17 February 2018

Slavophilia of the ‘left’? Not quite, but close


A young Ivan Kireevsky [r], with his wife Natalya

Abbott Gleason puts an interesting paragraph into his English-language biography of Ivan Kireevsky, when describing his early involvement in the literary magazine, The European. For a bit of background, Kireevsky contributed “The Nineteenth Century” to The European (which was largely his own idea and creation) after having returned from his studies in Germany:
Just as “The Nineteenth Century” made the high-water mark of Kireevsky’s attraction toward the West—and, one might add, the contemporary world—the publicistic venture of the European marked his closest approximation to a “left” political position. In the first place, simply to chart the direction of contemporary Europe and say that Russia must become part of it was, in Russia, a political act. The Europe of Heine, Börne and (to a lesser extent) Menzel was a radical Europe.
Many of the ‘left’ elements Gleason identifies in Slavophil thought outlasted Kireevsky, along with Khomyakov and the rest of that first generation. Slavophilia never really abandoned (literary) realism. Even if their historiographical and philological projects were, on the whole, fanciful, they continued to seek out and highlight the differences between the Westernised nobility and the ‘authentic’ common people – and to point to the common people as possessing, in an imperfect form, the knowledge that was needed to guide the (hitherto absent) cultural awareness of the country as a whole. Likewise, for all the anti-German sentiments Kireevsky and Khomyakov would give voice to, Slavophilia never abandoned that hallmark of the Junges Deutschland: the stalwart defences of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Indeed, the suppression of the European under Nicholas I accentuated these ‘Young Russian’ tendencies in the first generation of Slavophils all the more. And even though Kireevsky himself turned away from this initial openness toward the Germans, these marks of left-Hegelianism would continue to show themselves in Slavophilia as a whole.

Gleason is not very sympathetic to placing the Slavophils on the ‘left’ in general. That’s fine. They were, after all, conservatives of a peculiar sort. And I’ve done my own pushback, when it comes to that first generation of Slavophils, both against the Berdyaevian position that makes them out to be crypto-anarchists, and against the Katkovian position that turns them into unreconstructed Russian nationalists.

My personal take on the Slavophils is closer to that of the Jewish-turned-Orthodox narodnik-revolutionary saint, Ilya Bunakov. Both the genius and the doom of the Slavophil movement was that it was syncretic in a way that opposed it to all sorts of liberalisms, both of the ‘right’ and of the ‘left’. The Slavophils had no truck at all with the right-liberalism of Chicherin, but their attitudes toward radical democrats like Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov were much more complex.

The Slavophils agreed with the radical democrats on several key issues – notably opposition to censorship; the abolition of serfdom; and the centrality of the local commune, obshchina, to Russian political œconomy – but could not conscientiously countenance the radical democrats’ embraces of constitutionalism and rationalism. And even where they agreed with the radical democrats, the Slavophils’ reasoning was reactionary rather than progressive. They hated censorship because it was instituted by the reforms of Peter the Great; they likewise detested serfdom because it was an import from the apostate West; and they loved the obshchina, a uniquely Slavic and Russian institution, because it could be defended from ‘ancient’ and pure Christian principles.

Still, this note on the syncretic roots of their ideas is needed and well-taken. They were not, as many seem to claim, merely stubborn and recalcitrant haters of all things Western. There was a moment of openness to the West that, in Khomyakov and Aksakov, expressed itself in a kind of Anglophilia, and in Kireevsky expressed itself in a selective borrowing from German idealist philosophy.

There’s always a Hitch…


Image courtesy the Daily Mail

And it’s usually worthwhile to read him. The younger one, that is.

Peter Hitchens notes that, this time (as so many times before), the Russians have been telling us the truth about the so-called ‘revolution of dignity’, which was in fact a right-wing putsch carried out by heavily-armed thugs, aimed against the legitimate and democratically-elected government of Viktor Yanukovich. Hitchens (and the paywalled article by David Roman which he cites) rightly alludes to the Waffen-SS insignia and other evidences of far-right hooliganism on the Maidan, which have been confirmed even by research friendly to the overall aims of the movement. To all of which can be added: the beatings by Maidan activists of unionists, journalists and non-whites, the arson attack which murdered 42 labour activists in Odessa, the ugly anti-Semitism which has not died down but gotten worse in the meantime.

The central point of the piece is solid; if I have any gripes with it, it’s that Mr Hitchens is a wee bit too soft on Saakashvili. Saakashvili as crusading anti-corruption outsider is rather laughable not only when you consider his Atlantic connexions in the early junta, but also when one considers his rôle as the sadistic, corrupt ex-dictator of Georgia (which country has since sensibly and rightly stripped the man of his citizenship and has sought to have him arrested and extradited).

Hitchens must be heeded on this point. (As a rule, I’ve found it a useful exercise to give notice to the Old Right, of whom Hitchens and Bacevich are representative, on these kinds of issues.) Now, it is true that the presence of fascism and far-right elements in the original Maidan protests has not given neo-Nazi parties like Svoboda or the Radical Party any immediate political benefits. But it’s clear that the willingness of more ‘moderate’ (read: neoliberal) parties to make common cause with fascists signals something about the nature of the current government itself, as well as about the nature of the opposition.

Let’s think back to the waning days of 2013. Yanukovich was overthrown because he refused to sign an accession agreement to the EU. Regardless of what you think of Yanukovich’s record prior to that (and believe me, it isn’t inspiring), speaking from the point of view of the welfare and dignity of the Ukraine’s working class, Yanukovich did the right thing in rejecting the agreement. The EU accession agreement was a textbook example of the exact same sort of œconomic liberalism that the interwar agrarians in Czechoslovakia made a point of explicitly rejecting in their own day. All trade barriers were to be removed. The investment was overwhelmingly to flow one way; the trade to flow the other. The beneficiaries of the agreement would essentially all be German (or Belgian, or French); the losers and victims would be Ukrainian. Sean Guillory summed it up eloquently:
I think there is a false choice here as much as there is a force choice. Ukraine’s desire to be in the EU should be separated from the problems with Yanukovich. But because of its dire economic situation, Ukraine is being forced to make a decision—cast its future with the EU or with Russia. But people must understand that the EU path—and frankly the association agreement doesn’t appear to be a path to membership. It is an attempt at neoliberalizing Ukraine.
It’s an attempt that has succeeded to a significant degree. But it hasn’t gone down simply. The Ukraine’s continuing transition into neoliberalism, privatisation and austerity has to disguise itself by ascribing false names to events that deserve their own explanation. It has to dehumanise people who fall out of line. Crimea’s annexation by Russia was legally dubious, though not without historical precedent; however, the attitudes of its people are anything but dubious: they prefer to be part of Russia by overwhelming majorities, and continue to be so. Protests against neoliberal trade policy that arose organically in the Donetsk Basin, largely among industrial workers there, were written off as a Russian operation. The Ukraine’s losses of both Crimea and parts of the Donbass were wholly avoidable self-fulfilling prophecies, arising from the fact that the post-2014 politicians wanted to keep the territory but couldn’t care less about the people who lived there.

Is the current Ukrainian government ‘far-right’ or ‘fascist’? No. It is neoliberal. That is a distinction that critical observers need to continue to make. However, that same neoliberal government continues to rely on far-right and fascist support, for everything from the rewriting of its history to the maintenance of the status and geopolitical alignment of its current political élites. It shouldn’t take someone like me to explain why that’s troubling.

And this is why voices of the Old Right, like those of Peter Hitchens and Andrew Bacevich, are so valuable. Very few people will listen to a leftist on these things – most of us (even and perhaps especially a left-conservative Slavophil like me) would just be accused of ‘red Putinism’, Soviet nostalgia or post-Occupy sour grapes. No one ever had cause to accuse Peter Hitchens of being soft on the commies. When these issues are couched in the language of realism, sober assessment of national interests, the balance of moral obligation with ability, the understanding of fallen human nature as having real-world ramifications – there is still a remote chance that people will listen.

16 February 2018

祝大家新年好


恭喜發財!大吉大利!萬事如意!狗年旺旺!新年快樂!

A very happy and blessed Lunar Year 4716 to one and all!

12 February 2018

Longing for love and justice – Qu Yuan and the Chuci


I’ve touched only very briefly on the topic of the poet and statesman Qu Yuan 屈原 (in whose honour the Dragon Boat Festival is held) on this blog; suffice it to say that I’m a fan. He belonged, very much so, to the class of literati gentlemen and scholar-officials, but his contributions to Chinese literature have had a much more ‘popular’, and I might even dare say ‘populist’ impact. I read a translation by Sir Arthur Waley of the Nine Songs 九哥 taken from the Songs of Chu 《楚辞》, which are traditionally credited to Qu Yuan; Waley approaches these poems from the standpoint of comparative religion and stresses the ritual-shamanistic element in them, but the poems, taken on their own, have powerful meanings that play with much broader themes.

Most of these Songs are love-songs, addressed to a powerful and beautiful woman (or man, or god) who bestows her love for a brief moment on the narrator, who recounts his longing, his happiness – and ultimately, his grief at having been ignored or left for another. Traditional Confucian commentators link these love-songs to historical figures like Shun (a superlatively-virtuous commoner who married two of the powerful Yao’s daughters); Waley ties these feelings to the practice of shamanistic rituals whereby spirits and gods are summoned and likened to lovers, who then leave the shaman after the ritual is completed; however, these Songs evoke a universal understanding of erōs. In the botanical and natural imagery of these Songs there is expressed a powerful yearning after completeness, complementation and harmony which is left unfulfilled. The shedding of thumb-rings and girdle-pieces in some of these poems denotes a willingness to part with all manner of worldly glory, power and respect for the sake of love. There is a ‘departure’ from the self, an apophasis in the space-breaks (which Waley refers to as a ‘mantic honeymoon’) which happens between the expression of desire and the lamentation of abandonment.

And there is another current that flows through these poems; oftentimes the god addressed is in control of a certain aspect of cosmic balance or harmony. In the song ‘Da Siming’ 大司命, there is reflected a standpoint that comes close to that of the ‘loyal minister’ who, seeking only to aid the god in ensuring peace and balance, is instead cast off by an uncaring or fickle-minded ruler. And, of course, this is what the historical Qu Yuan was most famous for. Qu Yuan had a high status, but lost it in part because he was willing to remonstrate with his high-born kin.

The tension between poet and politician is keenly felt, and it’s in these songs that the erotic urge and the desire for justice are most closely allied and indeed indistinguishable. Even in much later times, at the high points of Chinese art, the erotic impulse and the desire for justice intertwine themselves in precisely this way; one can see these twinned desires, for justice and consummation – the total demand for completion – reflected even in the ‘monstrous’, ‘nihilist’ imagination of Lu Xun 魯迅.

And then there is the class aspect cropping up again. Personally, I’m not qualified to discuss this yet, as I’ve only read the Nine Songs in Waley’s translation rather than in the Chinese original. However, contemporary Chinese commentators (like the socialist poet and martyr Wen Yiduo 聞一多) have made note that the Songs are composed in a style redolent of folk-art traditions, that make them easy for common people (and not merely literary gentlemen, statesmen and scholar-officials) to understand and sympathise with when they are performed. Again, I can’t really speak to the accessibility of the originals. However, the Nine Songs do carry themes of unrequited (or barely-requited) love and lamentation that are immediate even in translation; I can well imagine that they would have a powerful cross-class appeal even in early China.

EDIT 1 (13 Feb): I struggled for a bit with the question of making this a separate blog post or an addendum to my previous one. I guess I kind of needed to process this in order to give it another shot.

One of the frustrating things about reading Qu Yuan (or any other poet whose original works are in a language other than English) in translation, is that you are largely at the mercy of the translator. Now, I have nothing against Sir Arthur Waley, but the anthropological gloss he puts on the Nine Songs is heavy, and much of the plain meaning in the songs gets – if not lost – then, a bit muted. The pre-Confucian animistic-shamanistic ‘drama’ is, of course, all still there; however, the point that I was trying rather clumsily to make was that the broader and merely-human themes are still very much front-and-centre.

The exclusive emphasis on the shamanistic elements were part of what I was beginning to push back against in my ‘take’ yesterday on the Nine Songs: pointing to the immediately-accessible themes of erotic love and desire for harmony and completion, and the direct appeal to a much broader swathe of Chinese society than just the literati, the officials or the court. But I feel I haven’t done even that particularly well. Qu Yuan speaks in a much stronger voice than I was allowing him to do, and the fault there is mine, and not necessarily Waley’s.

Shamanistic content aside, the Songs still reflect very strongly a superlatively-pagan worldview. Male ‘actors’ and female ‘actresses’ call out in distressed longing for an otherworldly, other-sexed counterpart, awaiting (at best) a transient and æthereal consummation (Waley’s ‘mantic honeymoon’) whose completion will ultimately leave them in a state of wounded abjection. This doomed desire is represented as a kind of fleeting oracular genius which lies beyond the grasp of reason. Love in all its madness, all its danger, and even some of its heroic potential, is foremost in this poetic opus.

But to our age, this kind of paganism can seem naïve, even overwrought. We’re living in an age of Gnostic flight from the body, flight from biological sex, and a self-defensive flight from feeling, in a culture which is being, by degrees, depleted of its erotic content. We’re in an age which frowns on abjection and incompleteness – which seeks to make the individual self-sufficient, liberated, master of her own destiny. Qu Yuan’s narrators, on the other hand, are heart-rendingly insufficient to themselves. They are firmly and gloriously gendered. They are kenotic. They are conduits for an erōs that overmasters their self-interest in the most intimate possible way. In most cases they are rendered literally speechless at the mantic interlude. If we don’t find this earnestness somewhat too earnest, too cutting, too discomfiting, then in a certain sense we’re not allowing Qu Yuan to speak to us.

Of course, whatever else we might pretend (or psychologically hoodwink ourselves into believing about ourselves), we are gendered, vulnerable, incomplete – even broken. If Qu Yuan’s poetics can offer only cold consolation, a sense of ‘being in the same boat’ and perhaps a sense of solidarity among the broken, then at least they serve the purpose of making us aware of that brokenness for ourselves.

EDIT 2 (13 Feb): Here is Waley’s translation, along with the original Chinese, of The Princess of the Xiang 湘君:
君不行兮夷猶,蹇誰留兮中洲?
美要眇兮宜修,沛吾乘兮桂舟。
令沅湘兮無波,使江水兮安流!
望夫君兮未來,吹參差兮誰思!
駕飛龍兮北征,邅吾道兮洞庭。
薜荔柏兮蕙綢,蓀橈兮蘭旌。
望涔陽兮極浦,橫大江兮揚靈。
揚靈兮未極,女嬋媛兮為余太息。
橫流涕兮潺湲,隱思君兮陫側。
桂櫂兮蘭枻,斲冰兮積雪。
采薜荔兮水中,搴芙蓉兮木末。
心不同兮媒勞,恩不甚兮輕絕。
石瀨兮淺淺,飛龍兮翩翩。
交不忠兮怨長,期不信兮告余以不閒。
鼂騁騖兮江臯,夕弭節兮北渚。
鳥次兮屋上,水周兮堂下。
捐余玦兮江中,遺余佩兮醴浦。
采芳洲兮杜若,將以遺兮下女。
旹不可兮再得,聊逍遙兮容與。

The Princess does not come, she bides her time.
Jian! She is waiting for someone on that big island.
I will deck myself in all my handsome finery
And set out to find her, riding in my cassia-boat.
May the Yuan and Xiang raise no waves,
May the waters of the Great River flow quietly!
I look towards that Princess, but she does not come;
Blowing her pan-pipes there, of whom is she thinking?

Driving her winged dragons she has gone to the North;
I turn my boat and make for Dongting.
My awning is of fig-creeper, bound with basil.
My paddles of sweet flag, my banners are of orchid.
I gaze towards the furthest shores of Cenyang;
But athwart the Great River she lifts her godhead,
Lifts her godhead higher and ever higher;
Reluctant, her handmaids follow her; for my sake heave great sighs.
And my own tears flow aslant in an endless stream;
I long bitterly for my Lady and am in deep distress.
My oars of cassia-wood, my steering-plank of magnolia
Do but chip ice and pile up snow.
Can one pluck tree-creepers in the water?
Can one gather water-lilies from the boughs of a tree?
When hearts are not at one, the match-maker wearies;
Favour that was but scant is lightly severed.
These rocky shallows are hard to pass,
Those flying dragons sweep her far away.
In our union was no faithfulness, only grief has lasted;
She did not keep her tryst; told me that she was not free.
In the morning I gallop my horses through the lowlands by the River;
In the evening I stay my course at that northern shore.
The birds are settling on the roof-tops;
The waters circle under the hall.
I drop my ivory thumb-ring into the River,
I cast down my girdle-stones on the shores of the Li;
On a fragrant island I pluck the galingale,
Hoping for a chance to give it to her waiting-maids.
Though I know that the time can never come again,
For a while I loiter, pacing to and fro.

11 February 2018

The Last Judgement


When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand,

Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying,
Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them,
Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand,
Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

Then shall they also answer him, saying,
Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

Then shall he answer them, saying,
Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
It is a humbling and sobering thought, and has always been so to me. When the day of judgement, even the hour of judgement, is at hand: every act of charity that I considered but failed to do; each homeless man I passed by on the street; each needy person I could have helped help but didn’t – each and every one of these shall be present there with me. And I, who lived a life of comfort and little good (certainly none which I can call my own), will not be able to give an answer to them. My own sins of commission and omission will already have answered for me. The Least of These, the Blameless One, the Lamb of God crucified – the only truly complete human being – stands in silent judgement.

But that way lies Lent. That way lies Golgotha. That way lies the Resurrection.

The Last Judgement is not preached so that the already self-righteous can feel good about themselves. If I consider that Hell is only meant for those ‘other people’ and not for me, then I have missed the point at my own peril. It is preached to afflict Dives for his own sake, and make Lazarus visible to him. If the Last Judgement shows a harrowing vision of Hell to us (and it does to me!), then it is only so that the final word, the Harrowing of Hell and the resurrection of the dead, can be seen and felt with that much more hope. And so that the condition of ‘the least of these’ can be felt with that much more pity.
When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory,
All things shall tremble
And the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat;
The books shall be opened and the hidden things disclosed!
Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire,
And make me worthy to stand at Your right hand, righteous Judge!

09 February 2018

The Gongyang Commentary, just war and realism


Warfare during Spring and Autumn period

After having read the English translation of the Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, I came across a very interesting article by Yu Kam-por of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, discussing the treatment of warfare in the Spring and Autumn Annals and the circumstances under which Confucius and his followers believed political violence could be approved (or disapproved to varying degrees).

Dr Yu notes that the Gongyang tradition of hermeneutics of the Spring and Autumn is entirely based on degrees. Small injustices are to be preferred to great injustices, and injustices that arise from a proper concern for humanity are to be preferred to injustices that arise from a desire for gain. What this gradated differentiation of justice in war means also, is that even though some uses of force are preferable to states of greater injustice, no use of force can ever be perfectly just. Ironically, this places the Ruist understanding of just war much closer to the Orthodox ethical understanding of warfare than to classical Augustinian just war theory.

Even so, there are some clear dimensions along which the Gongyang Commentary differentiates more ‘just’ military actions from less ‘just’ ones. Here is how Dr Yu sorts the Gongyang Commentary’s jus ad bellum concerns:
  1. Proper aims. The Gongyang Commentary condemns wars undertaken offensively for enrichment of the state, even if they are justified externally as punishment of evildoers.

  2. Proper agency. The war must be declared by a legitimate authority. In descending order, the proper agents for carrying out a military action are: the Son of Heaven; a league of feudal states; an individual feudal state with a good reputation. Expeditions undertaken by individual states with bad track records are condemned.

  3. Proper evidence of wrongdoing. Mere surmises or even intentions (as opposed to wrong actions) are insufficient basis for declaring war on a particular target.

  4. Proper procedure. How this is differentiated from ‘proper agency’ is not entirely clear to me from Dr Yu’s paper. The Spring and Autumn Annals prefers punitive actions be taken by a league of allied states (batao 霸討) than unilaterally (zhuantao 專討).

  5. Proper declaration of hostilities. Sudden or surprise attacks (zhaji 詐擊) are condemned as ‘barbaric’.

  6. Proper timing. It’s considered good form to forbear from attacking a state in mourning, or one which is suffering from a natural disaster.
Pre-emptive strikes are roundly condemned among states which hold – to a greater degree – to the rituals of Zhou. However, there is limited allowance in the Spring and Autumn Annals for pre-emptive attack by a ‘civilised’ Central State against a ‘barbarian’ state that does not observe the ritual proprieties of Zhou, though again it is regarded as a less-than-ideal course of action.

It deserves stressing, again, that the degree to which a state is ‘civilised’ has nothing to do, in classical Chinese thinking, with race or geography, but with the extent to which the state follows the rites of Zhou. Even non-Han states could be considered ‘Chinese’ in this way, and Han states could lose their ‘Chinese’ status through cruel, deceitful or improper conduct. This is related to the reputation of a state related above.

With regard to jus in bello concerns, there are several concerns that are highlighted by the Spring and Autumn Annals:
  1. Proper placement. Wars that take place far from established population centres (pianzhan 偏戰) are preferable to wars that take place among civilians (zhazhan 詐戰), though of course non-violent solutions are normally preferable to both.

  2. Proper weapons. Fire attacks – and by extension, Dr Yu argues, any kind of weapon that kills indiscriminately or en masse – are condemned as cruel and inhumane because they kill innocents as well as enemies.

  3. Proper extent. This is what, in Augustinian just war theory, would be called proportionality: only the minimum amount of force required to achieve victory is sanctioned.

  4. Proper concern. The Spring and Autumn Annals praises generals and statesmen who disobey their superiors, even in a just expedition, in order to spare the lives of a defeated enemy, or one afflicted by hunger or disease.
Dr Yu stresses that these standards are not absolute and that they are meant to serve as gradated guidelines in a world ruled by the demands of realpolitik. ‘We can say that the principles expressed in the Spring and Autumn Annals are a reasonable integration of idealism and realism.’ After all, the conception of history in the Spring and Autumn Annals is one of a ‘long defeat’ in which the idyllic ways of the ancients are no longer observed or even respected, and in which libido dominandi among feudal lords, grand officials and servants of states becomes a stronger motivating force for action than ritual propriety. The Spring and Autumn standards, again, are meant to strike a balance between the absolute geopolitical realism of the legalists, and the absolute idealism of the Mohists. What is left in this classical school of thought is a kind of moderate realism, based on historical precedent rather than abstract principles, which understands the tension between the demands of morality and propriety on the one hand, and the preconditions for success on the other.

08 February 2018

Gongyang history: cosmology, teleology, eschatology


The Spring and Autumn Annals (or Chunqiu 《春秋》), one of the Five Classics of the Ru canon, is – on the surface – a rather dry, terse chronicle of the reigns of the Dukes of Lu between 722 and 467 BC. Five different commentaries were written after it: Zuo 《左氏傳》, Zou 《鄒氏傳》 (no longer extant), Jia 《夾氏傳》 (no longer extant), Guliang 《穀梁傳》 and Gongyang 《公羊傳》, to explicate the meaning of the main text, supposedly written by Confucius himself. Historian Harry Miller, two years ago, obligingly translated the Gongyang Commentary into English for the first time – a translation I have just read.

The format is catechetical, taking the form of a question-and-answer between student and teacher. According to Ban Gu, the teacher was Bu Shang 卜商, better known by his courtesy name Zixia 子夏, one of Confucius’ pupils. Bu Shang transmitted his master’s unwritten comments to Gongyang Gao 公羊高, who then passed the scholarly catechesis down along his own family line until it could be committed to writing by Gongyang Shou 公羊壽 and his student, Master Humu 胡母生, who would go on to instruct Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒.

The first thing that struck me on reading the Gongyang Commentary, is that it assigns a value to the history itself that seems – I beg pardon for the anachronism and the cultural conceit – almost Russian in character. Speaking particularly with the monastic authors of the early Russian Chronicles in mind, Russian religious historian Gyorgi Fedotov writes in the first volume of The Russian Religious Mind:
The Russian religious feeling of history has nothing mystical about it. It is lacking in the sense of the dualism of the two worlds which is a necessary premise for every symbolic interpretation. God is immanent in history, as He would be in nature, too. Therefore every historical fact receives its own value. The historical world is as grand and meaningful as the physical world. This explains why the religious interpretation of history did no harm to the concreteness and matter-of-factness of Russian historiography. The Russian chronicler keeps himself free from theological speculations; he keeps his eyes and ears open to the impressions of social realities.
At the same time, the reason that historiography has had such an important sway over the Russian religious mind, in Fedotov’s view, has more to do with the Russian openness to eschatology. Fedotov speaks, in the same work, of ‘the cosmological and historical interests of the Russian readers, confirmed … by original Russian literature. Religious cosmology and history, based upon an eschatological background, were the two theoretical poles of the Russian mind’.

This seems to describe quite well, also, the preoccupations of the Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals – particularly when compared to other Chinese works of history and historical commentary. History is never treated as anything ‘more’ or ‘less’ than history; even if it requires some subversion of the usual pieties, the Commentary is scrupulous even when it comes to ‘correcting’ the record or citing some euphemism in the original Spring and Autumn as an ‘official story’ which doesn’t necessarily reflect the whole of the truth. At the same time, even this relatively-brief three-hundred-year history is imbued with an eschatological and cosmological – but not metaphysical – meaning.

The ‘teacher’ in the catechetical dialogues notes that at the beginning of the Spring and Autumn, there is order. The calendar is aligned with the will of the King of Zhou. Duke Yin is a humble and selfless ‘worthy’ following the Way of the ancients, who plans to abdicate to his half-brother Huan when the latter gains his majority. Grand officers keep their places, and the stewards below them keep theirs. Although these portrayals are consistent, as we are given to understand, with the historical record, there is a teleological indication in this portrayal of the kind, caring, humble and gentle ways – the ways of humaneness – that supposedly prevailed in the days of Yao and Shun.

But history enters the picture. Greed and ambition begin to appear, and the Commentary begins to draw attention to the placement of ‘blame’: the subtle demotions, euphemistic understatements and interpolations of sarcasm and ridicule that, in the mind of the ‘teacher’ of the catechesis, indicate wrongdoing on the part of some historical figure. The Earl (actually Duke) of Zheng commits the sin of Cain by killing his brother Duan, and is duly demoted for it. Later, Wuhai invades the state of Ji. Here is the catechetical commentary on the latter case:
Wuhai, commanding an army, invaded the state of Ji.
Who was Wuhai? Wuhai refers to Zhan Wuhai.

Why is his surname not given? To denigrate him.

Why denigrate him? Because he is the one who began the process of destroying other states.

Did the process of destroying other states really begin with him? No, there were earlier cases.

If there were earlier cases, why maintain that the process began with him? The process is simply being represented as having begun with him.

Why is the process being represented as having begun with him? Because it is the first instance of it that falls within the chronological scope of the Annals.

If Ji was destroyed, why does the record say only that Ji was “invaded”? Here, the word “invaded” is a euphemism for the greater evil, designed to lessen the infamy of the state of Lu.
This is actually typical in the early part of the Gongyang Commentary of several crimes which make their first appearance in the reigns of Duke Yin and Duke Huan. They are indicative of a kind of historical decline in ritual propriety and in morals that becomes felt more and more strongly toward the end of the history. Feudal lords begin to usurp powers for themselves that rightfully belong to the Son of Heaven (that is to say, the King of Zhou). Subsequently, the grand officers of the feudal lords begin to usurp power for themselves. And toward the end of the history, even the grand officers find themselves contending with their own stewards and servants who begin showing ambition and manoeuvre for advancement and material gain.

On another level, too, this is both a cosmic history and a history for and with concern with the common people. Regularly recounted are ‘marvels’ and ‘disasters’ which – though they have a direct bearing on the ruler’s character according to classical cosmology – are still material events that affect the lives of common people and the social realities of their lives under rulers whose sense of propriety seems to be getting progressively worse. These marvels and disasters are recounted in a matter-of-fact way, without reference to their cosmological significance.

Several ‘worthies’ make their appearance in the Gongyang Commentary, and the nature of their ‘worthiness’ seems remarkably consistent throughout: when they see an opportunity for political or material advancement, or even an opportunity to spare their own life from an intrigue against their superiors, they refuse to take it – and as often as not, die in acts of heroism trying to save their lieges.

One such act of heroism is heavily foreshadowed – that of Lady Gong, the Eldest Daughter of Duke Cheng. During a fire that breaks out in the Song palace, Lady Gong is repeatedly begged by court officials to flee to safety, but refuses to abandon her children’s nurse to the flames, and so perishes herself. This one act of humane altruism on behalf of her servant makes her worthy of repeated mention by Confucius and even an honorific posthumous title. But this act of heroism comes at a time when grand officers are busily scheming and plotting with each other behind the scenes, and as often as not are running states on their own initiative and according to their own libido dominandi, without reference to loyalty either to their feudal lords or to the Son of Heaven – by this point almost entirely absent from the narrative. The ‘teacher’ in the Commentary even fulminates in exasperation, toward the end of the reign of Duke Zhao: ‘the men of the Central States had recently begun acting like foreigners’, whereas the ‘foreigners’ of the Wu tribe ‘had made some progress’ in becoming more like Zhou, more humane, and thus more Chinese.

Tolkien, with his sharp sense of this kind of meaning within history, would doubtless call the Spring and Autumn Annals a representation of the ‘long defeat’, and I can well imagine Bu Shang (or whomever the authoritative voice of the ‘teacher’ in this catechesis is) would agree. But these acts of worthiness, heroism, altruism and human pity punctuate a history that is awash with examples of intrigue, bribery, backstabbing, cruelty, theft, illicit sex and violence, and afford a certain glimpse of eschatological hope. The final entry of the Spring and Autumn Annals makes mention of a ‘unicorn’ (that is to say, a lin) that was captured in a hunt. This excerpt is from the Gongyang Commentary’s final entry:
It was the year fourteen, in the spring. During a hunt to the west, a unicorn was captured.
Why is this recorded? To make note of a marvel.

What is the marvel? The marvel is that such an animal is not native to the Central States…

Why is it a great thing to capture a unicorn? The unicorn symbolizes humaneness. It appears when there is a true king and does not appear when there is no true king. As someone reported on this occasion, “It’s like a roe but with a horn,” to which Confucius said, “So! He is coming, then. He is coming!” He turned out his sleeves to wipe away his tears, until the front of his robe was dampened. When Yan Yuan died, Confucius said, “Alas! Heaven is destroying me!” When Sir Lu died, Confucius said, “Alas! Heaven is cutting me off!” But when, “during a hunt to the west, a unicorn was captured,” Confucius said, “Now my Way has served its purpose.”
This final entry is pregnant with the hope that ‘he’ (that is, in the words of the Gongyang Commentary, someone who ‘delights in the Way of Yao and Shun’) will soon arrive, and with Confucius’ own assurance that this one great task of his – the task of recounting the history of the past three hundred years, for ‘his’ benefit – has been accomplished.

There is, then, a personalist angle to this history as well. The history of the Spring and Autumn isn’t simply bare facts. The Gongyang Commentary proceeds as though Confucius has a particular audience in mind – and not primarily the Duke of Lu for whom he is officially working. It also proceeds as though the history itself can speak, dialectically, to the attentive student. Unlike in later works of history, or even the Commentaries, the didacticism and moralism are rarely explicit within the Spring and Autumn text itself, but are left to be sussed out by the questioner.

What is interesting as well is the Gongyang Commentary’s treatment of private justice, or revenge – and this treatment brings the text somewhat (though not entirely, and by no means as much as the critics of Gongyang Confucianism would have us believe) into conflict with the Mencian treatment of private justice. In general, the ‘teacher’ in the catechesis takes a fairly dim view of private revenge, and condones it only in cases where all other workings of justice have been exhausted:
If the father is wrongfully executed, then it is quite permissible for the son to avenge him. However, if the father is rightfully executed, and the son chooses to avenge him, then he is foolishly starting down the path of endless vengeance and counter-vengeance. Just revenge is not simply a matter of eliminating one’s enemies or rivals. The important thing is for friends to stand up for each other and to refrain from seeking advantage over each other in the first place. That is the way of the ancients.
Likewise, one of the ‘worthies’ praised by the catechist, Prince Jizha of Wu, says this to Helu, who has just killed Jizha’s older brother and offered him the throne:
You have assassinated my ruler. Were I to accept the state from you, then I will have conspired with you to usurp the throne. Furthermore, if you kill my brother and I kill you, then there will be no end to the killing among fathers, sons, and older and younger brothers.
The key factor for the Gongyang catechist is balance. Human beings are complex, and are considered as both ‘public’ and ‘private’ (to use a somewhat anachronistic phrasing) creatures – the ‘self-institution’ dialectic which I’ve mentioned so often on this blog is explored from both sides. Filiality in children is praised – to a point. The value of filial piety is primary, but not absolute; sometimes, in the catechist’s view, public obligations must take priority over family ones. People who emphasise one relationship to the exclusion of others are chastised.

The teleological approach to history which the Gongyang offers – from a period of order and stability through periods of crisis and disorder, toward an expected messianic renewal under a sage or a lover of the Way – does stand in marked contrast to the cyclical view which came to predominate later, post-classical Chinese history and cosmology. And yes, I am deliberately drawing the comparisons to the Russian apocalyptic and Tolkienian views of history specifically to highlight that contrast. But it does not follow therefore that the Gongyang Commentary’s more linear view of history is less, or less-authentically, Ruist.