A Nomadic Encounter with the Analects of Confucius
Peter Zhang, Grand Valley State University, USA
reposted from China Media Research, 16(4):64-80.
Abstract: This article engages the Analects from multiple perspectives. The Deleuzean read reveals its function as a cogwheel in the feudal social machine serving the purpose of overcoding. The Flusserian read brings into relief a meta-program that works to perpetuate the feudal social order, and a functionalism that has been revived in the post-historical era. From an interological perspective, Confucian ritual formalizes and normalizes interality. In terms of rhetorical and performance studies, the Analects has the gentleman as its second persona, inculcates a role aesthetics, and models a sense of decorum. From a Daoist viewpoint, the Analects contains an autobiography that documents Confucius’s personal development as a spiritual adventurer and his becoming-Daoist later in life. From a Chan perspective, Confucius was a virtuosic performer of upaya, and the Analects feels like a precursor of the mondo or question-and-answer books that flourished in the Chan community in later historical periods. Moreover, a Chan-minded heterodox hermeneutics regarding the Analects has taken shape over time. The article ends by pointing to Ouyi’s Chan-spirited reinterpretation of the Analects as an exciting project to take on.
Keywords: Social cybernetics, meta-program, functionalism, interality, interpersonality, role aesthetics, heterodox hermeneutics
Although the Buddha expounded the Dharma in a single voice, each of all living beings attained understanding according to its kind. – JIANG Qian 江谦 (translated by Richard John Lynn)
A Taoist hat, Confucian shoes, and a Buddhist robe combine the three houses into one. (Hori, 2003, p. 555)
Three men gathered around a vat of vinegar. Each dipped a digit in and then touched it to his tongue. To Confucius, the taste was sour; to Gautama Buddha, the taste was bitter; to Laozi, the taste was sweet. All three different; all three one.
This exploration approaches the Analects of Confucius with a nomadic sensibility. “Nomadic” invokes multiple strands of philosophical currents, including the treatise on nomadology developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, the species of nomad thought Deleuze perceives in Friedrich Nietzsche, the kind of nomadism Vilém Flusser associates with post-history in The Freedom of the Migrant, the emerging philosophical paradigm that has coalesced around the term “interology,” and Daoism and Chan Buddhism, which have had a long history of co-evolution, rivalry, complementarity, interflow, and interfusion with Confucianism in China. “Nomadic” also implies a species of intellectual nomadism that is comic, sophistic, heterodox, negentropic, minor, vitalistic, multi-perspectival, post-disciplinary, and meta-philosophical in nature. “Encounter” is an allusion to Deleuze’s distinction between encounter and recognition, the former being impactful, and the latter mindless. Better still, “to encounter” (an infinitive rather than a substantive) implies an interzone, which is the locus of becoming or double becoming. The exploration proceeds with the assumption that Confucius’s corpus defies reduction to Confucianism, in the same way Plato’s corpus defies reduction to Platonism. Arguably, Confucius’s Dao ended with Confucius, since YAN Yuan, the only disciple who truly grasped it, died before him.
Given its order-conserving stance, the Analects lends itself to appropriation as an integral element of the ideological state apparatus (ISA) of the typical feudal regime. Over the ages, it has exerted a formidable amount of normative power over people from all walks of life, and has played a crucial role in shaping the Chinese national character, especially since the Han dynasty, when Confucianism came to be exclusively promoted as the official ideology, leading to a two-millennia-long cultural hegemony of Confucianism in feudal China. As such, the Analects had functioned as an indispensable cogwheel, if not a centerpiece, in the feudal social machine until its repudiation during the New Culture Movement, which started in 1915 under the banner of democracy and science. Such repudiation, however, can never be conclusive, partly because the project of modernity was essentially a stripe of overcorrection which naturally entailed counter-corrections, partly because Confucianism still fundamentally structures family life, and as such is intimately bound up with emotional development, partly because numerous phrases from the Analects have since crystallized into idioms of Chinese culture, sometimes with a skewed sense. “Unequaled stupidity” 愚不可及, for example, indicates a cunning type of wisdom in the original context. As an idiom, however, it simply means unmatchable stupidity and no longer has the original subtlety and positive connotations.
As constitutive rhetoric, the Analects, like the Yi Jing, has as its second persona the gentleman, as opposed to the petty man. Gentlemanliness is a matter of sociability 君者群也 (Qian, 2014, p. 95). In this sense, the Analects is very much about social intelligence 群商 or what Kenneth Burke calls “mature social efficacy” (1961, p. 171). It is preoccupied with the gentleman’s mental posture and social posture, which take the material form of decorous sartorial rhetoric and dignified bodily comportment. As a social agent, the gentleman leans toward gravitas rather than levitas (Watson, 2007, p. 17). Regarding the gentleman’s sociability, Confucius remarked, “The gentleman is proud but not contentious; he joins with others but is not cliquish” 群而不党 (Watson, 2007, p. 109). Contrasts between the gentleman’s way and the petty man’s way recur throughout the book. For example, “The gentleman is self-possessed but not arrogant. The petty man is arrogant but not self-possessed” (Watson, 2007, p. 93). The Chinese for self-possession is tai 泰, which, as Hexagram 11 of the Yi Jing, is translated as “Peace” or “Tranquility.” The hexagram has internal alchemical 内丹 implications. The gentleman-to-be is supposed to use others as a resource or feedback for self-cultivation. As the Master puts it, “When you see a worthy person, think about how you can equal him. When you see an unworthy person, reflect on your own conduct” (Watson, 2007, p. 34). This is cybernetic thinking applied to gentlemanly autopoiesis 成己. For Confucius, autopoiesis is the telos of learning. As he put it, “In ancient times, people learned for [improving] themselves. Nowadays, people learn for [the approbation of] others” (Ni, 2017, p. 338). To use the language of Tu Wei-ming 杜维明, learning is a matter of “learning to be fully human” (Tu, 1989, p. 94). Autopoiesis should be the point of studying the Analects as well. The Confucian art of self-fashioning is not to be underestimated. The flip side of it is Confucian statecraft. Both sides are supposed to be functions of the Dao. Yet statecraft always risks devolving into mere functionalism.
The Analects implies a socio-cybernetic system of which it is a functional element. The point of the system is to use the combined potency of ethical codes and social feedback to shape people’s psyche and comportment and help conserve the feudal social order. By articulating the gentleman’s way in contradistinction from the petty man’s way, Confucius in effect acted as a meta-programmer for the feudal social system, doing so in a way that allows the system to perpetuate itself regardless of the comings and goings of dynasties. Put otherwise, he set up the gentleman as an exemplary form of subjectivity, a model for right feeling, thinking, speaking, acting, living, relating, serving, and governing. An entire techne of the self was invented, encompassing such arts as ritual performance (Confucianism entails a ritualization of the quotidian), music, (demilitarized, ritualized) archery, charioteering, writing, and arithmetic. The gentleman is expected to be a living example of such core values as humaneness, righteousness, ritual propriety, wisdom, trustworthiness, loyalty, reciprocity, and uprightness 直, all of which point in the direction of sociality and relationality. Both are special senses of interality 间性. In a nutshell, the gentleman is simply one who emanates social, relational virtuosity, one who embodies and enacts De or virtue and virtuosity in a complex, evolving social field. Thus, a gentlemanly paideia is arguably an apprenticeship in interality. It is worth mentioning that humaneness 仁 is the way of the Creative 乾 (Hexagram 1 of the Yi Jing) whereas reciprocity 恕 is the way of the Receptive 坤 (Hexagram 2) (Zhu, 1983, p. 133). The Chinese character for humaneness shows a human being and the number two, indicating how people should interact. To be human(e) is to be linguistic and social. Humaneness is a matter of optimal interpersonality 面具间性, or a matter of throughness (i.e., unblockedness, Durchkeit) 通in the social field. The state of throughness is well captured by Peace 泰 (Hexagram 11). The Well 井 (Hexagram 48) provides the means to distinguish what righteousness义 really is (Lynn, 1994, p. 89). Ritual propriety 礼 is the way of Modesty 谦 (Hexagram 15) and Treading [Conduct] 履 (Hexagram 10). Trustworthiness 信 is the way of Inner Truth 中孚 (Hexagram 61). Contemplating these hexagrams is a good way of deepening one’s understanding of the corresponding Confucian values. Confucius himself was said to be fond of playing with and contemplating the Yi Jing.
When YAN Yuan asked about humaneness, Confucius said, “To [overcome] the self and [restore] ritual is to be humane. For one day [overcome] the self and [restore] ritual, and the whole world will become humane” (cf. Watson, 2007, p. 80). ZHU Xi 朱熹 pointed out, “To overcome the self and restore ritual is the way of the Creative” (Zhu, 1983, p. 133). The Creative is a pure yang hexagram. The implication is that all private intentions, represented by yin lines, have been overcome. Only public virtue, represented by yang lines, is left. ZHU Xi’s point changes the meaning of one of the most famous lines in the Yi Jing: “The action of Heaven is strong and dynamic. In the same manner, the [gentleman] never ceases to strengthen himself” (Lynn, 1994, p. 130). To strengthen oneself means to overcome one’s private self and become a virtuosic actor on the public stage, which is governed by ritual. In light of the above train of thought, Tu Wei-ming’s point that ritual “can be conceived as a process of humanization” makes total sense (Tu, 1989, p. 53). To be humanized through ritual is to be fully fashioned for a pre-scripted, choreographed, programmed life. The Flusserian equivalent for humanization is “Menschwerdung,” which literally means “man becoming,” but Flusser was more interested in a project orientation than a subject orientation. Worthy Confucians should be the same. Confucius’s point curiously calls to mind Balinese culture as presented by Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist, who characterized the culture in terms of dramatism. As he put it, “there is in Bali a persistent and systematic attempt to stylize all aspects of personal expression to the point where anything idiosyncratic… is muted in favor of [the individual’s] assigned place in the continuing and, it is thought, never-changing pageant that is Balinese life” (Geertz, 1983, p. 62). According to his own account, Ouyi Zhixu 蕅益智旭, one of the four eminent monks of the late-Ming dynasty, got stuck on the expression “the whole world will become humane” and was unable to think of anything else for three days and nights. Finally, he experienced a mental opening and suddenly understood the psychology of Confucius (Cleary, 2005, p. 98).
A few words on cybernetics are in order here. The idea of cybernetics comes from navigation. Its Greek origin is “kybernein,” which means “to steer or control a ship.” For a land-dwelling people, charioteering 御 would be the closest equivalent. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese word for charioteering has the derivative sense of “to govern, to control.” Charioteering is thus a cybernetic art. The following words by Confucius may mean more than what authoritative interpreters like ZHU Xi take it to mean: “What should I specialize in? Should I specialize in charioteering? Should I specialize in archery? I think I’ll specialize in charioteering” (Watson, 2007, p. 60). Typically, this is read as a gesture of modesty on the part of Confucius, as charioteering was seen as the lowest of the six arts, perhaps because its use was apparently more practical than symbolic. It is plausible, however, to see Confucius as seizing the moment, as he often did, to insinuate something to his disciples, so they could see that metaphorically charioteering was probably aligned with the worldly telos of the six arts the best. As with a chariot, so with a country. As with horses, so with people. Charioteering involves intuiting the nature, psychology, individuality, stamina, and rhythm of horses, and redirecting waywardness and recalcitrance in a productive fashion. Chariot, charioteer, and horses as an assemblage or wheeled apparatus make for a cyborg experience. The charioteer needs to be coordinated in body and mind, and be privy to the ritualistic, mannerist, formalist dimension of charioteering, besides the functional one. Art at its best offers a model for life. Like Oscar Wilde said, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Confucius was no stranger to this realization. In a sense, Victor Turner’s title, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, makes a perfect footnote to Confucianism. As humanity turns from homo faber into homo ludens in the postindustrial age, the heuristic value of Confucian ritualism is worth revisiting in a new light. As a gentlemanly art, charioteering transforms a practicality into a stylistically decorous performance, puts a mundane activity in a ritual frame, thus making the secular sacred. Confucianism 儒道 as a gentlemanly praxis is as much about “how” as it is about “what.” Along with the other arts, charioteering prepares the gentleman for the higher art of governance. Furthermore, the Dao is embedded in the arts. Wandering in the arts 游于艺 is the gentleman’s way of tempering his disposition, fashioning his self, and prehending the Dao. The arts nurture one’s interiority and exteriority alike.
One has to acknowledge, however, that the idealist personality Confucius sought to generate through his educational program could only be accomplished, if at all, by a select few, even though allegedly seventy-two disciples of his were well-versed in all six arts. Master ZENG said, “The gentleman’s thoughts do not extend beyond the position that he holds” (Watson, 2007, p. 100). Confucius said something very similar in the same context: “He who holds no official position discusses no official policies” (Leys, 1997, p. 70). Master ZENG’s words not only call to mind what MAO Zedong labeled as departmentalism 本位主义, but also lend themselves to being associated with the kind of functionalism that bothered Flusser and that plagues the post-industrial society. The following words by Flusser (2013) are worth contemplating:
The counter-revolution of “chips” has a Confucian character. It seeks to transform society into a mosaic with its ideographic programs, to be programmed by strategies of the game “go.” It seeks to transform man into a competent functionary and society into an administrative society. It seeks to Mandarinize society. (p. 80)
Part of the implication is that the gentleman produced by the Confucian educational program comes off as a competent functionary. One cannot help wondering whether Confucius’s ideal society would give off too much of a functionalist aura, and to what extent the Confucian gentleman would be different from a perfectly programmed robot that neither exceeds nor falls short of expectations but abides by the doctrine of the mean 中庸 at all times. The doctrine of the mean, by the way, is the way of Limitation 节, Hexagram 60 of the Yi Jing. But this thought does not feel right and has to be falsified. There is no shortage of spiritual resources in Chinese culture with which to perform the falsification. The same idea can also be received in a totally positive light. For one thing, the Yi Jing is all about “not extending one’s thoughts beyond the position one holds.” The idea is to be present-minded, and to modulate one’s mental and social posture in accordance with the haecceity (i.e., thisness) of one’s position. This thread needs to be suspended for now. Insofar as the meta-message of the Analects is programming, perhaps it is the right methodological guidebook for the post-historical era, which is an era of apparatuses. Maybe it has much to offer to the field of artificial intelligence, which is predicated upon programmatic thinking. Locating zhong or the mean under all circumstances may well be the center of attention. If the Analects offers a program, it does so in a holographic, mosaic-like way – holographic in the sense that each fragment implies the whole as much as the whole comprises all of the fragments. Each book has its own destiny. The Analects seems to have gained a new relevance in the post-historical era, primarily at a meta-level.
A problem the Deleuzean-minded may have with the Analects is that it is of a piece with the feudal state apparatus, rather than nomad war machines, and that it expresses a conservative, sedentary, patriarchal, and conformist socio-political stance – conformist in the sense that it establishes a code and prescribes a model, however desirable, whereas Deleuze advocates decodification and minorization. A line by Master YOU indicates Confucians’ disapproval of one who goes against his superiors or plots rebellion (Watson, 2007, p. 16). For Deleuze, to become minor precisely means to not have a model, to banish model and copy alike and affirm the power of the simulacrum. For the Deleuzean-minded, the Analects may well come off as an ethical straitjacket. Anybody who wants to reconcile Confucianism and Deleuzean ethics would have to negotiate the tension. Arguably, Confucius himself resolved the issue at the age of seventy, when he acquired the Dao. There is something entropic about Confucianism, for the simple reason that it precludes and blocks other modes of becoming. Insofar as it preempts the creative irruption of the new, hyper-orderliness (i.e., lack of negentropy) is as desirable as loss of order (i.e., entropy). No matter to what extent it was attributable to Confucianism, Chinese society during the feudal period did seem to have a super-stable structure, periodic dynastic changes notwithstanding. Over and over again, it had to resort to deeply destructive turmoil to unleash vitality. It feels as though Chinese people’s destiny was prescribed in the culture’s meta-program, the gist of which is contained within the Analects. Ba Jin’s Torrents Trilogy bearing the titles The Family, Spring, and Autumn, respectively, is a literary effort to address the tension between the obligation to conserve and sacrifice for the stagnant feudal subjectivity and the desire to embrace the call of the new. The Analects embodies Confucius’s will to order. It is reasonable to believe that Confucius’s ideal was for the meta-program of Chinese culture contained therein to be in alignment with the cosmic program contained in the Yi Jing.
The Confucian attitude is an attitude of decorum, whereas the Deleuzean attitude is one of life experimentation. A tangible outcome of the former is a code-abiding persona, whereas a tangible outcome of the latter is one who practices, say, bodily nonsense, which is subversive and liberatory in nature. In his illness, Zengzi touched upon three aspects of this persona:
[F]rom every attitude, every gesture that he employs [the gentleman] must remove all trace of violence or arrogance; every look that he composes in his face must betoken good faith; from every word that he utters, from every intonation, he must remove all trace of coarseness and impropriety. (Waley, 1938, p. 133)
While Confucians might say the code-abiding persona effects a kind of energy work since it channelizes vitality and reduces inner and social friction, Deleuzeans would say it imprisons vitality, which needs to be set free through schizoanalysis. Mahayana Buddhists would say, per the logic of the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, that there is neither bondage nor deliverance 无缚无脱 (double negation as affirmation). Confucianism is to Deleuzeanism as classicism is to expressionism. These are two divergent ways of manifesting élan vital. The difference dissolves at the level of the Dao. The best way to elude the constraint of Confucianism is to become an authentic Confucian, or to reach the point where Confucianism becomes indistinguishable from Deleuzeanism. That was Confucius’s spiritual realm when he reached the age of seventy. Prior to reaching that point, however, a difference persists between a scripted, tense life on the one hand and a spontaneous, intense life on the other.
It is worth pointing out that Confucius’s notion of harmony across difference 和而不同, which is the gentleman’s way, is perfectly in line with the Bergsonian-Deleuzean notion of élan vital as movement of differentiation, which points in the direction of “being different for” 相异相成. Confucius and Deleuze both capture the ecological sensibility. The gentleman’s way in this sense is in accord with the Dao of nature. The Dao, as the Jin dynasty thinker SUN Chuo 孙绰 points out, is what makes things different 异物者也. An expression largely synonymous with “harmony across difference” can be found in the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch as well: “Living things all have their own ways and therefore they do not hinder or afflict each other” (translated by Richard John Lynn). Sameness without harmony 同而不和, which is the petty man’s way, is a matter of course, and a simple ecological truth. It is well captured by Kui 睽 (Opposition; Thomas Cleary also translates it as “Disharmony”), Hexagram 38 of the Yi Jing, although it is true that the book tends to diagram and approach situations from the gentleman’s perspective. By the same token, it goes against the Dao of nature to want to have a model. The true gentleman is singular, and singularity is supposed to be a pluralist notion. What nature sorts out naturally, Confucians seek to accomplish through ritual. As Master YOU said, “In the usages of ritual it is harmony that is prized” (Waley, 1938, p. 86). Put otherwise, Confucians resort to ritual to regulate, lubricate, or simply Confucianize sociality or interality. Daoists, by contrast, trust in noninterference and tend to leave people and things alone. To use an expression attributed to Laozi by his disciple Wenzi 文子, sages “go by the mutual affirmation of beings” 因物之相然 (Cleary, 2003, p. 159). The wording, “mutual affirmation,” may well be rendered as “mutual-so-ness,” which immediately calls to mind the concept of interality. In interpreting the second line of the Receptive (Hexagram 2 of the Yi Jing), which captures the Daoist ethos well, WANG Bi pointed out, “he allows things their natural course, so they produce themselves, and he does not try to improve upon and manage them” (Lynn, 1994, p. 146).
The association between the typical Confucian and a propriety-exemplifying persona (literally, a mask) is no random thought. Somebody who is authentically Chinese is supposed to have a Buddhist mind, Daoist bones, and a Confucian appearance 儒为表. Unlike Platonists, Confucians hold a nondualistic view of appearance and essence, form and substance. As Zigong said, “Refined form is substance, and substance is refined form. Strip the hide of a tiger or a panther of its [patterned fur], and it is no different from that of a dog or a goat” (cf. Ni, 2017, p. 286; Watson, 2007, p. 82). A gentleman stripped of his refined mannerism and dignified comportment is no longer a gentleman. Zigong’s words are really an elaboration of Grace 贲, Hexagram 22 of the Yi Jing. “Refined form is substance” implies that ritual and music are not empty decorations at all. The opportune-middle-inclined Confucius said, “Refinement and solid qualities beautifully balanced – then you have the gentleman” (Watson, 2007, p. 44). This is a far cry from the Daoist ethos, according to which “the sage wears coarse woolen cloth but harbors jade in his bosom,” as the Dao De Jing has it (Lynn, 1999, p. 178). For Neo-Confucians, the capacity to intuit zhong中or the opportune middle, which is a sense of interality, in any given case is a matter of gongfu. Deleuze and Guattari would call it “a qualitative calculus of the optimum” (1987, pp. 364-365). The notion of zhong enriches and Confucianizes the concept of interality. It is well beyond the scope of this article to demonstrate how so. The Confucian view expressed by Zigong is perfectly in line with that of Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, who reminds us that we become who we are through the performance of recognizable roles, and that we should be identified accordingly. There is such a thing called “a pious fraud” (Kroeber, 1952, p. 311). When Zixia asked about filial devotion, Confucius said, “The difficult part is the facial expression” (Watson, 2007, p. 21). The countenance or faciality is of the essence. One might detect a nuanced distinction and argue that Goffman is more inclined toward “outside in” whereas Confucians put a bit more emphasis on “inside out,” as the Confucian value of cheng 诚 (Tu Wei-ming translates it as authenticity, sincerity) indicates. The hexagram that corresponds to cheng is Innocence 无妄 (Hexagram 25 of the Yi Jing, translated as “No Errancy” by Richard John Lynn). Confucians believe that in the world, cheng is the only means to throughness.
Indeed, as far as communication (including ritual performance) is concerned, Confucians are neither realists, nor nominalists, but pragmatists or prudent rhetoricians. When Zilu asked Confucius what he would prioritize in governing a country, the Master’s answer was the rectification of names 正名. He found it boorish 野 to not care about it. The reasoning unfolded link by link:
If names are not rectified, then speech cannot be smooth. If speech is not smooth, then undertakings will not succeed. If undertakings do not succeed, then ritual propriety and music will not flourish. If ritual propriety and music do not flourish, then punishments and penalties will not be justly administered. And if punishments and penalties are not justly administered, then the common people will not know where to place their hands and feet. Therefore, when the gentleman names a thing, that naming can be conveyed in speech, and if it is conveyed in speech, then it can surely be put into action. When the gentleman speaks, there is nothing careless in the way he does so. (cf. Watson, 2007, pp. 88-89; Ni, 2017, p. 301)
Incidentally, the anadiplosis 顶针 used here is quite common in ancient Chinese texts, whereas the “if… then…” formulations are typical of functionalism. Put in a nutshell, the form of communication (in a broad, robust sense) in-forms, models, and gives order to life and society. In a Confucian world, formal propriety is supposed to manifest itself in all spheres and at all levels. In a sense, ritual and music are simply justice enacted in a different medium, and are translatable into decorous social action. Hence the earlier association between Confucianism and classicism. This explains Confucius’s obsession with the Shao 韶, a piece of music that embodies ultimate good and beauty (3.25). When he heard it in Qi, “for three months he couldn’t notice the taste of meat” (Ni, 2017, p. 198). Feels like Confucius had an extended spiritual communion with Emperor Shun, and got his mind seal 心印 through the medium of the Shao. This is where Confucius’s sensibility curiously calls to mind that of Plato, whose philosophical edifice privileges Ideal Forms. Both of them had an interest in regulating life with form. To come back to the topic of communication, it is notable that the Analects ends on a note about ritual and words: “If you do not understand ritual, you will have nowhere to take your stand. If you do not understand words, you will have no way to know people” (Watson, 2007, p. 142). To know people was how Confucius defined wisdom for FAN Chi (Ni, 2017, p. 296).
The Analects is partly made up of dialogues between Confucius and his disciples. Unlike Flusserian dialogue, which is supposed to be synthesis-inducing, negentropic, and mutually informative, Confucian dialogue is largely education-oriented. Confucius’s responses to his disciples were constitutive, heuristic, instructive, corrective, well-calibrated, addressee-specific, kairotically sensitive, upaya-like, and performative – performative in the sense that they put responsive virtuosity on display. To prehend Confucius’s message and absorb its full impact, the reader had better assume the persona (i.e., put on the mask) of the disciple. Once when Confucius praised YAN Yuan alone, Zilu, who was conceited about his bravery, said, “If you, Master, were directing the Three Armies, who would you take with you?” Confucius replied, “Someone who faces a tiger bare-handed or wades the Yellow River, going to his death with no regrets – I wouldn’t take anyone like that. If I must answer, then I’d take someone who directs affairs in a mood of apprehension, who plans carefully and thereby succeeds” (Watson, 2007, pp. 48-49). The reply was clearly intended as a snub to Zilu, through which Confucius sought not only to untangle Zilu from his bravery, which had become a hindrance, but also to teach him something essential about directing an army. Besides performing the Dao of educational rhetoric, Confucius also theorized it once in a while. He was recorded as saying, “To persons of more than middling capability, you can talk of higher matters. To persons of less than middling capability, you cannot talk of such matters” (Watson, 2007, p. 45). Confucius’s thinking here coincides with that of Huineng, the Sixth Chan Patriarch. The point is that what to teach and what expedient means to use should be based on the disciple’s gift and receptivity. On another occasion, Confucius said, “If it’s someone you ought to speak to and you fail to speak, you waste a person. If it’s someone you ought not to speak to and you speak, you waste words. The wise man doesn’t waste people and doesn’t waste words either” (Watson, 2007, p. 107). “Wise” and “rhetorical-minded” are synonymous here. Huineng once said, “If you want to teach others, you must have expedient means yourself” (McRae, 2000, p. 49). Confucius’s educational praxis was performative, in the sense that he not only employed expedient means but also modeled a Confucian way of employing expedient means in teaching. YAN Yuan once exclaimed appreciatively, “Our Master – step by step, how skillfully he leads others along” (Watson, 2007, p. 61).
When asked about something, Confucius never gave a generic, universal answer. Rather, he would offer a personalized response in accordance with his interlocutor’s potentials and weaknesses so as to help him get closer to virtue and virtuosity. For the same question, each time his answer would be different depending on who asked it. His addressee-specific interpretations of humaneness illustrate the point well. To the talkative and impetuous SIMA Niu, Confucius said, “The humane person is cautious about how he speaks of [humanness]” (Watson, 2007, p. 80). According to LÜ Dalin 吕大临, Zigong aspired after humaneness but only pursued the high and far, not knowing the method (Zhu, 1983, p. 92). Confucius taught him, “The humane person wants standing, and so he helps others to gain standing. He wants achievement, and so he helps others to achieve. To know how to proceed on the analogy of what is close at hand – this can be called the humane approach” (Watson, 2007, p. 46). When Zizhang asked about humaneness, Confucius, targeting Zizhang’s shortcomings, emphasized five things to practice: “Be courteous, and you avoid disrespect. Be tolerant, and you win over the multitude. Be trustworthy, and you are trusted by others. Be diligent, and your work will go well. Be kind, and you will be able to employ others” (Watson, 2007, p. 121). French philosopher and sinologist François Jullien made a similar observation about Confucius’s style of teaching: Confucius “was content with prompting [his disciples], from one day to the next, by means of brief indications given to each one according to his situation, as so many finishing touches, or pushes on the spade, so as to allow wisdom to ripen within them” (Jullien, 2011, p. 152). The Master never offered an abstract definition of humaneness in isolation from specific people and concrete circumstances. In a chapter on indirectness, Jullien (2020) elaborated on Confucius’s style of teaching further:
[A] few words are able to produce a jolt so as to aid, or rather encourage, the other to find a way out of the position in which he has bogged himself down. But this given helping hand is also a mode of attack: it is about breaking down his resistance to being awakened (to wisdom)... This word is strategic: the value of the argument lies in the discountenancing and unblocking that it effects, by intervening in time, in situ – consequently, in its force of impact, and not in its expression… the Analects of Confucius are hardly more than platitudes: their value lies simply in the way this oblique strategy unsettles the interlocutor… the masters of chan (zen) were the inheritors of it as they systematized the process. (p. 49)
The verb “unsettle” has nomadic connotations and implies a peculiar kind of nomadism: nomadism as a matter of becoming fully human. As St. Jerome has it, “Good, better, best. Never let it rest.” Better still, the best is the enemy of the better.
Zixia preferred the company of those worthier than him, whereas Zigong had the opposite preference. When Zigong asked how to practice humaneness, Confucius targeted his lack of prudence by saying, “A craftsman who wants to do his job well must first sharpen his tools. Whatever country you are in, be of service to the high officials who are worthy and become friends with the men of station who are humane” (Watson, 2007, p. 107). The point is that inhabiting the zone of proximity co-created with a humane person enhances one’s own humaneness, and that whom to befriend bears upon one’s improvement. Therefore, one needs to be selective about interpersonality (a special sense of interality) as it is ethically consequential. The Yi Jing teaches us that proximity without getting along well is inauspicious. Prudence is of the essence. Confucius’s words are consistent with a point made by Master ZENG: “The gentleman uses the arts in acquiring friends and uses friends in helping him to become humane” (Watson, 2007, p. 85). Early on in the book, Confucius was recorded as saying, “have no friends who are not your equal” (Watson, 2007, p. 17). These mutually reinforcing ideas are highly relevant in our era, when many people sacrifice the quality of interality for mere quantity. The following words by Confucius accurately depict the way many people spend their time on social media: “Groups gathered together all day, not a word touching what is right” (Watson, 2007, p. 108).
When Duke Jing of Qi asked him about government, Confucius’s reply, rendered literally, was: “Ruler, ruler; subject, subject; father, father; son, son.” Taken out of context, this line can be interpreted as: “Ruler the ruler, subject the subject, father the father, son the son. The emphasis is on treating people in such a way as befits their status. In context, Watson’s interpretation makes more sense: “Let the ruler be a ruler; the subject, a subject; the father, a father; the son, a son” (Watson, 2007, p. 82). The emphasis is on people acting in such a way as befits their status, which is to be performatively realized. The line implies a role ethics. Women, occupying the position of the third persona as far as government is concerned, are entirely absent in the picture. Confucius did comment on women, but disapprovingly: “Women and petty persons are the hardest to look after. Treat them in a friendly manner, and they become impertinent; keep them at a distance, and they take offense” (Watson, 2007, p. 125). Earlier in the book, Confucius articulated to Duke Ding the Dao of ruler-minister relationality: “The ruler should treat his ministers in accordance with ritual. The ministers should serve the ruler with loyalty” (Watson, 2007, p. 29). In the Confucian imagination, an orderly, harmonious feudal society is predicated upon ritualistically formalized and normalized interalities, or upon all parties staying true to their roles in the relational field. Put otherwise, it is predicated upon a role aesthetics (a matter of the beautiful or “how”) and a role ethics (a matter of the good). The ruler is supposed to be humane in mind and decorous in attitude, the minister loyal, reverent, and worthy, the father kind, and the son filially pious.
The difference between Confucius and Confucians is that Confucius earned and attained his Way whereas Confucians are put in a position of acquiring his Way as much as their dispositions afford such acquisition. Put differently, Confucius’s life was the locus of genesis of his Way, which then became the model. With rare exceptions, what his followers could achieve was almost necessarily a less-than-perfect copy. Some degree of entropy or degradation was almost inevitable. As Jullien points out, xue 学 (study-imitation), the first character of the Analects, expresses the importance of walking in the steps of one’s masters (Jullien, 2020, p. 196). Confucius’s political project in itself was about recovering and conserving the Way of the bygone Zhou Dynasty. Entropy was the theme of the larger narrative. Over the course of history, the vast majority of Confucians have failed to embody the ideal of “sageliness within and kingliness without” 内圣外王. Propriety easily flips into conformism, primness, empty, formulaic, overelaborate formalities, and redundant subjectivities. Aiming at gentlemanliness, many turned out to be no more than gentleman-like, if not pseudo-gentlemen. Being right in the middle, neither tilting nor leaning, neither exceeding nor falling short, can become a monotonous, pretentious, mediocre social posture despised by Nietzsche and Deleuze. Confucius himself was anything but a narrowly conceived Confucian. Arguably, his life, which felt like a spiritual adventure, was devoted to the ultimate goal of becoming-Daoist, as indicated by his autobiography in miniature:
At fifteen I set my mind on learning; by thirty I had found my footing; at forty I was free of perplexities; by fifty I understood the mandate of Heaven; by sixty my ear was attuned; by seventy I could follow my heart’s desires without overstepping the line. (cf. Watson, 2007, p. 20; Leys, 1997, p. 6)
It seems that Confucius’s spiritual life diverged in a Daoist direction when he was around fifty. By seventy, he had reached the spiritual realm of “free and easy wandering” 逍遥游 promoted by Zhuangzi. All is to suggest that there is such a thing called Confucianism despite Confucius. To couch it in the language of Chan, the Analects is in the main a collection of expedient means 方便 Confucius improvised on various occasions to try to point to something that was ineffable or beyond words. Absent reaching Confucius’s spiritual realm, his disciples couldn't really receive his mind seal as much as the Master wanted to give it to them. YAN Yuan was an exception, though.
As indicated earlier, Confucianism in a sense is largely a matter of how to get things done. The same can be said of Daoism, which is of the belief that, if left alone, the body-mind will shake off cultural conditioning, thereby regaining its natural virtue and virtuosity. The Confucian attitude is ambivalent in this regard. On the one hand, Confucians tend not to leave people’s natural propensity alone. There was something biopolitical and disciplinary about Confucius’s sense of ritual propriety, which informed, among other things, the art of archery as well. Confucius was recorded as saying in Zhong Yong (translated as Centrality and Commonality by Tu Wei-ming), “There is something about archery that resembles the way of the gentleman. When the archer misses the target, he turns around and seeks for the cause in himself” (14.2). Mencius said something almost identical. The only difference is that he substituted the humane person for the gentleman. The difference between the two is merely nominal. The Chinese character for archery 射 is an ideogram made up of two parts. The left side stands for a body 身 and the right side means an arrow 矢. Missing the mark is to be used as feedback to correct one’s own posture, breath, and so on. Ritual archery is a means of helping the practitioner to become a corrected self, so to speak. The assumption is that the practitioner is either in the wrong by default or error-prone. Disciplined practice is key to Confucian ritual propriety and the pursuit of the six arts. It is viewed as what releases the unskilled body into virtuosic performance. Freedom is taken to be the progeny, rather than the opposite or nemesis, of discipline. Daoists tend to believe that fixed disciplines run the risk of stifling creativity in the absence of countervailing commitments to spontaneity or naturalness and the valorization of improvisation. On the other hand, Confucius said, “The gentleman is not a utensil” (Watson, 2007, p. 21). The gentleman wanders in the arts for the sake of self-cultivation, rather than to become a specialist, say, in archery. Unlike a utensil that is suitable for some uses but not others, the gentleman or virtuous and virtuosic person is not made for one talent or skill only. In developing and actualizing particular potentials, he also retains a maximum amount of virtuality. This understanding is perfectly in line with the Daoist sensibility. The Dao, virtue, virtuosity, and virtuality are pursued by Confucians and Daoists alike. They pursue the pursuit differently, though. The method or style is the message. A similar understanding was articulated by Huineng: “the pure dharmakaya is your nature, the perfect and complete sambhogakaya is your wisdom, and the thousand billion nirmanakayas 千百亿化身 are your practices 汝之行也” (McRae, 2000, p. 77). To risk being simplistic, one whose virtue is complete is capable of assuming a thousand billion transformation-bodies or guises in response to the matter at hand. The point is that Chan Buddhists thoroughly understand and have their own way of saying “The gentleman is not a utensil.”
Speaking of Chan, among Confucius’s disciples, YAN Yuan’s sensibility resembled that of the Chan practitioner the most. When he told Confucius that he was able to “sit down and forget everything” 坐忘, he was veritably making a claim about the capacity to reach samadhi 定 (Watson, 1968, p. 90). To risk being anachronistic, the following words by Confucius indicate that YAN Yuan’s life exemplified what is known in the Chan community as Chan poverty 禅贫: “One container of rice, one dipperful of drink, living in a back alley – others couldn’t have endured the gloom of it, but he never let it affect his [joy]” (Watson, 2007, p. 43). The wording immediately calls to mind the image of an ambulant monk, who has very few possessions, besides a fervent, joyous mind. In a different context, Confucius said, “The gentleman schemes for the Way; he does not scheme for food…. [T]he gentleman worries about the Way; he does not worry about poverty” (Watson, 2007, p. 110). These words reinforce what he said about YAN Yuan and capture the Chan ethos well. When Zixia asked about government, Confucius said, “Don’t try to hurry things; [ignore] petty gain. Try to hurry, and you accomplish nothing. Go after petty gain, and the big undertakings won’t [come to fruition]” (Watson, 2007, p. 91). In his Chan-minded interpretation of the Analects, Ouyi said that those who practice mind watching 观心 should live by these words as well (Ouyi, 2012, p. 124). For Chan practitioners, seeing one’s true nature and becoming-Buddha is the big undertaking, which can be hindered if one pursues petty gain. The process cannot be precipitated, as it takes time to eliminate vasanas (i.e., habitual dispositions) 习气. As a line from the Book of Songs invoked by Zigong has it: “Delicately fashioned is my lord, as thing cut, as thing filed, as thing chiselled, as thing polished” (Waley, 1937, p. 46). Zigong interprets it as describing the pains the gentleman takes to improve his character (Waley, 1938, p. 87). Victor Sogen Hori points out, “In a monastery, the phrase takes on a social aspect: the monks are like stones rubbing against each other, mutually polishing each other” (Hori, 2003, p. 700). Indeed, Chan practitioners believe that the cutting, filing, chiseling, and polishing had better be done among others and within the realm of human affairs. It is not a matter of acquisition but a matter of elimination.
When Confucius heard the Shao, the music put him in the equivalent of a Chan state, i.e., a state of total concentration, so much so that nothing else could catch his attention, including the taste of meat. Chan practitioners would say, Confucius’s samadhi gongfu 禅定功夫 was incredibly deep, as that state of mind lasted for three months. One could also say that the taste of the Shao was to Confucius as the taste of Chan is to the Chan practitioner. For one who sympathizes (literally, vibrates) with the Shao, “Chan and the Shao are of the same flavor” 禅韶一味 must be a far more intense formulation than “Chan and tea are of the same flavor.” On one occasion, Confucius said: “Consider a man who can recite the three hundred [Songs]; you give him an official post, but he is not up to the task; you send him abroad on a diplomatic mission, but he [can’t give his answers unassisted]. What is the use of all his vast learning?” (Leys, 1997, p. 61). JIANG Qian pointed out that when it came to Buddhist sutras, concentrating on one would be enough as long as one knew how to apply it (Ouyi, 2012, p. 121). Chan reasoning emphasizes “turning one inch of iron into a lethal weapon” 以寸铁杀人. Less is more. Therefore, one should avoid cluttering one’s mind 莫杂用心. It is partly a matter of saving one’s mental energy and enhancing one’s efficacy. On another occasion, Confucius said, “The gentleman never departs from humaneness even for the space of a meal – in confusion and distress he holds fast to it; stumbling, faltering, he holds fast to it” (Watson, 2007, p. 32). Similarly, the Chan practitioner is expected to never depart from the huatou 话头 or koan under contemplation. Concentration is of the essence.
Regarding Confucius’s point that the wise man finds pleasure in water and that the humane man finds pleasure in mountains, Jullien (2018) elaborated:
The “wise man” likes water because his intelligence is supple and fluid, like water itself, whereas the “[humane] man” likes mountains because he is firm and constant, like the mountains themselves. This, Confucius goes on to say, is why the wise man is drawn to “motion” and the [humane] man to “calm.” Alternatively, this is why the wise man tends toward joy (in the moment): water is endlessly renewing itself as it follows its course. The [humane] man, meanwhile, tends toward longevity: the mountain, ever stable, is changeless. (p. 22)
The Chan equivalents for Confucian wisdom and humaneness are prajna and samadhi, respectively. These are flip sides of the same coin. There is no duality in between. The water and mountains images immediately call to mind the Abysmal 坎 (Water, Hexagram 29 of the Yi Jing) and Keeping Still 艮 (Mountain, Hexagram 52). The yang line in the middle of the Water trigram is associated with mystery. The Great Learning puts a lot of emphasis on samadhi and thus has much to do with Keeping Still (the hexagram). While Confucius seemed to take the distinction between the humane and the wise seriously, the Chan practitioner holds a nondualistic view of samadhi and prajna, and thus is supposed to be capable of both calm and motion, longevity and joy. One thing for which this article deserves credit is that it creates an opening for interpreting the Analects through the lens of the Yi Jing. The possibility was already implied by ZHU Xi’s annotations.
Fragments from the Analects acquire a new potency once they are taken up by a Chan assemblage. Confucius’s words, “I’m not concealing anything from you,” triggered an awakening in HUANG Tingjian 黄庭坚, the Song dynasty literatus, when Huitang Zuxin 晦堂祖心 uttered them on the right occasion. For the Chan-minded, “That which passes on is just like this [river], unceasing day or night!” is simply Confucius’s way of talking about impermanence 性空. Confucius’s non-corpse-like sleeping posture qins寝不尸 is also a standard practice in the Chan community, which calls it “the auspicious sleeping posture” 吉祥卧. From a Chan perspective, the fact that “Ziwen, the prime minister of Chu, served three times as prime minister but showed no sign of delight, and three times was dismissed from the post but showed no sign of resentment” indicated that he had reached the spiritual realm of non-attachment (Watson, 2007, p. 38). When Confucius wanted to settle among the nine barbarian tribes of the East, someone asked, “It is wild in those parts. How would you cope?” Confucius responded, “How could it be wild, once a gentleman has settled there?” (Leys, 1997, p. 41). The response sounds like the following words of the Buddha as invoked by Huineng: “always in joyful repose wherever one is” (McRae, 2000, p. 52). For those of a Chan persuasion, the external environment is a function of the mind. Confucius seemed to be on the same page, at least in this instance. Dozens of expressions from the Analects have been used by the Chan community as capping phrases for koan practice, as Hori’s book, Zen Sand, shows. There is no reason why a Chan master cannot use select phrases from the Analects as huatou or koan for his disciples to contemplate. Approaching the Analects from a Chan perspective is not a new idea. ZHANG Jiucheng 张九成, the Song dynasty politician and scholar, for example, wrote a hundred Chan-minded poems on the Analects. Over time, a heterodox hermeneutics regarding the Analects has taken shape. To dismiss it as a pure simulacrum is to commit a stripe of philistinism. Unorthodox, nomadic interpretations enrich the pool of spiritual resources and should be accepted comically, to say the least. A kind of hybrid energy is released when the Analects is read from a Chan perspective. Without changing a single word, one transforms the book into an entirely new text. What one brings to it makes all the difference. It is culturally productive to work against the petrified narrow seriousness of orthodox Confucianism and interpretively transfigure the Analects. In this sense, Ouyi’s Chan-minded reinterpretation of the Analects is a rare gem of a book and deserves a separate study in its own right. So it is with the interpretation offered by LIU Yuan 刘沅, the Qing dynasty scholar in whose works the three schools of thought are interfused.
The word “nomadic” has been metaphorized to indicate a vitalistic, vigorously pluralistic ethical stance. Compared to the overcoding Confucianism, Deleuzeanism is more interested in lines of flight and decoded flows. As such, it is nomadic in spirit. Compared to the world-engaging Confucianism, the world-renouncing, unclamping Chan Buddhism is nomadic in attitude. Compared to the script-abiding, persona-assuming Confucianism, Daoism treasures spontaneity and naturalness far more. As such, it is nomadic in style. Compared to the interality-regulating Confucianism, interology is more interested in the liminal, transformative, open-ended nature of interality. As such, it is nomadic in disposition. Compared to Confucian conformism, which is invested in staying within the bounds of the socio-cybernetic program, the negentropic-minded Flusser’s thinking leans more towards working against the program governing the social apparatus so as to precipitate the improbable. All this is to say, by comparison, Confucianism has a sedentary, order-conserving predilection. The Analects itself, however, is polyvalent, rich in virtualities, and open to non-Confucian explications, appropriations, and uptakes. This exploration is driven by an ethically negentropic impulse, and the belief that there is intrinsic dignity in inventing new styles of life. That is to say, it is interested in distilling new possibilities of life out of the Analects, and finds in late Confucius an unsuspected ethical ally. In this era of fragmentation and generalized distraction, the Analects has the merit of being made up of pithy fragments and suits the attention span of homo distractus. Reading the mini-chapters in a nomadic mode is crucial. This article demonstrates and models multiple nomadic ways of receiving the Analects. The work has only been initiated and is to be carried on by the type of reader this article seeks to call into being. The best way to reverse Confucianism is by reinterpreting the Analects and recovering a vitalistic, Daoist-minded, Chan-spirited, non-Confucian Confucius despite the petrified narrow seriousness of orthodox Confucianism. Therein lies the whole point of a heterodox hermeneutics. If we have to salvage the term “Confucianism” at all, we will need to work toward a de-reified, minorized, nomadized, “queered” Confucianism – a Confucianism gone mad, a Confucianism that coaches a choreography-less dance, a Confucianism that is equal to the spiritual realm of late Confucius.
Peter Zhang 张先广, Ph.D.
School of Communications
Grand Valley State University
290 LSH, 1 Campus Dr
Allendale, MI 49401, USA
The author thanks Baruch Gottlieb, Stephen C. Rowe, Peter D. Hershock, Kyoo Lee 李圭, Zhihe Wang 王治河, and LIN Keqin 林克勤 for reading a version of the article and offering productive criticism, Richard John Lynn 林理彰 for translating a couple of Buddhist quotes into English upon request and directing him to specific sources, and ZHANG Peifeng 张培锋 for calling his attention to ZHANG Jiucheng’s poems on the Analects. He also feels indebted to Geling Shang 商戈令 for the Daoist-minded conversations about Confucius they have had over the past few years, to GUO Haipeng 郭海鹏 for exchanges over particular hexagrams, to YU Xuanmeng 俞宣孟 for discussions over Zigong, and to LUO Ming’an 罗明安 for Chan-related dialogues. Last but not least, he thanks Guo-Ming Chen 陈国明 for calling this article into being by initiating the collective project.
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