Normativity and History in Warring States Thought

Heiner Roetz , Ruhr-Universitat Bochum
WSWG 17, Leiden University, 18 September 2003

[This paper was earlier given at another European conference, and will shortly be published in the Leiden journal on Chinese Historiography. It will not be formally presented at WSWG 17, but it is relevant to the theme of several WSWG papers, and has been distributed as background reading for the Conference discussions. Three extracts are given here by way of summary]


Under the impact of Chinese conservatism, it has often been maintained that there is a dependency of Chinese normative discourse on orientation towards the past. In fact, this discourse has taken different directions, the historical direction being only one of them. As far as Zhou philosophical thought is concerned, which to a large extent laid the intellectual foundations of Chinese culture, it is shaped by anthropological rather than historical argument. Because history had led into an existential crisis of Zhou society, its status was critically re-examined and underwent fundamental change.

Opening: The Dimensions of the Zhou Crisis

Any discussion of Zhou philosophical thought has to bear in mind a very basic trait of the historical setting in which that thought has emerged. The historical background is the deep political, social, and mental crisis due to the complete dissolution of the feudal order of Western Zhou society and its bearing pillars, the religion of Heaven and the code of propriety (li, Sittlichkeit). In Zhou texts there is a very clear notion of the extraordinary, the novelty of what is taking place - the notion that something hitherto unparalleled has commenced. This crisis gives rise to a completely new Weltgefühl of living in a disintegrating, a "chaotic" and "drowning" world (e.g. Lunyu 18.6, Mengzi 4a:17, Chuci Yufu 296, Roetz 1993a: 43) that has lost its foundations, is falling apart and has suffered irreparable damage. The original "undividedness" has been "cut into pieces" (Laozi 28).

The radical nature of these developments is best expressed in Daoist statements like "There is no way to revert to the essence of one's nature and return once more to the beginning.... The world has lost the Dao, and the Dao has lost the world." (Zhuangzi 16: 244), "The art of the Dao has started to be torn apart by the world" (Zhuangzi 33: 464), or "The great primordial virtue is no longer one, and life has got into disturbance." (Zhuangzi 11: 170) Daoist literature represents the most violent revolt against these developments, trying to regain the lost unity of the world. The present time is seen as the final stage of a process of decline that started with the "awakening" of the calculating human mind (Zhuangzi 11: 168). What the Daoists witness is the "era of downfall", or the "last age".

In Confucianism, we find the enduring impression of an age without true rulership and expectation of rescue, since what could still be called a normal alternation of zhi and luan, order and chaos (Mengzi 3b:9), has lost its rhythm (Mengzi 2b:13). In nearly all late Zhou texts, we have the opposition of the "present time" and "antiquity". Widespread lament accompanies this point of view - with the exception of the Legalist School, which brings forward the clearest periodicization of history (shang gu zhi shi - high antiquity, zhong gu zhi shi - middle antiquity, jingu zhi shi - near antiquity, and dangjin zhi shi - the present age, Hanfeizi 49: 339) in order to once and for all discharge the past.


To come to a conclusion, in the normative discourse during the last centuries of the Zhou era, the function of history is undoubtedly reduced, and the newly emerging value systems can be described to a considerable extent in terms of de-historization. In winning this independent stance, the Zhou thinkers have also laid the foundation for all fields of criticism to follow, including historical criticism. But what is more important is their calling into question not only the details of the historical transmission, but the whole habit of argument by historical models. This is truly a paradigm shift that is often overlooked when speaking about Chinese historical mindedness." The new spirit is best expressed in one of the ingenious parables from the Lüshi chunqiu:

Someone was crossing the Jiang, when he saw another man about to throw a baby into the river. The baby cried. When he asked the man for the reason why he was doing so, the man replied, "His father is a good swimmer." (Lüshi chunqiu 15:8)


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