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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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The Spring and Autumn groups the twelve kings of the Lu state into three historical periods: one that was witnessed, one that was heard of, and one that was learned as a legend by Confucius.... Regarding events that he witnessed, he recorded them in terse language. For events that he heard of, he lamented on the disasters that people had suffered. In terms of what was passed on as being legendary, his words were less emotionally charged. He used words in alignment with human feelings.... Variable human feelings correspond to elaborate or terse styles. As I have observed, Confucius used proper language to approach people close to him and to distance those far away from him in relationship. His language shows respect to the honorable but looks down upon the degraded. It treats the benign kindly and despises the frivolous. It praises the good but shows distaste for evil. It distinguishes between yin and yang (good and evil) but tells apart black and white (truth and falsity). Everything in the world has its proper nature. If two objects share the same nature, they should be joined. If not, they should be set apart.

Reading the Heavenly Mandate 171 It is good that things are joined or set apart. (The Luxuriant Dew 8) This passage emphasized Confucius’s careful use of language because, as Dong believed, different feelings towards historical events need to be expressed in corresponding styles. Further, Dong suggested that proper use of language not only reflects the author’s variable feelings but also perpetuates an orderly human relationship. Through approaching those close to him and distancing those far away from him in his historiography, Confucius exemplified a morality—respecting hierarchical human relations—via language. Finally the last statement, “It is good that things are joined or set apart (偶之合之仇之匹 之善矣 ou zhi he zhi chou zhi pi zhi shan yi),” rendered much interpretative power in Dong’s use. On the surface, the statement emphasizes encoding objects according to their proper nature. Since the underlying tenet is that everything in the world is related in certain ways, Dong gained sanction to read his own meanings into events recorded in the Spring and Autumn.

However, Confucius did not employ different styles simply to denote his varying feelings towards historical events; instead, as Dong

argued, the entire chronicle was meant to convey the profound meanings of righteousness (義 yi). Dong explained:

Thus, the Spring and Autumn entertains profound meanings about righteousness. One may grasp part of them and study them in wider contexts. After examining their truthfulness, he will achieve just standards.

After reading the terse language, he will understand the hidden meanings. Therefore, the chronicle recorded events that took place outside of the Lu state, but did not elaborate on them. When recording events inside Lu, the chronicle avoided kings’ given names as a way of showing respect, but never omitted events simply because the involved persons were high-ranking or righteous. This is the way that the chronicle differentiated between inside and outside, the righteous and the wicked, and the high and the low. (8) Thus, for Dong, historical events that happened inside or outside of the Lu state, the language styles employed, and the textual strategy of avoiding kings’ given names ultimately embody profound meanings 172 Yichun Liu and Xiaoye Yous about righteousness. The Spring and Autumn is more than a book of history, but also a mystic book on the meanings of righteousness. For a reader intent on grasping the meaning of righteousness, he or she needs to, first of all, understand Confucius’s rhetorical strategies used in the book. When developing his rhetorical theory on reading the Heavenly mandate, Dong first systematically studied the language strategies of Confucius, as modern Chinese rhetoricians have unfailingly noted, and then came to his own interpretation of the Spring and Autumn.

Thus, we have argued that Dong was an excellent literary critic who harmonized rhetoric and poetics in his hermeneutic endeavor.


Since the Western Han rose as a united empire after the tumultuous Zhou and the short-lived Qin Dynasties, the emperors were eager to legitimate their reigns. Various schools of thought vied for state patronage as in previous dynasties. Dong’s rhetorical theory, which appropriated rhetorical elements from various schools, was a response to the political and cultural demands of the time. When Emperor Wu summoned Confucian scholars to inquire about the Heavenly mandate, Dong found an opportunity to articulate his rhetorical theory systematically. In Dong’s historical topos, Heaven was portrayed as the fourth, and also the most powerful, interlocutor in the discourse of dao. To comply with the mandate closely, an emperor must understand the anthropomorphic quality of Heaven—His values, intents, and emotions. An emperor must establish viable communication channels to discourse with Heaven—such as the performance of state rites and the interpretive work of Confucian erudites. Only erudites like Dong could assist the emperor in interpreting Confucian classics and reading Heaven’s will properly; then they could suggest appropriate state rites and other proper actions. Dong’s articulation of his rhetorical theory was grounded in his exegesis of the Spring and Autumn.

In the interpretative process, he capitalized on Confucian rhetorical strategies in the chronicle to come up with a sensible discursive theory, which helped to legitimize and to strengthen Emperor Wu’s administration. Ultimately, Dong’s rhetorical theory is a discursive guide for the monarch.

Reading the Heavenly Mandate 173 Notes

1. Pre-imperial China, also called pre-Qin China, refers to China before the Qin Dynasty (221 BCE—206 BCE), after which China became a united feudal country. This statement describes chiefly the status quo of Confucian rhetoric studies in the United States. There are some important studies of Confucian intellectuals’ thoughts on language and their political discourses in the imperial period, but these studies are conducted from the perspective of education (such as Neo-Confucian Education: The Formative Stage, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and John W. Chaffee); or philosophy/hermeneutics (such as Sarah Queen’s study of Dong Zhongshu’s interpretation of the Spring and Autumn). We are also aware that several Chinese rhetorical histories published in mainland China have offered quite an extensive treatment of Confucian figures in imperial China, such as A Complete History of Chinese Rhetoric, edited by Zheng Zhiyi and Zong Tinghu; and the History of Chinese Rhetoric by Yuan Hui and Zong Tinghu. Compared with our present study, we find that these rhetorical histories have adopted a relatively narrow sense of the term “rhetoric,” focusing on the “methods and strategies of language use” (Yuan and Zong 1) rather than more broadly on the use of symbols for effective communication.

2. Since the text of the Spring and Autumn is terse and its contents limited, a number of exegetical schools emerged after Confucius’s death to explain and expand on its meanings. The Book of Han lists commentaries by five schools, one being the Gong-Yang exegetical school. The Gong-Yang commentary was allegedly compiled during the second century BCE. It is phrased as questions and answers.

3. Confucius mentioned Heaven many times in the Analects, though usually fleetingly. On most occasions, his comments showed the power of Heaven and his respect for His mandate. For example, Confucius said, “He who has put himself in the wrong with Heaven has no means of expiation left” (3.13); “Whatsoever I have done amiss, may Heaven avert it, may Heaven avert it!” (6.26); “There is no greatness like the greatness of Heaven, yet Yao could copy it” (8.19).

4. See Arthur Waley’s “additional notes” for divergent interpretations of Verse 14.16 (249–250).

5. The authorship of The Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn has been historically attributed to Dong Zhongshu. However, some scholars have questioned the authorship of the collection, and they suggest that only some chapters were penned by Dong (see both Arbuckle and Queen). In our rendering of Dong’s rhetorical theory, we will mainly rely on his three renowned responses to Emperor Wu’s inquiries, which were recorded in Ban Gu’s Han Shu (History of Han). We will draw on the early chapters of The Luxuriant 174 Yichun Liu and Xiaoye Yous Dew, which are believed to be Dong’s own writings, in our discussion of the exegetic strategies that he employed to read the Spring and Autumn.

6. The English translation of this verse is taken from Arthur Waley (Confucius 193).

7. The English translation of this verse is taken from Arthur Waley (Confucius 93).

8. All Chinese sources are translated by the two of us unless specified otherwise.

9. The English translation is adopted from Queen (203).

10. The English translation is adopted from Queen (190).

11 The six arts refer to six classics allegedly edited by Confucius, including the Book of Songs, the Book of Change, the Book of History, the Book of Ritual, the Book of Music, and the Spring and Autumn.

Acknowledgment We would like to thank Carol Lipson, Roberta Binkley, and LuMing Mao for their constructive comments on an early draft. We also benefited from Kara Dean Zinger’s copy-editing assistance.

Works Cited Arbuckle, Gary. “A Note on the Authenticity of the Chunqiu Fanlu.” T’oung Pao 75 (1989): 226–34.

Chen, Guanglei, and Wang Junheng. Zhongguo Xiucixue Tongshi: Xianqin Lianghan Weijin Nanbei Chao Juan [A Complete History of Chinese Rhetoric:

Pre-Qin, Two Han, Wei, Jin, Southern, and Northern Dynasties]. Changchun: Jilin Jiaoyu Chubanshe [Jilin Educational Press], 1998.

Confucius. The Analects of Confucius. Trans. Arthur Waley. Vintage, 1989.

Dong, Zhongshu. Chunqiu Fanlu Jin Zhu Jin Yi [A Modern Annotation and Translation of the Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn]. Commentary by Lai Yanyuan. Taipei: Taiwan Commercial Press, 1984.

Kennedy, George A. Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Lu, Xing. Rhetoric in Ancient China, Fifth to Third Century, BCEE.: A Comparison with Classical Greek Rhetoric. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 1998.

Mao, LuMing. “What’s in a Name? That Which is Called ‘Rhetoric’ Would in the Analects Mean ‘Participatory Discourse.’” De Consolatione Philologiae: Studies in Honour of Evelyn S. Firchow. Ed. Anna Grotans, Heinrich Reading the Heavenly Mandate 175 Beck, and Anton Schwob. Goppingen, Netherlands: Kummerle Verlag, 2000. 507–22.

Oliver, Robert. Communication and Culture in Ancient Indian and China.

Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1971.

Queen, Sarah A. From Chronicle to Canon: The Hermeneutics of the Spring and Autumn, According to Tung Chung-Shu. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Theodore de Bary, Wm, and John W. Chaffee, ed. Neo-Confucian Education:

The Formative Stage. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1989.

Xu, George. “The Use of Eloquence: The Confucian Perspective.” Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Ed. Carol S. Lipson and Roberta A. Binkley. Albany: SUNY P, 2004.

Yao, Nai, ed. Gu Wen Ci Lei Zuan [A Sorted Collection of Classical Writings].

Taipei: Zhonghua Shuju [Zhonghua Press], 1965.

You, Xiaoye. “The Way, Multimodality of Ritual Symbols, and Social Change: Reading Confucius’s Analects as a Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 36.4 (2006): 425–448.

Yuan, Hui, and Zong Tinghu, ed. Hanyu Xiuci Xue Shi [History of Chinese Rhetoric]. Taiyuan: Shanxi Renmin Chubanshe [Shanxi People’s Press], 1995.

Zheng, Ziyu, and Zong Tinghu, ed. Zhongguo Xiucixue Tongshi [A Complete History of Chinese Rhetoric]. 5 Vol. Changchun: Jilin Jiaoyu Chubanshe

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