martedì 23 luglio 2013

Zhang Taiyan and mind-fasting (Erlangen, vol. 3)

On Sunday evening I had an inspiring discussion with Joyce[1]. On Saturday she had prepared a thorough article which was distributed to the audience, “The Translatability and the Untranslatability of the Law of Life: Liang Qichao versus Zhang Taiyan”. In her speech she did not have time to touch upon all the parts of the text. As I had the printed text, I could read it later. And as I suspected, there were extremely interesting and important things. As the title suggests, the article is about the two persons, Liang Qichao 梁啓超 (1873-1929) and Zhang Taiyan 章太炎 (1869-1936). In the following I will be treating only Zhang Taiyan’s ideas, as presented by prof. Liu, and not all of them, but only some of them. For the moment I am relying entirely on prof. Liu’s interpretation of Zhang Taiyan; I hope in the future I will have time to read Zhang himself. My reading might be perhaps far-fetched and even erroneous, but it is done in good faith. Of course, when I say that Zhang Taiyan says this or that, it should be understood “Zhang in the interpretation of prof. Liu as I understood it”. All the quotations are from prof. Liu’s text, if not indicated otherwise. Provided Chinese characters are also mostly present already in prof. Liu’s text.
Zhang Taiyan performs a critique simultaneously on two levels, individual or psychological on the one hand, and societal or political on the other hand.
1) Zhang criticizes[2] the “ego-fixation” (wozhi 我執), which could be interpreted as the “mental processes” or “objective judgements” (see p. 20) or “the illusory and deluded consciousness” (p. 20-21). Mentation and judgement are tied to the ego, receive their orientation and values from it. I judge things to be useful or harmful, interesting or without interest; and psychological mentation consists largely in judging on the exteriority. Its basic functioning is to create distinctions; it makes things unequal. To a certain extent it is good and necessary.
At the same time it has its limits in the sense that the products and habits formed by this process represent the mechanical or repetitive side of life. But if life is to continue living, it has to be also adaptive and inventive, and this can not be achieved solely with the acquired forms and habits. The achieved and finished identity appears then as an obstacle to life and transformation. In order to overcome these inhibitions, Zhang uses Zhuangzi’s notion of “mind-fasting”[3] (xinzhai 心齋). This is the “vacuous and inoperative nodal point at the center (環中)”, and its constant movement makes “room for the arrival of all others as equal beings” (p. 18). That is, it undoes the particularism of ego-fixation, and it manifests other aspects of things, other possibilities, that were previously in the dark. So, the mind-fasting gives a more global, comprehensive, impartial and adaptable look and take on things.
Another aspect of it is that the habit by definition creates abstractions, i.e. classes of perception and action (that can be performed quasi-mechanically or instinctively). The mind-fasting brings things back to their “singular temporal moment” (every one has its own time or temporality, 各有時分 p. 21), their concreteness and shows them as they appear by and for themselves (and not only as reflected in the mirror of my own interests and biases). Ego-fixation shows things in their actuality, in their present finished habitual form; mind-fasting teaches to view each moment “as the co-existence of all aspects of the events and as the seeds and geneses of all things to come” (p. 21). Prof. Liu (and supposedly also Zhang Taiyan) refers at this point to the sentence from the opening section of ch. 27 of “Zhuangzi”: 萬物皆種,以不同形相禪,如卒若壞環,莫得其倫,是謂天均, where on the one hand we have the mutual complementing or substituting of different things and on the other hand things as seeds[4]. I.e. on the one hand there is implicated all the past and on the other hand all the future. Things are not limited to the actual present form, but they imply all the past and are open to the future, are able to transform (namely thanks to the non-exclusion of others in the global inclusion of mutual conditioning of past and present causes). “To Zhang Taiyan, ... the radical affirmation of the future to come was not presented through the projection of an ideal vision, but through the constant act of negativity so as to challenge and remove the fixated rules and habitual conventions” (p. 30). The mind-fasting is “the counter-movement of the fixation in all forms” (p. 31).
2) The second level or aspect of Zhang Taiyan’s critique touches upon the “law-fixation” (法執). The individual or psychological stretches inevitably to the societal and political by the fact that the mental processes and objective judgements of the individual or psychological level are “inevitably influenced and shaped by the conventional consensus and nominal system shared by local practice (舊章制度,名教串習,庸眾共循)” (p. 20). “In order to dis-entangle and dis-articulate the rigid concept derived from the nominal system, it is necessary to loosen up the law enforced either by conventional consensus or by the epistemic structure” (p. 21). In this way the mind-fasting implies also a cultural and political critique of established laws, norms, social habits.
If we want this critique to be consistent, the mind-fasting on the psychological and individual level is not sufficient, but we have to conceive a social structure that would by itself undo its fixed forms and habitual norms. In the same way that the mind-fasting pointed to the vacuous “place” in the individual, Zhang Taiyan also conceived a similar void in the social system. He understood the nation as “the place of emptiness” , in a continuous process of being composed and decomposed, a “vacuous and inoperative place that allows the arrival and departure of different people” (p. 19). He saw the nation as a dynamic movement in constant re-composition. “The nation has no substance of its own, but appears only as a mobile condition. (然其組織時,惟有動態,初無實體)” (p. 26). “Zhang further stressed that the love for the nation (愛國心) was not to love the fixated present state (所愛者亦現在之正有), but to love its composing (組合) and the ““not yet germinated” that is to come in the future (渴望其未萌芽者)” (p. 26). Zhang “stressed the importance to acknowledge the historical process of the dynamic and constantly altered composition [...] and to welcome the coming of new people and new composition of the nation” (p. 26). A society or a nation is not to be judged according to what it “is”, according to its present “identity”, but according to its capacity of becoming, creating, adapting – according to its future.
So, there is never a “fixed norm for different generations (文之轉化,代無定型). All the classics, including the Book of Rites, Book of Documents, Spring and Autumn Annals, the Classics of Poetry, and even the Classic of Changes, were all records of various historical moments, presented merely the traces of the subjective judg[e]ments of one moment of time in the past, and [were] not to be taken as unbreakable laws or canons. We should not model after any norm as if the ancient kings set it as norms of teachings” (p. 22). In China, the land of ancestor-worship and filial piety, this kind of statement is bold and consequential. In fact, similar statements were already made by Mozi and especially Han Feizi during the Warring States period. And in general, it is clear that we grow in the soil of a past tradition, we come from our ancestors – but if we want to be genuinely faithful to them, we should not repeat the same that they did, or find solutions in the same way; because their solutions were adapted to their particular historical setting, and if we are to imitate the “same” capacity of problem-solving, we have to find new ways that would be suited to the our present situation.
What would be the social structure that could encourage the society’s power of becoming and problem-solving? Zhang “analyzed the representative system of the government and pointed out the drawbacks of this system”[5], for instance that “the power of the representatives was seized by the rich and the upper class people” (p. 27). In a speech delivered in 1912 Zhang suggested that “offices for administration, legislation and supervision should be independent from one another, and the power of the president should be limited and placed at a “vacuous and inoperative place” (空虛不用之地) to prevent him from developing into a dictatorship system”. Furthermore, “the office for education and examination should be independent from the central government” (p. 28). So, it means that Zhang Taiyan promoted the idea of the separation of powers, only with certain particularities. There would be five branches: administration, legislation, supervision, president, education-and-examination. The administration and the president could be considered as equivalents of the executive in the Western conception of separation of powers; and the supervision as an equivalent of the judiciary. Actually, it seems that the supervising branch would include both the judiciary and what in Estonia is called the National Audit System (Riigikontroll), and perhaps other functions. The main difference would be an independent branch of education. The significance of this fact is to be pondered upon.[6] Zhang Taiyan also proposed a decentralized type of government where the central government would act as a moderator between the provinces. It is important that no single vantage point (president, central government) should seize the center (see p. 29), which is the place of emptiness and where all things interact with each other as seeds (p. 31). Zhang Taiyan thus was “against the seizure of power in all forms and over all aspects of life so that the power of thought could counteract the utilitarian and juridical vision of nation-state advocated by his contemporaries” (p. 30). In this way mind-fasting acquires also political significance: “Through the dynamic movement of the xinzhai, any partition set up by the economic regime of perceptual-nominal system could be analyzed, contextualized, contested and dis-articulated” (p. 31).
3) The empty place in the individual and in the society that enables both of them to live, transform and adapt, is the “thusness” (真如)[7] of things. “Following Zhuangzi and Buddhist thoughts, Zhang Taiyan elaborated his reasoning to restore life from the binding and separation exercised by empirical or symbolic laws, and to take life’s “thus-ness” as it is, which is the law of life itself in the sense that all life and all law is equal” (p. 30). It should be noted that the law in the phrase “law of life itself” is different from the ‘law’ in the phrase “law-fixation”. The latter was based on fixation, exclusion, and actuality, while the first is perfectly mobile, inclusive, and virtual. Counter-acting the ego- and law-fixations allows “the dynamic movement of the liveliness of life to constantly unbind the nominal bondage, so that thoughts [or any forms – M.O.] appeared and disappeared in a[n] instant and the place could make room to welcome others” (p. 30). It is the love for the “not-yet-germinated (愛其未萌芽者)” (p 23).

Zhang Taiyan has some points in common with the ancient school of Legalists, notably Han Feizi. Both conceive of the sovereign as an “empty place” that should take no initiative by him/herself; both underline the necessity to find new solutions in the new historical requirements, and not to slavishly cling to the past solutions (cf Han Fei’s “sit by the stump and wait the rabbit”); both also search for inspiration in Daoist sources, Zhang Taiyan in Zhuangzi and Han Fei in Laozi. But there is a decisive difference, where Zhang could succeed but where Han Fei inevitably fails – so that Zhang could have some important things to say to us, whereas Han Fei must be completed or driven further than he himself actually went. Their aspirations are also often diametrically opposite: Han Fei wanted to strenghten the ruler, the center, the hierarchy, while Zhang Taiyan promoted decentralization.
Han Fei’s initial problem that gave birth to his idea of government was how to make so that the negative individual characteristics of the monarch would affect the society as little as possible. According to him the ruler must be as “non-acting” (wuwei 無為) as possible, intervene as little as possible; the ruler should not act or think by himself, but receive instigations for action and thought from others, most importantly from his ministers. So that he would only “manage” them, act as a facilitator. Because otherwise, Han Fei warns, the ruler will be inevitably overthrown: if he acts and thinks by himself, he shows his preferences, so that his subjects know how to please him – and in this way they usurp his power and finally overthrow him. The ruler must be “non-acting”, because it is in his own interest, lest he be killed. But still this appeals to the rationality of the ruler, so that at least he would be capable of thinking in the long term. But what guarantees that he does? Isn’t short-sightedness more widespread among men? Don’t they tend to think in a rather short term? Of what if the ruler is so ruthless and cynical – or simply mad and suicidal, as not to care about the inevitable downfall sometime in the future? “After me, the Deluge”... In theory the center of power should be empty, but it is still filled by a person; and there are no real or realistic checks on his power.
In Zhang Taiyan’s case there are. In principle, the five branches should balance each other (it goes without saying that in practice it would still require a lot of civilty and culture in social behavior – just as in case of the Western separation of powers). Of course, we should see more closely, how is it worked out in detail – but this I must leave for some future time.

Zhang Taiyan’s notion of a void inside the person and inside the society, and ways to uphold it (with mind-fasting in the individual plane, that by itself grows into a radical social and political critique; and with a social system of power-separation that would in turn breed more powerful, free, “futural” individuals) are very much needed in the present world. If I would take only the social and political side, then after the recent crisis it is clear that the society has to be reinvented, that old forms of democracy are not sufficient any more. Perhaps we haven’t yet received the answers, but it was important to formulate the problem and the terms of this problem: how to access and maintain the “empty” center of a society that makes it alive?
The common social sphere has to a worrying extent been appropriated by small groups of persons and institutions (the “1%”, multinational corporations, ...) who often do not serve the common good at all. How to break these fixations, blockings and make the society flow? I will not endeavor an answer here; but a “mind-fasting” in Zhuangzi’s and Zhang Taiyan’s sense, and corresponding types of interactions between persons could be a thought-seed for this topic.

[1] Joyce C.H. Liu劉紀蕙, National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan.
[2] In his “Reading of the “Equality of all things”” 齊物論釋 (first edition in 1910; revised version in 1915). “Equality of all things” is the 2nd chapter of “Zhuangzi”, often considered to be the most authentic and philosophically interesting part of it.
[3] Prof. Liu doesn’t use the English translation of the term, but refers to it by the Chinese word in pinyin, xinzhai.
[4] These “seeds” could be brought together with the mencian idea of “sprouts” duan (see Mengzi 2A6) of benevolence and righteousness, etc., i.e. with Mengzi’s idea that we all contain in potentia humanity, rituals, etc. that become such if they find an appropriate environment and are properly developed (as seeds need water, light and nutrients).
[5] In his “Questioning the Representative System” 代議熱否論 (1908)
[6] The Taiwanese government seems to have been modelled according to these lines; it is comprised of five big branches: legislation, executive, judicial, examination and control. Perhaps these are the same as proposed by Zhang Taiyan; I have to find it out later.
[7] This concept was first developed by the Buddhists. By the way, the epithete of Buddha, Tathāgata, is in Chinese 如來 which means “thus-come”.

lunedì 22 luglio 2013


(part 2)

In the Germanisches Nationalmuseum I first passed through the oldes part, starting from the prehistory (incl. neanderthal sculls). Perhaps the most famous item from the “prehistory” is the 3000 year-old Ezelsdorf-Buch golden cone that is said to be a hat – although to be precise, it must have been the upper decoration of the hat. It is made of thin gold foil with geometrical patterns and it was said to have been recovered from just 80 cm below the surface by a worker. It seemed to have been quite intact, but during the recovery it was damaged, so that it needed restoration. It is supposed to have belonged to a sun-priest.
I went throroughly through the oldest part up to the end of the Middle Ages. There were several precious items from all periods, e.g. a certain type of roman helmet that is said to be just one of two exemplars found, beautiful early middle-ages bible-boxes and crosses, manuscripts. I especially appreciated a collection of wooden madonnas, that one could see quite closely and who had all different expressions – that are not similar to those we have been used to from later canons from renaissance onwards. At the same time funny, humorous, warm, proud. They didn’t seem to be some male-dominated females with no independence, dissolving into their role of theotokos, kind of abstract, plödi, sugary, lacrimous, irreal figures. But women proud of themselves and of their child.
There were other interesting statues and also some altar-pieces (e.g. one depicting the scene of cutting the ear – not the most common subject from the NT).
Then my time was running short, as we had to go to Monika’s sisters’ place. I decided to jump to the other extreme of time, i.e. 20 century. I just had a glimpse of the pieces of Dürer (who lived in Nuremberg) and a collection of scetches of Rembrandt, but I had no time to focus myself on them. The collection of renaissance and baroque art covered a huge area. I had to choose.
And so I jumped to the 20th century. The collection was not too big, so that I could hurriedly skim it though. There were interesting things, starting from the expressionism and new objectivity. Hannah Höch. Also furniture design was included. A couple of pieces from Nazi period (similar to the “social realism” of the Soviet Union). I suspect that some pieces from the post-war period were due to some compulsion and to my mind were not worth this collection (eg. a huge blue bomber over the houses, dull representative art with no deeper inner working of the material, just presenting the traumatic experience; but brute trauma or just a sentiment or just a representation is not art, or is bad art).
One piece struck me: a big neon-pink (darker hue) circle with neon orange-red background. A glow of pure intensity.
Making my way hastily towards the exit I had to pass between napoleonic cannons.
Actually the museum is (partly) situated in a 14. century monastery. It must have been abandoned long ago, since this region is Protestant (in the generally Catholic South). A large number of hugenottes were transferred to this region when their rights were revoked in France; in Erlangen there is until these days a Hugenottenkirche and Hugenottenplatz.

From the darker side of history, in connection with Nuremberg one cannot avoid talking about nazism. Already in 1298 there was the first pogromme where 600 Jews were killed. In Nazi times Nuremberg was the place of the famous rallies and it was the “most German” of German towns.
The city was bombarded heavily by the Allies and it was occupied only at the very end of the war, 17. of April 1945, after a fierce street-to-street battle. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to visit the Documentation Museum (about the Nazi period) – which would have complemented my visit to the Nanjing massacre museum (and many years ago to the Khatyn memorial).

Erlangen, Germany

(part 1)

I attended a workshop on China-related Translation Studies, held in Erlangen, Germany on July 20, 2013, and organized by Monika Gänßbauer, professor of the sinology department in Erlangen.
1. In her opening speech Monika gave a brief overview of translation in the Chinese context, with its two major waves of translation, first of the Buddhist texts, starting from the first centuries of the common era, and secondly when the Westeners arrived in the modern era. She also pointed out the ethics and responsibilities of the translator.
2. Then came the speech of Frank Kraushaar, who himself was not present, but whose speech was read by Monika. He repeated Eco’s idea that the translator should respect the author (more nuances were added during the discussion).
3. A young lady, whose name I forgot to write down (and who doesn’t figure in the programme, because she substituted a professor from Hong Kong who fell ill and could not come) spoke about her translation project and how the publishing looks like in Germany.
4. Joyce Liu from Chiao Tung University, Taiwan gave a very interesting and thorough speech on Liang Qichao and Zhang Taiyan. Zhang Taiyan’s political philosophy seems to be extremely interesting. He promoted the distinction of powers (administration, legislative, supervising, education and examination branch, president with limited powers) and the decentralization of government. This was related to his interpretation of Zhuangzi and especially Zhuangzi’s xinzhai.
5. Then I gave a speech on Billeter and Jullien and their different approaches to understanding (or thinking) in general and translation in particular.
6. Esther-Maria Guggenmos introduced her work on a buddhist apocryphical sutra on divination. She participates in a larger group of scholars (International Consortium for Research in the Humanities). She presented some examples of her translation and some problems related to her project. She showed also the special divination tools used together with this sutra.
7. Finally Monika gave a poetic and imaginative speech, where she compared, inter alia, translation to piracy. Like a ship is assaulted and its crew substituted by the pirates, and its flag by that of the pirates, a book is invaded by the translator, who replaces the words of the original with his/her own words.

Altogether we were around a dozen people, including other members of the faculty and also students. Every paper was followed by questions and a discussion. The atmosphere was friendly and intimate. Erlangen’s sinology department is situated in a separate house (that used to be a police station, some of which paraphernalia are still there, e.g. bars and heavy doors in the basement), which also created a more cozy atmosphere than perhaps would have been in a normal big university building.
I must underline the hospitality of Monika who was extremely considerate towards the members of the workshop and its guests. The day after she took Joyce and me to Nuremberg, where we walked around the old town and visited the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. Later we were invited to the place of her sister who lives in Nuremberg, and we had an interesting talk on several topics together with Monika’s sister and brother-in-law who proved to be very warm hosts. I appreciated these moments very much; it gave a glimpse into the life of local people. Otherwise when you just attend the conference, live in the hotel and do some tourism, it feels anonymous and superficial. But if you see locals in their own environment, it gives another flavour.