08 February 2018

Gongyang history: cosmology, teleology, eschatology

The Spring and Autumn Annals (or Chunqiu 《春秋》), one of the Five Classics of the Ru canon, is – on the surface – a rather dry, terse chronicle of the reigns of the Dukes of Lu between 722 and 467 BC. Five different commentaries were written after it: Zuo 《左氏傳》, Zou 《鄒氏傳》 (no longer extant), Jia 《夾氏傳》 (no longer extant), Guliang 《穀梁傳》 and Gongyang 《公羊傳》, to explicate the meaning of the main text, supposedly written by Confucius himself. Historian Harry Miller, two years ago, obligingly translated the Gongyang Commentary into English for the first time – a translation I have just read.

The format is catechetical, taking the form of a question-and-answer between student and teacher. According to Ban Gu, the teacher was Bu Shang 卜商, better known by his courtesy name Zixia 子夏, one of Confucius’ pupils. Bu Shang transmitted his master’s unwritten comments to Gongyang Gao 公羊高, who then passed the scholarly catechesis down along his own family line until it could be committed to writing by Gongyang Shou 公羊壽 and his student, Master Humu 胡母生, who would go on to instruct Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒.

The first thing that struck me on reading the Gongyang Commentary, is that it assigns a value to the history itself that seems – I beg pardon for the anachronism and the cultural conceit – almost Russian in character. Speaking particularly with the monastic authors of the early Russian Chronicles in mind, Russian religious historian Gyorgi Fedotov writes in the first volume of The Russian Religious Mind:
The Russian religious feeling of history has nothing mystical about it. It is lacking in the sense of the dualism of the two worlds which is a necessary premise for every symbolic interpretation. God is immanent in history, as He would be in nature, too. Therefore every historical fact receives its own value. The historical world is as grand and meaningful as the physical world. This explains why the religious interpretation of history did no harm to the concreteness and matter-of-factness of Russian historiography. The Russian chronicler keeps himself free from theological speculations; he keeps his eyes and ears open to the impressions of social realities.
At the same time, the reason that historiography has had such an important sway over the Russian religious mind, in Fedotov’s view, has more to do with the Russian openness to eschatology. Fedotov speaks, in the same work, of ‘the cosmological and historical interests of the Russian readers, confirmed … by original Russian literature. Religious cosmology and history, based upon an eschatological background, were the two theoretical poles of the Russian mind’.

This seems to describe quite well, also, the preoccupations of the Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals – particularly when compared to other Chinese works of history and historical commentary. History is never treated as anything ‘more’ or ‘less’ than history; even if it requires some subversion of the usual pieties, the Commentary is scrupulous even when it comes to ‘correcting’ the record or citing some euphemism in the original Spring and Autumn as an ‘official story’ which doesn’t necessarily reflect the whole of the truth. At the same time, even this relatively-brief three-hundred-year history is imbued with an eschatological and cosmological – but not metaphysical – meaning.

The ‘teacher’ in the catechetical dialogues notes that at the beginning of the Spring and Autumn, there is order. The calendar is aligned with the will of the King of Zhou. Duke Yin is a humble and selfless ‘worthy’ following the Way of the ancients, who plans to abdicate to his half-brother Huan when the latter gains his majority. Grand officers keep their places, and the stewards below them keep theirs. Although these portrayals are consistent, as we are given to understand, with the historical record, there is a teleological indication in this portrayal of the kind, caring, humble and gentle ways – the ways of humaneness – that supposedly prevailed in the days of Yao and Shun.

But history enters the picture. Greed and ambition begin to appear, and the Commentary begins to draw attention to the placement of ‘blame’: the subtle demotions, euphemistic understatements and interpolations of sarcasm and ridicule that, in the mind of the ‘teacher’ of the catechesis, indicate wrongdoing on the part of some historical figure. The Earl (actually Duke) of Zheng commits the sin of Cain by killing his brother Duan, and is duly demoted for it. Later, Wuhai invades the state of Ji. Here is the catechetical commentary on the latter case:
Wuhai, commanding an army, invaded the state of Ji.
Who was Wuhai? Wuhai refers to Zhan Wuhai.

Why is his surname not given? To denigrate him.

Why denigrate him? Because he is the one who began the process of destroying other states.

Did the process of destroying other states really begin with him? No, there were earlier cases.

If there were earlier cases, why maintain that the process began with him? The process is simply being represented as having begun with him.

Why is the process being represented as having begun with him? Because it is the first instance of it that falls within the chronological scope of the Annals.

If Ji was destroyed, why does the record say only that Ji was “invaded”? Here, the word “invaded” is a euphemism for the greater evil, designed to lessen the infamy of the state of Lu.
This is actually typical in the early part of the Gongyang Commentary of several crimes which make their first appearance in the reigns of Duke Yin and Duke Huan. They are indicative of a kind of historical decline in ritual propriety and in morals that becomes felt more and more strongly toward the end of the history. Feudal lords begin to usurp powers for themselves that rightfully belong to the Son of Heaven (that is to say, the King of Zhou). Subsequently, the grand officers of the feudal lords begin to usurp power for themselves. And toward the end of the history, even the grand officers find themselves contending with their own stewards and servants who begin showing ambition and manoeuvre for advancement and material gain.

On another level, too, this is both a cosmic history and a history for and with concern with the common people. Regularly recounted are ‘marvels’ and ‘disasters’ which – though they have a direct bearing on the ruler’s character according to classical cosmology – are still material events that affect the lives of common people and the social realities of their lives under rulers whose sense of propriety seems to be getting progressively worse. These marvels and disasters are recounted in a matter-of-fact way, without reference to their cosmological significance.

Several ‘worthies’ make their appearance in the Gongyang Commentary, and the nature of their ‘worthiness’ seems remarkably consistent throughout: when they see an opportunity for political or material advancement, or even an opportunity to spare their own life from an intrigue against their superiors, they refuse to take it – and as often as not, die in acts of heroism trying to save their lieges.

One such act of heroism is heavily foreshadowed – that of Lady Gong, the Eldest Daughter of Duke Cheng. During a fire that breaks out in the Song palace, Lady Gong is repeatedly begged by court officials to flee to safety, but refuses to abandon her children’s nurse to the flames, and so perishes herself. This one act of humane altruism on behalf of her servant makes her worthy of repeated mention by Confucius and even an honorific posthumous title. But this act of heroism comes at a time when grand officers are busily scheming and plotting with each other behind the scenes, and as often as not are running states on their own initiative and according to their own libido dominandi, without reference to loyalty either to their feudal lords or to the Son of Heaven – by this point almost entirely absent from the narrative. The ‘teacher’ in the Commentary even fulminates in exasperation, toward the end of the reign of Duke Zhao: ‘the men of the Central States had recently begun acting like foreigners’, whereas the ‘foreigners’ of the Wu tribe ‘had made some progress’ in becoming more like Zhou, more humane, and thus more Chinese.

Tolkien, with his sharp sense of this kind of meaning within history, would doubtless call the Spring and Autumn Annals a representation of the ‘long defeat’, and I can well imagine Bu Shang (or whomever the authoritative voice of the ‘teacher’ in this catechesis is) would agree. But these acts of worthiness, heroism, altruism and human pity punctuate a history that is awash with examples of intrigue, bribery, backstabbing, cruelty, theft, illicit sex and violence, and afford a certain glimpse of eschatological hope. The final entry of the Spring and Autumn Annals makes mention of a ‘unicorn’ (that is to say, a lin) that was captured in a hunt. This excerpt is from the Gongyang Commentary’s final entry:
It was the year fourteen, in the spring. During a hunt to the west, a unicorn was captured.
Why is this recorded? To make note of a marvel.

What is the marvel? The marvel is that such an animal is not native to the Central States…

Why is it a great thing to capture a unicorn? The unicorn symbolizes humaneness. It appears when there is a true king and does not appear when there is no true king. As someone reported on this occasion, “It’s like a roe but with a horn,” to which Confucius said, “So! He is coming, then. He is coming!” He turned out his sleeves to wipe away his tears, until the front of his robe was dampened. When Yan Yuan died, Confucius said, “Alas! Heaven is destroying me!” When Sir Lu died, Confucius said, “Alas! Heaven is cutting me off!” But when, “during a hunt to the west, a unicorn was captured,” Confucius said, “Now my Way has served its purpose.”
This final entry is pregnant with the hope that ‘he’ (that is, in the words of the Gongyang Commentary, someone who ‘delights in the Way of Yao and Shun’) will soon arrive, and with Confucius’ own assurance that this one great task of his – the task of recounting the history of the past three hundred years, for ‘his’ benefit – has been accomplished.

There is, then, a personalist angle to this history as well. The history of the Spring and Autumn isn’t simply bare facts. The Gongyang Commentary proceeds as though Confucius has a particular audience in mind – and not primarily the Duke of Lu for whom he is officially working. It also proceeds as though the history itself can speak, dialectically, to the attentive student. Unlike in later works of history, or even the Commentaries, the didacticism and moralism are rarely explicit within the Spring and Autumn text itself, but are left to be sussed out by the questioner.

What is interesting as well is the Gongyang Commentary’s treatment of private justice, or revenge – and this treatment brings the text somewhat (though not entirely, and by no means as much as the critics of Gongyang Confucianism would have us believe) into conflict with the Mencian treatment of private justice. In general, the ‘teacher’ in the catechesis takes a fairly dim view of private revenge, and condones it only in cases where all other workings of justice have been exhausted:
If the father is wrongfully executed, then it is quite permissible for the son to avenge him. However, if the father is rightfully executed, and the son chooses to avenge him, then he is foolishly starting down the path of endless vengeance and counter-vengeance. Just revenge is not simply a matter of eliminating one’s enemies or rivals. The important thing is for friends to stand up for each other and to refrain from seeking advantage over each other in the first place. That is the way of the ancients.
Likewise, one of the ‘worthies’ praised by the catechist, Prince Jizha of Wu, says this to Helu, who has just killed Jizha’s older brother and offered him the throne:
You have assassinated my ruler. Were I to accept the state from you, then I will have conspired with you to usurp the throne. Furthermore, if you kill my brother and I kill you, then there will be no end to the killing among fathers, sons, and older and younger brothers.
The key factor for the Gongyang catechist is balance. Human beings are complex, and are considered as both ‘public’ and ‘private’ (to use a somewhat anachronistic phrasing) creatures – the ‘self-institution’ dialectic which I’ve mentioned so often on this blog is explored from both sides. Filiality in children is praised – to a point. The value of filial piety is primary, but not absolute; sometimes, in the catechist’s view, public obligations must take priority over family ones. People who emphasise one relationship to the exclusion of others are chastised.

The teleological approach to history which the Gongyang offers – from a period of order and stability through periods of crisis and disorder, toward an expected messianic renewal under a sage or a lover of the Way – does stand in marked contrast to the cyclical view which came to predominate later, post-classical Chinese history and cosmology. And yes, I am deliberately drawing the comparisons to the Russian apocalyptic and Tolkienian views of history specifically to highlight that contrast. But it does not follow therefore that the Gongyang Commentary’s more linear view of history is less, or less-authentically, Ruist.

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