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«6 Reading the Heavenly Mandate: Dong Zhongshu’s Rhetoric of the Way (Dao) Yichun Liu and Xiaoye You Studies of Confucian rhetoric in the West have ...»

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6 Reading the Heavenly

Mandate: Dong Zhongshu’s

Rhetoric of the Way (Dao)

Yichun Liu and Xiaoye You

Studies of Confucian rhetoric in the West have largely focused on

Confucian figures in pre-imperial China.1 The reasons for the enduring interest in this historical period, we suggest, are mainly twofold. First, the hundreds of schools of thought during the Spring and

Autumn period (770 BCE—476 BCE) and Warring States period

(475 BCE—221 BCE) produced numerous philosophical texts that furnish a treasure trove for interested rhetoricians. Many existent texts have been translated into Western languages, offering Western rhetoricians, such as Robert Oliver and George Kennedy, direct access to classical Chinese thought and allowing them to compare classical Chinese and Greco-Roman rhetorics. Second, rhetoricians seem contented with knowledge of Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzhi, assuming that perspectives developed by these pre-imperial figures offer sufficient explanatory power for Confucians’ rhetorical practices in imperial China, where Confucianism gained state patronage. These two major reasons have largely defined, and unwittingly circumscribed, the purview of Confucian rhetoric known in the West.

The complacency with the knowledge of pre-imperial figures is unwarranted. Changing socio-cultural factors in China, Confucian intellectuals’ responses to new sociopolitical exigencies, and the discursive engagement between Confucian and less influential schools would necessarily lead to reformulations of Confucian rhetorical theories. Knowledge of several key figures dating from a period prior to imperial China will not suffice, if we hope to determine how ConfuYichun Liu and Xiaoye Yous cian rhetoric has metamorphosed in response to, and in interaction with, evolving Chinese feudal politics, or if we hope to determine the enduring ramifications of Confucian rhetoric in modern Chinese political discourse.

Once rhetoricians move into study of Confucianism in the imperial period, they will inevitably encounter daunting challenges. First, since so many Confucian schools and intellectuals prevailed in the two thousand years of Chinese imperial history, one can easily be overwhelmed by the task of selecting representative figures and texts. Second, most texts were written in classical Chinese, a language hard to penetrate even for Chinese scholars. Even worse, few texts have been translated into Western languages yet, which discourages interested Western scholars from delving into the primary texts. Despite these challenges, which we equally face, we will venture into the territory less trodden, hoping that our endeavor will inspire more scholars to join the expedition. In this chapter, we examine a Confucian erudite named Dong Zhongshu (195 BCE—115 BCE), who became an influential statesman three hundred years after Confucius’s death. Dong is an opportune figure for our endeavor because, first, he developed his political thought by assimilating those of many other Confucian intellectuals of his age (Queen 23). His rhetorical theory, particularly his rhetorical understanding of Heaven, was representative of the then influential Gong-Yang exegetical school of Confucianism. Second, Dong played a pivotal role in establishing academic Confucianism in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE—24 A.D.). In the process, he had to reconfigure Confucian philosophical and rhetorical frames to suit the sociopolitical reality of his time, which creates an opportunity to examine Confucian rhetoric in early imperial China.

In this chapter, we first offer an overview of Confucian rhetoric in pre-imperial China, focusing on rhetorical frames and concepts developed by Confucius but later extended or revised by Dong Zhongshu.

Then, we discuss Dong’s rhetorical theory. In Dong’s rhetorical reformulations, he underscored Heaven as a powerful interlocutor in the discourse of the Way (道 dao) and articulated a new historical topos.

Dong’s theory is most concerned about how human beings could understand Heaven, the arbitrator of both the natural and human realms, and how political leaders could communicate with Him in their execution of the Heavenly mandate on earth. Since Dong developed his rhetorical theory largely through interpreting and appropriating a Reading the Heavenly Mandate 155 Confucian classic, the Spring and Autumn Annals, in the spirit of the Gong-Yang exegetical school,2 we conclude with a brief discussion of Dong’s hermeneutics. By charting some key components of Dong’s rhetorical theory, we hope to show that Confucian rhetoric underwent a salient reformulation in the Western Han Dynasty, thus warranting further scholarly inquiries of the imperial period.

Confucian Rhetoric in its Pre-imperial Formulations Although scholars have devoted much attention to Confucian rhetoric over the last several decades, they have not settled on what Confucius’s rhetorical framework truly is. They, in fact, represent a wide spectrum, from denying to affirming its existence. Those who deny its existence are not deconstructionists but scholars who have entertained GrecoRoman rhetorical precepts as their “terministic screens.” For example, Kennedy has characterized Confucius (551 BCE-479 BCE), when compared with Socrates, as being less systematic with epistemology and dialecticism and as failing to develop a system of argumentation.





Moving away from Western precepts and embracing native terms such as ming (rational thinking, logic, and epistemology), bian (argumentation, discussion, and eloquence) and yan (language), Xing Lu has identified some “rhetorical perspectives” expressed by Confucius.

For instance, Confucius emphasized the importance of rectifying names, i.e., assuring a truthful representation of reality, particularly a clear demarcation of individuals’ social status and kinship identities, through the use of language. Such a rhetorical perspective implies that a clear prescription and maintenance of everyone’s roles and functions in society will lead to social stability and harmony. Further, as Lu correctly observes, Confucius emphasized the appropriate use of language in communication, and he developed a set of terms to describe moralized language behaviors, such as virtuous speech, trustworthy speech, upright speech, cautious speech, and correct speech.

Departing from dependence on Western traditions, LuMing Mao also recognizes three components of Confucius’s Analects that constitute what he calls “participatory discourse.” The text embodies three key components of Confucius’s teaching of rhetoric. First, Confucius associates truth with antiquity, and emphasizes his role in accumulating and transmitting ancient knowledge. Second, Confucius assigns a prominent orientation to others in one’s self-cultivation and moral conduct. Even a privileged individual needs to treat others the same 156 Yichun Liu and Xiaoye Yous way as he expects others to treat him. Third, Confucius admonishes that one should act in accordance with rites to facilitate self-cultivation and to achieve both humaneness and social harmony. Together, these components “promote an open-ended interaction between antiquity and the present, and between the individual and an ever-expanding circle of human-relatedness” (515).

While we admire both Lu’s and Mao’s characterizations of Confucius’s rhetoric, we understand Confucius’s rhetoric as being a theory of the multimodality of ritual symbols, articulated to salvage the tumultuous Zhou Dynasty (ca. 1100 BCE to 221 BCE). It is a rhetorical theory on how to properly mobilize ritual symbols, including linguistic symbols, to restore a disintegrated, corrupted Chinese society to an ideal state (You). The ideal state is a perfect embodiment of dao. In metaphysical speculations of ancient China, the universe did not start from a clear distinction of different worlds, but rather from a chaotic mass. What most attracted the ancient Chinese was not something that would transcend this chaotic state, but the innermost essence of the chaos that remained hidden and mysterious. The answer to everything about this world that lay at the heart of the chaos is called dao (the Way). Among ancient Chinese philosophers, Confucius was particularly keen in seeking out dao in order to end the turmoil of the Zhou Dynasty. For him, dao offers not only the answer to how the natural world operates but, more importantly, the key to the moralspiritual order and the prosperity of human society. Therefore, Confucius once said, “In the morning, hear the Way; in the evening, die content” (4.8). Dao is all one needs to know, thus the proper realm of Confucian ontology and epistemology.

In Confucius’s teaching, he was most concerned about human society and refrained from entering the realm of the Spirits and Heaven.

For him, the desirable knowledge or wisdom (知 zi) for an individual is the complete mastery of attributes of being good, or in practical terms, seventeen kinds of rites established in the early Zhou Dynasty, six centuries before Confucius. Being good involves concern about human affairs, rather than about any supernatural or metaphysical matters. A true gentleman shows respect to the Spirits but maintains a distance from them (6.20). Any further exploration into the Spirits is discouraged by Confucius, because a gentleman takes as his sole responsibility the attempt to exemplify the desirable attributes of being good to the multitude. Heaven is the dispenser of life and death, wealth and rank Reading the Heavenly Mandate 157 (12.5). A gentleman must learn to know the will of Heaven (20.3) and submit to it patiently. However, Confucius is unwilling to discourse on “the ways of Heaven” (5.12; 9.1) with his students,2 probably due to his conviction that his students were not ready for this subject. He confessed that he came to understand Heaven’s will quite late in his own study: “At fifteen I set my heart upon learning... At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven. At sixty, I heard them with docile ear” (2.4).

Human history, as the evidence of dao, is what Confucius tuned in to “hear the Way.” Confucius saw social rites (禮 li) as an indicator of dao’s status quo in the late Zhou society. Rites are a sophisticated complex of social codes that signify what was valued the most in the Zhou society. They embody the total spectrum of social norms, customs, and mores, covering increasingly complicated relationships and institutions. The appropriate acts prescribed by the rites not only oversee ceremonial occasions, but also govern daily human interactions. Confucius praised the social rites of the past, critiqued their practice in the present, and envisioned an ideal society of rites for the future. For example, when consulted about statesmanship, Confucius referred to ritualistic features of previous dynasties as ideal practices: “One would go by the seasons of Hsia (Xia); as state-coach for the ruler one would use that of Yin, and as head-gear of ceremony wear the Chou (Zhou) hat.

For music, one would take as model the succession dance, and would do away altogether with the tunes of Cheng” (15.10). State calendars, the state coach, the headgear for ceremonies, and music are all key features of state rites. In Confucius’s view, certain ritualistic features in antiquity perfectly embodied dao. Sound historical knowledge, thus, allows one to identify social rites that were practiced in alignment with dao, and to employ them for current state-making.

Due to the pivotal role that historical knowledge plays in practicing dao, Confucius served as cultural transmitter in his teaching and erudition. Allegedly, he edited several important classical documents, such as the Book of Songs, the Book of History, the Book of Rites, the Book of Music, and the Spring and Autumn Annals. These classics embody the knowledge of ancient Chinese history and tradition that Confucius believed a statesman should master. Thus, when one of his students quoted from the Book of Songs to elucidate the hardship of seeking out dao, Confucius remarked delightedly, “Now I can really begin to talk to you about the Songs, for when I allude to sayings of 158 Yichun Liu and Xiaoye Yous the past, you see what bearing they have on what was to come after” (1.15). In his remark, Confucius emphasized the historical bearing on the present; that is, knowledge of the past can assist a statesman in making wise decisions for the present and the future.

Confucius also believed that studying history was a process of cultivating a righteous individual, a process of building a gentleman for leadership positions or for assisting rulers. Once, he recommended, “Let a man be first incited by the Songs, then given a firm footing by the study of ritual, and finally perfected by music” (8.8). By immersion in ancient songs, ritual, and music, one would gain a repertoire of approaches to expand understanding and skill in using ritual symbols, and would easily identify with the spirit of dao. The rhetorical power of the Songs, for example, in Confucius’s words, “will help you incite people’s emotions, to observe their feelings, to keep company, to express your grievances. They may be used at home in the service of one’s father, abroad, in the service of one’s prince” (17.9). Through conscientious study of historical practices of songs, ritual, and music, an individual would be initiated into the culture of ritual symbols and acquire new rhetorical agency.

While Confucius emphasized history for ritualizing gentlemen and guiding state-making, he adopted history as, using an Aristotelian term, an archetypical topos in his discursive activities. The topos works in this way: The past informs and guides the present. What happened in the past occurred because someone followed or did not follow the appropriate ritual practices or the spirit of dao. Therefore, we need to practice rituals in accordance with dao, and peace and social harmony will arrive thereafter. Historical figures and events are mentioned or implied numerous times in the Analects. On many occasions, Confucius only stated a historical figure or an event, without comment.

The premise that the past informs and guides the present and the conclusion are both implied, because they are the cornerstones of his teaching and familiar to his audiences, including both his students

and government officials. To quote two examples from the Analects:

The Master said, Of T’ai Po it may indeed be said that he attained to the very highest pitch of moral power.



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