Goblet word

« previous post | next post »

That's the title of a wonderful new Wikipedia article from a volunteer editor who has written scores of major articles (ancient Chinese thought, religion, culture, literature, language and linguistics, lexicography, etc.) for the online encyclopedia of record.  This one is about a peculiar type of ancient Chinese drinking vessel, the zhī 卮, which tilts over when full and rights itself when empty.  The vessel served as an analogy for a rhetorical device called zhīyán 卮言 ("goblet word"), "a mystical linguistic ideology, which is generally interpreted to mean fluid language that maintains its equilibrium through shifting meanings and viewpoints, thus enabling one to spontaneously go along with all sides of an argument."

Along with other neologistic figures of speech, zhīyán 卮言 ("goblet word") is featured in the 33rd and final chapter, "Tiānxià 天下 ("[All] Under Heaven"), which summarizes early Chinese thought, of the Zhuang Zi 莊子 (Master Zhuang), my favorite ancient Chinese text.  For a complete translation, see Victor H. Mair, tr., Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998; first ed. New York:  Bantam, 1994); also available as Zhuangzi Bilingual Edition, translated by Victor H. Mair (English) and Minci Li (Modern Chinese) (Columbus:  The Ohio State University Foreign Language Publications, production of the National East Asian Languages Resource Center, OSU, 2019) — this is actually a trilingual edition, since the 736 pages volume also includes the original Classical Chinese version.

In his impressive treatment of this most elusive topic in early Chinese linguistics, the author nails it from many angles — religious, philosophical, psychological, archeological, and so forth.  Truly magisterial.

It would have taken the author many months to do the research and writing for "Goblet word".  Immediately upon publishing it, he has turned his attention to a related article about qīqì 欹器 (“tilting vessel”), which — as he avers — "is a much easier topic".


Selected readings

"Horses, soma, riddles, magi, and animal style art in southern China" (11/11/19)

"The Out of Hunan Theory" (9/13/19)

"English 'wine, French 'vin', Spanish 'vino'" (8/6/16) — this and the following two posts contain important notes on beer and the vessels for making, storing, and drinking it, including comparisons with similar vessels in the Middle East

"Let the Beer-Divider Be Chief!" (8/5/09)

"Don't Drive in the What, er?" (8/4/09)

"Ethanol tampons" (12/5/14)

1 Comment

  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 30, 2020 @ 6:48 pm

    From Denis C. Mair:

    I have found words which seem to turn both ways (do flip-flops) in the Yijing too. They have a field of meaning which straddles a dialectical chasm, so their meaning can jump from one phase to another. I call them Janus Words. The idea of yin as sinister and self-contained versus yin as coalescent and nurturnat is one of these major Janus ideas.

    Could the idea of goblet words be the missing link between Zhuangzi and earlier oracular language with Zhouyi-style thinking that may have influenced him. (I don't say it's the text of the Zhouyi itself, but the Zhouyi's intellectual milieu).

RSS feed for comments on this post