Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Logic in the service of rudeness and insult

Hopefully, a more lighthearted one. In the Yanzi Chunqiu 《晏子春秋》 (ca. 3rd Century B.C.) we find the following anecdote:

晏子使楚,以晏子短,楚人為小門于大門之側而延晏子。晏子不入,曰:「使狗國者,從狗門入;今臣使楚,不當從此門入。」儐者更道從大門入,見楚王。王曰: 「齊無人耶?」晏子對曰:「臨淄三百閭,張袂成陰,揮汗成雨,比肩繼踵而在,何為無人?」王曰:「然則子何為使乎?」晏子對曰:「齊命使,各有所主,其賢 者使使賢王,不肖者使使不肖王。嬰最不肖,故直使楚矣。」

And here is my translation-paraphrase, with some liberties taken along the way:

Yanzi was sent as an envoy to Chu. The King of Chu, seeing that he is short of stature, had a small gate made beside the main entrance to the capital city and invited Yanzi to enter from there.

Yanzi refused, saying: “He who is sent as an envoy to a doggy-town enter by way of a doggy-gate. Now since I have been sent as an envoy to Chu, it is not appropriate that should I enter through such a gate.”

Stumped, Chu’s diplomatic corps led Yanzi to enter by way of the main gate, and brought him to the king.

Upon receiving Yanzi, the King said: “Are there no people in Qi, that it should send you as the envoy?”

Yanzi replied: “Qi’s capital city Linzi has some 300 boroughs. If all the inhabitants were to wave their shirtsleeves it would be enough to cover the sun, and if they were all to wipe sweat off their brows it would be enough to make rain. It’s so crowded that people walk cheek by jowl–how should there be no people?”

The King said: “If that is so why then send you?”

Yanzi replied: “There is method to the way Qi assigns envoys to foreign countries. The talented ones are sent to talented kings while the unworthy ones are sent to unworthy kings. I am the most unworthy, ergo, they sent me straight here…”

Logic “in the service of rudeness and insult” was how Christoph Harbsmeier introduced the above in his contribution to Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, Vol 7.1–“Language and Logic”.
I am not persuaded by H’s analysis of the logic though. The following is how he spells out the two implicit arguments:

1. Qi would only send something too insignificant to count as a man like Yanzi if there were no people in Qi.
2. Qi has sent something too insignificant to count as a man–Yanzi.
3. Ergo, There are no people in Chi.

4. Qi sends to each country an ambassador who corresponds to the quality of the country’s king.
5. Chu has the most untalented of kings.
6. Chu deserves the most untalented of ambassadors.
7. Yanzi is the most untalented of ambassadors.
8. Ergo, Qi sends Yanzi to Chu.

In a way, these reconstructions do represent something that is in the text–and in the case of B, even quite explicitly on the surface of the text. But I don’t think the reconstructions actually captured the point of the rudeness or insult, and to that extent, they do not quite capture how logic was put in the employ of the rudeness or insult.

Take A for instance. I take it that something in the region of 2. rather than 3. is supposed to be the punchline. My own analysis is more complicated. Grant the truth of:

(a) Yanzi is the envoy (too obvious).
(b) There are people in Qi, lots of them (notice that the King purposely asked Yanzi to confirm this, setting him up for the fall).

The king then goes for the kill: “If that–i.e., (b)–is so why then send you?” But what is the point of that rhetorical question? What the king is implying is this:

(c) If it’s really true that there are (lots of) people in Qi, then Yanzi wouldn’t have been the ambassador; i.e., if (b) is true, then it wouldn’t be that (a).

But why would that be the case? By asking the rhetorical question, the king implies (c); but the underlying point is actually this:

(c’). If it’s really true that there are (lots of) people in Qi, then Yanzi–who is too insignificant to count as a man–would not have been the envoy.

Which is why, I, the king, am innocently asking: “What gives? How come you?” In other words, the king’s ‘puzzlement’ make sense only given the presupposition:

(d) Yanzi is too insignificant to count as a man.

And that is the (insulting) point Yanzi and everyone else at court is suppose to draw. Without saying as much, the king thus insinuates (by logical means plus a good dose of conversational implicature), that Yanzi is not a real man.

I think H also gets Yanzi’s response wrong, though this time, on the face of it, B actually captures the exact surface logic of Yanzi’s reply. But the punchline is not 8.–it’s supposed to be 5. If we go by how the thoughts are supposed to progress to the punchline, we get the below. Grant the truth of:

(e) Qi sends to each country an envoy who corresponds to the quality of the country’s king.
(f) I, Yanzi, am the most unworthy.
(g) I, Yanzi, have been sent here, to Chu.

Ergo, you–the king–should be able to guess why it has to be me; because:

(h) Chu has a most unworthy king.

Ba dum tsh (or whatever they do in ancient China for that).

April 28, 2011 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy


  1. That seems exactly right, Loy! But Yanzi’s final argument does undercut his opening argument.

    I find the stories about Yanzi quite striking: they show him doing exactly the opposite of what we at first might think a smart diplomat should do. One could of course take that point as part of the joke. But even modern diplomacy also involves wrangling over protocol, i.e. fighting over symbolic expressions of the relative respect due among the parties. I gather that sort of symbolic struggle was especially important in the Spring & Autumn Period. I wonder just how unrealistic the stories of Yanzi are.

    Comment by Bill Haines | April 28, 2011 | Reply

  2. Hm. Many of the conversations of Mengzi have this in common with the conversations of Yanzi: that their point is to show the protagonist arguing unanswerably that the ruler, the protagonist’s interlocutor, is the party responsible for this or that: presumably a common theme between counselors and rulers. The Mengzi conversations amount to a useful handbook of rhetoric for counselors, but the Yanzi conversations seem in a way to be the opposite: if they were widely known they might even amount in effect to cautionary tales for rulers: be wary of those intellectuals, they’re tricky bastards. A priori, I’d have expected the latter sort of literature to come later.

    Comment by Bill Haines | April 29, 2011 | Reply

  3. Good observation re: the Yanzi vs. the Mencius, Bill. But if I’m a king, I’m not sure that I would find Mencius that much more appealing. Yanzi might be a ‘tricky bastard’ who bites back if you try to insult him, Mencius is willing to go all moralizing even before one does any insulting (try 1A1). The stories about Dengzi, on the other hand, fits the description of ‘tricky intellectuals’ to a T.

    To me at least, the stories in the Yanzi have a bit of unreality about them. But then is it just that we don’t know enough about how such diplomatic engagements work in the Spring and Autumn period, or just how much one is allowed to go (provided one’s insults are witty, elegantly stated, etc.). I don’t know.

    About the final argument undercutting the first argument, maybe. Though we could split some hairs and insist that even though Chu might not be a 狗國, it has a 不肖王…

    Comment by Hui-chieh Loy | April 29, 2011 | Reply

    • I agree. But the Yanzi conversations, unlike the Mengzi conversations, seem to me like popular literature, with their tricky dastardliness fully apparent even to the most casual reader/listener.

      Comment by Bill Haines | April 29, 2011 | Reply

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