Pure conversation movement in China

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 3 November 2016

Pure conversation movement in China

The “Pure Conversation” (qingtan ?? ) cultural movement emerged in the Wei-Jin period and is defined as not only the approach that scholars communicate with each other, sharing their thoughts, but also a form that shows the main stream of the philosophy thoughts of the society in the Wei-Jin period. (Tang 1991, pg. 18). ??????? :This essay will introduce the “Pure Conversation”(qingtan) movement by analyzing the reason that it emerged and the influences of it. In the first part, the origin of qingtan will be introduced. It is advocated by the historian that qingtan is an extension of qingyi ??in the late Han dynasty, which will be explained in details later. (Tang 1991, pg. 11)).

While discussing the reasons of its origin, some points of view of scholars will be reviewed. Also, the argument that whether the “Pure Conversation” has negative or positive influences to the society will be discussed. Some scholars believed qingtan is the major reason that caused the fall of the dynasty. (Chan 1963: pg. 314). However, the positive influences of qingtan cannot be ignored. Since qingtan helped to develop Neo-Daoism, it is one side to judge qingtan as a completely negative thing. (Chan,1963:316).

In the last part, a comprehensive conclusion will be given to conclude that in what extent qingtan has positive influences and negative influences to the society. ????? :Yiming Tang in his dissertation proposed that the “Pure Conversation” (qingtan) cultural movement in Wei-Jin period refers to the conversation that conducted by educated elites to discuss about the events including human life, society and the universe. (Tang 1991, pg. 18). ????? :He also pointed out that qingtan often took the form of debate to illustrate the ability of eloquence and rhetorical skills of the participants. (Tang 1991, pg.

18). ????? :Miyazaki Ichisada, a Japanese historian argued that the origin of qingtan could date back to the Han dynasty. (Tang 1991, pg. 11. ). In his opinion, qingtan is an extension of qingyi in the late Han dynasty. (Tang 1991, pg. 11). Brackenridge Scot in his dissertation “The Character of Wei-Jin qingtan Reading Guo Xiang’s “Zhuang Zi”” pointed out that in the Han dynasty, qingyi literally means pure criticism, which is used by the eminent scholars to comment on politics and the talents that the government uses. (Scot 2010, pg. 33). Later, Neo-Taoism (xuanxue ? ? ) flourished in the Wei-Jin period, the subject of qingyi changed to talking about xuan ?. (Scot 2010, pg. 29).

Therefore, the term qingtan replaced qingyi and it was generally referred as xuanyan ?? , tanxuan ?? sometimes. (Scot 2010, pg. 33). ? ? ? ? ? ? ? : There are some reasons that proposed by scholars to analyze why the “Pure Conversation” (qingtan) cultural movement appeared in the Wei-Jin period. A historian of Chinese philosophy Chan Wing-tsit believed that after the collapse of the Han dynasty, the poor situation of the country did not improved under Wei’s dominant is an important reason. (Chan 1963: pg. 314).

It is demonstrated that the continuous war and repeated floods and drought caused a largely decreased population and a poor living standard of people. (Chan 1963: pg. 314) However, the government of the Wei dynasty still repeated the ugly drama of the Han dynasty. (Chan 1963: pg. 314). The corrupt government directly leading to many scholars lost the confidence to the government, thus they refused to serve the government and escape from the reality in order to research the transcendental values using the form of qingtan. (Chan 1963: pg. 314).

Further, another historian of Chinese philosophy Fung Yu-lan believed that the appearance of the “Pure Conversation” cultural movement followed the trend of the philosophy ideology development in Chinese history. (Fung 1959: pg. 231). In the Han dynasty, thinking of Confucius was the dominated ideology in the society. (Chan 1963, pg. 315). Moreover, the government selected talents by the criteria that whether people can recite the classics of Confucius. (Chan 1963, pg. 316). Therefore, the thinking of Confucius was widely spread and well developed. However, after experienced the continuous war, many precious classical books of Confucius were damaged and destroyed. (Chan 1963: pg. 316).

When the Wei came to the central power, the numbers of the teacher that who teaching the rites and thoughts of Confucius was shapely decreased. (Chan 1963: pg. 316). Therefore, the Daoism with simplified thoughts and rites were widely spread due to this special historical context. Daoism significantly influenced people in the Wei-Jin period which leading to the approach that used to discuss the thinking of Taoism qingtan was very popular. (Fung 1959: pg. 231). As it mentioned before, qingtan often took the form of debate to display the ability of eloquence and rhetorical skills of the participants. The book Shishuo Xinyu ????

complied by Liu Yi-qing ??? , who is a princess of Liu-Song dynasty 420-429, records the activities of scholar officials and noble families from the end of the Han dynasty to the end of the Eastern Jin dynasty. (Tang 1991, pg. 15). This book is the only extant book from Wei-Jin period. (Tang 1991, pg. 15). Although it is traditionally classified as a novella (xiaoshuo ? ? ) and not a history in the strict sense, it is historical intent and can give an impression of the life and thought of the upper social class during Wei-Jin period as Tang argued. (Tang 1991, pg. 16).

Professor Richard Mather’s English version of Shishuo Xinyu (Anew account of tales of the world) will be cited in this essay for discussing qingtan. A group of men of letters during the Wei-Jin period (mingshi ?? , “famous scholars” or “famous gentlemen”) is noticed as the most famous representation of the activity of qingtan, which is known as the “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove” ? ? ? ? (zhulinqixian). (Scot 2010, pg. 2). The “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove” including Ji Kang ?? , Ruan Ji ? ?, Shan Tao ?? , Xiang Xiu ?? , Liu Ling ?? , Wang Rong ?? and Ruan Xian ??. (Scot 2010, pg. 3).

Shishuo Xinyu described them as “The seven used to gather beneath a bamboo grove, letting their fancy free in merry revelry. ” It is pointed out that their life style was opposed to orthodox values (i. e. , Confucian) and government service, and that instead they were devoted to wine, music, literature, and the art of conversation (qingtan). (Chan 1963, pg. 315). Also, they conducted qingtan is described as purely an escape from reality. (Chan 1963: pg. 314).

As a representation of advocating qingtan, it can be seen that many educated elites in Wei-Jin period were acting just like the “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove”; they did not care about national affairs but conducted qingtan for entertainment all day. Critics judged this type of behavior as the most important reason for the fall of the dynasty. ??????? : Gu Yan-wu ??? (1613-1682) who is a Chinese philologist in the late Ming dynasty and the early Qing dynasty (Bartlett 2009, pg. 185) used the activity of qingtan during the Wei-Jin period as an example to blame scholars in the later Ming dynasty for they do not have concerns about the society but advocate to empty talks, thus the Ming dynasty fell. (Bartlett 2009, pg. 185).

In an essay of his work Rizhi lu ??? (Record of Daily Learning), he proposed that: When (the barbarian chiefs) Liu (Yuan) and Shi (Le) invaded China (in the early 4th century), the root cause was the widespread intellectual collapse due to (Neo-Daoist) qingtan thought; everyone knows that. …

They do not study the classical texts, and don’t investigate the records of the great rulers, they substitute empty phrase for the substantial learning of self-cultivation and governing others. (Bartlett 2009, pg. 189). Qingtan directly leading to the result that the regime collapsed is one criticism by scholars to the ethos of talking about xuanxue during the Wei-Jin period. Although it is partial to comment that the regime in Wei-Jin period fell because of qingtan, the truth that the Wei-Jin scholars abandoned the real world affairs and concentrated on abstract and theoretical activities cannot be denied. No. 3 of Affairs of State from Shishuo Xinshuo demonstrated that:

Wang Meng, Liu Tan and the monk Zhi Daolin came to visit general He. However, He was reading documents and letters and paid no attention to them. Wang said to him, “We’ve come today with Zhi Daolin for a visit, hoping you would lay aside ordinary duties and join us in some abstruse conversation. How does it happen that we find you just now with bowed head reading this stuff? ” He replied, “If I didn’t read ‘this stuff’, how would you fellows manage to survive?

Everyone considered it as a fine answer. It is illustrated by Shishuo Xinshuo that people in Wei-Jin period were aware of the harmful effect of qingtan. Although the criticisms above about qingtan are reasonable, qingtan still have some positive aspects that should be noticed. ? ? ? ? ? ? ? : First of all, it is argued that the aesthetic values of qingtan couldn’t be ignored. Fung in his work Short history of Chinese philosophy pointed out that: The art of such conversation (qingtan) consisted in expressing the best thought, which was usually Daoistic, in the best language and tersest phraseology.

(Fung 1959, pg. 231). As it mentioned before, qingtan has high requirement to the ability of eloquence and rhetorical skills of the participants. Tang concluded the critiques of a good qingtan as, first of all, the participants should be creative and not mimic other’s point of view; secondly, their argument should be soundly reasonable and convincing; thirdly, they have to be eloquent and rich in style. (Tang 1991, pg. 43). From the critiques of qingtan, it is demonstrated that qingtan is not only an approach to exchange the intellectual’s thinking but also a form of art to show the beauty of language. ????

More importantly, Chan argued that the most significant influence of qingtan is that the Wei-Jin scholars developed new thinking that is Neo-Taoism (xuanxue) under the effects of the Daoism of the Laozi and Zhuangzi. (Chan,1963:316). The Wei-Jin scholars enjoyed debate with each other, and enjoyed ‘demolishing “objections”’. (Chan,1963:316). However, they were not satisfied with the argumentation they developed in research of transcendental values, they further exploit the concepts of Taoism and the Neo-Taoism appeared. (Chan,1963:316). Qingtan as the form talking about xuanxue helped Neo-Taoism flourished in the Wei-Jin period.

As mentioned, the object of qingtan is talking about xuan, which refers to the content of the three books Zhuangzi ?? , Laozi ?? and Zhouyi ??. (Scot 2010,pg. 1). However, the foundation of Neo-Daoism was laid by the work of Wei-Jin scholars including Wangbi’s Laozi Zhu ??? (Commentary to Laozi), Guoxiang’s Zhuangzi Zhu ??? (Commentary to Zhuangzi) and Xiangxiu’s Zhouyi Zhu ??? (Commentary to Zhouyi). (Scot 2010,pg. 2). Some examples from Shishuo Xinyu will be present to illustrate how people using qingtan to discuss xuanxue. ? ?? ?? ? ? : No. 55 of Letters and Scholarship recorded that one day

Zhidao Lin, Xu, Xie Shengde and others of outstanding virtues were gathered together at the home of Wang Meng. Xie proposed that everyone should all speak or intone poems to express their feelings to memorize the assembly. He then asked everyone present to make an exposition of the title of one of Zhuangzi’s chapter Yufu. Then everyone told him what in his mind and discuss about each other’s idea. This story illustrated that during the Wei-Jin period, it is very normal to see a group of the educated elite gathered together to talk about xuanxue. ???? :

“No. 29 of Letters and Scholarship mentioned that Huan Wen was assembling the famous and outstanding men of the time for lectures on the Zhouyi and was planning to do one hexagram a day. Emperor Jian Wen heard this he turned back, saying, “Some of the interpretations will naturally be difficult and some easy. How can each lecture be limited to one hexagram? ” From this excerpt it can be seen that talking about Zhouyi was very popular in that time. By conducting qingtan, scholars in the Wei-Jin period developed the concept of “non-being” of the Daoism of Laozi and Zhuangzi and pursued the reality beyond the space and time instead in research of the mutual effect between the nature and the man that was the most popular approach in Han thought. (Chan 1963: pg. 317). ????????? ;???????

In the Han dynasty, the teachings of Confucius were the dominated philosophy thought. However, the situation was not beneficial for the diversity of the development of culture. (Chan 1963, pg. 317). Therefore, qingtan also helped to improve this situation; people did not necessarily learn the doctrines of Confucius and can gradually develop the ability of independent thinking by practicing qingtan (Chan 1963, pg. 315). Also, it is pointed out that the movement of qingtan had created a spirit of critical and independent thinking. (Chan 1963, 315).

As people no longer view Confucius as ‘a throneless king whose subtle doctrines lay behind his written word’ but ‘an ancient teacher who transmitted the wisdom of the past’. (Chan 1963: pg. 315). In conclusion, this essay introduced the background of the origin of qingtan, meanwhile, the reasons of its emergence were discussed. It is believed that qingtan is an expansion of qingyi that can be date back to the late Han dynasty. However, the subject of qingyi, which is, talking about politics had changed to talk about human life, society and the universe, thus qingtan emerged.

Reasons of its emergence can be concluded as scholars in the Wei-Jin period were disappointed to the government thus they used qingtan as an approach to escape the reality; another reason is that the development of Chinese philosophy helped the emergence of qingtan, since people in that time were attracted to Laozi and Zhuangzi. Before discussing the influences of qingtan, Shishuo Xinyu, a book recorded qingtan from Wei-Jin period was introduced. By referencing some stories from Shishuo Xinyu, the positive influence and negative influence of qingtan were discussed in a comprehensive view.

It is argued that qingtan is an approach that used by the elites to escape the reality which leading to that the elites does not care about the national affairs d resulted in that the dynasty collapsed. However, some different perspectives were proposed that qingtan can have some positive effects referring to its aesthetic value, also it helped the Neo-Daoism flourished in the Wei-Jin period and it was beneficial to the diversity of the development of culture. By judging by the appearance, qingtan had negative effects because it prevented the development of the Wei-Jing society.

However, the reason of the fall of the Wei dynasty can be complicated more than just one. It is one side to make the judgment that qingtan directly leading to the fall of the dynasty. Still, the positive aspects should be considered when discussing qingtan. For the most important reason, Neo-Daoism will not be flourished and spread in Wei-Jin period without qingtan. References: Bartlett, Thomas (2009). Phonology as Statecraft in Gu Yanwu’s Thought in Link, P. (ed. ), The Scholar’s Mind in Honor of Frederick W. Mote (pp. 181-206). Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press. Chan, Wing-Tsit (1963). A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy.

Princeton: Princeton University Press. (1953). A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. Bodde, Derk. (Ed. ). New York: The Macmillan Company. Liu Yi-qing, Shishuo Xinyu A New Account of Tales of the World, trans. Mather, Richard B, (2002). Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan. Scot. J Brackenridge (2010). The Character of Wei-Jin qingtan Reading Guo Xiang’s Zhuangzi commentary as an Expression of Political Practice. Received from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (AAT 3448864). Tang, Yi-ming (1991). The voices of Wei-Jin scholars: A study of ‘qingtan’. Received from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (AAT 9202757).


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 3 November 2016

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