05 June 2017

The New Text School’s theological critique of power

a modern artist’s depiction of Fan Ying 樊英

Just because I’m not done yet beating up on Yu Yingshi and his simplistic, crude and downright untrue caricature of institutional Confucianism (制度性的儒家), I am reposting this 1966 passage from Jack Dull’s history of the post-classical scholastic controversies which gave rise to institutional Confucianism. Read here his treatment of Fan Ying, a reclusive geomancer, chenwei scholar and institutional Confucian (I so call him because of his association with Dong Zhongshu and the New Text School) of the Han Dynasty. And then, judge for yourself if he is a ‘Confucianist who oppressed others’ or who ‘forbade criticism of [his] superiors’:
The fullest expression of this New Text esteem of Heaven as opposed to the emperor comes from the biography of Fan Ying. Fan was a widely recognized expert in the apocryphal texts and one of the few men credited with teaching them. Because of his fame, Emperor An summoned him to become an Erudite, the highest academic honor that could be bestowed upon anyone, but Fan Ying declined the position and refused to go to the capital. In A.D. 217, Emperor Shun, who was much more concerned with the scholarly world than was his predecessor, prepared an elaborate ritual by which to invite Fan to the court and again Fan refused. After the Emperor rebuked the local officials for not conveying Fan to the capital, Fan had no alternative. However, upon arriving in Lo-yang, he pleaded illness and declined to appear in court. Finally when he was bodily carried into the court, he refused to bow according to ritual to the Emperor.

Emperor Shun’s wrath was aroused at seeing his authority flounted by Fan Ying and he warned the obstinate scholar of the nature of imperial power:

I can allow you to live or I can kill you. I can make you noble or I can make you base. I can make you wealthy or I can make you poor. How is it that you treat with contempt my commands?
Fan’s answer was a blunt rebuttal of every point made by the Emperor:
Your servant received his alloted span from Heaven. If one lives and completes his alloted span, it is Heaven [that decides this]. If one dies and does not receives a full span it is Heaven’s [doing]. How can your majesty allow me to live? How can you kill me?

Your servant views a cruel ruler like he views an enemy. If I resolve not to stand in his court, can he make me noble? Even if I were among the ranks of the commoners and lived in poverty, I would be fully content with my lot. I shall not exchange my place for that of a ruler of a great state. Then can Your Majesty still make me base? Can your Majesty make your servant noble? Can you make your servant base?

If it were an improper remuneration then even though it were 10,000 bushels, your servant would not accept it. If something furthered my principles, then even though it was but a single-dish meal, I would not spurn it. How can Your Majesty enrich your servant? How can you impoverish your servant?
The Emperor was unable to make Fan Ying submit and ended by giving him special treatment. Although not a contemporary, the historian [Ban Gu] favored the Old Text School and gives what might well have been a contemporary Old Text characterization of Fan Ying in saying that Fan’s “fame was the most exalted and his slander the most extreme.”
Institutional Confucianism was, in fact, not a system of thought which supported the supremacy of the Emperor. That designation better (but still somewhat unfairly) describes the New Text School’s contemporary opponents, the Old Text School followers of Liu Xin (among whom are the historian Ban Gu and his sister Ban Zhao), because they saw the Emperor as the highest rational expression of humane authority. The New Text Scholars were theological personalists who stressed both the primacy and the benevolence of Heaven. However, modern-day commentators like Yu Yingshi mistake the New Text Scholars, the first Han-era institutional Confucians, for oppressors (or knowingly libel them as such) precisely because their critique of power is theological and not secular. It is rooted in Confucianism as a comprehensive doctrine, rather than in a modernist language of pluralism and instrumental rationality. But this very same theological critique allowed later New Text Scholars (like Gong Zizhen, Kang Youwei and Chen Huanzhang) to use the Confucian classics in remarkably radical ways: ways that stressed œconomic equity and reciprocality.

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