Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.09.03

Xing Lu, Rhetoric in Ancient China, Fifth to Third Century B.C.E.: A Comparison with Classical Greek Rhetoric.   Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina Press, 1998.  Pp. xvi, 350.  ISBN 1-57003-216-5.  $49.95.  

Reviewed by Robert Wardy, The University of Cambridge
Word count: 1724 words

Readers with a background in Western Classics might well react differently to the different parts of Xing Lu's enterprise designated by her book's title and subtitle. Under "Rhetoric in Ancient China, Fifth to Third Century B.C.E.", they will find a large compendium of annotated texts which they might not have encountered previously; thus the book can be consulted as a useful introduction to a wealth of Chinese material of potential interest over a very broad literary, historical and philosophical range. But those fired by the idea of "A Comparison with Classical Greek Rhetoric" are likely to be frustrated.

The very first sentence of the book proclaims that "ignorance and denial of non-Western cultures' rhetorical traditions have led to the mistaken notion that rhetoric is the sole property and invention of the West, fueling cultural prejudice and bigotry with regard to the intellectual histories of other cultures" (p.1); L.'s intention is to mount a challenge to such presumption "by applying the standard of multicultural hermeneutics" (p.25). Inspired by Edward Schiappa's work on Greek rhetoric, she advocates a "key-term approach" to the study of the "implicit" Chinese rhetorical tradition. She concedes that there is no single Chinese word equivalent to "rhetoric", but insists that a cluster of ancient Chinese words and phrases constitutes what should be recognised as a native terminology of rhetoric. Fair enough: but when L. also allows herself to regard anything and everything to do with the theory and practice of communication very broadly conceived as the stuff of rhetoric, Greek and Chinese models come to seem more sharply divergent than complementary in any meaningful sense.

Consider her claim that the function of an ancient, if insecurely dated, poem extolling the virtues of King Wen, the founder of the Zhou dynasty, "was similar to Homeric poems and Greek epideictic rhetoric" (p.57). They do indeed all have something to do with praise; but L.'s commitment to her sweeping comparativist project obliges her to isolate and catalogue such superficialities, despite the lip service she pays to "cultural contextualism". Again and again in this book, one reads that Chinese X is "like" or "reminiscent of" or "similar and parallel to" Greek Y, where the variables stand for historical periods, individual thinkers, ideas, or aspects of rhetorical theory and practice (e.g. "in Confucius' works, in particular his Analects, a strong emphasis on critical thinking and self-expression through questions and answers can be discerned that is, in some sense, similar to Socratic dialogue" (p.30-1); or "Hui Shi was interested in how things were interrelated, while Aristotle was concerned with how things were logically separated" (p.137)). Not that some of these analogies are not, at least to a degree, plausible; but L. consistently fails to explain what the significance of these claimed resemblances might be, and how they should be squared with the disanalogies she is otherwise concerned to emphasise. Furthermore, in her section "A Dependency on Translation" (pp.37-9), she takes some Western students of ancient Chinese rhetoric to task for relying uncritically on what she regards as inaccurate and misleading translations, and strongly implies that at least some of these scholars have no Chinese. Some of her examples of supposedly incorrect renderings are convincing, others, debatable. But L. never confesses that she herself seems to have no Greek, although, for example, she relies on Penguin translations of Plato, evinces total misunderstanding of Aristotelian category theory, and seems to think that Simplicius was a Presocratic philosopher (p.148), not to mention other plain factual errors; and she has a taste for such gross simplifications as "... Greek perceptions of the cosmos can be reduced to Plato's Form and Aristotle's science..." (p.229). There are scattered attempts at implausible oneupmanship, e.g. "... compared with Aristotle, the Later Mohists were more interested in the question of 'because' than the question of 'cause' and more keen on rational thinking than on critical evaluation of the process and purpose of inquiry" (pp.210-11). As for the Chinese, she never so much as mentions that many of the translations, which are either her own or (amended) renderings by others, are often insecure, and sometimes extremely contentious.

Again, one of the book's running themes is (il)logicality: "Western scholars are generally of the opinion that speeches in ancient China do not have the component of logic" (p.31), but "the Chinese system of logic does not replicate the Greek logical system; however, to claim that China has not produced a logical system is to succumb to the faulty logic of Orientalism" (pp.32-3). And the Orientalism has Classicist roots: "in the Western tradition, logic generally refers to the formal logical system set by Aristotle" (p.37). L. sums up the issue in a concluding section specifying differences between the Chinese and Greek traditions: "while Greek logic prioritized essence and certainty in the deductive and inductive processes, the Chinese made allowances for flexibility and probability..., arguing that one's conclusion does not necessarily derive from or depend upon one's premises and examples" (p.301). She does not explain whether this supposed "argument" for illogic was itself a non sequitur.

I can best convey the strengths and weaknesses of the book by concentrating on an especially revealing example of L.'s technique. Here is a Chinese passage and her comparativist gloss on it: "the king of Wei summoned Hui Shi and said to him, 'please be direct when you discuss something and do not use analogies.' Hui Shi replied, 'if someone does not know what a catapult looks like, he asks 'what is the shape of the catapult?' If you reply, 'a catapult looks like a catapult,' can he understand you?' The king said, 'no.' Hui Shi said, 'if we change to another method telling the person that the shape of a catapult is like a bow and bowstring made of bamboo, do you think the person will understand?' The king said, 'yes.'" (Shuo Yuan ch.11: "change to another method" is an overtranslation of "say instead"). L. paraphrases the crucial conclusion of the dialogue, which I quote in full from Angus Graham's translation: "'it is inherent in explanation,' continued Hui Shi, 'that by using what he does know to communicate what he does not you cause the other man to know it. For Your Majesty now to say 'no analogies' is inadmissible'" (Disputers of the Tao [1989], p.81). L.'s gloss: "clearly, Hui Shi shared Aristotle's theory of metaphor, considering reasoning an impossibility if one failed to make an association between the familiar and unfamiliar" (p.140: a note shows that the antecedent of "considering..." is Aristotle, not Hui Shi) .

Now the anecdote is fascinating in any number of respects. First, it does indeed bespeak self-conscious reflection on the methodology of persuasion and explanation. Second, it represents Hui Shi as neatly using an analogy to vindicate analogy's general employment as a rhetorical strategy. Third, it portrays the dialectical relation between ruler and adviser as nothing like obsequious fawning on an absolute tyrant: there is a striking novelty for readers brought up in the Western tradition. What does L. make of it? Ignoring the problematic fact that this is a story about Hui Shi, not him speaking in propria persona, she reads it as evidence for his espousing an Aristotelian theory of metaphor. She gets Aristotle badly wrong, since he certainly did not contend that metaphorical association is intrinsic to all cognitive processes; so she misses the contrast between a Greek thinker concerned to define the "metaphorical" with a view to dismissing it from serious philosophical and scientific contexts, where the "literal" rules, and a Chinese thinker at any rate depicted as privileging analogical devices of persuasion.

But even more important, Hui Shi does not emerge from the anecdote as a theorist at all. Why does L. imagine otherwise? Later she explains that, in contrast to Aristotle, "Hui Shi, based on his assumption that all things in the universe share a unity of similarities and differences, made his choice of metaphor in terms of association and connection in both linear and lateral manners" (p.140). That assumption does sound weightily theoretical: but what is its provenance? In the "Below in the Empire" chapter of Chuang-tzu this pronouncement is attributed to Hui Shi: "being similar on the large scale yet different from the similar on a small scale, it is this we call 'similar and different on a small scale'. The myriad things to the last one being similar, to the last one being different, it is this we call 'similar and different on a large scale'". No one really knows what this means. The orthodox view is that its source, a collection of obscure and startling theses, is meant to propound a set of spatio-temporal paradoxes. Angus Graham has suggested that they all turn on division and enumeration, and that they were intended as support for some sort of monism. Jean-Paul Reding, however, provocatively speculates that the original, sociopolitical, context of the theses has been deliberately suppressed by polemical excerpting (see his excellent Les fondements philosophiques de la rhétorique chez les sophistes grecs et chez les sophistes chinois (1985), pp.350-77). In any case, it would be extremely rash to cite any of the theses as a theoretical underpinning for some other (supposed) pronouncement of Hui Shi's.

And that, finally, is where the author misses a golden opportunity to say something of real interest to a diverse audience. Western readers take it for granted that rhetoric is, with a vengeance, a matter of and for "theory". The Chinese anecdote certainly ought to interest anyone interested in rhetoric. But what a Classicist should be urged to mull over is that, so far from coming across as a philosopher most implausibly invited by a ruler to expound a normative theory of communication, Hui Shi is represented as reacting to the king's complaint with a rhetorical performance which, if successful, works by implicit demonstration, rather than straightforward exposition. And the target, of course, is the reader of the anecdote. We ask: why did the king complain? Do we share his satisfaction with Hui Shi's tricky reply? Is that because we simply find ourselves making good sense of the analogy about analogy? This is subtle and challenging communication of a high order, but not, I submit, "theoretical". Xing Lu consistently underplays her hand, failing to realise the true potential of her fertile texts; but many Classicist readers will nevertheless profit from exposure to this rich material.

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