Mastering Caution amidst Hermeneutic Acrobatics

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[This is a guest post by Nicholas Morrow Williams]

Victor recently pointed out to me the appearance of Martin Kern's important article in the latest issue of Early China on "Xi Shuai" 蟋蟀 ("Cricket") and Its Consequences: Issues in Early Chinese Poetry and Textual Studies" (Early China 42 [2019]: 39–74).  Kern's article offers both a very detailed examination of the poem "Cricket" contained in a Tsinghua manuscript, which differs substantially from the comparable poem in the Shijing 詩經, and also reflections on the broader significance of the manuscript for "textual studies."

The article is well worth reading both the recently-discovered poem and for the broader reflections, but I would like to discuss one issue to which it does not devote so much attention, which is the interpretation of the received text of "Cricket" in the Shijing itself. After comparing the excavated and received texts, Kern concludes:

I believe that none of this is most plausibly explained by a process of direct visual copying, nor does it tally with presumptions of individual authorship, or of textual stability of written artifacts over time. Instead, the two "Xi shuai" texts are related through their overall theme, their images, and circumscribed sets of expressions that clearly distinguish them from any other poems: they are mutually independent instantiations of a shared repertoire, or "poetic material." It is easy to imagine how other "Xi shuai" poems, were they to be discovered, would likewise be different. What does not change in either "Xi shuai" text is their fundamental idea, that is, the appraisal of pleasure in moderation.

The proposition here is that these poems and hypothetical other poems, though they might vary in the specific language they use, would all share a "fundamental idea, that is, the appraisal of pleasure in moderation."

This strikes me as an insightful analysis of the relationship between these two texts. Not being as familiar with the Tsinghua manuscript, though, my interest was piqued by an incidental remark in the final sentence, namely the suggestion that "Cricket," i.e. poem #114 in the received text of the Shijing, has a "fundamental idea." Here is the text of the poem:

 

蟋蟀在堂,歲聿其莫。

今我不樂,日月其除。

無已大康,職思其居。

好樂無荒,良士瞿瞿。

蟋蟀在堂,歲聿其逝。

今我不樂,日月其邁。

無已大康,職思其外。

好樂無荒,良士蹶蹶。

蟋蟀在堂,役車其休。

今我不樂,日月其慆。

無已大康,職思其憂。

好樂無荒,良士休休。

 

Here for our convenience is the translation of Arthur Waley (#190 in his original publication The Book of Songs):

 

The feasters:

The cricket is in the hall,

The year is drawing to a close.

If we do not enjoy ourselves now,

The days and the months will have slipped by.

The monitor:

Do not be so riotous

As to forget your homes.

Amuse yourselves, but no wildness!

Good men are always on their guard.

The feasters:

The cricket is in the hall,

The year draws to its end.

If we do not enjoy ourselves now,

The days and the months will have gone their way.

The monitor:

Do not be so riotous

As to forget the world beyond.

Amuse yourselves, but no wildness!

Good men are always on the watch.

The feasters:

The cricket is in the hall,

Our field-waggons are at rest.

If we do not enjoy ourselves now,

The days and the months will have fled away.

The monitor:

Do not be so riotous

As to forget all cares.

Amuse yourselves, but no wildness!

Good men are always demure.

 

While any Shijing poem requires a number of interpretive choices in its translation, Waley's seems for the most part consistent with the interpretations of modern scholarship. Even the division of each stanza into two halves with different speakers, while it is of course an interpretive choice, is not at all an arbitrary one. The Chinese text indeed includes the first-person pronoun wo 我 "our" in the second line of each stanza, while describing liang shi 良士 "good men" in the final line of each stanza. Moreover, each stanza mentions the rapid passage of time in the first half, but then adds a warning in the second half. So while it would be easy to translate the poem with a single speaker throughout, Waley's device is a convenient way of suggesting the different emphases embedded in each stanza.

Now, is it true that this poem has a "fundamental idea, that is, the appraisal of pleasure in moderation"? The Han scholars indeed thought it was intended as a critique of excess (the Mao school identifies a specific target,  Duke Xi 僖 of Jin 晉; the Lu and Qi schools similarly read it as a critique of an unidentified lord).  But of course these scholars, estimable as they are in many ways, were intentionally drawing out the moral lesson of the poem for their own pedagogical purposes. Their views are always worth consulting but may not reflect the full range of understanding even in the Han, let alone earlier. Still, the fact that Han scholars interpreted the poem so differently from Kern suggests that this may not be all there is to say about the "fundamental idea."

Since I am not sure that "the appraisal of pleasure in moderation" is an idea at all—this seems to me more like an activity—I would prefer to change the terminology slightly, and ask what the theme or themes of the poem are. From this point of view there seem to be several themes: 1) the change in seasons, apparently the onset of fall, suggested by the appearance of the crickets; 2) the classical theme of carpe diem, the enjoyment of the present moment without regard to the future; 3) the advocacy of moderation in merrymaking, which exists in some tension with the previous theme;  and 4) the characterization of the "good men," which might seem to be a recommendation to the poem's audience to stay "on their guard," "on the watch," and "demure."

If I am right that these themes are all present in the poem, we can appreciate why Kern's characterization of the poem as a whole differs from that of the Han poetry scholars, both of which differ again from Waley's presentation: each is reading the poem selectively, highlighting certain of its themes over others. We may debate which reading is the best but a thorough study of the poem still has to take into account the existence of these multiple readings.

We might note also that Waley's reading of the poem in two opposing voices is incompatible with any reading of the poem as having a unitary meaning at all. This should not be a surprise; one of the virtues of literature, both in China and elsewhere, is that it allows for the presentation of multiple, dissenting voices.

In citing these various different views on the meaning of "Cricket," I have made no attempt to be comprehensive—there are of course many other premodern and modern interpretations that would need to be considered for that purpose. I have only wanted to illustrate the complexity of the poem and the challenge of discerning its "fundamental" meaning. However, there is one other important view which Kern discusses immediately below the paragraph quoted above. This in the Shanghai Museum bamboo text Shilun (Discussion on the Poems), which contains a passage characterizing several ancient poems (or Shijing poems) in gnomic utterances, one of which reads simply: "Xishuai" zhi nan  蟋蟀知難. Kern argues that the poem concerned cannot be either poem #114 in the received text of the Shijing nor the Tsinghua manuscript poem which is similar, since neither of these poems regards the topic of "understanding difficulty" (Kern's translation of zhi nan).

This comment is followed by a footnote 37, which reads in its entirety: "I leave aside here the hermeneutic acrobatics of Huang Huaixin, Shanghai bowuguan cang Zhanguo Chu zhushu Shilun jieyi, 69–72, who builds speculation upon speculation to connect 'understanding difficulty' to the 'Xi shuai' text of the Mao shi."

This footnote piqued my interest and indeed led me to write this comment because, while lacking much knowledge of the Tsinghua manuscript, I am an inveterate lover of hermeneutic acrobatics. I immediately turned to Huang Huaixin to see what kind of acrobatics he had come up with. Huang discusses the entire received text of "Cricket," and reads zhi nan as meaning "to know the difficulty [of serving as a general]" 為將之不易, because he identifies the subject of the poem as a border general. Based on the poem above, we can see that this seems like quite a tendentious reading of the text, but is not entirely unmotivated, since "Cricket" does mention the "field-wagons" 役車, and the "good men" 良士 could also be interpreted as soldiers. Moreover, Huang is correct to point out that the poem emphasizes the need for alertness and attention in the final line of each stanza.

Thus I concur with Kern that Huang Huaixin's reading of "Cricket" is strained. But hermeneutics is a two-way street; apart from the question of how to read "Cricket" we ought also to consider how to read the two characters zhi nan 知難 in the Shilun. Zhi nan has to be one of the most polysemous two-character phrases one can imagine, since both zhi and nan have multiple readings. To begin with, just to take the most obvious ones, for zhi we have the level-tone reading zhī (in Mandarin) "to know" but also the departing-tone reading zhì "knowledge" (also written 智); similarly for nan we have both the level-tone reading nán, normally adjectival "difficult," and the departing tone reading nàn  "disaster."

But the situation is much more difficult than it appears at first, because the usage of nan in Old Chinese is more varied than this. The Han dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 is singularly unhelpful, glossing nan solely as the name of a bird. Because I happen to be working in the library of the Faculty of Letters at Kyoto University at the moment, and also because it is one of the finest lexicological resources I know, I consulted Shirakawa Shizuka's 白川静 great dictionary Jitsū 字通 for this graph. He derives the meaning of nan from the apotropaic ritual of the nuo 儺, with which it is obviously related etymologically. Speculating that the nuo ritual was ornithomantic (so as to explain the Shuowen gloss), he then identifies the basic meaning of nan as having to do with "worry" and "anxiety" (nayamu, wazurai), from which the further senses of "to criticize, blame" (semeru, najiru) and finally "difficulty, to refuse, to hesitate" (mutsukashii, kobamu, habakaru) developed. That is to say that nan does not simply mean "difficulty" in an abstract sense, like the difficulty of a math problem, but more precisely refers to difficulty in regard to performing personal and ritual obligations.

Does this sense of personal difficulty have anything to do with our poem? Well, consider the final line of the first stanza, liang shi juju 良士瞿瞿, which Waley translated "Good men are always on their guard." The key term here is the word ju 瞿, which Paul Kroll's Student's Dictionary glosses as "sgl. or rdup., look to either side; frightened glance, fearful(ly), panic-stricken; also, with extra caution, taking care." Obviously here we have ju in its reduplicative (rdup.) usage, and with the emphasis on the final part of Kroll's definition. The "good men" ought take care and perhaps even feel some anxiety rather than to become complacent about their situation.

Here we find, not quite an identity, but at least a link between the judgment of the Shilun and the original poem, which leads me to conclude that zhi nan is yet another plausible reading of "Cricket"–but only if we understand zhi nan in its full sense as "being aware of the difficulties attending one's obligations," or more loosely just as "mastering caution" in spite of the temptations to relax and make merry. Even in this reading, zhi nan is by no means a definitive statement of the essence of "Cricket," but rather is one more challenging reading to put beside those of the Mao commentary, of Waley, or of Kern.

I realize this kind of approach may strike some readers as yet another example of "hermeneutic acrobatics," to which I plead guilty. My primary professional ambition, as a reader and translator of Chinese literature, is to use philological tools to elucidate the multiple, overlapping, contradictory layers of meaning we find in these texts, so as to suggest how they, too, refract some of the complexity of the human minds at work behind their production. This occasionally requires one to venture out "onto the edge of a precipice, or as if treading on thin ice" (Shijing #195); but humanistic research is necessarily speculative, and not for that reason without value, so long as one maintains a certain self-awareness and caution in the process.

Readings — on "xīshuài 蟋蟀" ("cricket") as an ancient disyllabic morpheme and lexeme



6 Comments

  1. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    November 1, 2019 @ 2:34 pm

    This analysis is fantastic.. thanks for this! I wish whole collections of Asian literature with this kind of thoughtful, in-depth explication were more widely available for the lay reader.

  2. Chris Button said,

    November 1, 2019 @ 10:19 pm

    Yes, thanks for the great post!

    The Han dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 is singularly unhelpful, glossing nan solely as the name of a bird. Because I happen to be working in the library of the Faculty of Letters at Kyoto University at the moment, and also because it is one of the finest lexicological resources I know, I consulted Shirakawa Shizuka's 白川静 great dictionary Jitsū 字通 for this graph. He derives the meaning of nan from the apotropaic ritual of the nuo 儺, with which it is obviously related etymologically. Speculating that the nuo ritual was ornithomantic (so as to explain the Shuowen gloss), he then identifies the basic meaning of nan as having to do with "worry" and "anxiety" (nayamu, wazurai), from which the further senses of "to criticize, blame" (semeru, najiru) and finally "difficulty, to refuse, to hesitate" (mutsukashii, kobamu, habakaru) developed. That is to say that nan does not simply mean "difficulty" in an abstract sense, like the difficulty of a math problem, but more precisely refers to difficulty in regard to performing personal and ritual obligations.

    難 is undoubtedly related to 艱 via the ə/a ablaut, and the semantic base is one of "parchedness" (via the exaggerated mouth on top of the bound figure depicted as beneath which there was sometimes a fire component 火 later deformed to 土 from whence we get 堇) and hence a sense of "difficulty" in the case of 難. The 隹 component in 難 is certainly curious, but I'm not sure if I buy Shirakawa's notion that it came out of 儺. The original *-l coda of 儺 versus *-n in 難 attests a relatively common l ~ n variation in Old Chinese that should not affect the broader reconstruction of the phonetic series with original *-n but does suggest that in the case of 儺, 難 is rather simply being used phonetically with no ornithological association.

    uggests that

  3. Chris Button said,

    November 1, 2019 @ 10:23 pm

    …via the exaggerated mouth on top of the bound figure depicted as XX beneath which there was sometimes a fire component 火 later deformed to 土 from whence we get 堇

    In the place of XX is supposed to appear the left (i.e. phonetic) component of 難.

  4. Gabriel Holbrow said,

    November 2, 2019 @ 1:21 pm

    Disclaimer: I can read neither modern Chinese nor classical Chinese.

    Might we say that 蟋蟀知難 means "'The Cricket' is hard to understand."? And if we might say that, would not this post itself be a thorough demonstration of that statement's truth?

  5. Nick Williams said,

    November 3, 2019 @ 6:08 pm

    In response to Gabriel Holbrow's comment: yes, "'The Cricket' is hard to understand" is a very tempting reading as well! It doesn't work as well in the context of the Shi lun, but makes a fine motto for studies of Shijing poetry in general.

  6. Terpomo said,

    November 4, 2019 @ 12:40 am

    @Gabriel Holbrow
    I believe by normal rules of Classical Chinese grammar to express that meaning you would flip around the word order to 蟋蟀難知, wouldn't you? (Though I'd be curious if there are classical examples of X難 instead of 難X for 'difficult to X'.)

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