10 June 2017

The sparse words and long reach of Han Yu

Han Yu 韓愈

Han Yu is a literary giant of China’s Tang Dynasty with whom I have dealt only briefly, and actually should have dealt with far more prior to now. I’ve read some of his essays in translation. Not for nothing is he considered the greatest of the Eight Masters, an equivalent (if my gentle Chinese readers and friends will pardon the ‘barbarism’) to our Chaucer or Shakespeare! Even in translation, the elegance, the brilliance and the moral power of his work comes through clearly. Unlike prior writers of prose and official essays, Han Yu’s writings are concise and written in a down-to-earth language, but his words carry a great deal of weight.

The prosaïst’s best-known work in English, the ‘Memorial on the Bone of Buddha’ 諫迎佛骨, doesn’t quite catch him at his best, but is still quite powerful. It is an anti-Buddhist polemic which takes the form of a memorial to the Emperor, warning him to be afraid of the un-Chinese superstitions, theatrics and excesses of the followers of the ‘barbarian’ faith. Specifically, he warns that the Buddhist creed will lead young men to neglect their parents, in violation of their filial obligations. Buddhist monasticism will lead them to a selfish celibacy (and Han Yu had a similar critique of Daoist eremitism). It will lead them to turn their backs on the world, to forgo the use of meat in ritual sacrifices, and – worst of all – to cut their hair and mutilate themselves (‘burning heads and searing fingers’), thus dishonouring the bodies that Heaven and their parents gave them. Han Yu accuses the Buddha (not entirely unfairly, in light of Gautama’s personal life), that ‘he did not recognise the relationship between prince and subject, nor the sentiments of father and son’.

And in the veneration of the relic of Buddha’s finger-bone in particular, he saw something of a sacrilege. Like Orthodox Christians, it must be said, the Chinese classical culture frowned on cremation or on any way of disposing the body that would lead it to decay. It was commendable, from a classical Confucian perspective, to inter the body of a loved one quickly. There were strong prohibitions against disinterment. Preparing thick coffins and dressing the dead body with jade so as to preserve it from decay were common practices. The ‘dry and rotten’ (kuxiu 枯朽) member of the body, even of a holy man, exposed to the air and to direct view, was ‘loathsome’ (xionghui 兇穢) to Han Yu’s sensibilities.

It’s understandable, but somewhat unfortunate, that one of his more eristic essays (and he was indeed capable of delivering some real jeremiads when his hackles were up) has earned this greatest of prose masters the greatest fame. Other of his essays, like the ‘Farewell to Poverty’ 送窮文, and the ‘Ultimatum to the Crocodiles of Chaozhou’ 祭鱷魚文 show a highly imaginative mind and a ready and active – if quite dry – wit. And he cared deeply, as a true Confucian gentleman ought to do, for the students under his tutelage. But it was the ‘Memorial on the Bone of Buddha’, along with ‘On the Origin of the Way’ 原道 which sparked something of a revolution in later, particularly Song and Ming Dynasty, Confucian thinking. His engagements with, and his moral indictments of, the Buddhist and Daoist traditions shaped and influenced practically the entirety of the Song-Ming ‘mind Confucian’ or lixue 理學 movement that would follow him. Equally importantly, he placed his stamp on Confucian philosophy by showing a marked preference for the writings of Mencius to those of Xunzi or Yang Xiong. Comparing the three Confucian philosophers, Han Yu said: ‘When Mengzi died, [the Way] did not succeed in being transmitted. Xunzi and Yang Xiong grasped parts of it but not its essence; they spoke of it but not in detail.’ This was a preference on his part, not a prejudice – he was versed in all three authors, had a high opinion of them, and believed they all carried deep insights. But Han Yu’s preference for Mencius over Xunzi would come to influence those of later neo-Confucians of the Song and Ming Dynasties – particularly Zhu Xi, who codified the post-mediæval Confucian canon and gave Mencius a place of honour among the Books.

Han Yu’s wit and breadth of learning, and the depth of his concise prose, are all worth appreciating in their own right. He could be pugilistic in defence of what he considered the Chinese cultural legacy, but he was never partizan-minded. But to me, his long reach in the development of Confucian philosophy, particularly neo-Confucianism is also of great interest.

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