The Anyway Club

History must rest on philologically examined texts: sources whose date and relevance have been as far as possible established. Philology is a lot of work, and it takes a lot of time. Not everyone is willing to do the work, or wait until others have done it for them. They want to charge ahead and write their history of early Chinese thought anyway. Those who make the claim that this ignoring of the philological preliminaries is valid constitute the Anyway Club.

Here are three prominent club members, from the unlamented 20th century.


Fung Yulan

Fung Yulan, in his History of Chinese Philosophy (v1 1934; translated by Bodde in 1937) acknowledges the force of Jang Sywe-chvng's theory that many of the classical philosophical works are school texts rather than authorial texts: that

the writings of any school were the collective work of that school, rather than the work of any one individual." "This theory is probably correct. The conception of authorship was evidently not wholly clear in early China, so that when we find a book named after a certain man of the Warring States period, or earlier, this does not necessarily mean that the book was originally actually written by that man himself." "The books now attributed to various Jou dynasty writers should therefore be regarded as products of their schools, rather than of the men themselves. Much has already been done in the critical analysis of such works, so that, for example, we recognize today that such portions as the "Canon" and "Exposition of Canon" of the Mwodz (chapters 40-41 and 42-43 respectively) were probably not written by Mwodz himself.

but then, in mid-paragraph (p19-20), comes the Anyway moment:

In the case of such sections as the Will of Heaven (chapters 26-28) and "Agreement with the Superior" (chapters 11-13) of the same book, however, no one dares to decide which parts of them came first and which were later additions. In treating the philosophy of the ancient period, therefore, the present work will simply try to indicate that, during this period, there existed certain schools of philosophy and systems of thought, but it will not attempt to determine absolutely whether these systems are always actually representative of the individuals by whom they were founded, or have been affected by later modifications.

That is, Fung is prepared to go ahead with an account of Micianism which does not rest on what he knows to be the case: that its various documents are of different date, and reflect different stages in its development. To eliminate development from one's account is to forfeit the idea of writing "history," and to offer in its place a series of gargoyles, each with its own permanently fixed grin.


Ben Schwartz

Schwartz wanted to skip the hard stuff and go straight to the fun stuff. To do that without seeming to be illiterate in 20th century scholarship, he employs much the same argument as Fung. Here is the first part of that argument, the concessio or rhetorical concession of the truth of the matter, as rendered in Schwartz's World of Thought in Ancient China (Harvard 1985). The subject happens to be the Analects:

"The Analects themselves, however, remain the focus of fierce controversy. It is obviously a compilation put together in somewhat variant versions long after the Master's death. It contains not only the Master's sayings, but many of the utterances of disciples as well. Of the twenty "books," linguistic analysis indicates that some may belong to a much later period. Waley and others find many passages which they call non-Confucian and even anti-Confucian. He thus finds that the professed concern with how language relates to reality must be a later addition, since the "language crisis" in ancient China belongs, in his view, to a much later development of thought. Tsuda Sokichi, a radical and iconoclastic critic of the text, finds the work so shot through with contradictions and anachronisms that it is unusable as a source of the thought of Confucius."

That seems decisive. But now we come to the second part of the argument; the assertion which ignores the point just conceded. We come to the Anyway moment (p61-62), and this is how it reads:

"While textual criticism based on rigorous philological and historic analysis is crucial, and while the later sections do contain late materials, the type of textual criticism that is based on considerations of alleged logical inconsistencies and incompatibilities of thought must be viewed with great suspicion. The contradictions and inconsistencies of thought alleged by Tsuda, Waley, Creel, and others are often based on the unexamined intellectual assumptions of the translators and interpreters themselves. While none of us comes to such an enterprise without deep-laid assumptions about necessary logical relations and compatibilities, we should at least hold before ourselves the constant injunction to mistrust all our unexamined preconceptions on these matters when dealing with comparative thought. My effort to present one account of the underlying vision of the Analects is based on my belief that the text, taken as a whole, does actually convey a coherent vision of reality despite the lack of surface organization in the text."

In the end, we are told, textual criticism must itself be viewed with suspicion, and the only admirable, the only tolerable viewpoint for a scrupulous reader is one of unquestioning affirmation, of belief in the text's underlying "coherent vision of reality." Nice trick, if you can work it.

Like Fung before him, Schwartz wrote a book that has been widely admired. Given what was needed to make it adequate for its announced task, posterity's judgement must be that it is in the end not an admirable book, but a cowardly book. It lacked the courage of its concessions.


A C Graham (Photo courtesy Carine Defoort)

A C Graham will be remembered for his reconstruction of the Mwodz, his separation of original from accretion in the Gungsun Lungdz, and his demonstration of the lateness of the Lyedz. These are important contributions to the job of clarifying the difficulties that Fung Yulan wished to pass over. But Graham too wanted to write THE big book on classical thought, despite the fact that further clearing of the textual underbrush still waited to be done. In order to justify that shortcut, his Disputers of the Tao (Open Court 1989) takes the Schwartz path. First the concessio, and again the subject is the Analects:

"The Analects itself shows signs of accretion; in particular the last five chapters (LY 16-20) differ considerably from the rest.

Thus tacitly acknowledging Tswei Shu. He then proceeds to the Anyway moment:

However, given a book homogeneous in thought, marked by a strong and individual mind, and with inadequate criteria at our disposal for distinguishing the voice of the original teacher (very much as with the Gospel sayings of Jesus), it is convenient to accept it as the record of the earliest stage of Confucianism, without asking how much of it is in the actual words of the founder.

For someone who has shown that he knows what "accretion" means, and who has revealed to all of us the evolution of the logical mind of the Micians, this is pretty disappointing. Convenience is not a sufficient reason to bypass philology. Until the philology has been done, there can be no history.

[And as for the sayings of Jesus, that matter is being worked on].

Yau Ji-hvng (born 1647) really said it all, in the preface to his study of inauthentic books:

"Spurious books have been produced in great numbers in both ancient and modern times. Can a scholar who does not take the trouble to distinguish between genuine and spurious be called a scholar at all? To make that distinction is the first duty of scholarship."

It seems a pity that, 300 years later, scholars are still slow to take up that first duty. We agree with Yau. Telling the truth about the texts, and about the past, is what scholarship itself is all about. If it takes time, then time is what we should give it. Not these Anyway shortcuts.

Back to Difficulties Page

27 Feb 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to History Page