Wang ch‘ung lun-hêng miscellaneous essays Traduits et annotés par Alfred forke

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In ancient and modern times there has been no want of holy emperors, and the corresponding auspicious signs have also been very numerous. These signs must not, of necessity, be identical with former ones, and sometimes they had already appeared, but people ignored it. The ordinary scholars explaining omens are prone to magnify antiquity and detract from the present, and in speaking of omens they over-estimate the past and depreciate later ages. This should be changed. and the Han no more be slighted. When the Han have some real good things, those scholars do not mention them, conversely, they fervently believe in every imaginary excellent quality of antiquity. They trust in falsehoods, provided they be old and far away, and they despise truth, in case it be near and modern. This is the reason why the three chapters on p2.227 Exaggerations and the nine on Falsehoods 1 were written and those ‘How to become a Sage’ and on ‘True Sagehood’ 2 originated.

The Literati in their praise of the sages overshoot the mark, and when they contrast them with those of the Han, the latter do not come up with them, not because they do not equal them, but in consequence of the statements of the Literati which make it impossible. As a matter of fact, the Han are difficult to be equalled, under whom the crops ripen and the years pass in peace, owing to the influence of holy emperors thus successful in their efforts.

The chapter ‘Periods of Government’ 3 is an effusion for the Han. Order has its fixed time, and disorder has its period. To be able to change disorder into order, is excellent, and only an excellent man possesses this faculty. In the first year of Chien-ch‘u 4, a pernicious air arrived just at the time of a sage. The emperor through his virtue succeeded in averting the calamity 5. Therefore in the chapters ‘On the Rain Sacrifice’ and ‘Gentle Drums’ 6 the sudden changes referred to are brought about by the good auguries of the Han dynasty.

Calamitous changes sometimes take place during the age of a sage, there being either a drought or an inundation. These calamities have been discussed with reference to the Han. The Ch‘un-ch‘iu period left a method for them which the Lun-hêng has explained.

If a person be turned from the gate to the court and listen to what is spoken in the hall and the inner rooms, he will miss nine words out of ten. If, however, he ascend the hall and peep into the rooms, he will not lose one word out of a hundred. The author of the Lun-hêng is living in an old desolate place at a greater distance (from the capital) than that between the gate and the courtyard 7. In a quarter of an hour the sun traverses several thousand Li, yet people do not consider it far by reason of the great distance. When, on the fifteenth, there is much rain during the night, the light of the moon is not extinguished, but its p2.228 splendour is not seen, being overshadowed. The holy emperor sheds the light of the sun and moon, but since he lives in the central province, and is concealed within a hundred Li, the reports about him that transpire and are heard afar, are not reliable. His glorious appearance not being well known, it is hard to discourse on it. Only when imperial edicts are issued, or a chi-li 8 arrives, one learns something about his holy government. These are the reasons why the difference between the encomiums of his merits and reality are mountain high, and the eulogies on his excellence lack profusion and elegance. Only those at the foot of the throne who walk in the steps of Pan Ku and Chia Yi, can properly chaunt the praise of the emperor’s attainments without omitting any smaller detail.

Wu Wang erected a tumulus for Pi Kan, and Confucius illustrated the three ways of amassing merit. The excellence of the great Han dynasty is not merely like that of Pi Kan or that acquired in the three ways. When on a highway a sign-post indicating the State is put up under which the road passes, all those looking at this post know their way exactly. The virtue of the Han is conspicuous, but nothing has as yet been said equivalent to such a sign-post, therefore their extensive virtue does not yet shed its lustre on the ages.



On Literary Work

82. XXVIII, II. Shu-chieh


p2.229 Some people contend that for judging the character of a scholar, his literary productions are of no account. I answer that, when a man is an elegant writer, his character is perfect 1. With plants it is different : there are some that have flowers, but no fruit, and some that bear fruit, but have no flowers 2. The Yiking says that the feelings of a Sage appear from his utterances 3. He opens his mouth to speak and joins tablets to write. His sayings and writings having been made public, his real nature shines forth in all its splendour.

Letters and virtue are the garments of mankind. Letters are unsubstantial signs, and virtue is practical action. Both are like over-clothes, donned by men. The greater a man’s virtue, the more refined is his literary work, and the more illustrious his excellence, the more enlightened he is himself. A great man’s virtue is vast, and his writings are brilliant, a small man’s virtue may be remarkable, but his writings are unequal. A celebrated officer writes a great deal, and, side by side with high virtue, we find abundance of literary compositions.

A beautifully coloured and bright mat being a prerogative of a high officer, Tsêng Tse, who was laid up with a very serious illness, ordered Yuan to rise and change it 4. We learn from this incident that garments serve to denote the rank of worthies. Worthies distinguish themselves by their literary ability. If dullards and clever men cannot be otherwise distinguished, one must fall back upon their writings 5 (ornaments) to draw a distinction. This is not only true of men, the rule obtains for all animals likewise :

The dragon has ornaments on its scales, and therefore ranks above the snakes. The phœnix’s plumage has five colours, p2.230 wherefore it is the king among the birds. The tiger is fierce, and its skin is coloured like that of the mole and the bull-frog 6. The tortoise is wise, and carries characters on its back 7. The bodies of these four animals are not quite plain, and in wisdom and knowledge they surpass all other animals.

Mountains without woods are barren mountains, land without vegetation is sterile, and men without letters are plain and simple people. Barren mountains are deprived of stags, sterile land lacks the Five Grains, and men without letters and virtue 1 do not prove themselves Worthies or Sages. High Heaven has plenty of celestial signs, and august Earth has many marks and lines. The two forces amalgamating, Worthies and Sages are endowed with them. Therefore they imitate their archetypes by a display of literature 2. Lucky signs correspond with their lives, and they are not without letters :

When T‘ang Shu Yü of Chin, Ch‘êng Chi Yo of Lu and the consort of Duke Hui with the designation of Chung Tse were born, a miracle happened, for they all had characters on their hands 3. When Chang Liang was on his way to high honour, he met with a spirit in his rambles. An old man presented him with a book 4, and suddenly he was enfeoffed as a marquis of Liu.

The spirit of the Yellow River put forth the Plan on purpose, and the genius of the Lo deliberately emitted the Scroll. All wonderful things described on bamboo and silks do not issue from small ponds. Animals are covered with ornaments, and men base their supremacy on letters. Chi Tse Ch‘êng desired to stop letters, but was censured by Tse Kung 5. Those maintaining that letters do not deserve to be held in respect, are on a par with Chi Tse Ch‘êng.

p2.231 Those who themselves compose, are literary scholars, those who discourse on the Classics, ordinary scholars. These two classes are met with in the world, and we do not know yet to which the palm is to be awarded.

Some say that literary scholars come short of ordinary ones. The latter treat of the Classics of the Sages, and explain the records of the Worthies. Vast and profound is their knowledge of different meanings and principles, they hold sound views, and for that reason are always in office. Those most respected become professors, disciples crowd about them, and they attract students from a thousand Li’s distance. Although their body dies, their doctrine survives, transmitted to posterity. Literary scholars do not profit the world with their polished and exquisite style and, therefore, are not called to office. Not a single pupil or student puts in an appearance, and when they die, their memory is not handed down. Consequently, they cannot compete with ordinary scholars.

I answer that this is not true : Ordinary scholars argue on all matters concerning the Sages, making the same investigations, and equally following up all their doings. The details may be divergent, but their scope is the same ; their words may differ, but their conceptions are very similar.

Why say that what literary scholars propound is of no advantage to mankind ? The work of ordinary scholars is very simple, and people learn it in great numbers. There being nothing to establish a distinction between them, all ports in the public service are filled with them. The work done by literary scholars is unusual and not easily imitated, and their books are seldom met with, but though their work cannot be taught, and they have no pupils, still their books are highly admired and handed down by the people. There is the empty talk of their rivals, and on the other side, their important writings. Weighing these two classes, which is the worthier ? 1

p2.232 In ancient times great and celebrated men wrote down their thoughts. They, at least, made use of their principles and became famous in their age. Although the ordinary scholars may have been more honoured at the time, yet unless they were taken notice of in the books of their literary rivals, their traces were soon obliterated.

The Duke of Chou adjusted the Rites 2 and Music, and his name was handed down uninterruptedly. Confucius wrote the Ch‘un-ch‘iu, and his memory has been preserved up to the present day. Their productions are more than mere researches 3.

The literary geniuses of the Han era, Lu Chia, Sse-Ma Ch‘ien, Liu Tse Chêng, and Yang Tse Yün are all but marvellous, and their glory does not depend on others. The world speaks also of the expositor of the Shiking, Shên Kung of Lu 4, and of Ou Yang of Ch‘ien-ch‘êng 5 and Kung Sun 6, both scholiasts of the Shuking, but if they had not fallen under the notice of the Grand Annalist, the world would not know them 7.

Is it not better to earn fame by one’s own efforts than to need others for that purpose ? And does he not rank higher who records the lives of hundreds of people than he who barely wins a name for himself ?


Some hold that writers must be free from troublous thoughts, and that it is not their talents by which they exceed other people. Unless they enjoy quietude their ideas do not come. In case such writers have to look after all the affairs of every-day-life, or to do office work in some department of the State, they will compose, whenever they have some leisure from their multifarious duties. p2.233 If common people be given plenty of time to concentrate their thoughts, they are also able to indite eighty and more chapters.

Wên Wang had no leisure to take his meals either during the day or in the evening 1, and Chou Kung, bathing his hair once, had to grasp it three times 2. What time had they to walk about for pleasure, or to cover tablets with the elegant compositions of their pen ? Confucius wrote the Ch‘un-ch‘iu, and found no employment in Chou, Sse-Ma Hsiang Ju 3 was free from the duties of a statesman, and therefore could write his poem Tse-hsü-fu 4, and Yang Tse Yün lived in the palace as chung-lang 5, and thus had occasion to complete the T‘ai-hsüan-ching, and to take up the Fa-yen. Had Confucius obtained imperial dignity, the Ch‘un-ch‘iu would not have been published, and had Sse-Ma Hsiang Ju and Yang Tse Yün been chief ministers, they would not have worked at the poem or the T‘ai-hsüan-ching.

I beg leave to reply that Wên Wang’s want of time to eat during the day or in the evening, implies that he elucidated the Yiking and increased the number of diagrams, and if Chou Kung, bathing once, grasped his hair thrice, it was because he changed and fixed the institutions of the Chou dynasty. If the principles of the Chou had not been corrupt, Confucius would not have written his work ; he would have enjoyed repose, and his thoughts would have been unoccupied. But the laws of the Chou were loose and degenerate, and he could not abide by them.

Those who by Heaven and Earth are endowed with letters, will emit them from their bosoms, they do not write because they have nothing else to do, nor are there any days when they have no leisure. They are affected by what is wrong, and start from what is wicked, as a spring sends forth its waters, and vapours rise up. Kuan Chung as prime minister of Duke Huan brought about a confederacy of all the States 6, and Shang Yang laid the p2.234 foundation of the imperial power of Ch‘in, when he was minister of Duke Hsiao 7. Yet both wrote books containing dozens of chapters 1. Sse-Ma Hsiang Ju and Yang Tse Yün were their equals. Both being affected by external influences, their talents were called forth, and their talents being equal, their work was similar also. They were students and writers, but not because their minds had nothing else to think about.

The more one hears, the greater becomes his experience, and the harder his official duties are, the dryer is his knowledge. Unless one has rest, the thoughts do not come, and unless the thoughts come, the pencil is not quick at work. Simpletons and dullards may have a quiet home just fit for meditation, and be perfectly free from care, yet they are incapable of writing a single word. Those well gifted possess abilities, but it is not true that they have no time ; those without abilities cannot think, but it does not happen that somebody has knowledge, and cannot write. Persons with exceptional abilities may be anxious to write something, but find nothing to start from, whereas others with but little knowledge are able to record what they have learned by inquiry from others. Remarkable talents sometimes have no subject to write about, but they are never unqualified to speak, they may have nothing to look to, but it does not happen that they have no leisure for literary compositions.


Some people are of opinion that writing requires the utmost concentration of the mental faculties, and that those authors who hold some office, are not apt to discharge their duties. A man’s thoughts take a certain direction, consequently all his mental energy is used up in the pursuit of these thoughts. Writers are admirable in all they write or say, but in that their talents are exhausted, and their knowledge reaches its limit. In former times many writers were in office, but to adjust what is scattered, and to join what is dispersed, to support the vacillating, and to bring peace to those in danger, exceeds the power of men of letters. They themselves have their troubles and their difficulties, which must have some cause. The cause are the hundreds of chapters p2.235 and paragraphs which they have written. Lü Pu Wei composed a Ch‘un-ch‘iu 2, and his whole family had to emigrate to Shu 3, the Prince of Huai-nan wrote a book on Taoism, and misfortune overtook him, and destroyed his entire clan 4, Han Fei Tse published a method of government, and he himself was thrown into prison in Ch‘in 5. Unable to preserve his own person, how could he have helped his State ?

Some people excel in one thing, but why should they not be deficient in another ? Some are deeply versed in composition, but why should they not be superficial in the administration ?

My answer is that people have their strong points, and likewise must have their weak ones ; they are skilful in one thing, and awkward in another. This is no inferiority, only their interest is not roused, nor any awkwardness, but the thing does not appeal to their imagination 1. He whose desire centres in one thing, does not even perceive the T‘ai-shan, and if his thoughts reach to a certain point, he has not the time to follow with his body.

As regards the much praised sharpness of the Kan-chiang sword 2, when it is pointed it does not strike, and being fit to strike, it cannot be used for stabbing. Not that the blade is not sharp, but it cannot perform one and another thing.

Pulling the bow 3 for sparrows, one misses the wild swan, and shooting at magpies, one misses the wild goose. Drawing square and round figures, one cannot complete them at the same time, and looking right and left, one does not see both sides simultaneously. Men may be able to do two things, but they cannot make them into one. Provided that the Kan-chiang sword be less pointed, then it strikes better, and if one gives up the magpies and p2.236 merely aims at wild geese, then, shooting aloft, he does not miss the mark.

Of those who rejected literary productions and exclusively devoted themselves to the administration, no other men have left traces of greater fame behind them than Tse Ch‘an and Tse Chien 4. The majority of ancient authors did excellent practical work, but they were not employed. Kuan Chung and Yen Ying were as great statesmen as writers 5, Shang Yang 6 and Ch‘ing 7 were as active in literature as in the administration.

When Kao Tsu had won the empire military plans were still in vogue. Lu Chia wrote the ‘New Words’, yet the emperor made but a moderate use of the work. The clan caused an insurrection 8, and the Liu family 9 was on the point of revolting. If it had not been for the devices of Lu Chia, the imperial house would not have been safe 1.

Talents and experience may both be used, but their use depends on circumstances. In revolutionary times, experience procures merit, when there is prosperity and progress, talents may be used to write books. Words are pronounced by opening the mouth, and by joining together written sentences, chapters are formed. In days of yore many persons have achieved merit by their words, and those who have ruined themselves by their writings are few.

Lü Pu Wei and the Prince of Huai-nan committed some other fault, and did not become guilty through their books. In the case that their works were composed by their companions 2, they did not write them themselves, and yet, although they did not write them, they were visited with those conspicuous calamities.

p2.237 People who in ancient and modern times trespassed, were not always authors straining their brains and their knowledge to the utmost. Tsou Yang presented a report, and was thereby saved from punishment in Liang 3. Hsü Yüeh sent in a memorial, and was made a secretary of a board 4. Their accomplishments were such, that by their writings they won distinction among men ; how then could they be reproached with not being able to protect their own persons ?

The State of Han Fei Tse, son to Han Tsao Hsin, did not collapse before his death. Li Sse, as it were, was a great admirer of Han Fei Tse, and of opinion that his writings and his extraordinary talents could never again be equalled. The beautiful plants of spring, when injured, often die away, whereas deformed plants which suffered no damage may groom until autumn. Provided that Han Fei Tse had not perished, we do not know what would have become of Ch‘in 5.

One may cause the actions of a genius to be revered, but one cannot induce people to imitate him, and one may set up his words as a standard, but one cannot prevail upon people to adopt them.


Some say that, in former times and at present, there are many writers who set about boring holes into the core of the Classics, and in their records vitiating the true doctrine of the Sages, wherefore they are called filings. They are likened unto the splinters of jewels, and there is a saying to the effect that a cart-load of filings does not make a road, as a boxful of splinters does not make a precious stone. Formerly, these men were in contiguity with the Sages, and yet they were filings ; how much more must this be true of those distant in time and of later ages ? Their writings cannot but be worthless, and their words, but dull ; how could they be used and put into practice ?

I would reply as follows : Sages write the classics, and Worthies produce the commentaries, explaining the ideas of the classical authors, and setting forth the views of the Sages. Thus p2.238 the commentaries, needed for the classics, are all made by Worthies. But why are the classics and their commentaries alone held to be right, and all other books and records to be wrong ? Considering that the text of the commentaries to the classics is necessary for their explication, they think them right. Other books may dissent from the classics, or treat of new and other topics, therefore they regard them as wrong. Accordingly, the sole truth would be found in the Five Classics, and even though an assertion be true, they will not listen to it, except it be in the Five Classics.

Provided that the Five Classics, after having left the school of Confucius, down to the present day, had not been damaged, that they might be said to be of a piece, they would be trustworthy. But they have passed through the extravagant and depraved times of doomed Ch‘in, had to bear the consequences of Li Sse’s iniquitous advice, and were burned and proscribed. It is due to the goodness of Fu Shêng that the Classics were taken and concealed in some secret place 1. After the rise of the Han dynasty, the Five Classics were recovered, but many books had been lost or were destroyed, and the rest was not intelligible. The chapters and paragraphs had been thrown into confusion and mixed up, and were not complete. Ch‘ao Ts‘o 2 and others separated the single words according to their own ideas. Thus the text was handed down from teacher to pupil, but how far its tenor was correct, nobody knew.

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