Sima Qian and His Quixotes

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard opens in the final days of the Italian monarchy. A prince makes an empty pledge of allegiance to an impotent monarch, and imagines a well-trodden conversation with one of his royalist relatives:

Malvica would reply: “One particular sovereign may not be up to it, yet the idea of monarchy is still the same.”

That was true too; but kings who personify an idea should not, cannot, fall below a certain level for generations; if they do, my dear brother-in-law, the idea suffers too.

Malvica’s rhetoric may be familiar to readers of Julius Evola. But what of the prince’s response? What is to be done when the principle has failed to deliver for decades on end, and a generation has been raised knowing nothing but its failure?

Take the Zhou dynasty in ancient China. By 500 BC, the Zhou kings had grown so weak that they garnered no respect from their “client” kings. Eventually they were replaced. But the defenders of the principle continued against all odds to claim that Zhou was the rightful son of Heaven. Imagine how foolish this must have sounded! You who go around proclaiming on the Internet that democracies are illegitimate because they have no divine consecration, perhaps the medium of text consoles you: it makes your words look more logical and permanent, removes the emotional sounds of your voice. Can you imagine what it would take to go around walk through Washington, DC denouncing its disloyalty to the Crown? How about quitting your job and doing it for a living?

As the warlords continued their petty squabbles, seizing the common goods for themselves and depriving the people of their basic needs, more and more literate men saw no reason to get preachy about lost causes. They dropped out of the noble courts, changed their names, and became farmers in the fields, swapping aphorisms with each other such as “The name that can be named is not the true name.” In the courts, a bemused fatalism seemed to set in. It was an age about which someone might have indeed said that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

One day a Don Quixote appeared, wandering from kingdom to kingdom, offering to assist all the warlords in governing the state and performing the rituals correctly, but rebuking them, absurdly, for their disloyalty to the powerless Zhou. He never had stable employment and sometimes went days without food, but followers gathered around him. He possibly wrote down no words by himself, but in the generations after his death, books and sayings became attributed to him. He is remembered, for some reason, as China’s greatest hero.

A few centuries later, after the final destruction of the Zhou and decades of hardships and death, Confucius was finally given a biography for the first time. It was rough going for the biographer, Sima Qian, as he had no primary sources at all besides the Analects and some rather dubious sayings about Confucius by Mencius. But Sima Qian saw something brilliant in the Spring and Autumn Annals, which he believed to be full of Confucius’s own critiques of illegitimate seizures of power. He wrote of the book:

Its language is concise, its content profound. Though the rulers of Wu and Chu had styled themselves kings, the Spring and Autumn criticizes them by calling them barons. Although the duke of Qin actually summoned the king of Zhou to a meeting at Jiàntŭ, the Spring and Autumn records that ‘the Great King went to hunt at Héyáng’! These examples can be used as criteria in any age to criticize or condemn men’s actions, and later princes should uphold this tradition and broaden its applications. [after Yang and Yang 1979, p. 25]

In his biography of Sima Qian, Li Changzhi [1988:78] sees Sima Qian’s description of Confucius as a mirror for the historian’s own attitude towards the unfortunate subjects of his biographies.

It is as if Sima Qian’s spirit is coming forth from the page when he reads Confucius between the lines. He voluntarily adopts the words of Confucius, and weaponizes them, mastering their depth and breadth.

Sima Qian borrows all of his attitude towards injustice from Confucius. But Confucius had something in spades that Sima Qian cannot find anywhere he looks: hope. It was that boundless personal energy, faith in Tian and in the universe, that drove Confucius onward towards justice. Sima Qian had that faith and courage robbed from him. In his famous letter to Ren An, he bemoans his castration at the hands of an arbitrary emperor after he tried to speak out in defense of a good man. He proclaims that he will devote his life to completing his history, and speaks of the conviction that keeps people writing in devastating tone:

When Xibo, the Earl of the West, was imprisoned at Youli, he expanded the I Ching. Confucius was in distress when he made the Spring and Autumn Annals. Qu Yuan was banished and he composed his poem “Encountering Sorrow.” After Zuo Qiu lost his sight, he wrote the Conversations from the States. When Sun Tzu had his feet amputated in punishment, he set forth the Art of War. Lü Buwei was banished to Shu but his Spring and Autumn of Mr. Lü has been handed down through the ages. While Han Fei Zi was held prisoner in Qin he wrote “The Difficulties of Disputation” and “The Sorrow of Standing Alone.” Most of the three hundred poems of the Odes were written when the sages poured out their anger and dissatisfaction. All these men had a rankling in their hearts, for they were not able to accomplish what they wished. Those like Zuo Qiu, who was blind, or Sun Tzu, who had no feet, could never hold office, so they retired to compose books in order to set forth their thoughts and indignation, handing down their writings so they could show posterity who they were.

I too have ventured not to be modest but have entrusted myself to my useless writings. I have gathered up and brought together the old traditions of the world that were scattered and lost. I have examined events of the past and investigated the principles behind their success and failure, their rise and decay, in 130 chapters. I wished to examine into all that concerns heaven and humankind, to penetrate the changes of the past and present, putting forth my views as one school of interpretation. […] When I have truly completed this work, I will deposit it in the Famous Mountain archives. If it may be handed down to those who will appreciate it and penetrate to the villages and great cities, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret would I have?

This must stand alongside the world’s greatest critiques of writing. Writing, says Sima Qian, is just an elaborate way to tell the world about your indignation. Writing is a therapeutic behavior which you must resort to because you have been wronged or defeated. These are the bitter words of a man whose romantic belief in standing up for goodness and justice was viscerally mutilated by reality.

Sima Qian confides to Ren An that “such matters as these may be discussed with a wise man, but it is difficult to explain them to ordinary people.” The life of the mind is defined by knowing other people write from a state of discontent, not only with local injustices, but with the human condition itself. Those who have never known such deep discontent make poor conversation partners. Conversely, those who have come to peace with the human condition have no need to defend their views in public. This is the meaning of the Tao Te Ching’s verse, “Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know.”

Confucius stood outside the corruption of society, harnessed the knowledge of the mean, and tilted at windmills totally secure in his ability to do good. Sima Qian stood outside the corruption of society and fell into despair. Like the Greek historians, Thucydides, Herodotus, Xenophon and Polybius, all of whom grumbled about how stupid their home cities were to exile them, Sima Qian writes with a glowing grudge. But unlike the Greeks, he recognizes that his grudge does not end with the people who punished him.

He called himself Tàishǐgōng, “the Grand Historian.” He gave his book the name Tàishǐgōng’s Documents, and he concludes every chapter with the statement, “Tàishǐgōng speaks.” But his official title was not Tàishǐgōng but Tàishǐlìng. The word “gōng” was a loanword from Chu: Li Changzhi writes that this was one of many aspects of Chu language, poetry, and customs that flourished at the highest levels of Han courtly life. [17-18] In effect, Sima Qian was emphasizing Chu’s cultural superiority to Han, and bemoaning its political loss.

Sima Qian is a man who has lost his manhood, his country, and his hope for goodness in the world. His grudge is against humanity itself, and he knows it: he never once tacks on a lying moral about how things could be better if a certain way of thought had been avoided, nor does he try to convince us that good men are rewarded and evildoers are punished. Li Changzhi writes:

Because Confucius knew not to put his trust in reality, did not waver in his claims, and sought an ideal within himself, he was able to achieve tranquility. That was not so for Sima Qian. With his inability to put trust in reality, he had to take up a stance of opposition to it. But even as he did so, unable to achieve tranquility, he tossed it out with indignation and lyricism. [89]

Why, and how, lyricism? Han was a somewhat pragmatic, realist nation. It stressed the importance of the “square and rule” and desired that its literary ideals be for practical effect. Chu, in contrast, was Impressionist. It was famous for his music. Its poet in the Songs of Chu described a grove of orange trees as “blues and yellows flowing into each other.” Sima Qian’s Chu was vanishing, and he himself was no mystic. He may have been a poet, but he ridiculed fiction and had an obsession for naturalistic facts. If he was going to preserve the memory of his vanishing country, it would not be through inventing stories about its heroism, but by manifesting the deepest and most beautiful principles of Chu into the style and method of his history.

So Sima Qian tells us of the founder of the Han, not as a hero or villain, but as an emotionally expressive man who loved his friends and his hometown. He tells us of the last dictator of Chu and how he sang a song to his horse as he fled alone to his last stand. He berates the emperor of his day as a superstitious fool, but also makes us empathize as the emperor searches endlessly for the supernatural in a disenchanted world. Nothing can escape his raw naturalism, but at the same time everything is illuminated in the pathos of a dying Chu romanticism.

Sima Qian does not write to plea with his readers to make the world different from what it is. Instead, he slyly suggests to the reader: History makes no promises that your pain in the service of the good will be rewarded, but those Quixotes who stuck to their principles through the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” became, in the end, our heroes. So too was he, in his personal commitments and in becoming a voice for his country and his people, a Quixote. I give the last word to him, through Burton Watson [after 1958:156]:

At the end of his biography of Fàn Jū and Cài Zé, he points out that luck and the right opportunities have a great deal to do with success. “But,” he concludes, “if these two men had not known suffering and hardship, how could they have risen to such heights?”

Li Changzhi, 1988 (original 1956). Sima Qian. Tokyo: Tokuma Bunko.
Tomasi di Lampedusa, Giuseppe, 1960 (original 1958). The Leopard. London: Collins.
Watson, Burton. 1958. Ssu-ma Chi’en: Grand Historian Of China. New York: Columbia University Press.
————— (tr.) 1961. Records of the Grand Historian of China. New York: Columbia University Press.
Yang Hsienyi and Gladys Yang (trs.) 1974. Selections from Records of the Historian. Hong Kong: Commercial Press.

Posted: January 27th, 2017 | Confucius

Resting in moonlight after summer rain

暑雨後坐月 Resting in moonlight after summer rain
黃任 huáng rèn (18th c.)

雨洗月逾潔 Pure she waxes, washed by rain.
氣寒光転幽 The air is cool, the light turns dim.
露蛍不自夜 Fireflies stave off the eve.
風樹欲先秋 Drafts in woods herald the fall.
烹茗籟遥起 Distant rushes cool my tea.
払琴泉暗流 Darkness falls as I strum my qín.
清宵不成夢 Brisk the night, and without dreams.
心跡両虚舟 Mind and deed, both empty boats.

Posted: June 20th, 2015 | Odes

“Hid! Hid!”

The first poem of the Book of Odes 詩経, translated by Ezra Pound. Pound originally wanted the Chinese to be included alongside his translation, but his publisher at the time didn’t care and this has never been done before this blog post. Pound also wanted a phonetic transliteration, but this is a lot of work because of the changes to Chinese over the centuries. I here include a rather butchered version of Pan Wuyun’s reconstructed phonology. You can compare with other translations on Matt’s blog.

Kroon kroon skha ku,
zuu’ gaal kju tju.
Quuw’ g-leew’ gljiwg na’,
klunsy’ hmhuu’ gu.
“Hid! Hid!” the fish-hawk saith,
by isle in Ho the fish-hawk saith:
      “Dark and clear,
      Dark and clear,
So shall be the prince’s fere.”

Shuum skhraal graang’ shuus,
saal’ ghwu’ ru kju.
Quuw’ g-leew’ gljiwg na’,
ngaas mids gu kju.
Clear as the stream her modesty;
As neath dark boughs her secrecy,
      reed against reed
      tall on slight
as the stream moves left and right,
      dark and clear,
      dark and clear.

Gu kju pu tuug,
ngaas mids snu bug.
Luw stuu luw stuu,
ndens ton’ pan’ skrug.

To seek and not to find
as a dream in his mind,
      think how her robe should be,
      distantly, to toss and turn,
      to toss and turn.

Shuum skhraal graang’ shuus,
saal’ ghwu’ shuu’ kju.
Quuw’ g-leew’ gljiwg na’,
Grum sbrig ghwu’ kju.
Shuum skhraal graang’ shuus,
saal’ ghwu’ maaw kju.
Quuw’ g-leew’ gljiwg na’,
tjong khwaa’ nggraawgs kju.
High reed caught in ts’ai grass
      so deep her secrecy;
lute sound in lute is caught,
      touching, passing, left and right.
Bang the gong of her delight.

This is possibly the best translation ever made from the Book of Odes. It is far more wild than literal, but it has uncanny accuracy. A prince (klunsy’, Japanese kunshi) is to marry a “modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady,” as James Legge literally puts it. The word “lady” is straightforward, which is why Pound sought out “fere” instead. The two words describing her, quuw’ g-leew’ 窈窕, are less so. They are both written with the radical for “hole”, which is rarely seen in Japanese these days outside of the word 穴 “hole” itself and 空 “sky”. (Not actually true, thanks Leoboiko.) 窈 literally means “deep”, perhaps with a connotation of “concealed,” and 窕 means some sense of “refined”. Pound finds two wonderful yin-words to express the passiveness of the lady: “dark and clear.” While one may wonder where the second definition came from, the phrase 窈窕 was used much later by Tao Yuanming to refer to a mountain stream, so I think Pound has it spot on. He knows this so well that he repeats it twice.

In the second verse a lot of compromises are made. The word “stream” comes up twice where the text speaks only of flowing, “modesty” and “dark boughs” come lurching out of nowhere, and waterlilies become “reeds”. But this framework allows some of the repetition of the original to come through without sounding cloying to the modern ear. Finally the phrase “dark and clear” comes up again twice. The literal text is again referring to the lady, but in the next line it is made apparent that she is not yet meeting with anyone, but we are only hearing of the man being consumed with thoughts of her, both in waking and in dreaming. Pound uses the fuzzy impression of color and water, offering a dreamlike state, before translating the specific image of dreaming in the following verse.

In the third verse the word “distantly,” included in the ancient Chinese sense of 思, is worked in nicely. The translation falters a bit after this, though. The addition of the word “robe” does not really fit the poem; even this would have been a little too physical in ancient China. And there is no sense that the “reeds” are being gathered and picked by human hands, in preparation for a wedding celebration. Instead, the plants continue to bump around until the end of the poem. Still, it ends with a satisfying bang.

Posted: April 18th, 2015 | Odes

Gizen does not mean “hypocrisy”

When you look up the word gizen 偽善 in a Japanese-English dictionary, the word “hypocrisy” often comes up. But the two words are very different.

According to Daijirin, gizen means “a good deed that doesn’t come from the heart, but is only for appearances’ sake.” But Merriam-Webster defines hypocrisy as “the behavior of people who do things that they tell other people not to do”, and Wikipedia defines it as “the practice of engaging in the same behavior or activity for which one criticizes another.”

DictJuggler gives gizen the amusing psychological translation of “dissimulation.” Gizen refers to good deeds that do not match an inner attitude, and modern “hypocrisy” refers almost exclusively to bad deeds that do not match an outer attitude. How did this happen?

In fact, a shocking thing has happened to the English language. The Japanese-English pairing given would have been accurate 100 years ago, which is likely where dictionaries get their definitions. For example, this is an accurate translation of Edward Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart“:

I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer!

(Mr. Poe’s narrator uses the word “hypocrite” to indicate that he was not being taken seriously and he knew it.)

But this is no longer an accurate pairing for modern usages, because the original meaning of “hypocrisy” has been changed, and a French loanword has been introduced into the English language to take its place: rôle. In modern English, gizen means “playing a role,” which is a behavior that sociologists somewhat crudely attribute to all human beings.

Before 1880, the word “role” was barely even used in English, as this Google Ngrams chart shows:

adoption graph

Nor was it common to think of people carrying out their duties as mere actors playing roles. This was described, before 1880, as “hypocrisy” — a word that meant behaving in a way not in accordance with your true feelings. Hypocrite comes from the Greek hypokrites ὑποκριτής, which simply means an actor in a play. From ancient times it was also used in such a derogatory fashion, in accordance with the traditional disdain for actors–a centuries-old prejudice which came to an end, perhaps not coincidentally, around 1900.

True, there was a character in a Shakespeare play who at one point mused, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” This character (Jaques, from As You Like It) was meant to be melancholy and forlorn, to a humorously exaggerated extent. Even in this sentence, his use of the world “merely” reflects how this statement offers a cynical and depraved view of humanity.

Rôle came to English through French, not in the works of any specific author, but as a slow trickle that eventually became a flood around the turn of the 20th century. Given that the French language also uses the word hypocrite, and presumably pre-20th century France had enough Greek speakers to know what it meant, how did the comparable word rôle come to take on a neutral connotation?

To answer this, I looked at an online dictionary of French, and discovered to my amusement that the earliest citation they have for the word rôle being used in a social or political sense is from the year 1789. To wit:

Mon rôle, à moi, est celui de tous les écrivains patriotes ; il consiste à présenter la vérité.
My rôle, to me, is that all of patriotic writers; it is to present the truth.

Abbé Sieyès, “What Is the Third Estate?” (1789)

Why does Abbé Sieyès use the word rôle here instead of devoir (duty)? There are two obvious reasons for this:

1. Abbé Sieyès was a faithless clergyman who got a job at the Second Estate simply to fatten his bank account and further his writing career. He was already playing a rôle, and was a hypocrite in every sense of the word. It would not be too hard for him to see radical pamphleteering as just another rôle to play.

2. During the Revolution, perhaps, people recognized that they were not executing any duties. Even if they disingenuously claimed to be “presenting the truth,” in fact they were only actors playing rôles in enabling the disintegration of the monarchy.

In conclusion, I urge you to stop translating gizen and gizensha as “hypocrisy” and “hypocrite,” and instead to find more appropriate words that bring the point of the Japanese home. Also, I urge you to help fix the English language by referring to people who do good deeds for ignoble reasons as “hypocrites.” Minds will be blown.

Posted: February 14th, 2015 | Rectification of Names 1 Comment »

Good quality editions of the Chinese classics

If you go to Amazon looking for the Chinese classics you will find a total mess. A bunch of publishers have ripped public domain books from Google Books and are selling them at various prices.

Why should you avoid these? (1) The original editions of what you are buying were bilingual, but the cheap books might have removed the Chinese. If you are really going to read these texts seriously you need the accompanying Chinese. (2) Even worse, these editions might be bad OCRs replete with typos and missing pages. (3) You will want to hang on to these print editions for many years, and the cheap publishers will likely give you a version with an ugly cover, and no guarantees on the quality of binding glue. (4) Any markup you are charged on the printing costs is done out of utter greed and adds no value to the book at all.

Here is the solution: buy print-on-demand versions from Google Books, thanks to the Espresso Book Machine. However, it is hard to find what you are looking for on Google Books’ search engine. So, I made this blog post.

The classics, by James Legge

This might sound kind of strange but some of the authoritative translations of the Chinese classics were made in the 1850s. I know, who was even reading them back then? The fact of the matter remains that James Legge still towers above any classical Chinese translator who has lived since, with the exception of maybe Burton Watson. There is still no other full translation of the Rites, Odes, or Documents. Furthermore, Legge’s books include the full Chinese in beautiful woodblocks, something that will probably never happen again.

Legge’s books can all be found on Google Books for free. The Espresso machine in the Harvard Book Store is the cheapest and shipping is also very cheap. I have included links for that order form as well, although you could just click the “Get this book in print” link available on the Google page. I also include a link to the Dover editions. These are rather good reprintings made in the 1970s that carefully mimeographed the original texts instead of swiping them under a digital camera. But they apparently did not find it profitable to reprint the more obscure books.

I have linked as well to any superior modern translations that are available so you can compare their merits with the Legge. The exception is the Mencius, for which there are other translations out there but I did not find any of them comparable.

英名 Google Harvard Dover Compare to
論語 Analects Schiller
孟子 Mencius N/A
易經 Changes Rutt, Lynn
詩經 Odes Waley
尚書 Documents N/A
左傳 Zuo Zhuan Watson
儀禮 Rites

孝經 Filial Piety Chen
道徳 Tao Te Ching 全* 全* 全* D.C. Lau
荘子 Zhuangzi 下* 下* 下* Watson

* The Taoist texts were translated a little differently. They were in Max Müller’s Sacred Books of the East series and he apparently didn’t like including original texts. So, no Chinese, the Zhuangzi begins in the Tao Te Ching volume, and the translation is not the best. Might be better to consider alternatives.

What Legge didn’t translate

Legge translated the complete Confucian canon of the medieval era. However, Confucianism is more than just the canonical texts. Actually, Legge employed a scholar named Zhu Xi who was responsible for a major innovation in the way the texts were read. In order to really understand Confucianism it is necessary both to read texts that are outside the canon, and to read Zhu Xi and his detractors. Accessible translations of the unorthodox and medieval books are still in the works as we speak. Here is a list of what’s currently available for general audience readers.

Ancient books

Surprisingly, the Hanshu 漢書 has never been translated in full.

Zhu Xi

Unorthodox schools

Bonus: 19th century translations of Chinese literature!

繡像正徳皇遊江南傳 1842 original Englished
玉嬌梨 182? original Englished

Posted: July 21st, 2014 | Books, Confucius 6 Comments »

Neo-Confucian and Taoist original documents

I have to wonder when the Chinese government or classical scholars will set up a website for preserving all the premodern texts. There is Ctext but it is rather incomplete. In the meantime I have fetched a bunch of texts off the Internet and will be saving them here:

It already contains the complete works of 王陽明, etc. Let me know if there’s something else I should add.

Posted: July 4th, 2014 | Confucius

The Beauty of Unturned Stones

Natsume Soseki was once an English literature teacher, and a student attempted to render the phrase “I love you” into Japanese.

The scene: a starry, moonlit, romantic night, the man turns to his lover and says, “I love you”. The student plopped the clunky corresponding words, “as-for-me-I love you”, into the translated document.

“No no no,” said Soseki. “You must write this the way a Japanese author would write it: ‘The moon is beautiful tonight.‘”


Here’s an excerpt from an essay by Ryōtarō Shiba, author of Clouds Above the Hill, on this subject.

I’m a big fan of the sayings of Confucius called the Analects. But what would an American think if you had him read this book?

In a book I read a long time ago, someone offered an American scholar a copy of the Analects, and this is what he said:

“It’s like the talk of an Indian chief!”

When I read that book I belted out a deep laugh. This encapsulates the difference between East and West perfectly.

Let’s translate the famous first line from that first paragraph of the Analects as if an Indian chief were saying it.

“You must learn, children, and review what you have read. That is fun, see.”

Suddenly, in the next line, a different topic entirely: “Friends — those are good. Especially, when a friend is coming to visit you from far away. There is nothing as good as that.”

And then another: “Some people get angry when the world fails to acknowledge them. That is no good. Unemotional and calm under pressure — that is what we call character. Got it?”

In the East, the Analects are like a sacred book. This book was mandatory reading in China from the early centuries B.C.E., and when it came to Japan through Korea in the 5th and 6th centuries, it was treasured.

Here we see none of the logic of Aristotle, and none of the piercing rhetoric of the modern West. To put it bluntly, it’s like a a bunch of anecdotes about an old man, and it’s full of unclear sayings, leaps of logic, and blank spaces. The reader has to figure it out for himself, thinking, “Ah, that’s what he’s talking about, right?”

But you can’t figure it out without guessing and filling in the blanks. The Analects is not carefully argued logic but a collection of brief and broken phrases. In every verse, you can only determine 50% of the meaning from what’s actually written there. The other 50% must be figured out by the reader himself. In other words, there is no reading without guessing.

I don’t know whether this is related to the Analects or not, but Japan is full of these brief and broken phrases, not only in reading ancient texts but also in everyday conversation. You don’t rigorously explain everything you’re thinking to the person you talk with, but have them read your intentions, and you read theirs as well.

Japanese people don’t like to argue. Even in the courtroom, laying out cold, precise logic to make your conversation partner fall to his feet and beg for forgiveness invites them to form a grudge, so it can only cause trouble later. So when we negotiate, we speak in brief and broken phrases like an Indian, and add a quiet little smile for breathing room. Someone who can do this well in Japan is said to have character or even worth, but a longtime foreign correspondent once warned me drunkenly over beer, “if you pulled that in America, they’d call you an idiot!”

Fair enough: in Japan, if you attempted to demonstrate the strength of your opinion using endless layers of logic, you’d be the idiot! The listener already understands what you’re trying to prove.

From Amerika Sobyou, 1986

Posted: June 9th, 2013 | Confucius

Wang Yangming on Gornahoor

I have published an essay about the Confucian scholar Wang Yangming on Anyone will be able to enjoy this exposition of Traditional doctrine. Below is an appendix to that post.

Yōmeigaku, the study of Yangming’s teachings in Japan, was especially prominent during the period of modernization. During the Russo-Japanese War, Emperor Meiji did a perfect imitation of Evola’s anecdote:

During the Russo-Japanese War, the emperor never felt impelled to offer advice on the conduct of the war, and he rarely revealed his emotions, even when told of Japanese victories. As soon as he learned of the fall of Port Arthur, the vice chief of the general staff, Nagaoka Gaishi, rushed to the palace to inform the emperor. … Nagaoke, too overcome by joy to even wait for the emperor to be seated, declared that serving as the messenger of glorious news was the greatest blessing of his life. Having blurted out these words, he started to make his report. He looked up at the emperor’s face. It was calm and self-possessed, exactly as it always was, not revealing a trace of emotion. During the fifteen or sixteen minutes while Nagaoka described the victory, the emperor nodded almost imperceptibly a few times … Nagaoka was deeply disappointed. [Donald Keene, Meiji and His World, 619]

During that war, the Admiral of the Japanese Navy is known to have carried a stamp with him that read, “A life dedicated to following the example of Yōmei”.

Yōmeigaku was shoved aside after 1945 to make way for foreign ideologies, but it captured the interest of Yukio Mishima. Just before his failed coup d’état, he wrote an article on “Yōmeigaku as a Revolutionary Philosophy”. The newspapers of 1972 were written by young, postwar-educated reporters who had no idea of even the most basic tenets of Yōmeigaku, but that didn’t stop them from blaming the unfamiliar old tradition for driving Mishima to suicidal heroism, and if you Google any of these terms today you will find all sorts of baseless slanders about the philosophy online. This is a shame, because both Japan and the world have much to learn from Wang Yangming

Posted: May 13th, 2013 | Confucius, Kokoro

Kure Tomofusa on nepotism and filiality

The following is a translation from The Analects for the Modern Man (2006) by Kure Tomofusa.

The Magistrate of Shou said to Confucius, “There is a very honest person in our village. When his father stole sheep, he prosecuted his own father.” Confucius said, “In our village, honesty is different from yours. Father defends his children and Children defend their father. Here you may find true honesty.” [Analects 13.18]

I’d like to use this commentary to think about Confucianism’s strong point, filial piety.

When most people think of Confucianism, they reflexively think of filial piety, moreover a stiffly imposed filial piety. In Legalism, to be sure, filial piety is symbolized by bad customs like the Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars. But, recently, filial piety has received notice as a way of thinking to overcome the limits and pathologies of Western individualism. This is the treatment of filial piety as an assimilation of oneself with the whole, of filial piety as symbolizing the continuity of life. In an age where it has become necessary to consider the standpoint of the whole human race, since it is difficult to create a principle for conceiving of humanity from an individualist perspective, this is only natural. We must recognize the absurd spectacle of Western rationalism or individualism being unable to judge the relationship between parent and child.

Parents cannot choose their children, nor can children choose their parents. For that reason, love and hatred are tangled together. The undertaking of that entangled love and hatred– is that not what we call filial piety?

This view is not so far-fetched. When the Analects speak of filial piety, more often than not they are speaking specifically of this social system. Here is an example from the first book:

The Teacher said, “While a man’s father lives, we should evaluate his character by his home life and aspirations. After one’s father dies, we should evaluate his character by his public life and deeds. Three years after his father’s death [when the period of mourning has ended], if his conduct is still in line with his father’s, he can be called a dutiful son.” [Analects 1.11]

This is clearly regarding a social system. The “way of the father” which the son is meant to imitate is furthermore that of the management of a fiefdom, the selection of faithful stewards, and statesmanship. Don’t be tempted to confuse this “way of the father” with knowing when to flip the burgers on the barbecue; such erroneous readings are on the rise these days.

Filial piety is part of this system, and it took form naturally preceding Confucius, as Pre-Confucianism. Taking this as the soil, Confucius was the one who consciously gave it meaning. This meaning-giving could rather be said to give readings to unclear parts of filial piety. The above passage is such; let’s translate it.

The Magistrate of Shou put a question to Confucius. Shou was a province in China, and this magistrate was known for being a wise man, but a haughty one. [Rest of translation omitted; it’s as above.]

Parents could not be expected to rejoice in their child’s crime, nor could a child rejoice in his parent’s crime. With all that weeping and lamentation, trying to protect their kin by concealing the crime is only natural for humans. Confucius stressed people over laws. More important than good government is a virtuous people. This insistence in Confucian government, and the nepotism it generated, was the source of social stagnation. The importance of kinship and the restraints of nepotism warded off social progress. While we must remember that fact, even more than that, we must take note how a curiously strong insistence on the objective character of law arose in 20th century America. Believing that their own troubles were caused by the bad education they received from their parents, some American children have even sued their parents and sought restitution.

Li, Confucius’ son who preceded him in death, of course had an untroubled childhood, but was a perfectly mediocre individual. But for his father, Li was a beloved, wonderful son. “Whether or not he possesses genius, he is still my child.” (Analects 11.8)

There is a passage in the Analects which has eluded intepretation since ancient times:

Meng Wu Bo asked Confucius about filial piety. Confucius replied, 父母唯其疾之憂。 (Analects 2.6)

The following readings have been proposed.

Ba Yu of the Later Han: “One should only be concerned for one’s parents in times of terminal illness. At other times, we must not be concerned.”

Shu Shi of Sòng: “Parents are concerned for their children only in times of sickness, so we must pay attention to our health.”

Jinsai Itoh (1627-1705): “The first duty towards one’s parents is to be concerned for them in times of sickness.”

[By the way, here are some other modern readings: “The main concern of your parents is about your health.” ”Have your parents be concerned about only their health.” “Parents are anxious lest their children should be sick.”]

In all of these readings, though, we see that the relationship between parent and child is not one of choice.

Confucius himself lost his father at the age of three, and lost his mother at the youthful age of 24. In the roughly 500 sayings of Confucius in the Analects there is not a single one about the kind of filial piety which the Teacher himself carried out. Nor do any of his disciples relate a single word about their teacher’s piety.

He was still a child when his father died, but it is thought as well that something must have happened, preventing him from meeting his mother.

Posted: May 3rd, 2013 | Confucius 1 Comment »

呉智英 『現代人の論語』 <英訳>

呉智英 『現代人の論語』
Confucius for the Modern Man by Professor Tomofusa Kure (2006)

Professor Kure of Kyoto University opens this book by complaining that nobody really reads Confucius, pointing out obvious errors that anyone could discover in the standard Japanese translations of him. He picked out his favorite verses, some of which he thinks are overlooked or make scholars uncomfortable. I noticed when trying to find English translations of the verses cited that his verses are missing from some translations. 19th century translations also have many errors, which is weird because there are plenty of centuries-old commentaries on these texts. I hunted down various online translations and the reader may guess what makes these specific chapters so interesting. I am working on securing permission for Kure-sensei’s commentaries.

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Posted: March 9th, 2013 | Confucius 1 Comment »