Teaching Yang Zhu
In my Classical Chinese Philosophy class I like to include some discussion of why Yang Zhu was seen as such a powerful adversary for Mengzi and the Confucians, but given the paucity of texts the task is not an easy one.
I’ve found John Emerson’s “Yang Chu’s Discovery of the Body” (PEW 46.4) helpful in this regard. Emerson’s article is part intellectual history, part comparative anthropology, part sociology. There is a lot of discussion of ‘clan life’ and ‘clan rituals’ and I think the anthropological element helps to give flesh to some of the assumptions of the Ru.
Emerson makes the following reconstruction of the Yangist position: the Yangists were for private life over public life, the family over the court, and highlighted the weakness of the Confucians, who had this hybrid system of clan loyalty and public life that was dangerous and untenable. Some choice bits:
… the court and the clan are two entirely different social groups, in both their constitution and their function, and the more Chinese culture expanded, the more fictional the psuedokinship bonds became–for example, between the Eastern Chou and the semibarbarous states of Ch’in and Ch’u… To begin, it has to be shown how the Confucian attempt to model the state on the family was plausible at all. (539)
…the Confucian project amounts to an attempt to extend segmentary clan organization over an entire nation. But even on a smaller scale such systems are notoriously susceptible to fission, and at a certain indeterminate kinship distance, relatives are normally enemies. (547)
… For Yang Chu, this whole public world was external and null, more likely a hindrance than a help. He ignored all public identification and found value only in the private world. His rejection of the ritual world can be thought of in part as a response to the corruption of public life lamented by Confucius, but his goal was not to rectify the public rituals but to avoid them. In this corrupted world, splendid ceremonials still dominated public life, but they had been stripped of their ethical content and ritual meaning and were merely entertainments–and risky ones at that. Because of this loss of meaning and because of the risks (dismemberment and death) involved in the new order, Yang Chu’s rejection of public life and dedication to self-cultivation, originally a bold minority position, became widely persuasive.
Emerson’s (manifestly charitable) interpretation of Yang Zhu helps students in a couple of ways (or so it seems to me): 1) it helps understand why Yang Zhu may have been so influential to begin with (if we take Mengzi’s claim at face value); 2) it helps carve out the early intellectual landscape in terms of Ru-Mo-Yang, and 3) it helps them get out of the habit of thinking Confucian=Chinese.
Do you include Yangism in your classes? Have you used Emerson? (Who is Emerson? I can’t find any affiliations.) If not, do you assign any other readings? Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated.