chapter  26
Tai Chen on Mencius: Explorations in Words and Meanings (Tai Chen, 1724–1777)
Pages 4

By all reports, Tai Chen was an intellectual prodigy whose devotion to learning was meticulous and obsessive. Born into relative poverty, he died without improving much on material conditions of life. His economic destiny was to drift from one minor post to another, often relying on loans, temporary patronage of admirers, and jobs as a tutor. Impoverishment dogged him even though he succeeded in the first two of three stages in the imperial examination system. Things were so bad one year he could feed his family only by soliciting scraps daily from a local noodle shop. Lacking political and social ambition, his mind was usually on things other than material gain and personal advancement, a major reason he failed to achieve distinction in Chinese officialdom. Failure to achieve the third and highest degree (“presented scholar,”

or chin shih) in the triennial examinations after six tries closed the door on appointment to high office. Even when the emperor gave him the top degree by decree for his services and reputation, which included him among a handful of candidates who succeeded in the prestigious palace examination, chances for sustained appointment were slim because there were too many graduates vying for appointments. All who collaborated with him were impressed by superior industry, scholarship, and depth of thought. He was a technical expert on phonology, the study of pronunciation in ancient texts, and accomplished at philology, the study of language in historical sources. He wrote and edited some 50 works, 35 of which still exist in print. The difference between his learning and that of many contemporaries was an insistence on documentary truth and a “scientific” attitude toward revered texts. An innovative student of Confucian classics, he was also proficient in mathematics and astronomy, which may have intensified his sense of evidence. The issue for this essay is the connection between Tai Chen’s

philological inquiries and historiography. Explorations on Words and Meanings in Mencius (Meng Tzu tsu-I shu cheng) illustrates dissent within Confucian ranks about the status and interpretation of classical texts written before China’s unification in 221 B.C. For 2000 years history and philosophy were interwoven. Moral standards embedded in philosophical literature were applied to judge concrete historical examples of virtue and malfeasance. Tai Chen’s book is divided into 43 “articles,” each of which asks a

question and provides a response. The articles address the meaning of

key ideas that had, according to Tai Chen, lost their way in speculationthat is, Principle, Heavenly Way, Nature, Potential, Way (Tao), Humanity, Righteousness, Propriety, Wisdom, Sincerity, and Weighing (knowledge of what is important and unimportant). Historical philology is his technique and focus: “Erroneous words do not just end with words; they change and influence the minds of men. A mind that is beclouded must do injury to the conduct of affairs and government” (66). All educated Chinese in dynastic China found models and inspira-

tion in the past: “By acquainting themselves with the words and deeds of the ancients, students are able to make up for their own deficiencies” (80). Whatever the issue at hand, the past was viewed as a repository of all that was excellent and good, evil and reprehensible. The purpose of historical study was to confirm and inform moral judgment. On the other hand, if the foundations of moral judgment were shaky, that is, if the Confucian classics were imperfectly understood, then history could not be read or written properly. These issues would have been merely academic if Confucianism had not been for centuries the official ideology of imperial China. A huge body of literature had accumulated since the Han Dynasty

(200 B.C.–A.D. 200) on the Confucian canon-that is, books on history, poetry, ceremonies, divination, and moral philosophy that included teachings of Confucius (ca. 551-479 B.C.) and an entire work by Mencius (ca. 372-289 B.C.), his most important follower. These “classics” were part of a literary tradition whose magnitude is suggested by the ambitious Ch’ing Dynasty project called the Complete Library of the Four Treasuries, which encompassed classics, history, philosophy, and belles-lettres (poetry), and eventually assembled 36,000 volumes. Tai was briefly one of numerous compilers working on that monumental project. These texts belonged to a long tradition of historical literature.

Included were 24 dynastic histories amounting collectively to hundreds of volumes. There were also innumerable local and private histories, factual with little comment, compiled by members of the literati class. Custom required each dynasty to compile a history of the previous one. The histories were assembled by committees of scholars whose method was scissors and paste without attempts at synthesis or interpretation to nail down causation or sequences of development. Historical change from the Chinese perspective, mainly one dynasty replacing another, was explained as a Mandate of Heaven replacing a corrupt dynasty with a virtuous one. Not only was the idea of sequential historical development absent, there was no idea of progress. But

with these limitations, Chinese civilization was notable in world history for scope and longevity of historical consciousness. All texts of whatever kind were considered part of a historical tra-

dition. If thought and action were to be justified by reference to the past, every classical text was taken to have historical parentage and meanings a scholar was obliged to master before offering a fresh point of view. An educated man required extensive knowledge of the four “treasuries” to assist self-cultivation and to formulate public policy. History and philosophy were intimately knotted together in ways difficult for the Western mind to grasp. Tai Chen was nearly at the tail end of an overwhelming legacy of historical and literary texts bound together by a virtually air tight tradition. His book examines ideas and words in the Neo-Confucian tradi-

tion, the intellectual scaffolding of Chinese ideology since the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). The most prominent representative was Chu Hsi (d. 1200), whose commentaries on the classics were laced with metaphysical speculations influenced by Taoism and Buddhism. The relatively straightforward teachings of Confucius had focused on moral qualities of the best kind of man and how they might be achieved by regulating desires and actions through example and study to achieve consistently good conduct and wise public service. Tai claims Mencius, a later Confucian, never departed from those teachings. Yet in later centuries, Taoist and Buddhist ideas were absorbed so

that desires were viewed as a bad thing to be eliminated and that submergence in a non-human One is the proper goal of life. Also entangled with early Confucianism were cosmological ideas, particularly yin-yang (female-male complementary opposites that alternate with one another) and the Five Elements (water, fire, metal, wood, and earth) that move in a cycle. These two kinds of movement accounted for change in nature and were organized into an elaborate system of correlations with things, ideas, and relationships in human experience. The words Tai Chen was most concerned to explore are “prin-

ciple” (li ), to which Neo-Confucian writers attributed an existence independent of the material world (ch’i ), and its relationship to nature (hsing), including human nature. This was done by arguing for two kinds of reality, principle and matter. The former gives form and meaning to the latter. Everything in the world takes its specific character from principle. All principles come from and have unity in a dominant reality called the Supreme Ultimate, which is independent of matter and would exist without it. He sought to explain why this view is a mistake, that principle hardly appears in the classics, and where it does, it is embedded firmly in the material world: “Thus

Mencius used what was known to prove what was not known. He attributed the desire to hear, see, smell, and taste to the ear, eye, nose, mouth, and the appreciation of moral principles to the heart-andmind. All those desires and preferences are within the bounds [of one’s natural tendencies] and are not outside them” (78). Disembodied independence of principle was due, he argued, to a

damaging importation of Taoist and Buddhist ideas. For Tai Chen, the dualism meant that principle was separate from the “minds and hearts” of men. His philological analysis shows that such distinctions were alien to Mencius, whose book was essential in the imperial examinations. Neo-Confucians like Chu Hsi, whose commentaries on the classics were also required for the imperial examinations, wanted to give Confucian ethics and the idea of a “superior man” of high moral character a cosmic, metaphysical framework. In doing so, the connection between principle and human desires was sundered: “Everything in our lives arises from desires. Without desires there would be no action. Only when there is desire can there be action. When man’s action arises at what is most correct and immutably so, that can be called accordance with principle. If there is no desire and no action, what is there that can be called principle?” (173). Tai Chen was known as a “Master of Investigations Based on

Evidence.” At the center of a movement that rejected speculative tendencies of Sung Dynasty Neo-Confucianism, he sought a close relationship with ancient texts by means of critical analysis and understood the principle of verification. Within the narrow confines of textual analysis, he demonstrated a connection between evidence in a text and historical truth, reminding one a bit of Lorenzo Valla (see essay 11 in this volume). He anticipated modern science by arguing that no one’s private opinion can be called li. No individual has his own facts, which are a reality all men face equally. The implications for doing history are clear. Subjective feelings and intuitions do not lead to truth. Rather they give people in power justification for imposing their narrow views on the helpless and the weak. In the meantime, we learn nothing of value about the world, past or present. He provided a narrow kind of evidence by urging that texts be

respected for what they really say, but his methods and assumptions were not applied to traditional ways of conceiving and writing history, nor did they result in a revision of questions and judgments in the imperial examinations. The weight and inertia of tradition were too much for his work to overcome even though others shared his views on evidence. If his approach to knowledge and critical method had been taken more seriously by the establishment, readiness to respect