Saturday, October 10, 2009

Note to students and teachers of ancient Chinese philosophy

Right books and doing proper homework is the correct approach to the study and/or teaching of ancient Chinese philosophy. While I have been saying or hinting that in this blog from time to time, it does not seem to convey the message across.

More particular, I am concerned about the various aspersions cast by some modern scholars (Chinese and Western) that raise doubts in the minds of students and teachers alike on the existence of Chinese sages like Laozi and Confucius, and/or their studies.

Take for example that of Confucius’s study or knowledge of the Zhouyi.

While both in the Analects of Confucius (Lun Yu) and the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) it has been recorded that Confucius loved his study of the Yi, some modern scholars have the shameless audacity to claim that the great sage had never read the ancient classic. Where such unsubstantiated or specious claims arise, they can mislead students or teachers of ancient Chinese philosophy who did not do their homework well. But we know that the mean men or Xiao Ren whether they are so called masters or scholars have no shame. They just want a pecuniary gain of money, fame or even both, if they can get away with their various spurious claims.

However if we do our homework well, we could substantiate that indeed, Confucius knew his Yi. (Click on Confucius and the Zhouyi link, if interested.)

Then I read of modern scholars and teachers who doubt the very existence of Laozi and Confucius.

It is funny to say the least that they believe in the existence of Zhuangzi but not that of Laozi and Confucius. Yet they read in the writings of Zhuangzi of both Laozi and Confucius who had lived in an era about two centuries earlier than him. It is also said that Zhuangzi claimed to be a follower of Laozi. (No point in bringing up again, the argument that the Chinese emperors and their ministers including grand historians a few centuries removed from both Laozi and Confucius, and those down the ages, had far greater access to historical records than any scholars.)

It seems that some scholars and teachers of ancient Chinese philosophy like to believe in what they want to believe, creating conundrums or at worst, paradoxes for themselves and their students in the studies.

Luckily, the Daoist and Confucian scholars who were top ministers in the first Han Court of Liu Bang had no such quibbles like modern scholars and teachers of ancient Chinese philosophy. These renowned Han scholars had no difficulty in accepting the existence of both Laozi and Confucius. (Read the Records of the Grand Historian)

If we want to know if certain personages of ancient history truly existed, read the right books and do our homework. To read about Confucius and his thoughts, I have always recommended the translations of the four Confucian books by James Legge.

One of the reasons for the recommendation is because Legge provided many important notes and comments of noted Chinese scholars down the ages on the sage’s teachings, as well as on the sage’s family and his numerous named students. If that is not good enough to prove the existence of Confucius for some, try reading his lengthy travels across the various ancient states in China as recorded in the Shiji. Or read the thoughts of Mencius who was said to be a student of the grandson of Confucius. (Any wonder why one has considered some Western scholars and teachers of ancient Chinese philosophy as third class scholars in an earlier post about nearly the same matter.)

While I am aware the James Legge’s translations is out of print, one is sure the established libraries in the West still stock them. Is it too difficult for teachers or professors of ancient Chinese philosophy to get access to these translations and do their own homework instead of quibbling or reliving doubts about the existence of Confucius? It could make a difference to their knowledge or improve their class of scholarship.

(The previous entry on ‘The mother of Mencius’ was written for a similar purpose.)


Anonymous said...

Please may I know what are the titles by James Legge? Am hoping to get it from Project Gutenberg ( Thank you.

Allan said...

The four Confucian books are:

The Analects, The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean (three translations combined into one book); and The Works of Mencius.

The translations that I am reading were published by Dover Publications, INC. NY in 1971 come together with the Chinese text.

Anonymous said...

Dear Allan,

I'm not well read in Chinese philosophy and the yi. Still I cannot help noticing that texts mentioning the attention Confucius gave to the Yi Jing date back long after he was passed, in a time when it was politically rather convenient. On the other hand some scholars point out that among the books that Confucius did recommend his students and followers read, the yi jing was not found. Which is somewhat odd if one is to consider some comments he allegedly made about the yi.

Yours sincerely

Allan said...

Liu Dajun, the current head of ancient Chinese philosophy, Shandong University, China said that he does not have the required knowledge to call himself a student of the Yi. Yet many others think or claim that they know the Yi rather well.

The Yi is so profound that the ancients including historiographers and the wise down the ages have had trouble understanding the prognostications or its wisdoms. (Refer to the Tso Chuan, and the Great Treatise.)

In the Analects, Confucius had referred to lines in the Yi (researchers may find the references or trails) and while in his old age, he requested for 50 more years to study the Classic so that he would come to no great faults.

Under such a scenario, do you think that a teacher even a great sage like him would request students to go read the Yi to correct their faults? Was it not proper for him to refer his students including his son to something easier like the Book of Odes, the Book of Music, etc for them to learn from there?

If we know a thing or two about the Yi, we may also understand why comments made therein by Confucius make sense in the Confucian way. Those were sagely remarks, so to speak. If Yi students or teachers cannot understand the wisdoms of his comments, in relation to Chinese civilization, they may have to dig deeper - more research and homework.

Obviously, it is so much easier making spurious claims, the bolder the better in this day and age! That is the work of the Xiao Ren, not that of the Junzi.