27 February 2018

A scholar’s frustration?

A modern artist’s depiction of Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒

I think I understand why Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 remains such a fascinating figure to me. From Michael Loewe’s book, combined with Sarah Queen’s which I’m reading now, a rather clearer picture of the man behind the texts begins to emerge.

A serious and studious literatus of deep feeling, endowed with a preternatural ability to see the hidden connexions in history and the workings of the cosmos, he nonetheless felt himself irreconcilably out-of-step with his own age and surroundings. The historian Sima Qian 司馬遷 makes note – possibly exaggerated – of his ability for concentration: that for three years he was so wrapped up in his work that he didn’t glance even once at his own garden. But the wondering and sensitive cast of his mind can be determined by his choice of subjects. His early fascination with the Daoist corpus, followed by a penetrating study of the Spring and Autumn Annals 《春秋》 and the accompanying Gongyang Commentary 《公羊傳》, hint at someone mystified by the ‘inner workings’ and the ‘grand design’. Given the penchant of the Daoism of the time for curing illnesses, purifying the body and seeking immortality; and given the world-rectifying mission ascribed to Spring and Autumn by the Gongyang Commentary, these twin preoccupations also hint at a man possessed of broad altruistic aspirations. A kind of messianic or ‘sagely’ complex would not be out-of-the-question for such a man, either.

One of the works by Dong Zhongshu which illuminates more of his personality is ‘A Scholar’s Frustration’ 《士不遇賦》, his rhapsodic prose-poem or fu 賦, of which Master Dong’s contemporary, the famous romantic lover Sima Xiangru 司馬相如, was the unrivalled master. Unlike Sima, a private and withdrawn man who limited his political commentary to indirect poetic criticisms of Emperor Wu’s 漢武帝 penchant for hunting, Master Dong was very much an activist as well as a poet; and this work of his can be demonstrated to that end.

It can be tempting to view ‘A Scholar’s Frustration’ as a pathetic and petulant expression of self-pity by a man of talent and erudition, important in his own mind, who feels himself to be insufficiently appreciated by his ungrateful superiors. However, David Pankenier (one of the English translators of ‘A Scholar’s Frustration’) argues that the poem contains a political-activist message sharply critical of Imperial authority, which relies on an esoteric dimension reliant on themes drawn from the Classic of Changes 《已經》 and the Spring and Autumn Annals. In addition, there are several further references to the Dao De Jing 《道德經》 and the Zhuangzi 《莊子》, which indicate that Dong Zhongshu had not fully left behind the Daoist pursuits of his early career.

The theme of the poem consists in a general lamentation of men of integrity who find themselves caught up in evil times; and in a personal tone of remorse that, unsure of how to proceed, he failed to act decisively when the time itself demanded it. As I have mentioned before, Dong Zhongshu found himself, figuratively, at the Emperor’s ear. Once there, very much like Archbishop Saint John Chrysostom, he spoke with such strident frankness that it got him imprisoned, nearly killed and at last exiled to a hostile frontier. Yet in later times he, by name, is credited with the very political opportunism that he abhorred, and blamed for a corruption of an ‘original’ Confucianism which he hoped to embody. Little wonder he should be frustrated, even in his own time! But at a deeper level, there is a Changes-inspired meditation on the proper – modest and reclining – course for the ‘worthy’ in times of darkness and chaos, and the fu ends on a hopeful note that a world-historical salvation will arrive in its due course. Pankenier describes how this meditation is ‘coded’ in an esoteric language that Dong’s students and sympathisers would understand, but which would evade those not schooled in the Zhuangzi, the Changes or Gongyang studies.

Another very interesting aspect of ‘A Scholar’s Frustration’ is the singular attention Dong Zhongshu pays to Qu Yuan 屈原. Qu Yuan, whose personal integrity and altruism for his state were so deep that they cost him his life, is presented as a paragon – alongside Wuzi Xu 伍子胥 – whose ideal he aspires to but whom he cannot quite reach, but with whom he desires to ‘wander far’ (yuanyou 遠遊), a wistful (and highly Daoist-inflected) term which Master Dong borrows directly from Qu Yuan’s writings in the Chuci 《楚辭》. Indeed, Pankenier notes three prominent references in ‘A Scholar’s Frustration’ to Qu Yuan’s most famous poem, ‘Encountering Sorrow’ 《離騷》. Unlike Qu Yuan, however, Master Dong rules out suicide as a solution to his problems, and in its place proposes something strangely similar to hermitage: withdrawing from the world and pursuing a life of solitary contemplation and quietude.

There is another reason for Dong’s emphasis on Qu Yuan and ‘Encountering Sorrow’ in particular. The fu form itself drew inspiration from ‘Encountering Sorrow’, and Master Dong wrote this poem in a genre which began with Xunzi 荀子 and continued long after him. Pankenier notes that these poems are meant to provide, in adverse political circumstances and using a circumspect language suitable to the court, a highly-personal ‘statement’ linking the life and works of the author to a broader set of enduring ideals and solidarity with a concrete intellectual lineage or group of students. Dong’s partial embrace of Qu Yuan points to an identification with his ideals and literary lineage, but his rejection of an honourable death at his own hand points to a very different eschatological hope.

‘The Scholar’s Frustration’ can be found in the original Chinese here, and Pankenier’s translation and analysis can be found here. Thankfully, I think academia.edu is not behind a paywall.

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