Friday, September 27, 2013

Spring and Autumn Annals: and Other Miscellaneous Observations

I tried to find a complete English translation of the Spring and Autumn Annals online, but I could only find a few fragments and some commentary. The annals themselves are almost absurdly concise and, from what I could tell, completely devoid of context or explanation. On average, only about 65 words were recorded each year. By comparison, I have reached exactly 65 words right here. To demonstrate this terseness, the first entry says only: "ORIGINAL YEAR. SPRING. KING’S RECTIFIED MONTH."

After Confucius' death, the rumor spread that he, a native of the state of Lu where the Annals were kept, had edited the annals to subtly reveal some hidden wisdom. Historians agree that the Annals were written entirely by court bureaucrats; nevertheless, Zhou and Han scholars came up with intricate methods of extracting predictions and meaning from the rather vacuous record. The commentaries they came up with are sometimes hilarious. For example, the most famous such work, the Gongyang Zhuan, interprets the three words: "WINTER. LOCUSTS AROSE." as follows (the commentary is in the form of a question-and-answer dialogue):

"The text has never before noted the advent of locusts, why does it do so here?
The advent of locusts is not a thing recorded in the Annals. 
Then why does it record it here?
To indicate it was a lucky thing.
Wherein was it lucky?
The ruler altered what was old and changed what was constant; in response to this there was a disaster of nature. "

I think that this sort of mind-numbing over-interpretation illustrates the extreme deference later Chinese scholars paid to Confucian texts; it seems like Confucius was viewed as an all-knowing prophet.  From what I read in the Analects, though, it also seems to show how easy it is to overlook the obvious elements in search of hidden meaning.  Confucius directly says that people should find joy in the Way rather than simply intellectually interpreting it; the exact opposite happens here.  You can read some more excerpts from the Annals and commentaries here.

This kind of glossing-over of obvious elements of a philosophy reminds me of how people with all sorts of beliefs sometimes ignore elements of those beliefs that aren't convenient to them.  For example, take Matthew 6:5 and 6:6: 

'And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.'  (New Revised Standard Version)

How do Televangelists, among others, get away with so blatantly violating this section?  I think that they use verses to support their work spreading the Gospel as a sort of distraction, much like Chinese bureaucrats who were comfortable having memorized everything Confucius ever wrote and thus passing the civil service test used meaningless hermeneutics to cover up the broader meaning of his work.  I think this is a good historical example of how we need to keep the big picture in mind, and sometimes just take things at face value.

2 comments: said...

There is a full version, along with seperate commentary and explanation of the historical context, on said...

Forgot to include the actual link