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7th February, 2018

Ritual, interpretation, and commentary in late Chinese antiquity

Prof. Michael Puett, Harvard University

In 142 AD, Laozi, the embodiment of the entire cosmos in human form, presented a revelation to a man named Zhang Gaolin. Zhang's grandson, Zhang Lu, would eventually take these revelations and begin the group known as the Celestial Masters, a community that rejected many of the teachings of the day and believed that through faith (信) in the purity of Laozi's teachings, followers could over time attain transcendence and usher in an era of great peace. Without such faith, the Masters believed, the era of human decline would continue, bringing an end to all, including the current cosmos. But what had brought about the decline to which the Celestial Masters were responding?

According to Professor Michael Puett, the Masters saw the words of Laozi as the words of the cosmos, which humans had failed to follow because they mistakenly believed they were the words of other human beings. This represented a larger trend, one of many people writing complicated commentaries that others would have to decipher. By treating the Laozi as a complicated text with complex language, rather than clear, plain prose giving guidance about the nature of the cosmos and how to behave morally and correctly, humans were slowly destroying themselves. The solution, according to the Celestial Masters, was to have complete faith in Laozi's teachings, which would involve stopping all the sacrifices of the day (believed to be "feeding ghosts"), so that humans could focus on what was truly important and generate the godliness (神) within themselves.

As Professor Puett also explained, however, the commentarial tradition to which millenarian movements such as the Masters were responding were not meant to be viewed as simple instructions or interpretations that had intrinsic value in themselves. Rather, they were meant to be seen as part and parcel of the human process of domesticating the world, of reconfiguring it and making it workable. Over the course of this process, humans developed ideas about what worked, both for human interaction and systems of governance, and the things that worked eventually developed into ritual (礼). The purpose of commentary was to refine dispositional response, and to instill understanding about the precepts of ritual. By memorizing the speeches of great sage kings, humans could refine their disposition and ability to act in the world. As such, key works such as the Xiang'er commentary were not trying to say "This is how to interpret x", but rather "How do we work with something from the past to make our current situation better?"

During the post-lecture discussion, questions for Professor Puett included those concerning possible influences from Buddhism on the commentarial tradition, as well as questions on how to resolve the commentarial tradition explained in the talk with highly descriptive commentaries such as the Liji (礼记), and Zhouli (周礼). Yet another question related to a Confucian scholar contemporaneous with the Celestial Masters, Zheng Xuan (郑玄), and how his ideas were (or were not) compatible with the ideas on commentary presented in the lecture.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman