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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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However, none of them could reverse (their declining) course and finally faded away. Is it because what they clung to or performed was false that they lost their legitimation? Once Heaven issues a mandate, He will not withdraw but enact it to its fullest extent? Alas, even if I model ancient sages and attend to my duties from early in the morning to late at night, it still will not help? Three generations of my family have been conferred the Heavenly mandate, but where is the eviReading the Heavenly Mandate 165 dence? Disasters and anomalies constantly occur, but where do they originate from? In terms of human lives and their propensities, some die young but some live long lives; some are benevolent while some are degraded. I often hear His name (being evoked to account for these phenomena), but I have not quite comprehended the way Heaven operates. (Yao, Book 21, 1–2) The decline of previous kings constitutes a historical myth, which deeply perplexed the emperor. Over the prior five hundred years, many individuals were conferred the responsibility of the Heavenly mandate and rose to the throne, but none of them seemed to have successfully fulfilled the mandate. The emperor suspected that in spite of their earnest desire to bring peace to their people, the former kings must have misread the Heavenly mandate. He also hoped to rule the empire by complying with the mandate. However, he feared that he might fail to grasp the mandate and, thus, would follow the same path as the fallen kings.

In the emperor’s inquiry, it is important to note several premises that Dong equally shared. First, the emperor acknowledged Heaven as the most powerful interlocutor in the discourse of dao, who would issue mandates and, with or without human agency, enact them to their fullest extent. The emperor’s acknowledgment of Heaven’s discursive role indicates that the Confucian and Daoist notion of Heaven being the ultimate arbitrator of human realm had been popularized in the Western Han. Second, when deliberating on the historical myth, the emperor saw the failings of previous kings, the disasters and anomalies, and the various kinds of human experiences being full of symbolic meanings. They were signs not only of an existent deity, but also of his anthropomorphic values and emotions. Third, by asking his consultants these questions, the emperor supposed that humans are not passive, obedient servants of Heaven, and that there exists a responsive, interactive relationship between humans and Heaven. By fully understanding Heaven’s values, intents, and emotions and acting according to his mandate, the royal family would be legitimated by Heaven and avoid fates that previous kings experienced. But how could the son of Heaven discern the deity’s values and emotions? The emperor was perplexed, and he awaited Confucian scholars’ instruction, which Dong sought to offer in his answers.

166 Yichun Liu and Xiaoye Yous In Dong’s rhetorical construction of Heaven, he not only affirmed Heaven’s anthropomorphic quality, but also infused Confucian morality into it. In his response to the emperor’s inquiry, he agreed with the emperor that different phenomena are signs of Heaven’s emotions and of His omnipotent power in both the natural and human realms.

However, Heaven is not schizophrenic; His emotional expressions and ways of exercising power are both rational and ethical. As Dong explained, “When the state shows signs of losing dao, Heaven will admonish it by bringing some disasters. If the state does not self-reflect on its weaknesses, Heaven will alert it with anomalies. If the state continues to stay on the wrong course, harm and setbacks will ensue.

Thus, Heaven expressly loves the human king with his benevolent heart (天心之仁 tian xin zhi ren), and He wants to stop human chaos” (Yao, Book 21, 2). While Dong confirmed these signs as being manifestations of Heaven’s rationality, he also interpreted them by reading Confucian morality into Heaven’s intents. Heaven’s various intents originate from a benevolent heart, which the Confucian school had long held as being the origin and the center of humanity. Unlike some religions, such as Christianity, Confucianism holds that humans are born with a pure, benevolent heart. It is through the shared benevolent heart, which Dong assigned to Heaven, that humans can understand Heaven’s values, emotions, and intents unmistakably.

To explicate the intents of Heaven, Dong mobilized the Daoist concept of yin-yang. He explained Heaven’s moral values and His strategic

uses of power as manifested in nature in the following terms:

The grandness of Heaven’s dao manifests in the forces of yin and yang. The vital force of yang is virtue (德 de) and that of yin is punishment (刑 xing). Punishment aims to destroy while virtue aims to generate. Therefore, yang often resides in summer, being charged with generating and nurturing. Yin often resides in winter, being stored somewhere not for use. Thus, we see that Heaven favors virtue over punishment. Heaven lets yang rise to the top to perform major tasks of the year, and he lets yin stay below to assist yang sometimes.

Without yin’s assistance, yang will not be able to complete its tasks alone. Yang is known for completing a year’s cycle. That is Heaven’s will. (Yao, Book 21, 4) Reading the Heavenly Mandate 167 Through the dialectics of yin-yang, Dong unveiled Heaven’s rationality, or the cosmic norms. The Dao of Heaven governs the change of seasons. By observing how summer and winter alternate, as Dong suggested, we could understand Heaven’s moral propensity and His preferred way of governing the world (i.e., He places virtue/yang before punishment/yin in order to nourish life). Heaven’s intentions account for the fact that He loves, nurtures, and benefits all living things.





Thus, as Sarah Queen states, “Tung (Dong) read the location of yin and yang during a particular season, or the direction toward which they moved, as cosmological proof of Heaven’s preference for virtue over punishment” (211). Through a Confucian reading of the natural signs, Dong ascribed Heaven a particular anthropomorphic quality, turning Heaven into a Confucian deity.

Bettering Communication with Heaven Since Heaven shares a benevolent heart with humans, Dong believed that both parties were able to communicate with each other. First of all, as an erudite of the Spring and Autumn Annals, Dong had been initiated into such an ontological frame early in his intellectual life.

Chronicles like the Spring and Autumn consist of notices that state ritual functionaries probably announced day by day, month by month, and year by year. As ancient Chinese historians carefully documented such state affairs as court divination, ceremony, and sacrifice, Queen posits that, “the religious dimension of the Spring and Autumn exemplifies the ancient Chinese belief that communication between the human realm and that of Heaven was not only possible but essential to Chinese civilization” (117). With a thorough training in the Gong-Yang lineage of the Spring and Autumn, Dong was extremely familiar with the ritualistic means that previous kings had employed to communicate with Heaven. When he expounded his view of history to the emperor, for example, he quoted an event recorded in the Spring and Autumn to show the human-Heaven communication— When Emperor Shun was conferred his reign, he only changed the first month of the calendar and the color of court dress to acknowledge the Heavenly mandate (Yao, Book 21, 11). Therefore, Dong was extremely concerned about the appropriate ways that state rituals are performed because, first, state rituals were institutionalized means of communication with Heaven, and second, appropriate performance of state rituals would indicate an accurate understanding of the Heavenly 168 Yichun Liu and Xiaoye Yous mandate and acknowledge hierarchical relations between Heaven and His human subjects.

According to The Luxuriant Dew, Dong sought to institute two state rites to reflect the relationship between Heaven and humans.

First, he suggested that the king sacrifice to Heaven once a year at the suburban altar and sacrifice four times a year at the ancestral temple, and that the sacrifices at the ancestral temple follow the changes in the four seasons and the suburban sacrifice follow the beginning of the new year. Such a regimented schedule of ritual performance, according to Dong, is derived from the hierarchical relationship between Heaven and other minor deities. Heaven is the ruler of hundreds of Spirits, including the Spirit of deceased human ancestors. Heaven rules over human subjects, dead or alive. Second, Dong suggested that upon being conferred the Heavenly mandate, the emperor would need to change state regulations (改制 gai zhi), as Emperor Shun had done two thousand years before. He explained the change of state regulations as follows: “The founder of a new dynasty must shift his place of residence, assume a new title, change the beginning of the year, and alter the color of ceremonial dress—all for no other reason than that he dare not disobey the will of Heaven, and must clearly manifest [the Mandate conferred] on him.”9 The change of state regulations conveys to the supreme deity that His mandate has been received and will be enacted in the human realm. Thus, state rites served to honor the supreme leader of the universe, and to confirm human reception of His important messages.

When performing ritual acts, Dong emphasized the relationship between substance and form. Along with pre-imperial Confucians, Dong subscribed to the notion that ritual substance and ritual form ought to coexist in perfect harmony. As Confucius once admonished, only a well-balanced mixture of these two would result in a noble person (6.16). However, on occasions where such an ideal could not be realized, together with other exegetes of the Gong-Yang school, Dong expressed a preference for ritual substance. He said, “In setting out the proper sequence of the Way, the Spring and Autumn places substance first and form afterward; gives primary position to the mental attitude [of a person engaged in ritual] and secondary position to the external objects [of ritual]” (18).10 That is, it is most important to have the right mental attitude or emotions when performing a ritual. The right menReading the Heavenly Mandate 169 tal attitude includes respect of both Heaven and hierarchical human relations.

To sustain such important communicative channels as the state rites, Dong argued that more exegetes of Confucian classics need to be trained. Dong made a suggestion to Emperor Wu that has shaped the Chinese educational system for more than two thousand years.

He says, Nowadays people study different kinds of dao and hold different thoughts. Hundreds of schools teach different meanings about dao. As there is no unified thought in government and state regulations change constantly, the masses do not know which regulations to follow. I humbly think that those that fall out of the six arts and the Confucian school should be eradicated.11 When heresies die off, thoughts in government will be unified, regulations will become clear, and the masses will know what to follow. (Yao, Book 21, 13) Misled by other schools of thought, previous emperors changed state regulations constantly, which confused the masses and failed to serve Heaven properly. Therefore, Dong believed that only through subscribing to the Confucian exegesis of Heaven and human history would the Western Han avoid ritual transgressions. Thanks to Dong’s eloquence, Emperor Wu took some of his suggestions and waged a series of reforms, one of which established the imperial academy to promote Confucian thought and to recruit Confucian scholars to study the dao of Heaven and earth.

Convergence of Rhetoric and Poetics Dong formulated his rhetorical theory based on his interpretation of Confucius’s use of language in the Spring and Autumn. When reading the chronicle, Dong identified some particular ways that Confucius, the alleged author, used language in his historiography. If we define rhetoric as the art of discursive production, as opposed to poetics broadly defined as the art of discursive interpretation, then rhetoric and poetics seamlessly converged in Dong’s reading of the chronicle.

Dong’s Heaven-centered historical topos was derived from his weighing of Confucius’s rhetorical practices manifest in the Spring and Autumn. His creative interpretation of Confucius’s use of language 170 Yichun Liu and Xiaoye Yous rendered Dong not only a rhetorician but a literary critic. The Spring and Autumn was the surviving chronicle of the state of Lu, recording title accessions, marriages, deaths, diplomatic meetings, military campaigns, alliances, and other important events from 722 BCE to 481 BCE. To encapsulate a history of two and a half centuries with a little more than sixteen thousand Chinese characters, the entries are stylistically terse and laconic. The style offered Dong much interpretive space to expound on the text, discovering profound moral meanings in the terse language (微言大义 wei yan da yi).

In his interpretation of the chronicle, Dong was sensitive to Confucius’s moralization of linguistic codes. As Xing Lu and George Xu have observed, the sage valorized language for its potentially moralizing and ritualizing powers. Writing a Chinese history from the vantage point of the Lu state, Confucius used different styles to encode his feelings towards various historical events. Dong interpreted Confucius’s rhetorical strategies with an acute understanding of humaneness/humanity (ren 仁) that centered in the teachings of Confucius

and Mencius:



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