Like mixing water with water

Students often come to classes on China looking for the Timeless Wisdom of the Easttm As a historian I tend to dislike giving it to them, since the point of history is not to take wisdom out of historical context and apply it to your life.1 Still, I do like providing timeless wisdom when I can, and as we are talking about the origins of bureaucracy in China today I will be using this quote from the Zuo2 to talk about the difference between a minister and a toady. I suspect this will be one of the things that they can actually apply in their lives, if only as a great put-down.

Yan Ying on harmony and conformity

“Only [Liangqiu] Ju is harmonious (he) with me.”

[Yan Ying] answered: “Ju conforms (tong) with you; how can he be harmonious?”

The lord asked: “Are harmony and conformity different?”

[Yan Ying] answered: “They are different. Harmony is like a stew. Water, fire, jerky, mincemeat, salt, and plum [vinegar] are used to cook fish and meat; they are cooked over firewood. Then the master chef harmonizes them, mixes them according to taste, compensating for what is insufficient and diminishing what is too strong. The superior man (junzi) eats it to calm (ping) his heart.

It is the same with the ruler and minister. When there is something unacceptable about what the ruler considers acceptable, the minister points out the unacceptable in order to perfect the acceptability [of the ruler’s plan]. When there is something acceptable in what the ruler considers unacceptable, the minister points out the acceptable in order to eliminate the unacceptable. In this way the government is equalized (ping) and without transgressions, and the people have no contending (zheng) heart. …

As for Ju, he is not like this. Whatever you consider acceptable, Ju also says it is acceptable, whatever you consider unacceptable, Ju also says it is unacceptable. This is like complementing water with more water: who will be able to drink it? If the zithers and dulcimers were to hold a single tone, who could listen to it? This is how conformity (tong) is unacceptable.”

Zuo Zhao 20, cited in Pines 160-161

  1. Well, not the only point anyway 

  2. via Pines, Yuri. Foundations of Confucian Thought: Intellectual Life in the Chunqiu Period, 722-453 B.C.E. University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

1 Comment

  1. I don’t believe in the Timeless Wisdom of anywhere anymore (it took a long time to shake), but I do believe in the Timely Wisdom of Mankind…and whatever our culture of origin, that by itself ain’t mankind.

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