Persuaders in Early China

What do we know about ‘rhetoric’ in early China? The international conference “Masters of Disguise? Conceptions and Misconceptions of ‘Rhetoric’ in Chinese Antiquity” (September 4–6, 2013) offered new insights into a topic drawing the increasing attention of researchers.

Jenny Jingyi Zhao

The past few years have seen a growing interest in the topic of rhetoric in early China on a global scale: a number of conferences have been held on the topic and the 2012 issue of the journal Extrême-Orient, Extrême-Occident was dedicated to political rhetoric in early China. Now it seemed a particularly fitting time to review what has been gained from studies in the area and to engage in scholarly exchange at an international level. An opportunity arose at the conference “Masters of Disguise?,” organized by Wolfgang Behr and Lisa Indraccolo (both University of Zurich) and held at the Oechslin Library in Einsiedeln, Switzerland.

A perfect spot to talk about texts: The reading room of the Oechslin Library in Einsiedeln (© Eleni Andrist)

A great variety of dicussed texts

The stated goal of the conference was “to shed new light on the figure of the persuader and the argumentative means at his disposal in early China” from a comparative perspective. Over fifty scholars and graduate students attended the conference and contributed to the lively discussions. The speakers consisted of twenty prominent scholars and promising young researchers, each of whom gave a presentation followed by a short response from a designated discussant and questions from the audience. The organizers sought to reach beyond the field of sinology, introducing an interdisciplinary approach and inviting Classics professors Suzanne Saïd (Columbia University) and Øivind Andersen (University of Oslo) to attend the conference and lead plenary discussions.

The conference papers displayed great variety in terms of content and approach, and the large numbers of pre-Qin and early imperial texts discussed included the Analects, Mencius, Mozi, Zhuangzi, Hanfeizi, and the Lunheng, to name just a few. Such diversity of the papers could be said to be a reflection of the great variety and scope of early Chinese rhetoric. Even though the papers were not grouped according to theme at the conference, one could nonetheless classify them as follows:

1. Taking a textual approach and examining select passages in order to illustrate how rhetorical features enhance the effectiveness of texts: For example, Christian Schwermann (University of Bonn) focused on the rhetorical functions of quotations in early imperial memorials; Dirk Meyer (University of Oxford) discussed how the Jin Teng (Metal Bound Coffer) from the Qinghua collection of Chu manuscripts marked an attempt to give meaning to a specific state of socio-political affairs; Licia Di Giacinto (Ruhr University Bochum) chose to focus on the rhetorical tropes encountered in the Taipingjing, in particular the metaphor of light, the vocabulary of auspiciousness, and the (missing) metaphor of cleanliness or purity.

Strategies for successful persuasion

2. Rhetoric as a means to draw out running themes in texts: For example, Oliver Weingarten (Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague) compared the portrayal of Confucius in texts such as the Analects, Liji, and Zhuangzi, outlining some of the roles in which the anecdotal tradition cast him; Zhou Yiqun (Stanford University) discussed the peculiar portrayal of successful female persuaders as either prepubescent or extremely ugly in chapter 6 of Liu Xiang’s Biographies of Women, raising questions on the relationship between rhetorical skill and male and female beauty; Nicolas Zufferey (University of Geneva) spoke of inherent contradictions in Wang Chong’s Lunheng, notable especially because Wang Chong himself aimed his criticism at his opponents’ contradictory argumentation, problematizing the criteria of truth in Wang Chong’s writings and in early China more broadly; Michael Puett (Harvard University) discussed the consistent rhetorical strategy at play in the Huainanzi, situating the text within the larger history of classical Chinese rhetorical argumentation.

3. Calling into question the various forms that rhetoric could take: Christoph Harbsmeier (University of Oslo) concentrated on tonal euphony and dissonance, which he called “the music of classical Chinese prose style;” Joachim Gentz (University of Edinburgh) took examples from the Guiguzi and the Zuozhuan to illustrate aspects of “non-verbal persuasion”—often it fell to the task of the persuader to listen and explore the particular type of opponent in order to make for successful persuasion; David Schaberg (University of California, Los Angeles) focused on two types of Western Han court procedures for election to office—shece and duice—in order to discuss institutions of communication against the historical background; Martin Kern (Princeton University) showed how early royal speeches and inscriptions featured elements of persuasion and performance; Michael Nylan (University of California, Berkeley) in her paper “The Rhetoric of Friendship” examined the ways through which the pleasures of intimate friendship and love could be conveyed to the reader.

Classical China and Greece

4. An interdisciplinary and/or comparative approach: Chen Rudong (Peking University) traced the reception of classical Chinese rhetoric in ‘the West’ and called for a multi-cultural and global perspective on the rhetorical tradition in a globalized era. Lisa Raphals (University of California, Riverside/National University of Singapore) compared classical Chinese and Greek mantic rhetoric by discussing a wide array of divinatory discourses and their functions in augmenting the authority of the text. The panel discussions saw the classicists Suzanne Saïd and Øivind Andersen compare and contrast Greek and Chinese notions of ‘rhetoric.’

Different notions of ‘rhetoric’

It is not possible to classify all twenty papers into these four groups, which inevitably overlap to some extent. Neither can a brief report do justice to the interesting papers and rich discussions that took place. The varying notions of ‘rhetoric’ as evidently employed by the speakers and discussants at several points caused debate over just what is and what is not ‘rhetoric.’ Perhaps it would be fitting to end the report on a series of points that surfaced during the conference, succinctly summarized by Ralph Weber (University of Zurich) in the last panel discussion: What do we mean when we use the word ‘rhetoric?’ To what extent are the terms ‘rhetoric’ and ‘persuasion’ interchangeable? How can we employ ‘rhetoric’ in a comparative sense? As became clear during the conference, ‘rhetoric’ encompasses many forms including rhetorical constructions in a text aimed at persuading as well as a text that explicitly talks about persuading. The role of the author as persuader is especially relevant and in order to make meaningful comparisons, it becomes necessary to contextualize by looking to the functions of the text and the historical background that gave rise to the text. It seems that only by asking ourselves the most fundamental questions such as what ‘rhetoric’ is can we probe deeper into its practice in early China.

This conference made important contributions to the study of rhetoric in Early China. The selection of papers to be published by the organizers in a forthcoming thematic issue of the journal Asiatische Studien will be eagerly anticipated.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 3/2014, pp. 17–18)