Roots of Ru [??] Ethics in shi [??] Status Anxiety.

Author:Richter, Matthias L.
Position:Critical essay


Among the ethical values and maxims propagated in the Lunyu [phrase omitted], one point stands out as a pervasive concern: a noble man or a worthy follower of Confucius' teachings does not worry about recognition or status. The first of multiple assertions to that effect is placed in a prominent position at the very beginning of the Lunyu, where an unspecified Master (1) professes,

Is it not indeed a pleasure to have learnt something and to practice it time and again? Is it not indeed a joy to have one's peers come from afar? Is it not indeed like a noble man not to resent it when others do not recognize one? [phrase omitted] (2) The first chapter closes with another such statement:

The Master said, "One should not feel anxious about others' not recognizing oneself. One should feel anxious lest one fail to recognize others." [phrase omitted] (3) And in chapter four a "Master" says:

You should not feel anxious about not having a position but rather about the means by which you position yourself. You should not feel anxious lest no one recognize you, but seek to become worth recognizing. [phrase omitted] (4) These few passages show two things that are of importance for the present discussion: First, they indicate that anxiety (huan [phrase omitted]) about being recognized must have been a sufficiently significant phenomenon to warrant these repeated admonitions and their inclusion in the teachings that were chosen to be transmitted in the Lunyu. Second, these passages--like large parts of the Lunyu and many other early Chinese texts--are pragmatically underdetermined. They do not appear to present a general, broadly applicable moral and political philosophy, if this is what we expect of the Lunyu, nor do they indicate to what specific historical context they refer and what made them significant at the time when they were formulated. This is true for the most part of the Lunyu.

Reading the Lunyu--and many other texts from early China--requires a high degree of interpretive input. In the case of the Lunyu, such input could not be more amply provided: countless commentaries throughout the two millennia of its transmission and reception add specificity to its understanding. They convey an interpretation of this compilation as part of the canon, i.e., its scriptural reading, and thus vividly demonstrate how it has been kept productive as an element of tradition. They are not, however, a reliable source from which to understand the historical significance of the many short texts collected in the Lunyu at the time when they were composed. To be sure, this historical meaning is not recoverable in full, nor with a high degree of precision, but it has been shown in intertextual studies of early Chinese literature that it is to some extent possible to identify historical contexts and specific concerns that motivated these texts. (5) The present article aims to demonstrate that some of what we read today in the Lunyu and similar texts as general principles of self-cultivation and Ru ethics is most likely rooted in something more mundane, namely status anxiety of the lower strata of nobility, brought about by the increased social mobility in the Warring States period (453-221 B.C.E.). Before we can start exploring the texts pertaining to this issue, it is necessary to discuss the rationale behind such an intertextual study. The following examination is based on two crucial insights: First, most early Chinese texts are composite in nature, and second, their constituent parts are often underdetermined.


    The Lunyu is a premier example of a pragmatically underdetermined text. Unlike other texts, this compilation does not even attempt to appear continuous and coherent beyond the scope of its mostly very short textual units. Most of the text opens up a vast range of possible interpretations and applications. For example, it is not intuitively clear why a maxim like "one should not converse during meals nor speak when one retires to bed" [phrase omitted], [phrase omitted] was considered important enough to transmit over millennia in one of the foremost texts of the Confucian canon. (6) Or why we should be reminded that it is necessary for a noble man to have a nightgown one and a half times as long as one's body ([phrase omitted]... [phrase omitted], [phrase omitted]). (7) The practicality of this alone has raised questions: some scholars have explained the word qinyi [phrase omitted] as referring to a blanket, while an alternative interpretation understands the length yi shen you ban [phrase omitted] as reaching down to one's knees, thus allowing us to maintain the literal understanding of qinyi as a nightgown. (8)

    There are several ways to account for the inclusion of such apparent trivialities in the Lunyu: They may not be trivial at all, but could have been of greater consequence than we are able to recognize now, at a time when the specific reasons and contexts that made them significant are not visible to us anymore. Or they may indeed be mere pieces of advice concerning minor practical issues--useful maxims that happened to be gathered together with more consequential ideological or philosophical statements in a heterogeneous compilation that does not distinguish categories of content or degrees of importance. There are likewise several ways to account for the continued transmission of these pedestrian parts of the Lunyu: They were maintained either for the simple reason that they had become part of a highly esteemed text, and transmitters preserved the unimportant along with the important, so as not to compromise the integrity of a revered compilation. Or these parts of the text had become charged with new significance; deeper meaning had been read into them.

    Both questions--what the actual meaning of the passages was at the time of their formulation and for what reasons they were transmitted--we may be unable to answer. But if we fail even to raise these questions we are more likely to treat any part of heterogeneous compilations such as the Lunyu indiscriminately as potentially valid, independently of historical context, and hence as universally applicable. From such a generalizing approach two problematic consequences may arise: First, we might fail to recognize the historically relevant information the texts carry. Second, we might invite ideologically charged interpretations and uses of the text that legitimatize extraneous arguments by ascribing uniformly high status as Confucian ideology to all statements in the Lunyu indiscriminately, considering them all as equally fundamental to a Chinese cultural identity.

    As far as the passages cited above are concerned, not much harm is to be expected of ahistorical ideological interpretations of any of these: Surely, if anyone were eccentric enough to condemn business lunches as un-Confucian, based on the injunction against conversations during meals (Lunyu 10.10), we would wave this aside as irrelevant. But we might take it more seriously if someone used Lunyu 17.25 as an argument against gender equality:

    The Master said: "It is women and petty people who are difficult to support. If one allows them to get too close, they will become insubordinate; and if one keeps them at too great a distance, they will bear resentment." [phrase omitted] (9) In this instance, we would surely insist that the Master's teaching is contingent on a historical reality which we do not aim to restore; we would thus not grant it validity for the present. Unlikely as it may seem that anyone would seriously discuss the above examples as valid guidance for our behavior in contemporary society, to ascribe uniform ideological validity to any part of a canonical text, independently of its historical context, opens up a potential for selective, ahistorical readings that should not be underestimated. In present-day ideological discourses in the USA such practices of reading the Bible play an astonishingly significant role. Some ideologues are notoriously fond of citing the book Leviticus as the authority legitimizing prescriptions for life in modern society. (10) Many of the injunctions compiled in this book are historically specific to a degree that seems to preclude any modern application. For example, no one, to my knowledge, demands our adherence to the ruling in Leviticus 18.21: "do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech." (11) Yet, the very next verse (18.22), "do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman," is in contemporary political discourse frequently cited in all earnestness as a prohibition whose violation is perceived as eroding the cultural identity of the country and, above all, as seriously immoral. The same ideologues are much less protective of the rule "do not ... put tattoo marks on yourselves" (Lev. 19.28), although this phenomenon is hardly less common than male homosexuality.

    Some of these ancient rules, such as not to eat rabbit meat or wear clothing woven of two kinds of material (Lev. 11.6 and 19.19), are obviously so closely dependent on the specific historical situation that they have ceased to be taken into account. Nevertheless, rules of this kind may be continued selectively, in order to stabilize a group identity (whether understood culturally or religiously), which was an important part of their function in antiquity as well. Clearly, they are not considered universal ethical standards in our times. Other rules, such as "do not let your hair become unkempt, and do not tear your clothes" (Lev. 10.6), are too general to generate group identity and too insignificant to be of any ideological use. The significance they must have had in their historical context is not obvious any more. Yet other rules have a degree of universal applicability and appeal that ensures their continued existence as recognized ethical values: "do not steal; do not lie ... do not defraud...

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