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Scripture, Canon, and Commentary: A Comparison of Confucian and Western Exegesis.

"The history of Confucianism is the history of the exegesis of the classics, just as that of Christianity is the history of biblical exegesis; the same is also true of Buddhism."(1) This authoritative pronouncement by the late Professor Demieville is an apposite program statement on the need for entering the scholarly fray on Confucianism from the point of view of its commentarial tradition; it also suggests the value of a comparative approach. With this splendid book John B. Henderson fulfills both these expectations in joining an academic enterprise hitherto monopolized by Chinese and Japanese scholars. Building on this traditional body of secondary literature, Henderson adds an entirely new dimension derived from the theoretical concepts and interpretive tools of modern Western religious scholarship, literary criticism, and theory, to expose the unspoken assumptions, hermeneutical aims, and exegetical strategies brought to bear by Confucian exegetes in commenting on a canon.

Henderson's purpose is to explore the commentarial tradition that first delimited, closed, reopened and rearranged, and finally explicated over generations the canonized classics of Confucianism, comparing this tradition in turn with the work of historical and modern commentators on rabbinic Judaism, the Bible, the Quran, the Indian Vedanta, and the Homeric epics. The range of his reading in the primary sources--through the medium of translation, except for Chinese--and in an extended array of the secondary literature of each canonical tradition is most impressive. Because of this, his examples of exegetes and exegesis are always as apt as they are varied.

A lengthy introduction first justifies treating the literary classics of one culture with the political canon of another, comparing both to the religious scriptures of yet another. The first two chapters, "Origins and Antecedents of the Classics," and "Integration, Development, and Closure of Canons," set the stage by defining a canon and analyzing the process and importance of its formation. Chapter three, "Origins, Dimensions, and Apotheosis of Commentaries," stresses that many early classics which were quickly canonized originated as commentaries to other classics, and that later commentaries, because of changing political and intellectual climates, were sometimes elevated to the same status. The impetus for composing commentaries and even specific techniques arose in part from the interpretive traditions of dream, omen, and oracle divination. Thus the political function and influence of the diviner is the heritage of the commentator. Other important contributions of this chapter include treatment of oral modes of interpretation and transmission, the rise of specific schools associated with individual masters, the various types of commentaries, and the interplay between classic and commentary.

Chapters four and five, "Commentarial Assumptions," and "Commentarial Strategies" are the core of this study, as is evident by their length. Examples from the Confucian classics are drawn chiefly from the I-ching, Ch'un-ch'iu, Lun-yu, and Meng-tzu. In chapter four, six commentarial assumptions towards a canon are isolated, and treated in order of importance: a canon is comprehensive, coherent, self-consistent, moral, profound and clear. Chapter five then analyzes the ways these assumptions are evident in actual commentarial operations. Aside from the examples adduced by Henderson from a variety of traditional exegetes both to isolate and illustrate these assumptions, support is elicited from the interpretive frameworks of modern students of world classics which match rather closely the scheme devised by Henderson. This section of the work is not only the most original and most important part of the book, but is also the most satisfactory from the point of view of the sinologist, because the Chinese classics and their commentators are approached directly through Henderson's own translations and interpretations instead of through second-hand citation, a practice that is rather frequent earlier in the work, even in dealing with questions from the Chinese tradition.

The concluding chapter, "Death and Transfiguration of Commentarial World Views," traces the decline in the commentarial form of discourse and its replacement by modern scholarship and criticism. This transformation was helped in part by the increasingly widespread dissemination of classical works through the means of printing, and by the broader application of philological and critical approaches--first developed to analyze more profane texts--to the formerly almost sacrosanct traditions by a greatly enlarged and independent scholarly community. A "shift in hermeneutical focus from the classics to the classical era," a shift that changed the classics from sacred texts to historical sources, allowed the rise of new historizing disciplines. Finally, the heritage of the commentarial view was a veneer of gentility that bowdlerized the most reprehensible and violent elements from the modern perception of the classical ages. The loss of this sanitizing veneer, concludes Henderson, contributed to the overall insensitivity of the current spirit by unmasking the true depravity of classical ages, precedents that were not neglected in the wars and revolutions of the present age.

Much investigative effort and creative thought is evident in a book of such original insight. Henderson is particularly suited for rigorous work in the recondite realm of abstract thought, as already demonstrated by his earlier effort on Chinese cosmology;(2) yet he provides as well many earthbound points of entrance into the commentarial world, with a clearly written prose style and a printed text that is error-free. The book, I am pleased to attest, is just as useful and enlightening for the non-sinologist reader as it is for the student of the Confucian classics. The author therefore deserves our admiration as much as our thanks. It seems almost craven, then, to suggest possible points of improvement. But the following comments, more by way of orientation than of criticism, are proffered for the sake of clarifying the exact nature and value of a work that deserves wide dissemination.

One thing that this work does not do is treat the differences between the New Text (chin-wen) and Old Text (ku-wen) schools, an ideological and political debate occasioned by an argument over texts, that originated during the Later Han dynasty. On p. 44, n. 23, it is not enough to refer the reader to Rodney Taylor and, more importantly, Tjan Tjoe Som, for a summary (Taylor) and extensive discussion (Som) on the main differences between these schools. The reader needs these differences detailed, and the origin of the debate documented, because the adherents of these schools not only championed particular textual versions of the classics and fought among themselves for the imperial imprimatur of orthodoxy, a debate that has continued on and off up to modern times under the rubric of Han versus Sung learning,(3) but embraced widely divergent commentarial outlooks. Scholars of the Old Text/Han-learning school considered the classics, regardless of political utility, as approachable on a textual level, i.e., through philological analysis, and hence functioned more properly as textual exegetes. Scholars of the New Text/Sung-learning school seemed more concerned to interpret individual texts in light of an overall understanding already reached of the canon, and this understanding was reflected by a hermeneutical reading of the text that used philological analysis only to smooth over textual problems that obscured or obstructed this hermeneutical vision. The point of departure for the Old Text school, then, was the sober philological inductivism of evidential research: truth was to be found in the text. For the New Text school, it was the interpretive framework of an imaginative, intuitive, or intellectual deductivism that was scholasticism at best, and theology at worst: truth lay in moral conduct inspired by the texts.(4) And, at least for most of late imperial China, the New Text adherents worked from within official circles, and were defenders of the established orthodoxy, while the Old Text exponents more often were privately organized, and were motivated to recapture the sources of orthodoxy and rid them of the philosophical encrustations of a Neo-Confucianism inspired by both Taoist and Buddhist epistemologies.

In concentrating on the New Text tradition, Henderson prefers scholars who theorize to scholiasts who comment. This is evident both by his dependence on such New Text authorities as P'i Hsi-jui (1850-1908) and Liao P'ing (1852-1932), and also in his avoidance of Old Text/Han-learning partisans such as Liang Ch'i-ch'ao or the Ssu-k'u editors, most of whom, in selecting books for inclusion in the imperial library, gave priority to works associated with Han learning.(5) Of course, it should be acknowledged that Sung-learning scholars who approached their hermeneutical effort from the broad perspective of the entire Confucian canon were much more likely to provide quotable statements on the nature and importance of the canon than those Han-learning scholiasts whose exegetical work was much more narrowly focused. But Henderson's comparative illustrations from other classical, literary, and religious traditions also partake of the spirit of New Text/Sung learning. To cite examples from the classical tradition, we get Robert Lamberton on the Neo-Platonic allegorical interpretation of Homer, but no Hugh Lloyd-Jones for a concrete working out of the ancient understanding of the bard that is faithful to the best modern views of the text and to ancient norms of Greek moral philosophy.(6) Hence we do not see how Homer the poet/philosopher was transformed through later interpreters into Homer the theologian. We get Rudolph Pfieffer, volume one, on early classical interpreters, but not volume two, on post-Renaissance scholarship, which would compare better with the revival of Han learning under the Ch'ing. From the biblical tradition we get the theologians Origen and Saint Augustine, but not the editors and commentators Erasmus and Stephanus.

From the Chinese side we get commentarial assumptions, but few concrete textual operations to illustrate them, such as the welcome rarities on pp. 174 and 208. where Cheng I and Han Yu comment on passages from the Lun-yu. Chapter three could have benefitted by a discussion of the technical commentarial terminology such as hsun-ku, chu, shu, chang-chu, chieh, lun, chiang-i, pu-cheng, and the like. And the last assumption treated in chapter four, that the canon is clear, receives the most cursory treatment, yet is the best point at which to illustrate the various interpretive modes used to elucidate passages inherently unclear, whether obscured by archaic expressions, linguistic difficulties, textual corruption, or other exigencies of language. Especially for the Five Classics, the exegetical glosses of the Han-period commentators provide the best means of access for reading the archaic language of the earliest classics. We never learn just how valid is a particular reading of a passage in comparison to the view that modern scholarship has reached--when such a consensus exists. Hence we do not often realize just how widely separated were the views of later commentators from earlier ones. If later commentators read Mother Goose as political satire, or reveal recipes for chocolate brownies hidden in the Dead Sea scrolls, their views should be contrasted with earlier, perhaps more sober, interpretations.

A side-effect of this approach is that we learn little of the commentators themselves. The most prominent names in the Confucian exegetical tradition are hardly mentioned: K'ung Ying-ta and Lu Te-ming are each mentioned once, Ma Jung twice, K'ung An-kuo not at all. Pride of place is given to Sung Neo-Confucians, Chu Hsi most prominently, then Ch'eng I. Cheng Hsuan (127-200), arguably the most important Confucian commentator ever, is a very distant third. A monochrome blurring of the distinction between camps results from this neglect of personalities. Lining up exegetes and commentators from across the interpretive spectrum to support a commentarial assumption isolated by Henderson does highlight the universality of the assumption, yet the reader is seldom aware that there are fiercely entrenched camps divided by methodology as well as ideology. Therefore, one of the major motivations for writing a commentary, unnoticed by Henderson, is the desire to refute the commentary of a rival.(7) Hence, some commentators practiced not first-line exegesis but second-line epexegesis--the writing of commentaries on commentaries.

By treating each commentator as virtually anonymous as well as in isolation from his school, Henderson fails to elucidate the contours of these widely divergent commentarial traditions; hence, despite exhibiting penetrating insight on occasion, he does not often provide an expansive vision of broader issues. For example, a work of Brevard Childs is utilized to establish a minor point. But Henderson seems unaware that Childs himself occupies an important place on the spectrum of biblical hermeneutics, with his reactionary "canonical criticism" that would have had much sympathy for the Sung-learning approach.(8) For the Chinese tradition, none of the standard biographies for post-T'ang China--Sung Bibliographies, Dictionary of Ming Biographies, or Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period--are utilized to guide readers unfamiliar with the genealogy of Chinese scholarly lineages, let alone specialized studies on individual commentators. Without turning this study into a history of classical commentators, a nod to these biographical dictionaries and to their congeners for the other traditions--Sandys, Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, and Pauly-Wissowa for commentators on the classics, Quasten or Smith and Wace on the Patristic Fathers, and so on--would have served to help readers, with a minimum of effort, to orient themselves.

The Taoist and Buddhist commentarial traditions are seldom consulted. Henderson admits that Buddhist exegesis is "the most conspicuous and troubling omission"; nevertheless, his focus is intentionally on "those commentarial traditions with which Confucianism has had relatively little interaction". This decision is certainly methodologically justifiable, and was perhaps motivated out of the concern for ease of approach or by editorial constraints on space. But in terms of endeavoring to understand the motivations and significance of practices peculiar to the Confucians, the other Chinese traditions could have provided much clarity and illustration. Besides, Taoism's most important early commentaries, those of Ho-shang Kung, Hsiang-erh, and Wang Pi on the Tao-te ching, are easily accessible to the Western reader.(9) Also, the commentarial line on the Tao-te ching to medieval times has been elucidated in the excellent introductory survey of Isabelle Robinet.(10) Taoism is especially strong in comparative value for examining schools of transmission and private master-disciple relations.(11) And the numerous commentaries on both the Tao-te ching and the Chuang-tzu included in the Taoist cannon are all subsumed under the category of yu-chueh, "explanations from the Jade |-Clarity Heavens~," of great significance to their claims for authenticity and divine authority.

The Buddhist commentarial tradition is equally important, as prefigured in the quote by Demieville, because if there is a "dearth of hermeneutical strategies," then just which few strategies were adopted in the massive commentarial tradition on the Buddhist canon? A recent conference volume underscores the abilities of Buddhists to develop hermeneutical strategies to meet their own doctrinal, practical, political, or polemical needs.(12) What about the use Buddhists made of Confucian classics for their own polemics, as in the Mou-tzu li-huo lun's use of Lun-yu 2, or the early borrowing of Taoist terminology to explain Buddhist concepts, the so-called strategy of ke-i? Since all three Chinese traditions reacted and responded to each other, much is lost in treating any one of them in isolation.

These aspects of the Confucian commentarial tradition are the most important ones missing from Henderson's study because of his decision to leave aside the Old Text/Han-learning spectrum, a benign neglect of personalities, and the virtual exclusion of Buddhism and Taoism from the comparative matrix. But we must properly ask what has Henderson's work gained in focusing on New Text/Sung-learning and in choosing the particular commentarial traditions for comparison that he has? The answer is breadth in a stimulating survey of the commentarial traditions of a large cross-section of the literate world, and relevancy in a revealing look into the minds and hearts of both ancient and modern students of the classics. The psychological insights so revealed, in turn, teach us much of what we ourselves expect to gain in renewing our contact with the classics, why each generation seems to crave this contact, and what we may expect from the new classics being canonized in modern religious, literary, and political circles.

In sum, Henderson has generated much that cannot be ignored for students of any classic. And with the theoretical background already clarified, Henderson has provided what is virtually the first prolegomenon to any study of a Confucian classic, and hence allows other sinologists to concentrate on individual entries in the canon in approaches that can incorporate philology, philosophy, and praxis. Not many works of recent scholarship have the potential to benefit so many.

1 Paul Demieville, "Philosophy and Religion From Han to Sui," in The Cambridge History of China, vol. I: The Ch'in and Han Empire, 221 B.C.-A.D. 220, ed. D. Twitchett and M. Loewe (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), 813.

2 John B. Henderson, The Development and Decline of Chinese Cosmology (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1984); this has been reviewed at length by Marc Kalinowski, T'oung Pao 73 (1987): 138-49, and Willard J. Peterson, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 46 (1986): 657-74.

3 The best discussion of the origin of the texts of the Old School that occasioned the debate remains Paul Pelliot, "Le Chou king en caracteres anciens et le Chang chou che wen," Memoires concernant l'Asie orientale 2 (Paris, 1916): 123-77. A. Cheng, Etude sur le confucianisme Han: L'Elaboration d'une tradition exegetique sur les ulassiques (Paris: Institut des Hautes Etudes Chinoises, College de France, 1985), examines the last Chin-wen texts of the Han and the intellectual milieu that saw the rise of the Old Text movement. For Han versus Sung learning, see inter alia Chou Yu-t'ung, "'Han-hsueh' yu 'Sung-hsueh,'" in Chou Yu-t'ung ching-hsueh-shih lun-chu hsuan-chi, ed. Chu Wei-tseng (Shanghai: Shanghai jen-min, 1983), 322-37; Ho Yu-sen, "Ch'ing-tai Han-Sung chih cheng p'ing-i," Wen-shih-che hsueh-pao 27 (1978): 97-113; Liang Ch'i-ch'ao, Intellectual Trends in the Ch'ing Dynasty, trans. Immanuel C. Y. Hsu (1959; rpt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970), part three; Tai I, "Han-hsueh t'an-che," Ch'ing-shih yen-chiu chi 2 (1982): 1-45; and T'ang Chih-chun, "Ch'ing-tai ching-chin-wen-hsueh te fu-hsing," Chung-kuo-shih yen-chiu 2 (1980): 145-56.

4 The Han-Sung learning debate is reminiscent of a much earlier clash between the librarians of Alexander and those at Pergamum: as for the latter, according to Luciano Canfora, "what interested them was the 'hidden' meaning, the meaning that lay 'behind' the classical and especially the Homeric, texts--the 'allegory,' as they called it, concealed within these poems. The Alexandrians, by contrast, patiently found line-by-line and word-by-word explanations, halting wherever the sense was not plain to them." Canfora, The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World, trans. Martin Ryle (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1989), 49.

5 E.g., Ssu-k'u ch'uan-shu tsung-mu (rpt. Taipei: Han-ching wen-hua, 1981), chuan 15, p. 90; for the Han-learning propensity of the Ssu-k'u editors, see R. Kent Guy, The Emperor's Four Treasuries: Scholars and the State in the Late Ch'ien-lung Era (Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard Univ., 1987), 121-56.

6 Hugh Lloyd-Jones, The Justice of Zeus (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1971), 1-54. For the most recent work on historical Homeric exegesis, see Robert Lamberton and John Keaney, eds. Homer's Ancient Readers: The Hermeneutics of Greek Epic's Earliest Exegetes (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992).

7 For instance, I have in mind the scholarship of Wang Su (195-256), composed specifically to refute the interpretations of Cheng Hsuan, or such a work as Chou Fu's (fl. 12th century) Fei Shih pien-wang, written contra Cheng Ch'iao's (1104-1162) Shih pien-wang.

8 See the discussion of Child's approach, its strengths and weaknesses, and other variations in John Barton, "The Canonical Approach," in Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), 77-103.

9 For the most recent synthesis and bibliography, see Alan K. L. Chan, Two Visions of the Way: A Study of the Wang Pi and the Ho-shang Kung Commentaries on the Lao-Tzu (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1991).

10 Isabelle Robinet, Les Commentaires du Tao To King jusqu'au VII siecle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1976).

11 For example, the discussion of these lineages in chapter three could have been considerably strengthened by examining the Taoist commentarial strategy of k'ou-chueh, "oral explanations." A case in point is the eleventh-century encyclopedia Yun-chi ch'i-ch'ien, in which k'ou-chueh are often cited to establish the authenticity or the authority of the author; see Yun-chi chi'i-ch'ien (HY 1026), 33.14b, 50.8c.

12 Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Buddhist Hermeneutics (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1988).
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Author:Honey, David B.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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