24 February 2018

Heaven is within you

Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒

「物之所由然,其於人切近,可不省邪? 」

The causes of events are closely bound up with human beings. Is it possible not to contemplate them?

  - Dong Zhongshu, Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals 3.3
In my last, Lenten-minded post on Xi Shi 西施 and Fuchai 夫差, I made a passing reference earlier to the ‘personalist cosmology’ of Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒, whose work I’m rather accidentally finding to be good Lenten material. It’s a bad intellectual habit of mine that I tend to condense very, even crucially-important concepts into a dense or obscurantist kind of language like that, and while I’m in the season for breaking bad habits, it pays to start off well. Consider this, then, gentle readers, part of my ‘intellectual’ repentance.

The caricatured view of Dong Zhongshu that still sadly obtains somewhat in scholarship both inside and outside China is that he cultivated a close relationship with Emperor Wu and inaugurated something called ‘imperial Confucianism’, which is in essence a fusion between the Classicist school (Rujia 儒家) and the Legalist school (Fajia 法家) which takes Confucianism as the outer trappings of a Legalist core of political-philosophical commitments (rubiao fali 儒表法里). This ‘imperial Confucianism’ is usually taken to be a corruption of ‘original’ Confucianism, of whom Mencius in particular is usually taken as the defining canonical representative – ironically following the preferences of Zhu Xi 朱熹. There’s just one problem with this view of Dong Zhongshu’s life and work: almost none of it is actually true.

Now, there is a reason why the caricatured view of Dong Zhongshu still holds some water. Dong Zhongshu did make proposals that would ultimately ‘institutionalise’ Classicist thought and link it indelibly to the Chinese state. He advocated establishing an Imperial College (Taixue 太學, inaugurated in 124 BC) for training Ru scholars, and (unsuccessful in his own lifetime) a civil service system that would elevate men of worth rather than men with powerful connexions. Dong Zhongshu’s thought was later (after Wang Mang 王莽) directly used to bolster the Han Emperor’s legitimacy. But (to give just one example) Tu Wei-ming’s 杜維明 outrageously-unjust gloss of Dong Zhongshu as a ‘true heir of the spirit of’ (Qin-Han transition political opportunist) Shusun Tong 叔孫通 falls wildly far of the mark.

Michael Loewe’s thesis on Dong Zhongshu is contrarian and overly-scrupulous in language to the point of being a distortion in some places, and therefore Dong Zhongshu himself might not wholly approve of it. Sarah Queen argues persuasively that even if Dong Zhongshu was not the sole author of the Luxuriant Gems, there is a good chance that at least the first five chapters are his writing and that later chapters attributed to him were part of an oral tradition of commentary that may have had him as one of its sources. But Loewe’s work is otherwise an excellent piece of research and scholarship, which serves to clear away a lot of the political dross that surrounds Dong and his career.

Loewe examines several contemporary biographies of the man, and determines that Dong Zhongshu never did have a close relationship either with Emperor Jing 漢景帝 or with his heir Emperor Wu 漢武帝. He issued three ‘rescripts’ (basically, petitions) directed at the throne, which – though couched in the usual polite language of the court – in fact contained some strident critiques of Emperor Wu’s policies. Dong Zhongshu inveighed against the corvées and conscription, against usury, against the salt and iron monopolies, against nepotism in the court, against the overuse of the death penalty, against the concentration of land in the hands of a few rich landowners, against land privatisation more generally and against the destructive policy of Han wars against the Xiongnu. The Emperor had him thrown into prison at one point, and his archrival Gongsun Hong 公孫弘 had him exiled to Weifang 濰坊 (where it was hoped he would die). His fortunes improved in his later years, but he still never attained to the kind of prominence his latter-day detractors suggest. Leaving aside the fact that it takes a rather strange kind of crypto-Legalist to speak out against the iron monopoly, to defend the commons from the predations of the state and powerful landlords, or to lament frequent executions and expansive wars of conquest, Dong Zhongshu’s thought bears none of the hallmarks of Legalist thinking.

Dong Zhongshu’s contributions to Classicist thinking, in fact, seem to offer us not a ‘Legalist’ interpretation but instead something very close to a personalist one. For example: Dong Zhongshu did not see human nature as inherently bad (as the Legalists did), nor as inherently good (as Mencius did). Instead, Dong’s interests lay in the interactions between human beings and the cosmos, and he comes to some surprising conclusions. The human being herself, Dong Zhongshu held, is a microcosm – the stamp of heaven and earth is upon her. In the question of whether her nature is ‘good’ or ‘evil’, Dong Zhongshu evidently felt that question cheapened the fundamental dynamism, development, freedom and potential for growth that she possesses – the very marks that claim her as made in the image of Heaven. Here is how he puts it:

A person has a nature and emotions just as Heaven possesses yin and yang. To speak of one’s basic substance without mentioning one’s emotions is like speaking of Heaven’s yang without mentioning its yin.

  - Dong Zhongshu, Luxuriant Gems 35.4
Dong Zhongshu holds, in these chapters touching on human nature, that ascribing ‘goodness’ or ‘evil’ to the ‘unadorned’ substance of the human being will result in a misnomer. He does not deny, as the Legalists do, that the ‘myriad commoners’ (wanmin 萬民) are capable of goodness. Instead, he likens the goodness of an ‘ordinary’ person to a cocoon or an egg – precious, unique, and possessing all the ‘basic substance’ of goodness, but in a potential state. The goodness that is in them must be cultivated and brought out by means of education and admonition. Here he comes quite close indeed to Mencius 孟子 and his ‘four sprouts’ (si duan 四端), but not quite. Dong takes care to distinguish his ideas from those of Mencius by name. He holds that Mencius’ view of human nature is not expansive enough, not demanding enough, and that holding human beings to a standard that elevates them only slightly above ‘birds and beasts’ (qinshou 禽獸) is more than somewhat patronising:

My evaluation of what the word “nature” designates differs from that of Mencius. Mencius looked below to find the substance [of goodness] in comparison with what birds and beasts do and therefore said that nature is inherently good. I look above to find the substance [of goodness] in comparison with what the sages did, and therefore I say that nature is not yet good.

  - Dong Zhongshu, Luxuriant Gems 35.4
Note that he says ‘not yet good’ (wei shan 未善) rather than ‘not good’. With Dong Zhongshu in particular, Gongyang scholar that he was, one has to be very careful about shades of meaning. The connotation is one of potential and choice. The difference between him and Mencius, therefore, is subtle, and does not place him alongside Xunzi or Han Fei. In fact, the difference between Dong Zhongshu and Mencius is somewhat parallel to the distinction, on a very similar question, between Abba Cassian and Pelagius.

Not just on this contemporary philosophical question of ‘nature’, but even more generally, Dong Zhongshu frequently evinces a desire to show the intrinsic value of the human person. In the later chapters, too, which are ascribed to Dong Zhongshu but whom very few people now actually accredit to him directly, we see this kind of reverent awe at the cosmos which the human person – even the ordinary uncultivated human being – contains, and consequently a kind of anthropomorphic cosmology emerges:

The humanness of human beings is rooted in Heaven. Heaven is also the supreme ancestor of human beings. This is why human beings are elevated to be categorised with Heaven.

  - Luxuriant Gems 41.1
And again:

Heaven surely possesses expressions of happiness, anger, sorrow, and joy, and human beings likewise possess the qi of spring, autumn, winter, and summer.

  - Luxuriant Gems 46.1
Even if these sentences were not written by the hand of Dong Zhongshu himself, they are of a piece with his sentiments elsewhere. And they provide a very, very different cosmology from that of Xunzi 荀子 – and even further from that of the Legalists. Even if Dong Zhongshu selectively used Xunzi against Mencius in arguing for a dynamic interpretation of human ‘goodness’, his cosmology is inherently personalistic. He argues that human beings deserve to be classified with Heaven, that they indelibly possess the ‘vital energy’ (qi 氣) of Heaven, and that Heaven in turn possesses intelligence, a personality and characteristics that we would associate with human beings. This renders him a rather unique (and, to my Berdyaev-influenced mind, intriguing) figure in the Classicist tradition, which is not normally given to theological or cosmological speculations except those which directly impact the questions of practical life and government. Roger Ames sums up Dong Zhongshu’s personalist-cosmological distinctions quite nicely:
There is much in the writings of Dong Zhongshu that gives the human being a special place in the cosmic order, distinguishing humanity from all other forms of life by virtue of its intimate relationship with tian [天, Heaven]. The human being is the child of a divinely inspired nature to the extent that the human body and its various functions are a microcosm of the natural processes and regularity. Since the human being is produced by tian and is defined by correspondences with nature, it follows that the proper model for human development is tian itself. And the patterns and purposes of tian are revealed immediately in the world around us. It is thus incumbent on the ruler to organise the human world on the basis of what can be understood about the natural world.

But the role of the human being is more than just to be a compliant creature of
tian. The human being, by living in harmony with and contributing to nature, becomes a co-creator of the cosmic order. Where nature leaves off, humanity begins… it is the responsibility of the efficacious human being to bring the possibilities of the natural world to fruition.
Oh, yes. A certain historical irony strikes me, which is too savoury not to mention here in a postscript. Given his emphases on the unique and dynamic placement of the human person in the cosmos, and the passing similitude which he therefore shows with the likes of Bowne and Brightman, would that make Dong Zhongshu the original Boston Confucian?

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