Examining the Absent in Early Chinese Texts

Joachim Gentz, Göttingen
He yi bu shu: Examining the Absent in Early Chinese Texts
WSWG 17, Leiden University, 17 September 2003


Several WS commentaries read early Chinese texts in a formal way. Such exegetical methods are explicitly formulated by early commentaries such as the Xia xiao zheng zhuan and, more prominent, the Chunqiu commentaries, but this has yet not prompted us to modify our own reading of early Chinese texts.

The basic assumption of these commentaries is that the texts were written according to specific formal rules and that the violation of those rules in the text composition is a special mode of expression which indicates a specific meaning. One well known method of formal exegesis is the question asked by the Chunqiu commentaries why a certain formal element is recorded or is missing in the record. As the Gongyang zhuan puts it: "he yi shu?" (why was it recorded?) or "he yi bu shu?" (why was it not recorded?). What happens if we (following Leo Strauss: Persecution and the Art of Writing) apply the same reading to the Gongyang zhuan itself? What do we gain if we ask the question about what has not been written in the Gongyang zhuan? And, more general: how can this method successfully be applied to our own analysis of early Chinese texts?

The paper first examines the methodological problems involved in this approach. Then it shows which surprising results I got when applying this method to the Gongyang zhuan itself. More than a dozen of concepts (such as "virtue" de, "piety" xiao, "loyalty" zhong, etc) are in a very obvious, consistent and striking sense missing in the Gongyang zhuan. In the specific Gongyang version of the rules which Duke Huan of Qi announced at the meeting of Yanggu at Xi 3.5 (which in slightly different versions can also be found in Mengzi 6B7, Guanzi "Da kuang", Guanzi "Ba xing" and Guliang zhuan Xi 9.4) we find a sort of proof that these concepts were consciously avoided by the author in the very same way as the Gongyang zhuan assumes that Confucius had written the Chunqiu (talking through gaps).

Finally, the paper will reflect on the general methodological problems of an interpretation of such absences and will then give an interpretation of these specific absences in the context of the overall philosophy of the Gongyang zhuan.


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