phrase omitted] and Jin [phrase omitted] dynasties, respectively, in creating the writing scripts for their "national languages," (20) and the even more impressive creation of the sophisticated Tangut script, all more or less based on the Chinese script. Then in the Yuan dynasty, the Mongol court's forceful decision to discard the age-old classical Chinese, the epitome of Chinese high culture, adopting instead the "vulgar" colloquial Chinese as the official administration language for the Han population, was accompanied by the introduction of the famous 'Phags-pa script, the "National Script" intended for all languages in the empire, but used primarily for the Mongol "national language." (21) While this is too major a subject to be elaborated in this short essay, the least we can say is that the literati prism constitutes a major obstacle to the study of this fascinating subject, exemplified by the total oblivion of any concrete records on the Tuoba's "national language."


In his memorial Jiang Shi cited and interpreted four examples of these "vulgar characters," three of which have survived to posterity: (22) [phrase omitted] by combining two characters, literally "clever speech," to replace bian [phrase omitted] "debate"; [phrase omitted] by pairing two characters meaning "small rabbit" to replace nou [phrase omitted], "young rabbit"; (23) and [phrase omitted] by stacking up two characters presumably meaning "godly worm" to...

To continue reading