Response to
Don Munro
Author's Note to The Concept of Man in Early China (repr 2001)

The 2001 reprint of Donald Munro's 1969 book The Concept of Man in Early China was identical to the first edition except for a new "Author's Note" and a "Foreword to the Reprint Edition" by Liu Xiaogan. For the latter, see elsewhere. This page is our response to the former.

Two young writers could hardly aspire to be mentioned in the Author's Note to the reprint of this classic work, but we open the book and - lo! there we are. We do admit to a certain initial disappointment in the precise terms of the mention, which are as follows [abridged]:

When I was in my late teens living in France after World War II, the battle between existentialism and essentialism had begun. Everyone knew Jean-Paul Sartre's statement that "existence precedes essence." This means that individuals uniquely, through their free wills, choose what they become in life. They do not become so because of inborn nature. Today's existentialists do not like claims about essential properties or commonalities of a group of things. Where the essentialists defend the meaningfulness of a human nature, the presence of an essential or core doctrine in belief systems such as Confucianism, and identifiable Chinese behavior patterns the postmodern existentialists stress culturally or geographically influenced uniqueness and variability.

In the field of Chinese thought, there have been two seminal works that seem to fit with the anti-essentialist legacy. One of these reflects influence from the French postmodern tradition. This is Lionel Jensen's Manufacturing Confucianism. The other, though explicitly in debt to certain Chinese historians, is at least congenial with the anti-essentialist legacy as applied to extant Confucian texts. This is E Bruce Brooks and A Taeko Brooks, The Original Analects. Both are provocative, seminal, exhaustively researched works that should be on the reading list of any student. They also fall on the side of the historical debate to which Liu Xiaogan, the author of the foreword, is opposed. From the fact that I have written a trilogy of books on ideas about human nature in China in three different time periods, it should be obvious that, with Liu, I lean toward that opposite side as well.

At the same time, I would not restrict my position exclusively to what is designated by any one label, such as "essentialist." I think the same is true of Liu. I am not a Platonist, and neither is he. I believe there is great variety even within small groups of people, and within belief systems. But I also believe there are commonalities in the case of human nature.

But as it happens, all comes right in the end. We may start with a preliminary note:

1. Prologue. We have never yet seen a discussion that was clarified by the term "essentialist," and the present case does not look like it is going to be an exception. Don seems to agree, since he no sooner identifies himself as an essentialist than he qualifies the identification. Nor does he exactly say that our work is anti-essentialist, merely that it "is compatible with" the anti-essentialist position. Given this degree of leeway about the location of both his position and our own, we don't see that it must follow that the two are opposed in any very fundamental way. If they are, they will perhaps best come out not by assigning labels, but by examining the ancient conceptions: what they were, and whether they changed. We here take up two issues to see if our results are indeed opposed to Don's, or if instead (as had been our impression) our 1998 book tends to confirm and extend his 1969 book.

2. Lateral Equality. Don acknowledges that there is variety in the opinions held by Warring States thinkers, but he also finds an important commonality underlying them. That commonality, according to page 1, resides in "the agreement on all sides that men are naturally equal." One immediately thinks of the problem raised for this thesis by the famous dispute between Sywndz and the Mencians about human nature. This is discussed by Don on page 77; he notes that Kanaya finds reason to doubt that Sywndz ever wrote such a thing. Let us take the Mencius 6 discussion as evidence that there was at least a difference of opinion in early times. Some might be tempted to say that in this debate, if after all there was a debate, the Mencians held (in Don's terms) the essentialist position that men were intrinsically possessed of certain instincts toward good. Sywndz, on the other hand, or whoever was at the other end of the difference, would be closer to what Don calls an existentialist position: if men are good, it is because of an external educational or shaping process, and not inherently. People who get out on the street regularly will tend to feel that the Sywndzians have the better of the argument, and it is just possible that the Mencians end by conceding this. The often quoted MC 6A8 "Ox Mountain" passage, which indeed is quoted facing Don's page 1, is most poignantly and, we think, also most accurately, read as an admission by the Mencians that men can be deprived of any previous good nature by existential abrasions. Whether or not either side of the previous disagreement (see MC 6A1-7) is usefully classified as "essentialist," it seems to us that the two sides do converge toward a common position. That common position would seem to be the malleability rather than the constancy of human nature.

Common malleability is certainly one possible commonality, and one on which we could readily agree with Don, both as a reality proposal and as a description of the Sywndz/Mencius conversation. Let's explore that possible agreement a little further, and above all let's see if Don himself comes out with that conclusion, or with a different one.

Apart from the abrasions of the physical universe, people are also exposed to the abrasions of society (for details, see the Jwangdz, with its parade of multilated grotesques), which are institutionalized in that ultimate abrasion, the education process. We would say that the precise commonality among the thinkers Don considers has to do with the universal efficacy of the abrasion process. The Dau/Dv Jing people denounce education, thinking perhaps of its Confucian version, as a violation of human integrity and natural order. The Confucians (the Analects people along with the Sywndzians and Mencians) tend to imply that schooling is a good thing. There you have the variety. But beneath these differences of attitude lies the recognition that, whether for good or ill in particular cases, education does work. It produces results in the people it is imposed on. Specifically, it produces results that make those people more submissive to government. This is something that Don notices at several places. Thus on his page 179 we read that

The belief in man's plasticity and in the primary role of education in molding the individual that was implied by the old idea lingers on [into the present].

Linking the Dauists with the Confucianists, on page 123 we have

The Taoists lived in troubled times, as did the Confucians, and their instruction for men of the age was, Submit.

Liberal-minded moderns may cherish the exceptional cases where the advice is rather "Do Not Submit," but no one can easily dispute Don's implication that submission, whether embraced or imposed, was ultimately the outcome for the entire Warring States populace, or such of it as survived the wars of conquest. This is chilling stuff, but we can't deny that it clarifies the late WS scene. It takes in a wide variety of 03c statements. It would also seem to define a major continuity between the WS period as a whole and our own unlovely times. Don puts this latter point thus:

The doctrine breathed life over the years into endless variations on the theme that man is perfectible through education; and whatever its philosophical weaknesses, it helped to maintain some of the most lasting and effective forms of political control in human history. (page 182).

This is the last sentence in Don's book. It would seem to slam the door most resoundingly on the notion that education, or malleability, is a source of freedom. It makes it clear that education in early China was instead, from first to last, a tool of political and doctrinal control. Had Don also considered the Gwandz, he might have found that, more than any of the works in the Sung canon, it was the typical spokesman for the classical age. As it happens, the Gwandz and kindred works were officially embraced by the Chinese government in the years after 1949. This would have been nice support for a 1969 continuity thesis.

But no matter; the evidence Don does marshal surely suffices to prove his conclusion. He will thus hardly need, though we would think he can also hardly object to, the results of our study of the period, which lie in the same direction. We too find that the evidence points to the victory of state control over any tendencies toward more benign outcomes. On this topic, our reading of the texts offers nothing but support. Certainly there is no ground here for positing a philosophical difference of stance, or an empirical difference of result, between Don and ourselves. The major conclusion is in fact a shared conclusion.

We have now reached this point: Men are equal in being subject to state power, and in being moldable so as to be willingly subordinate to state power. This principle might be called lateral equality. We can now take a look at Don's treatment of the question of vertical equality.

3. Vertical Equality. As with Sywndz in the previous topic, so also with this one: to any assertion that there was an ancient principle of vertical equality, there is an immediate objection in the evidence. It is the challenge of slavery. Don deals thus with the problem of slavery: "Slaves in the strict sense of the term doubtless existed, but they do not seem to have amounted to a large percentage of the population" (page 8). Is not the point at issue whether the existence of slaves, even if they are not a majority of the population, raises the theoretical question of vertical inequality in society? Be that as it may, we can move on to the freemen, and of them Don says, "it is enough to recognize that in the Shang and early Chou there were at least two broad classes, the ruling and the ruled" (page 8). If so, then the fundamental fact about society, quite apart from any slavery issues, is that society is based on a premise of vertical inequality. Don's readers will immediately recall the Mencian formulation of this inequality principle: that some work with their minds to govern the backworkers, and others work with their backs to support the mindworkers.

So here again we have convergence. All the Hundred Schools so far polled, with support from archaeology (which reports the finding of numerous corpses of slaves that had been killed and buried in their chains), agree that there is vertical inequality.

Now comes a problem. As everyone knows, there are certain disturbing passages in the Mencian writings, tending on their face to assert vertical, or even universal, equality. One of these passages figured in the cover design of Don's 1969 book, but it has been eliminated in the 2001 cover design, so this point seems to be implicitly open for discussion in the present century. And as Don, writing in the previous century, carefully points out, there are disagreements on this as well as other points within the Mencius itself. One way to resolve such inconsistencies is to ignore some Mencian statements and embrace others. Another way is to conclude, with Waley, that Mencius is simply "nugatory" as a logician, and that as a philosopher he scarcely knew his own mind from one moment to the next. Either option will solve the problem, though not, perhaps, in a particularly elegant way. Is there a more elegant way?

Here is where we regret that Don did not make it to the Singapore Mencius Conference of January 1999, where one of us had the good fortune to be present, and the ill fortune not to meet Don in person. Our paper at that conference [see now the published conference proceedings] showed that

these and other internal differences in the Mencius can be resolved by noting that they are distributed either along a lateral axis, with MC 1-3 contrasting in its approach with MC 4-7, or along a vertical axis, with early chapters in either group contrasting with later chapters in the same group. We see this as reflecting a geographical split in the post-Mencian school, with each successor group evolving doctrinally, along partly separate lines, in the ensuing half century.

There are several points at which contradictions in the Mencius can be clarified by seeing them from this angle. For the angle itself, see most conveniently our Mencius Worksheet in the online publication Classical Chinese Texts (the Singapore volume contains a paper version of it). Here are some applications:

On the equality question also, it turns out in general that the more inspiring formulations are early within the Mencius, and the more discouraged or angry ones are late. The trajectory of the equality ideal in Mencius is thus from early affirmation to later rage or resignation. This is only too obviously in harmony with Don's observation about the victory of state power over everything else. Here again we have agreement.

Indeed, the agreement is a three-way one, since the Mencius text ends on very much the same note of defeat as does Don's book. Mencius, and his school after him, had hoped to carry on the work of the sage Confucius. But MC 7B38 concludes:

In time we are so near to the period of the sage, while in location we are so close to his home, yet if there is after all no one who has anything of the sage, well, then there is no one who has anything of the sage.

That is to say, the Mencian ideal is played out; there is no one to carry it on. These words of wry resignation, written less than 30 years before the Chin extirpation of all other polities, are the very last words in the Mencius text. They mark, we would say, the end of the Mencian hope. They have to be one of the saddest endings in all literature. Scarcely less poignant is the pain that runs like a leitmotif through the Jwangdz, with its many ways of hiding out in, or escaping altogether from, a dangerous and hostile present. Those Jwangdz pages were being written in the same discouraging period as the late Mencius chapters. Also reflecting the same dire conditions, but with a note of courage that may be refreshing to modern sensibilities, is the slightly earlier LY 18:6:

If the world possessed the Way, Chyou would not be doing his part to change it.

Or, in the same vein, LY 18:7

The gentleman's serving in office is merely doing his duty. That the Way does not obtain is something he knew before he started.

All this merely darkens an unfinished corner of Don's canvas, unless you count courage and dedication, regardless of the odds, as sparks of human light. However one counts it, we find that it is in complete harmony with the landscape which Don has already delineated in the middle of that canvas.

On the main point here, that all forms of thought except the technology of state control were smashed by the state in the classical period, and remain nonfunctional at the present time, we thus wind up in agreement with Don's book, and its climactic final judgement (albeit neither that final judgement, nor our own independent findings, are in precise alignment with his initially stated thesis). On points of detail within that larger agreement, such as how to deal with some apparent inconsistencies within the Mencius (or the Jwangdz, or the Dau/Dv Jing), we respectfully suggest that our labors may turn out to offer useful, if of course minor, clarifications.

We thus invite Don to stay in touch. It seems there may be things to talk about.

Calligraphic Separator

Postscript 5 Dec 01: As it turns out, Don seems to agree. In response to the above, he writes on this date affirming "how much we agree on fundamentals," and adding

With two exceptions, I fully agree that you and I share conclusions that are fundamental in Warring States Confucianism: the malleability of humans, that education works, and that education is a tool of political control. All this is central to the big picture."

The two exceptions can be dealt with in good time; they may be real differences of substance, or they may prove to be little more than differences of emphasis within the larger agreement. We are content to rest here on the note of larger agreement.

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