Review by
Alice W Cheang
The Review of Polities v62 #3 (Summer 2000) 564-581

We here include, with the author's permission, the last segment of her long review article discussing four recent translations of the Analects.

. . . we are doubly fortunate to have the work of both Leys and the Brooks team, not the least because their endeavors are in many ways complementary. Leys is interested in a Confucius who can speak to the general reader; Brooks's Confucius is a philologist's marvel. Leys gravitates towards those aspects of the text that illustrate proclivities still prevalent in Chinese popular and institutional culture today. With Brooks we are never allowed to forget the oldness of the text, its textured and multilayered historicity, for, behind their ambitious scheme to reconstruct the original text is an even more ambitious one of using that text to write a history of Warring States China.

Building on the investigations of the seventeenth-century textual scholar Cui Shu (to whom their translation is dedicated) and taking further direction from inspired questions asked by more recent scholars, such as Arthur Waley, the Brooks team has developed an "accretion theory" that purports to account for the entire manuscript history of the Analects, including all questions of dating and authorship - the history of how the text of the Analects came to be, reconstructed to show every single passage in the order of its original composition. In other words, it is possible not only to know not only which parts of the Analects are authentic representations of sayings of the historical Confucius (one book), but also who wrote all the other parts of the text and at what time (the remaining books, at the rate of roughly one book per generation by a new head of the Confucian school). This steady rate of accumulation, which would have resulted in orderly and symmetrical shape, was complicated as consecutive school heads, besides writing new books, felt pressured by a rapidly changing political and social climate to modify the existing books so as to bring the text up to date as a whole.

This leads Brooks to the second and more convoluted part of their theory: the reconstruction of the order in which new passages were composed and interpolated into the preexisting material. According to Brooks, this explains the disorderly arrangement of the text in its present recension as will as the intrusion of material from later periods into the earlier strata. For instance, passages on cosmology and the law, both relatively late developments in Warring States Thinking, were introduced into the earlier books in order to prove that the Confucians had counterarguments to refute these competing movements from the beginning. Interpolation also accounts for the presence of what are now Books I, II, and III: these were composed in reverse order and then placed strategically at the head of the text in order to bring to the fore the thematic concerns featured in each book. Hence, Book III, which is almost exclusively about ritual (li), was preposed in order to give the existing text more of the appearance of a ritual treatise, highlighting the role of the Confucians as ritual experts; Book I, with its strong emphasis on self-cultivation, came later on, when the Confucians had lost their position at the Lu court, but its placement at the beginning of the text has, in Brooks's view, permanently altered the way we read the Analects.

The Brooks hypothesis is brilliant if outrageous; unfortunately, it cannot be proved. The authors base their arguments, partly on solid evidence, partly on speculation, or, in their own words, some of what they say is "intrinsically plausible" and some "archaeologically attested." As for which is which, it is hard to tell: the authors seem to alternate indiscriminately between the two, so that what is theoretical may not necessarily be underlain by fact, but by more theory. At the same time their textual analysis is unquestionably sound; in terms of its philological grounding, the Brooks translation is far superior to any of the others being reviewed here.

If we are willing to suspend disbelief for the nonce and read Brooks for the sheer pique and pleasure of watching prodigious minds at work, we stand to benefit in the following ways:

(a) Reading the text as evolving steadily over the course of nearly three centuries makes it possible to account for otherwise inexplicable changes in the Analects lexicon. For example, ren, which occurs throughout the text in a perplexing range of usages, has an early definition as a martial virtue but later acquires more mystical dimensions. This evolutionary view may also explain the puzzling existence of Book I: using analogies with studies in Christology, Brooks shows how, as the Confucian movement grew and emphasis shifted gradually from the figure of the founder to the content of the ideology itself, it would have become necessary to include a book which presents an abstract portrait of the ideal gentleman, as distinct from the idealized Confucius.

(b) The interpolation theory accounts in principle for all inconsistencies in the text: if the books were compiled by different school heads with different agendas - some of whom meant to refute their predecessors - the inclusion of material with conflicting points of view would be a matter of course.

(c) The textual scholarship in the Brooks translation provides the basis for a moving and persuasive interpretation of Warring States society in general and the dynamic interactions among the Hundred Schools in particular. This is, above all, a picture of Confucianism in action, as Brooks shows the movement growing in response, internally to the pressures of school politics and changing relationships at the Lu court, externally to the challenge presented by other schools - Micians in the early strata of the Analects, Taoists and Legalists in the later. To date, the Brooks hypothesis offers the only possible explanation for the presence of the so-called Taoist material in the last five books that has vexed Analects scholarship for centuries. Lambasting Waley and others for suggesting that the material must have crept in by mistake, they argue that these books, written at the height of the Hundred Schools debate in the third century BC, represent the Confucian school as it engaged the Taoists on their own turf - co-opting the Zhuangzi-an anecdote to depict Confucius triumphant in encounters with Taoists, just as contemporary Taoist writings were showing him defeated.

(d) Finally, by placing the early Confucian movement in the context of its times and showing us what a chimerical, syncretic creature it was even in those formative years, the Brookses have given us a valuable clue to Confucianism's seemingly indomitable aptitude for survival in subsequent periods. At the same time, they are careful to emphasize that, even as the schools kept pace with the mercurial social and political transformations of which the Qin conquest marked the final culmination, it remained, in the thrust of its ideological development, true to the personality of Confucius, that is, to the values personified in him. To put it in classical Chinese terms, constancy to an ideal harmonized with adaptability to circumstances (the twin themes of tong and bian in the Book of Changes) to give Confucianism its extraordinary continuity when all other political philosophies of the Warring States have become academic phantasms - a continuity in which it has become intertwined with the very soul of Chinese civilization.

Bruce and Taeko Brooks, Comment 2006: As a mere methodological footnote, we may review in a few words our procedure with the Analects, which is the same as that with every other early text we have studied. It is (1) to examine the form of the text, detect its underlying tendencies, and identify its probable distortions, which in the Analects case are mostly interpolations; then (2) identify differences of content as well as inconcinnities of form; finally, (3) note anachronisms or contemporary references, including engagements with more readily dated texts, which anchor the formal hypothesis in time at several points. All this yields a theory of the text, based on no predispositions as to the content of the teachings of Confucius or any of his later followers. The proof of this philological construct is then to be sought in an independent question: whether reading the text in that way yields a picture which is (4) historically reasonable, and (5) does not introduce any new problems in place of the ones which it solves.

The last four paragraphs of the above review are the most thorough test of the hypothesis known to us. That test reveals motives which are individually recognizable and strategies which are collectively intelligible, and at the end, adds to our understanding not only of the history of Confucianism, but of the dedication and power at its core which enabled it to go on having a history, across some of the most intellectually turbulent centuries China has ever known.

The reasonableness of this historical picture is capable of much further development. For a detailed study of the way in which 04th century thought evolved together, and how the Analects took its place as one strand in the great theoretical developments of that period, see now A Taeko Brooks, Heaven, Li, and the Formation of the Zuozhuan, Oriens Extremus v44 (2003-2004) 51-100.

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