Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Another Confucian Headscratcher: Which Comes First?

First, Waley's translation of Analect 3:8:

Tzu-hsia asked, saying, What is the meaning of
Oh the sweet smile dimpling,
The lovely eyes so black and white!
Plain silk that you would take for coloured stuff.

The Master said, The painting comes after the plain groundwork. Tzu-hsia said, Then ritual comes afterwards? The Master said, Shang [Tzu-hsia's familiar name] it is who bears me up. At last I have someone with whom I can discuss the Songs!
The tricky line here is Confucius' comment "The painting comes after the plain groundwork." In Chinese that's 子曰繪事後素. Waley reads 後 as a verb, "to come after" but this could be (and has been) read as a preposition, giving us "After painting, the plain groundwork [white]." That would leave Tzu-hsia's last question as being something like "And after ritual?"

The question of whether ritual is part of the natural order of things or part of culture is again played out here in grammatical interpretation. Too bad the Chinese didn't develop a grammar for their own language--the commentaries rather re-phrase the sentences so it is clear which interpretation they use. (They never say explicitly "That's a verb here, not an preposition" or anything like that.)

4 comments:

Matt said...

I'm not sure I understand it either way yet. Does the verb interpretation mean something like "the painting is inferior to (a sufficiently lovely) plain canvas" i.e. don't gild the lily (if you're a beautiful young dimpled girl)"?

(in which case Tzu-hsia is implying that man's essential nature (i.e. his jin or whatever, I presume) is superior to man's nature as mediated through ritual?)

amida said...

I should have added that the first two lines of Tzu-hsia's little poem there are from the Shijing ("the Songs"), and the third line is a sort of "capping line." I guess it is Tzu-hsia's own.

Why exactly Confucius jumps into this discussion I am not sure, but I think it might have to do with how the poems of the Shijing were used in those days rather than the actual content of this particular poem. Phrases from them were apparently quoted and capped by educated speakers. I imagine it was a little like how 成語 are used today.

The question of ritual's place in the grand scheme of things is generally inferred by the commentators from the context. Book 3 of the Analects has a lot about ritual and its proper place. And whatever Confucius meant, Tzu-hsia seemed to get it, as he immediately asks about ritual.

The verb interpretation takes 後 "hou" to be transitive, like the English "follow" or "come after," so it's literally something like "The business of painting comes after the white." ie. the canvas is prepared with a white background paint, then the rest is drawn on top of it.

For the prepositional reading, imagine a comma after the 後, or a modern Chinese 以後 (or for that matter a Japanese その後) Apparently there are some painting techniques where the white background is filled in after the main figures are finished.

Azuma said...

Hmm...I'll check later today, but I bet they read it in kanbun as a preposition, since then would be a natural interpretation for a Japanese speaker.

How about frequency? It's a tool with limitations, but how frequent are the rival contructions? X 後, Y vs. X->後->Y?

amida said...

I love stuff like frequency. I use a high-powered text editor called UltraEdit to chop up texts and count stuff, etc. But with the Analects, it's tough to do because of the special nature of the language used (supposedly spoken, fragmentary).

Ming and Qing dynasty novels, on the other hand, are great fun to play such games with.