The Song Confucians' view of history

Earlier, we talked about the Song Dynasty Confucians' preoccupation with practical matters.  Throughout Chinese history, one sees a pendulum effect in Confucian scholars' emphasis on practical matters and on a strict adherence to rituals and other aspects of tradition.  In the late Tang Dynasty that preceded the Song Dynasty, scholars talked about going back to the ancient classics to adhere to the true messages of Confucius.  The Song Confucian scholars' emphasis on interpretation rather than word by word adherence was a reaction to the Tang trend and their way to combine Confucian learning with practical matters of the day.  The Song emphasis on intuitive understanding received further development in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a Chinese dynasty after the Song, but by late Ming, and early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), many Confucian scholars believed that the Song and Ming Confucian emphasis on interpretation led to often "vacuous" talk that had little connection with the true preaching of Confucius.  They then started a strict adherence to Confucian rituals and a very careful study of the meaning of each word in the ancient classics.  This trend would go well into the 20th century, when many of such Confucian scholars would become China's first generation of philologists and historians in the modern university or secondary schools in the modern educational system patterned after the West in 1905.  On the other hand, in the late 19th century, following China's defeat in the hands of Western powers, there was a revival of Song-Ming Confucian learning that called for applying the meaning of Confucian teachings to practical affairs of life.  Followers of this school constituted the core of the Neo-Confucian revival of the 20th century.

Similar to their practical approach to Confucian learning, Song Confucians also rediscovered the practical use of history: as mirrors to reflect the good and the bad of the past so that future rulers would avoid the errors of past. 

History was considered a very important subject for government administration because of its didactic function.  Starting from the Tang Dynasty (608-906), dynastic histories were compiled by state appointed historians who were usually to write histories of the previous dynasty, with the explicit purpose that such histories would aid the present dynasty's rulers to learn from the past so that the dynasty would not fall as the last one did, though occasionally historians were also asked to compile histories of their own dynasties before the present ruler.  This accorded with the Confucian ideal embodied in the Spring and Autumn Annals, a history of the state of Lu during the time of Confucius, supposedly edited by Confucius himself, who wanted to use the history of his state to show how success or failure to adhere to the ancient ways would bring about prosperity or ruin to a country.  The edition of the Spring and Autumn Annals by Zuo Qiuming was one of the Five Classics.   The interest in history during the Song Dynasty was not confined to official historians, but a pervasive one among  the Confucian scholars.  Sima Guang, prime minister after Wang Anshi and a Confucian scholar, edited one of the greatest imperial histories in Chinese history, called the Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance.  Throughout Chinese history up to early 20th century, however, history was considered an appendage to the Confucian classics, to use specific cases to highlight the correct or incorrect implementation of the sage's teachings, and the consequences. 

1. Confucian influences and historical objectivity:

Confucian historians emphasize an honest recording of history even at the cost of their own lives, such as mentioned in Liu Zhiji's writings (de Bary, 654-655).  Liu was a historiographer in the Tang Dynasty.  His emphasis on historical honesty, however, was different from what we call objectivity today.  While objectivity means impartial accounts of the truth, which is often treated as a transcendental authority, Liu's emphasis on historians' honesty about the past adhered to the Confucian emphasis on ministers' loyalty to the king through speaking the truth even at the cost of the ministers' lives.  The same message is conveyed in Sima Guang's account of the conversation between Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty and his Imperial Censor who kept the records of his deeds and words, that a loyal minister would record the words and deeds of the emperor truthfully for the sake of the empire. 

2.  The use of history to reinforce certain Confucian messages:

Because unlike the Confucian writings, history provides specific examples, moral messages taught through history could be more effective.  Historians like Sima Guang hence often used history to illustrate to their rulers how to behave in Confucian ways.  For instance, Sima Guang's didactic note to his own ruler that the emperor should be the moral exemplary of his people was done through an example from the Tang Dynasty when an emperor tried to extract evidence of a minister's guilt of bribery through deceit, and was accused of not serving as an example of virtue to his ministers. (656-657) 

On the other hand, Sima Guang also extolled practical abilities of administration.  Unlike earlier Confucians such as Mencius who condemned the "hegemons" of the Eastern Zhou/Warring States period, who claimed kingship and warred against one another for the leadership of China, Sima insisted they also practiced Confucian ways, and did not fundamentally differ from virtuous kings praised by Confucius. (657-658)  His positive appraisal of the hegemons showed the value he attached to practical administration. 

3. Song Confucians' historicism and adherence to timeless Confucian values

On the surface, a sense of historicism-that things change and do not remain the same-is not conducive to the belief in timeless Confucian values.  But the two paradoxically exist in Song Confucian scholars.  Often, it was precisely because they were aware of historical changes--that things do not remain the same, that they wanted to hold on tenaciously to Confucian principles, to find something permanent within change.  This also shaped the style they treated Confucian principles--on the whole much more transcendental than previous Confucian scholars, although Zhu Xi tried to avoid a high level of transcendentalism in his treatment of Confucian learning.  We will be able to get a glimpse of this more transcendental treatment of Confucian learning in chaps.20, 21, and 24 of the de Bary book, which we will read in the next three weeks.

The Cheng brothers Yi and Hao, for instance, claim that time is like a receding tide that comes in ever weaker lapses. (660-661)  This, in a  way, repeated the Confucian belief that the best time had already past, and posterity's task is to try to approximate it to the maximum.

Zhu Xi, compiler of the "Four Books," also astutely noted the historical changes in references to rulers from Zhou to later dynasties. (662)

Ma Duanlin, another famous Confucian of the Song Dynasty, continued to uphold as the ideal social system the well-field system, but claimed that because so much had changed, foremost the change from feudal fiefs to a centralized ruler starting from the Qin Dynasty, the well-field system could not be restored. (665-666)

To summarize, history played a very important role in the scholarship of the Song Confucians primarily for two reasons: as individual examples to illustrate Confucian morals so that the latter could become more easily practicable for the rulers (more easy for the rulers to relate to); and as a challenge for scholars to search for reflections of Confucian morals in the myriad of historical events, which they were determined were there.  The role of the historian thus was enormously important and infinitely connected with safeguarding the moral universe of the Confucians.  Some scholars such as Su Che would even argue that historians would be the ones to mete out moral judgments on historical events where heaven failed to do so, (659) which is to say that in some cases morals would not be directly found in history, but then that is where the historian would step in to fill in the blank.  The study of history is so important, that is why Zhu Xi cautioned people from jumping into that study. (662-663)