The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China Review

The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China
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The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China ReviewThis is a review of The Ambivalence of Creation by Michael Puett.
I don't think I've ever said this in a review before, but already from the Introduction I knew that this book showed genuine brilliance. This volume is an excellent illustration of how being an original (even iconoclastic) thinker depends on a serious scholarly understanding of what has been said on your topic before.
It is common in comparative studies to assume "a contrast between a Chinese emphasis on the continuity of nature and culture and a Western emphasis on discontinuity" (3). In other words, according to the received view, "we" have always believed that human culture is something artificial that breaks with the natural world, while "they" have always believed that culture is simply a development of the natural world. Confucius's statement that "I transmit but do not create" (Analects 7.1) is taken to be paradigmatic of Chinese culture from its inception. What Puett shows, however, is that there actually was immense variety in ancient Chinese views regarding innovation. The position that became orthodoxy and entered Western consciousness as "the" Chinese view was just one among several that were hotly contested.
One of the most innovative aspects of Puett's approach is to examine mythological narratives regarding sages, ministers and rebels as evidence of debates over innovation. It is common to observe that we do not possess, for China, a coherent mythology of the kind that we have in ancient Greece and Rome. Instead, we find fragments of often conflicting stories. The assumption has been, though, that there was some underlying coherent narrative, and that with sufficient ingenuity we can reconstruct it. Puett calls this assumption into question, and argues that "instead of searching for some authentic, or earlier, mythology, the goal should be to understand why, in each case, a particular narrative, or a particular version of a more common narrative, is given" (98).
When we apply this approach, we find the following narrative possibilities. (i) "Negative creations were assigned to rebels or barbarians, while sages were then posed as simply appropriating and putting to proper use that which the evil figure had created" (138). We see this position in the "Lv Xing" chapter of the Documents. (ii) "Sages were organizers rather than creators" and "acts of creation by rebels were denied" (138). This is the kind of view exemplified by the Confucian Mencius. (iii) "The state was formed through creation, not organization, and ... such creations were undertaken by sages not rebels" (139). We see this model in philosophical texts like the Mozi.
Puett shows how these narratives continued to be selectively used in later debates. When the "First Emperor" of the Qin state conquered and unified all of China, he utilized the narrative of sages as radical creators as a justification for his sweeping innovations in government. After the fall of the Qin, the Han emperor "Wudi was able to use the first emperor in the same way that so many narratives of the creation of the state had used evil creators like Chi You, namely as a transgressor responsible for the negative aspects of the introduction of new instruments of governance. Wudi could then present himself as a consolidator like Huangdi, appropriating those new elements and organizing them into a proper role" (176).
The last part of Puett's book is a fascinating reflection on the complex figure of Sima Qian. On its surface, Sima Qian's classic Records of the Historian might seem like a rigidly orthodox and somewhat unimaginative recounting of Chinese history as it was commonly understood by people in his era. However, scholars have begun to recognize that Sima Qian subtly encodes his opinions and judgments in his telling of history. (Stephen Durrant's The Cloudy Mirror is a good introduction.) So Puett is not original in seeing subtle undercurrents in Sima Qian's historical writings. However, his particular take is new and ingenious.
Sima Qian says that Confucius "created" the Spring and Autumn Annals (a famous yet cryptic historical work). When Sima Qian is asked whether he is putting himself in a league with Confucius by writing the Records of the Historian, he denies it. He is, he claims, "transmitting but not creating." But notice that, in saying this, Sima Qian is quoting what Confucius says of himself, in order to claim that he (Sima Qian) does not see himself as like Confucius (!). (177-78) Puett also notes some intriguing comments in Sima Qian's biography of the sage Bo Yi. Sima Qian suggest that Confucius had distorted the story of Bo Yi for didactic purposes, and that there is a degree of arbitrariness in the decision to historically emphasize Bo Yi, when so many other worthies have been lost to history simply because no one talked about them. "Sima Qian is claiming to zuo [create], but he is also arguing that such acts involve arbitrariness and construction" (181).
According to Puett, Sima Qian gives us yet another narrative of creation. It is similar to the first narrative above (i), which was like the one the Han emperor Wudi used. However, "he denies that the transgression of the act of creation can be divorced from the later appropriation of what was created. In other words, he denies the mechanism that had been used to allow for acts of creation while also denying their negative implications" (210-11). Hence, "the narrative of the rise of empire becomes a meditation on the tragedy of creation. ...creation is both necessary and yet outside the moral and natural cycles that should normatively define the historical process" (211). (Once again, Puett is making a revisionist claim, because it is common to say that Chinese thought does not recognize the possibility of tragedy in life, the way that the West has since the Greek tragedians.)
I was already very impressed when I finished Puett's final chapter (on Sima Qian), but then I went on to read his appendix on the etymology of the character ZUO (to create). He notes that there is "a common tendency among search for the most precise understanding of a term by attempting to find its earliest possible meaning, a search that frequently involves the further assumption that such an earlier meaning would tend to be more concrete than later senses" (220). I have to admit that I tended to assume something like this myself. However, as Puett points out, there is no good reason to believe that this methodology is warranted. Humans have been using language for as long as there have been humans, so there is no reason to assume that the earliest samples of human writing we have access to are more "concrete" and less "abstract" than ordinary language is in general. Furthermore (and this is something I was aware of, but it bears repeating since it is so often forgotten), "the claim that the earliest known form of a graph provides a clue to the root meaning of a word is indefensible. The decision to use a certain graph to represent a word may be based on no other criteria than ease of writing or phonetic links to other words for which a graph already exists" (221).
After reading this, I set the book aside and, sighing to Heaven, exclaimed, "Ah! How fine are such words!" (That's my feeble effort to mimic ancient Chinese prose. Sorry.) To put things in more modern terms, there are so many disappointing books and articles that get published, that I feel rejuvenated as a scholar when I read something so vibrant, provocative and well-argued as this.The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China Overview

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