BMCR 2004.08.17

Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece. Translated by Sophie Hawkes

, , Detour and access : strategies of meaning in China and Greece. New York: Zone Books, 2000. 424 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 1890951102 $22.00 (pb).

The recent appearance of several noteworthy comparative studies of science, literature, and philosophy in ancient China and Greece is good news for students of both traditions.1 Most of these studies avoid attempts at comprehensive contrast and evaluation, aiming instead at showing how bringing texts from the two traditions into conversation with one other can enrich and enliven our understanding of each. Jullien’s Detour and Access (a translation of his Le Détour et l’accès: Stratégies du sens en Chine, en Grèce. Paris, Grasset, 19952), resembles these studies but differs from them in two ways: its explicit disciplinarity and its exceedingly grand ambition. A distinguished sinologist, Jullien (hereafter J) takes his methodological cue from Lévi-Strauss: he presents himself to us as a Western cultural anthropologist trying to make sense of the literature of the Other.3 As such, he claims to be able to perceive the “inside” of Chinese thought as only an “outsider” can. His job is to “decode” Chinese discourse about the world (p. 22) — literature, history, philosophy, and politics from its beginnings to the present day — by making articulate its underlying presuppositions, the principles and habits of mind that “native” speakers and writers necessarily take for granted. This self-characterization suggests both the grandeur of J’s project and the danger of over-simplification it entails. The primary methodological difficulty here is J’s premise that one can treat China and the West as coherent cultural wholes in need of decoding; a secondary one is his assumption that the West from Homer onward displays as coherent and continuous a basic attitude toward the relationship between discourse and reality as China from the Confucian era Book of Songs to the present.

The book consists of a Preface, a Reader’s Guide, fifteen chapters, and a Conclusion. From the first paragraph of the Preface, J’s overall intention is clearly stated: “The questions that interest me can be summarized thus: In what way do we benefit from speaking of things indirectly? … Westerners find it natural and normal to meet the world head-on. But what can we gain from approaching it obliquely ? In other words, how does detour grant access?” (p. 7; J’s italics). J is willing to overlook differences within each of the two traditions because his aim goes beyond doing the scholarship needed to decode China. China, properly decoded, serves as a “theoretical distancing” that makes it possible for Western readers to become more aware and more critical (as well as more appreciative) of their own presuppositions:

Why did the Chinese not constitute the level of essences and spirituality which helped the Greek tradition to structure the Western horizon of meaning? Or, to ask the question the other way around: What are the theoretical biases — which remain beneath the surface — that have conditioned Western modes of interpretation, which, because they seem so obvious, have become confused with Reason? … China presents a case study through which to contemplate Western thought from the outside — and, in this way, to bring us out of our atavism (pp. 8-9).

The book, then, is an expert sinologist’s attempt to lay bare, for a Western audience, the unvoiced presuppositions 4 of the Chinese approach to meaning, for the sake of allowing us to see and evaluate and, implicitly, since J is no cultural determinist, to expand and alter our own very different way of making sense of the world. For him, the point of comparative analysis is not simply to understand the world, but to change it.

J’s central claim is that Westerners, from the Greeks onward, approach the world head-on in speech and deed, while the Chinese are typically subtle and oblique. The West aims at overcoming the world, China at harmonizing with it. In chapter after chapter, J tirelessly restates and elaborates his theme of bipolar alterity. Chapter 1 (“He’s Chinese,” “It’s All Chinese to Me”) examines sympathetically the frustration at the obliquity of Chinese spoken and written discourse expressed by the 19th century American missionary Arthur Smith and by contemporary Western political journalists. These naïve and often biased Western observers were, for J, correct in stressing the fundamental otherness of being Chinese, however wrong they were and are to treat this difference as a defect rather than as an essentially different strategy of meaningful communication.

In Chapter 2 (“Frontal Versus Oblique Attack”), J begins his analysis of classical texts from both traditions, arguing that these texts show utterly distinct attitudes toward military strategy in line with his basic hypothesis, the direct/indirect dichotomy. What is true for military tactics is also true for discursive strategy: “Thus the obliquity recommended in the art of war corresponds to an obliquity in speech. We can complete the picture while continuing to rely on this single contrast: to the thrust of the hand-to-hand or face-to-face confrontation of soldiers or arguments the Chinese prefer detour, which frees up the field for maneuvers, the crafty tactics that will rout the enemy without exposing oneself” (p. 49). To be sure, J is well aware that some Greeks sometimes recommend and practice detour in war and argument and vice versa for some Chinese. But again and again throughout the book he deals with these and all similar cases that run counter to his grand contrastive thesis by asserting that such counter-examples are clearly peripheral relative to the main line of the traditions from which they spring, and are thus negligible exceptions rather than occasions for qualifying or modifying that thesis.

In Chapters 3-8, J sketches his view of how the Chinese preference for obliquity and detour came into being. By examining the Book of Songs and the traditional commentaries on it, he notes that the all-embracing political volatility of early China gave rise to a style of extreme caution in expressing dissent: Chapter 6 is titled “The Impossibility of Dissidence (The Ideology of Indirection).” This habit of mind becomes so ingrained that it takes on a life of its own, enabling and limiting Chinese poetry and philosophy long after the establishment of a stable imperial order in the 3rd century BC. No longer a protective strategy to conceal what is being said, “detour attempts not to soften or disguise its meaning but to reveal it” (p. 140). What begins as a conscious strategy for self-preservation becomes, over the course of five centuries or so, the inner and generally unselfconscious logic of a literary and philosophic tradition. Greek, and later European, conditions presented a greater variety of political possibilities and thus opened the way to a tradition whose presuppositions about meaningful expression are polar opposites of the Chinese.5

In Chapters 9-13, J turns from poetry and genealogy to philosophy and justification. From his close and attractive readings of Confucius, Mencius, and Zhuangzi — interspersed with sideways comparative glances at Plato et al. — J distills two contrasting worldviews that underlie the opposing strategies of meaningful discourse. To the Greeks/Westerners he attributes a fundamental ontological dualism, a “metaphysical split between the perceptible and the intelligible, with one reflecting the other: from the appearance of the image we proceed toward the truth of the mystery” (p. 166, J’s italics). The imagination of the West has been decisively shaped and limited by a pervasive devaluation of the world of phenomena carried out in one way by Platonic philosophy and in another by Christian theology.6 J’s account of the West has respectable antecedents, principally Nietzsche (acknowledged by J) and Heidegger (not acknowledged), but it is surely open to question in all sorts of ways, none examined seriously by J. A more adequate survey of recent scholarly discussion of Greek philosophy might have led him to speak less confidently of Plato as the arch-Theorist of Ideas or of a fundamental continuity between Plato and NeoPlatonism.

J’s account of the worldview unifying the Chinese tradition seems considerably more sophisticated and nuanced (though see the critiques of Reding and Saussy identified in notes 2 and 3). Unlike Western essentialists, the main line of Chinese reflection and discourse aims at indicating the richness of a non-dualistic heaven/nature, at hinting at the immanent structure of being, rather than at revealing the unitary truth concealed within the phenomena. J’s central contrast is between two sorts of universality that define his two cultures, “Socratic generality” versus “Confucian globality” (p. 247). The West seeks to discover the God’s-eye view directly; China hints obliquely at the immense variety of points of view and of the world itself.

In Chapters 14-15, J turns to a discussion of post-classical literature to demonstrate the appropriateness of each literary style to its corresponding worldview. Allusion, incitement, and detour are the fitting modes of access to the Chinese world of complex phenomena, just as logic, representation, and allegory are the fitting modes of access to “our” dualistic universe. Having tied the two literary approaches firmly to their respective ideas of reality, J in his Conclusion asks what we Westerners can learn about ourselves from this exercise in confronting the Other. His answer is that we can learn about the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the cultural horizon that defines us. We are less attuned to the richness of the phenomenal world, but they have no equivalent for our sense of “being and freedom” (p. 371). Even our metaphysics (and here J parts company with Nietzsche and Heidegger) has its aesthetic and political advantages: “This super-world has enabled Westerners to conceive of the ideal; the Western invention of the soul and God has made it possible to experience the sublime … Moreover, this transcendent exterior has enabled Westerners to conceive of freedom — including freedom in the city (the Chinese conceive of natural spontaneity, in the sense of sponte sua — that which comes through immanence)” (p. 378). We have freedom [and being and truth], they have wu wei or spontaneity — two quite distinct ways of escaping heteronomy. We worry, with Plato, about transcending the world of appearances to gain the superior perspective of the world of true essences; they worry, with both Confucius and Zhuangzi, about moving from a partial to a global perspective (one that affirms the equality as well as the insufficiency of all partial perspectives) on the phenomenal world, which is the only world there is. The very ambitious goal of J’s comparative work is to put us — presumably Westerners and Chinese alike — in a position to have it both ways.

All this assumes that there are clear and straightforward answers to the questions of who we and they are, answers that are accessible to the trained decoder of cultures. But that is not the only way to think about this kind of comparative study. The alternative to J’s approach is set out nicely by Benjamin Schwartz:7

I would suggest that in dealing with the encounter between the West and any given non-Western society and culture, there can be no escape from immersing ourselves as deeply as possible in the specificities of both worlds simultaneously. We are not dealing with a known and an unknown variable but with two vast, ever-changing, highly problematic areas of human experience. We undoubtedly “know” infinitely more about the West, but the West remains as problematic as ever (p.2).

The basic question at issue in this study is not whether to prefer Western directness or Chinese indirection, but whether to treat J’s cultural anthropological approach to Chinese and Greek texts as a useful but limited moment within the framework of a Schwartz-like dialogic approach, or vice versa. Each method, pursued in isolation from the other, has its strengths and weaknesses. If J tends to suppress significant controversies within cultures, we might still worry that too much stress on internal differences could render comparison pointless. But these two distinct approaches should not simply be regarded as different but perfectly compatible analytic tools, useful for different tasks. Our question as modern scholars and teachers, wherever we live and whatever languages we read and speak, is not whether to prefer subtlety or explicitness, nor whether to put our money on China or on Greece, but instead how to both enjoy and yet take sides within the potentially enlivening quarrel between the delights of scientistic disciplinarity and those of humanistic interpretation or liberal learning. J clearly experiences both pleasures, yet invariably allows the former to control the latter, without acknowledging, and perhaps without knowing, that this is what he is doing. Those of us who lean toward the other side should nonetheless be grateful for the challenge J’s thoughtful and wide-ranging over-simplification poses.


1. See for example Lisa Raphals, Knowing Words: Wisdom and Cunning in the Classical Traditions of China and Greece (Cornell University Press, 1992); the essays collected in Steven Shankman and Stephen W. Durrant, eds., Early China/Ancient Greece: Thinking Through Comparisons (SUNY Press, c2002); Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin, The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece (Yale U. Press, 2003); and Jean-Paul Reding, Comparative Essays in Early Greek and Chinese Rational Thinking (Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004).

2. Jean-Paul Reding’s excellent critical review of the French original, to which I am indebted, can be found in China Review International, vol. 3, no. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 160-168.

3. For a critical summary of J’s overall project, carried out in a series of recent books, of treating China and Greece/The West as contrasting and complementary ways of seeing and judging the world, see Haun Saussy, “No Time Like the Present: The Category of Contemporaneity in Chinese Studies,” in Shankman and Durrant, pp. 35-54, esp. 47-50.

4. J says his approach is “to bring to light certain methods of linguistic functioning so widespread in China that they almost go unnoticed. Since they are intended to remain implicit, I think that the meaning of such utterances can only be made visible by comparing them with other logical configurations — and thus by a continuous exchange between an outside and an inside. This amounts to reclaiming the right of an actively (or positively) Western sinology that knows how to take advantage of the possibility for a comparative reading” (p. 32, J’s italics). Otherwise put, in spite of his propensity for Fish Gotta Swim, Bird Gotta Fly cultural dimorphism, J might say that the payoff of comparative works like his is to teach both Fish and Bird something of the language of the Other.

5. This leads him to some controversial critical reflections, such as his opinion that the Chinese imaginary is profoundly incompatible with democratic freedom: “The point of clear difference where the rift is greatest between China and Greece is in the Chinese’s never having imagined any regime other than the “royal path,” or monarchy … The principle of government by a single man was never questioned (and still is not, it seems to me)” (p. 125). In the Chinese tradition, according J, one can imagine remonstrating with the supreme ruler but not replacing him by some institutionalized form of popular rule.

6. “[T]his super-world of theory has devalued the Western world; this transcendent outside has cut us off from phenomena. In short, our metaphysical bias seems to have impoverished our experience” (p. 378).

7. Benjamin Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West. Harvard University Press, 1964.