The Doctrine of the Mean
Article abstract: Originally a chapter of the Li Ji (sixth to fifth century b.c.e.; Book of Rites, 1885), titled Zhong Yong (English translation, 1861), The Doctrine of the Mean was selected by the twelfth century neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi as one of the Four Books that form the primary canonical texts of Confucianism. Though tradition dates its composition to the fifth century b.c.e., the work was significantly redacted over several centuries prior to the common era as Confucianism absorbed elements of rival creeds such as Daoism and Buddhism.
Authorship and Context
The authorship of The Doctrine of the Mean is problematic. Tradition ascribes the work to Kong Ji, more commonly known as Zi Si (or Chu Hsi, 483-402 b.c.e.), the grandson and disciple of Confucius. Zi Si is credited with founding one of eight schools of Confucianism in the wake of Confucius's death and is said to have served as mentor to Mencius, the so-called second sage of Confucianism.
Although he functioned as a link between the two preeminent figures of Confucianism, Zi Si remains a somewhat obscure figure, remembered primarily in anecdotes scattered through various Confucian texts. Perhaps the best-known legend regarding him portrays the child Zi Si approaching his uncharacteristically despondent grandfather and asking him if he were upset because his descendants would not be able to carry on his legacy. Confucius reportedly brightened at Zi Si's perspicacity, knowing that his teachings would flourish. After Confucius's death, Zi Si received a traditional education in the classics and rites from his grandfather's disciple Zengzi, reputed author of the Da Xue (c. end of first century b.c.e.; The Great Learning, 1861), another of the Four Books. The pupil's prowess made him the equal of his teacher on one occasion noted in the Book of Rites: When Zengzi boasted that he had abstained from food and drink for seven days after the death of his parents, the student upbraided his elder's display of filial piety as excessive, noting that the ancients prescribed only a three-day mourning period.
This innate sense of moderation, a key concept in The Doctrine of the Mean, may explain the work's traditional attribution to Zi Si. However, the adult Zi Si is remembered more as a stickler for the rules of propriety than for his even-temperedness. Several anecdotes recall the poverty-stricken adult refusing much-needed offers of food and clothing because he would be unable to reciprocate the gift. Like his grandfather, Zi Si also traveled to a number of Chinese states, offering his services as an adviser, and like his grandfather, he was fairly unsuccessful in this pursuit. During a sojourn in Song, his unflattering honesty with a court official nearly cost him his life; however, the duke of that state intervened to spare him. Citing the historical precedent of his grandfather writing the Chun Qiu (spring and autumn annals), a chronicle of events in the state of Lu from 722 to 481 b.c.e., after a similar rescue, Zi Si is said to have composed The Doctrine of the Mean to show his appreciation. Although this account places its composition in his early manhood, another, less colorful tradition has him writing the work at the end of his life, when, again like his grandfather, he had returned to his home state of Lu.
Despite the traditional attribution, both internal and external evidence points to an author other than Zi Si--for at least part of the text. If Zi Si is the sole author, it seems odd that he makes no personal references to his grandfather; indeed, the hyperbolic eulogy to Confucius in chapters 30-32 reads more like a literary exercise than the heartfelt memory of a direct descendent. Even the quotations of the sage seem to have come not from personal experience but from literary sources such as Lunyu (late sixth or early fifth century b.c.e.; Analects, 1861) and the Mengzi (early third century b.c.e.; The Works of Mencius, 1861). More important, the text vacillates between the highly organized lun or thematic essay genre (pioneered by Mozi's followers in the fourth century b.c.e.) and the older, relatively formless jing or collection of anecdotes (best illustrated by the Analects). If Zi Si is the sole author of The Doctrine of the Mean, his work would constitute one of the earliest examples of the lun or essay genre in China and it would remain anomalous for the Confucian school of his period. It seems more likely that the text is a considerable amplification of a traditional text (perhaps written Zi Si or one of his followers), undertaken by one or possibly several redactors during the Warring States period (475-221 b.c.e.) as Confucianism reacted to the emerging philosophies of Daoism, Legalism, Mohism, and Buddhism.
Beginning with its willfully ambiguous title that resists simple translation, The Doctrine of the Mean seems to reject Confucius's insistence on precise naming for Daoist antinomialism. Indeed, an opening statement seems reminiscent more of Laozi than Confucius: "Unroll [this scroll] and it fills the universe; roll it up and it retires and lies hid in mysteriousness." Yet, while the text coopts certain aspects of Daoism, a more immediate impulse for its composition may have been the refutation of the utilitarian philosophies of Mozi and the Legalists. In effect, The Doctrine of the Mean is an elaborate philosophic justification for the traditional rituals preserved in the Book of Rites-- practices such as the traditional funerary customs that Mozi had attacked as extravagant and outmoded.
Scholars Fung Yu-lan and E. R. Hughes, who together performed a thorough examination of the authorship of The Doctrine of the Mean, agree that the work is most likely the work of at least two different writers separated by several hundred years. Both are willing to accept Zi Si, or one of his immediate circle, as the author of the jing, or anecdotal, sections of the text, particularly chapters 2-26. However, they assign the lun, or essay, sections, including the masterful opening chapter, to a much later figure who belongs to the Mencian line of Confucianism. Hughes dates this part of the work to a period beginning with the Qin Dynasty (221-207 b.c.e.) and ending with the early Han Dynasty (207 b.c.e.-220 c.e.). He justifies the division of the work on the basis of internal evidence such as the use of the word tian (heaven): In the purportedly earlier sections, it still denotes the personified Creator, while in the later, it has adopted its more deistic sense.
Hughes also hazards that the original work may been amplified by a Confucianist of the Qin or early Han imperial court with an eye to winning official approval for the sect: With its emphasis on hierarchy and social harmony, the text can be seen as a propaganda for the Qin and Han goal of a unified Chinese empire. The amplifier of The Doctrine of the Mean may have had several reasons for concealing his identity. While writing remained a dangerous activity, particularly during the repressive Qin period, Chinese literature has a long tradition of anonymous transmission of older works. In fact, works such as the Daoist Zhuangzi, correctly attributed to its eponymous author, remain the exception rather than the rule in ancient China. With its focus on tradition, its reverence for the ancients, and, especially after Mencius, its increasingly corporate structure, Confucianism naturally encouraged such creative editing of relatively ancient works. Indeed, Confucius himself, purported editor of the Five Classics, claimed to be a merely a transmitter rather than an original writer.
Though its origins lie in pre-Han China, The Doctrine of the Mean came to prominence relatively late in the history of Confucianism. During the Neo-Confucian revival of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200) elevated the obscure chapter in the Book of Rites to its position as one of the Four Books of Confucianism--placing it in the rarefied company of the Analects, Mengzi, and The Great Learning, another text similarly elevated from the Book of Rites. The Doctrine of the Mean's origination in the Book of Rites helps to explain scholars' difficulty in establishing a definitive text: Of the Five Classics, the Book of Rites seems to have fallen in the most disrepair in the centuries following Confucius's death. Most likely its subject matter, the arcane rituals of the Shang (c. 1384-1122 b.c.e.) and Zhou (1122-221 b.c.e.) Dynasties, prevented it from attaining the popularity of the other classics in an increasingly rationalistic Confucian canon. Moreover, the text itself remained indeterminate because the oldest copies had been preserved on bamboo slips, many of which had been either misplaced or misarranged. Finally, the Book of Rites suffered more than the other classics during the burning of the books of the Qin regime in 213 b.c.e.; after the restoration of learning during the early Han Dynasty, a definitive text was never fully established, and it remained neglected for almost a millennium. Though Confucianism had been named the official state philosophy by the Han emperor Wu in the second century b.c.e. and in subsequent centuries had developed into a popular religion based on idealization of the master, the repopularization of Daoist practice beginning with the second century b.c.e. neo-Daoist movement of Huainan and the subsequent introduction of Buddhism near the beginning of the common era witnessed the final eclipse of the traditional ritual set forth in the Book of Rites.
Zhu Xi edited and published The Doctrine of the Mean as a separate work in 1189; the text includes not only his commentary but also examples of his creative editing as he sought to reconcile the contradictions and fill in the gaps of the older versions. Though modern scholars quibble with the editor's interpolations of the text, his Zhong Yong remains by default the standard edition. In a sense, Zhu Xi's edition of the work simply continues the transmission process that had led earlier writers to revise the work. Although the Qin or Han era revisionists had alternately assimilated and rejected aspects of competing philosophies, Zhu Xi used his edition to respond to the ideologies of his day. Indeed, the work's emphasis on zhong, or centrality, resembles the "middle path" of the Buddha--thereby reclaiming for traditional Chinese thought an idea supposedly introduced from the alien Indian philosophy.
Zhu Xi's selection of The Doctrine of the Mean may be...
(The entire section is 4428 words.)