Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

When Confucius criticizes Zhu Xi and more stories…

When Confucius criticizes Zhu Xi and more stories…


I have had the chance to come across fascinating interpretations of the Great Learning in a book titled Daxue zhengshi 大學證釋 (Evidential Interpretation of the Great Learning). To be more accurate, the striking part of the story lies less in the philosophical originality of the interpretations than in the identity of the commentators.

In this volume, the original Daxue text is commented upon by a series of sages (liesheng qishu 列聖齊述) including Confucius, Yan Hui, Zengzi and Mencius… Zhu Xi was also a contributor to this volume and provided a nice self-criticism piece about his problematic Song-dynasty interpretations of the text. He finally admitted that he got it completely wrong with his former discussions on the “extension of knowledge lying in the investigation of things” (zhizhi zai gewu  致知在格物), etc…  Among the other contributions, the one of Confucius was interesting but I doubt that Zhu Xi enjoyed it much because it happens that he was wrong again ! Kongzi’s line of argument was the following: basing himself on Zhu Xi’s edited introductory sentence of the Daxue (大學之道,在明明德 , 在親民,在止於至善) he criticized Zhu’s replacement of the original 在親親 , 在新民 by 在親民  (understood as: 在新民). He posited that these changes did not reflect “the entirety of Confucian doctrine” (fei rujiao jiaoyi zhi quan yi 非儒教教義之全矣) and highlighted the fact that ideas such as “ruling the country primarily requires to regulate the family” (zhi guo bi xian qi jia 治國必先齊家) or “the foundations of the country lie in the family” (guo zhi ben zai jia 國之本在家) all originated from the “affection to the kindred” (親親), that is, from characters cut off  by Zhu Xi….

I will skip my comments on these comments and concentrate on some background information that might be more interesting. Documents gathered in this volume were obtained in the course of spirit writing sessions that are said to have taken place in different parts of Mainland China approximately between 1910 and 1930 (nothing is indicated in the book, I was told this during interviews). They originate from the Way of Pervading Unity or Yiguandao, a sectarian movement  (or “redemptive society”) inheriting from an ancient syncretistic and millenarian tradition and that is nowadays sometimes sociologically described as a “new religious movement”.

Spirit writing (fuluan 扶鸞, fuji 扶乩) is a very ancient practice that is not specific to the Yiguandao — it has been popular in China for centuries and may be for instance performed in Daoist circles. It consists in communicating with the spirits of xianfo 仙佛 and in letting them convey their instructions or messages to the living. It is performed by three persons (san cai 三才), nowadays generally young women, who are especially selected and trained. One of them (called tiancai 天才) uses a wooden planchette thanks to which she writes characters in the sand. The characters are supposed to be dictated by “saints and buddhas” and the tiancai basically only channels their messages through her body. Her personality is supposed to be put aside during the session and her action (that is, the concrete activity of writing in the sand) is seemingly totally devoid of any intentionality and willpower. The second girl (dicai 地才) reads loudly what the first writes quickly in the sand whereas the third one (rencai 人才) records the character on a paper (or, sometimes now, in a computer).

“Saints and Buddhas” providing instructions and comments in the course of spirit writing sessions are many. More often than not, texts produced within this context do not have the somewhat academic flavour of detailed commentaries on the classics. But as was illustrated here these commentaries also exist and they nowadays continue to be produced. If we add that movements such as the Yiguandao claim a strong Confucian identity (even though syncretism is definitely prevailing), closely associate texts such as the Daxue with concrete self-cultivation practices and also refer to sets of (non spirit-writing) sectarian scriptures influenced by Song – Ming neo-Confucianism, we have here a fascinating case of creative popular and religious appropriation of “the mainstream Confucian tradition”.

November 21, 2012 Posted by | Chinese philosophy | Leave a comment