Confucianism – and the interpretation of Chinese poetry
You may not like poetry. But in Confucianism, the ability to handle Chinese poetry is an essential part of being a scholar. And that, together with the history of interpretation of Chinese poetry, can shape how other texts are handled, and the confidence with which people approach those texts by themselves…
2. Xing is greater than Fu
A key concept in Chinese poetry is the distinction between fu, bi and xing. First mentioned in Zhou Li, these terms describe three complementary approaches to reading a piece of poetry.
There is general agreement that fu is the basic surface level meaning of the words. However today there is still considerable debate about the precise meaning of bi and xing - but one account is that bi is another situation referred to in a round-about way through the poetic image (a kind of metaphor), and xing the affection and realisation that is stirred when the first sheds light on the second.
And so for instance:
fu: the description of leaves falling from the blossom tree
bi: the mention of a friend who has long forgotten your acquaintance
xing: the unmentioned sadness of having lost a friend
Again, there is debate about the exact nature of xing. But what is particularly important to notice here is that the cash-value is in discussions about bi and xing – never about fu.
And this is reflected in pre-modern commentaries and discussions about poems from Mao Heng onwards. Fu was simply considered to basic to discuss.
From this you can see two things: firstly, there is a definite hierarchy of meaning, although they are built on one another. Fu is least interesting, bi is more important, and xing is the goal of reading poetry. And secondly, xing is almost always quite different from fu. Yes, the words of the poem may be about a blossom tree – but it is really all about the sadness of having lost a friend.
3. The reader is greater than the author
While interest was in the xing which lay beyond the actual words of the poem, it should be noted that Chinese interpretation of poetry began with a concern about authorial intent. What was important was to work out what the author was trying to convey at the level of xing.
Mencius (372-289 BC), perhaps the next most significant figure in Confucianism apart from Confucius himself, wrote that:
When one reads the poems and writings of the ancients, can it be right not to know something about them as men? Hence one tries to understand the age in which they lived. This can be described as “looking for friends in history.”
Mencius, 5B8 (tr. DC Lau)
Basically the intention of the author, his historical situation and so on were important in making sense of a piece of writing.
However in the 17th century, the scholar Wang Fuzhi (1619-1692) turned this around and asserted that the author may have intended certain things – but what was important was for the reader to derive meaning according to how they feel. This pre-dates the Western revolt against authorial intent (eg. Roland Barthes‘s The Death of the Author, 1967) by several hundred years!
And so for hundreds of years before the rise of post-structuralism and postmodernism in the West, Chinese scholarship has not been so interested in what the author intended, as what the reader feels.
4. The scholar who can quote poetry is greater than the pleb who can’t
The ability to recite and interpret poetry is highly valued in Confucianism. It marked you out as a distinguished, learned person – distinct from the uneducated folk who cannot. And so a working knowledge of the Odes was essential in becoming part of that elite of society. Consider the place of poetry in the following passages from The Analects:
The Master said: “Draw inspiration from the Poems; steady your course with the ritual; find your fulfilment in music.”
Confucius, The Analects, 8.8 (tr. Simon Leys).
The Master said to his son: “Have you worked through the first and the second part of the Poems? Whoever goes into life without having worked through the first and the second part of the Poems will remain stuck, as if facing a wall.”
Confucius, The Analects, 17.10 (tr. Simon Leys).
Everyone recognised that there was a vast gap between normal village folk – and those who can handle poetry. Simon Leys writes that, ”without an ability to recite the Poems and to quote from them with utter versatility, no man could be deemed educated, nor would he have had any means to express himself in ceremonial functions.”
This ability involved more than just the mere reading of poetry – one should also be able to interpret and use poetry in conversation. Consider how poems are used in this conversation between Chen Ziqin and the son of Confucius. When asked what his father taught him, Confucius’ son replied saying:
“Once, as he was standing alone, and I was discreetly crossing the courtyard, he asked me: “Have you studied the Poems?” I replied: “No.” He said: “If you do not study the Poems, you will not be able to hold your own in any discussion.” I withdrew and studied the Poems.“
Confucius, The Analects, 16.13 (tr. Simon Leys).
This is because the solemn quoting of a poem can sometimes be enough to settle an argument or make a point. You can see an example of this use of poetry in an interchange between Confucius and one of his disciples:
Zigong said: ” ‘Poor without servility; rich without arrogance.’ How is that?”
The Master said: “Not bad, but better still: ‘Poor, yet cheerful; rich, yet considerate.’ “
Zigong said: “In the Poems, it is said: ‘Like carving horn, like sculpting ivory, like cutting jade, like polishing stone.’ Is this not the same idea?”
The Master said: “Ah, one can really begin to discuss the Poems with you! I tell you one thing, and you can figure out the rest.”
Confucius, The Analects, 1.15 (tr. Simon Leys)
Zigong uses this particular poem to show that the gentleman continues to refine his character. And one can imagine other people in the room being struck to silence at his fluency with poems.
Great deference then is shown to scholars who can wield the Odes in such a knowledgeable and authoritative manner. And reflexively, regular people would feel a great uncertainty in putting forward their own views over against that of a learned scholar.
From all this, you can see that throughout history there is a definite movement away from the text itself. Firstly because xing is quite distinct from the plain meaning of fu. Secondly because for hundreds of years Wang Fuzhi had shifted the attention of Chinese scholarship away from the intention of the author and to the feelings of the reader. And thirdly because great deference is shown to scholars who have mastered the art of poetry – which also generates in common people a great uncertainty in handling a text for oneself…
Troubling, for those of us who want to direct people’s attention to the word of God in Scripture. Who are committed to grammatico-historical exegesis. And who want to give people confidence that they can read God’s word for themselves.