8 June 2018

An Exercise in Literary Chinese - Part 2

In part 2 of my series on a reading exercise in literary Chinese, I'll give a basic outline of the Zhou dynasty, the historical context of Zhanguo Ce, and decode the first sentence in our selected passage from this text.

Be sure to read part 1 before this.

The dating of the Shang-Zhou transition was once quite controversial, but I think most Western and Chinese scholars of have now come to reject the orthodox date of 1122BC and instead favour the ~1140s BC date (typically 1046BC).
One thing that bothers me about how short a shrift the Zhou dynasty is handed by a lot of books or classes designed to cover all of Chinese history. This is unfortunate because not only was it the longest dynasty at ~800 years, but the social/political/intellectual/military developments that occurred during this era would be formative for the development of all future Chinese states. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself here. For this post, all we really need to know are the main characteristics of each period in the Zhou dynasty. The above is a timeline I quickly drew up to give you different ways the time of the Zhou dynasty can be periodized into. If you know a little bit about Chinese history, you'll recall that other dynasties sometimes have a similar periodization like Western/Eastern Han or Northern/Southern Song. This naming convention comes from the fact that in each of these dynasties, a "major event/crisis" happens and the capital is moved subsequently. So when the Song lost all of Northern China to the Jurchens, it had to move the capital south, hence the term "Northern Song" and "Southern Song." For the Zhou dynasty, the crisis happened in 771BC when the Quan Rong (barbarian peoples of Northwestern China) sacked the Western capital and killed its king. After this event, a new capital was established East near modern-day Luoyang, hence the terms "Western Zhou" and "Eastern Zhou." This is not at all like with Western and Eastern Roman Empires, which were, for a time, simultaneously existing political entities.

The Zhou dynasty is frequently characterized as China's feudal period because the Zhou king granted fiefs to lesser-ranking nobilities who, in turn, also granted fiefs to their retainers. However, it's best not to imagine medieval Europe for Zhou just because they can both be described as feudal. For one, European feudalism developed in response to the inability to maintain less-personalized forms of rule (e.g. bureaucracy) and the long traditions of the personal patronage system, as opposed to the Zhou system with its more impersonalized rudimentary bureaucracy. Enfeoffed vassals in Europe also only had limited jurisdictional rights over his own fief, whereas Zhou regional rulers had full rights of government, which is why it's not surprising that their fiefs eventually developed into completely independent states. Also, even the strict ranking of noble titles (king > duke > marquis > count > viscount > baron) seems to have never existed in the Western Zhou, and only later came into being during the early Eastern Zhou... only to become irrelevant by the time of the Warring States, when each state was independent and all lords that mattered went around calling themselves kings. But to make things simple, just imagine Western Zhou as a decentralized political entity in which many of its regions were ruled by enfeoffed nobles who were obligated to serve the Zhou state and its king.
If you want to read more about the important developments of the Western and Eastern Zhou, I highly recommend this book.
This system worked relatively well as long as regional rulers actually respected the authority of the Zhou king. As Mao once said, "power comes from the barrel of a gun" and it's likely that the Western Zhou kings were only respected as long as he maintained his standing army of 14 divisions (none of the other regional rulers had standing armies). However, military debacles tarnished the military prestige of Western Zhou, and eventually in 771 BC, barbarians, with the help of two Zhou vassal-states, sacked the capital and killed the king. The collapse of Zhou authority left a huge political vacuum that was only stop-gapped with the rise of a Ba (hegemon), a particularly powerful regional lord who was de facto independent but formally exercised power on behalf of the Zhou king. A hegemon tried his best to enforce peace and balance (though of course, that "balance" had to necessarily favour him) and come down against states that were waging unjust wars and being overly aggressive. Some of the lives of these hegemons were covered in Shiji vol. 1, so check that out if you're interested. In any case, even this hegemon-system couldn't be maintained for long, because there wasn't always one lord who everybody could see was far more powerful than the others. And thus we get to the gradual shift into an age of total war, the so-called Warring States period in which warfare and diplomacy became increasingly cut-throat and states fought for their very existence.
And that finaaally brings us to the chosen primary source for this exercise, Zhanguo Ce (Strategies of the Warring States). Nobody really knows its author(s), but it seems to have originated as at least 6 different collections of written works recording the views and deeds of the School of Diplomacy (more on this school later). It was only in late 1st century BC that the scholar Liu Xiang edited and compiled them together into a single book titled Zhanguo Ce. For a long time, the Zhanguo Ce was thought to be a reliable historical work, and Sima Qian even heavily used it as a source for many anecdotes he included in his Shiji. However, historians now are quite skeptical of its accuracy and view it as "pseudohistorical." That's not to say that the events it talks about are completely fabricated. There have been bamboo slips found containing similar stories. I suppose the best way to characterize their accuracy is to compare them with modern Hollywood movies that are "based on true events."
So what exactly is the School of Diplomacy? Recall that interstate conflict intensified more and more when moving from the Spring and Autumn period to the Warring States period. This upswing in warfare and violence impacted the whole intellectual tradition of ancient China due to all the different philosophical schools (Hundred Schools of Thought) that were founded to answer the challenges and problems of the age. For Confucius, teaching people how to live ethically and uphold proper social hierarchies was the key to overcoming the ills of his times. Followers of his philosophy such as Mencius or Xun Kuang thought humans could overcome evils through education and conducting rituals. Meanwhile, men such as Shang Yang or Han Fei preached maximizing state power through laws because only a powerful and authoritarian state could bring order to the realm. In contrast to these thinkers and their focus on political and ethical philosophy, there were men who focused on more practical skills that were needed to survive in an age of war. One was military strategists who recognized that their age necessitated a type of warfare unlike the small-scale and highly ritualized nature of Western Zhou warfare. They wrote treatises like the Art of War or the Methods of the Sima that explained how to excel in warfare and maintain a proper military organization, which was crucial since all the major states in the Warring States period had large standing armies. In contrast, the School of Diplomacy was all about using the powers of rhetoric to influence not just foreign policy, but domestic policy as well. Thus, Zhanguo Ce can be thought of as a collection of "case studies," if you will, demonstrating how one could strengthen a state, win wars, or maintain peace through oratory skills alone.
At last, let's take a look at one such successful achievement of a skilled orator from the first story in the Eastern Zhou section of Zhanguo Ce (chapter 1), which details an event that might have happened sometime around 314 BC. One of the hardest parts about literary Chinese is that there's neither punctuation marks nor spacing. This is one of the ambiguities that can lead to a variety of interpretation and in fact, one of the signs of a truly literate person even back in ancient China was to know how to parse the walls-of-texts. Thankfully, in most modern editions of classical texts, however, an editor will have conveniently added periods and commas. In the image above, however, I deleted the commas and periods to show you what I mean.

Since I talked a lot about the historical background today, let's just cover the first sentence (above pic). As you can see, most Chinese characters will have several meanings. I only listed 2 or 3 common ones, but this was only for the sake of brevity. It's pretty common for a character to have 4 or 5 commonly used meanings, and an additional 3 or 4 rare meanings. And as I mentioned before, since none of these characters are conjugated or inflected, the ambiguity in knowing which definition to select for each character leads to the difficulty of literary Chinese. Luckily for English-speakers, Chinese is an SVO language, meaning that the syntax of subject-verb-object is the same. For example, "I [subject] ate [verb] the apple [direct object]" can be translated in that same order in literary Chinese as well. For another example, let's look at just the first three characters of the above picture: 秦 興 師. 
Please open this in another tab so you can follow along as you read this post.
秦 (Qin) is the Westernmost state of Warring States China (and the eventual unifier) and it is placed at the start of the sentence because it is the subject. So if 秦 is the subject, we should next expect a verb and an object. A verbal meaning for 興 is "to rise" but this verb is acting upon the object 師 following it. Hence, instead of the intransitive verb "to rise," we need the transitive verb "to raise." If you're unclear about intransitives vs. transitives, the former requires only the subject while the latter requires an object to do the verb's action upon. Basically "He rises" vs. "He raises his hand." Putting it altogether  秦 興 師 can mean "Qin raises/raised an army/teacher." It's pretty obvious that we should pick army over teacher, especially when you consider the rest of the sentence. Also, as I mentioned in Part 1, there aren't any different conjugations for past/present/future tenses in literary Chinese. But since this is a historical text describing what already happened, we should translate it as "Qin raised an army."
The next two characters are 臨 周. Here the most logical explanation is that the army "descended upon" or "approached" Zhou. Now while I've already explained who and what the Zhou are, I should mention that by the time of the Warring States period, the Zhou only owned a very small territory around their capital and not much else. So when this text is talking about Zhou, it's not talking about the entire Zhou realm, but this small land that the Zhou still hung onto. You can see it in the above map, in the uncoloured area of Luoyang sandwiched between Wei and Han. 
Ding vessels (鼎)
Now before I cover 而, let's look at  求九鼎. The 鼎 (ding) is a type of vessel used for storing food and drinks. This may make it seem like a commonplace item, but remember that the setting is late 4th century BC China. While iron was known at this time, bronze was still the dominant metal, and metals in general were expensive. Unlike today, where a metal pot or frying pan is a mundane item, ordinary people had to get by with cheaper ceramics to cook and store food. It was only the rich and powerful who had bronze ding, and not surprisingly, they were used for ceremonies and rituals. The 九鼎 here is not simply referring to nine ding-vessels, but it was the name for the most prestigious and highly valued set of 9 ding-vessels in all of ancient China. They were said to be created by a mythical ruler in the mists of time, and each ding was made from bronze collected from each of the nine provinces that the realm was then divided into. This is likely just a myth and we shouldn't seriously believe it, of course, but that doesn't change the fact that the Chinese of late 4th-century BC did take it very seriously. Since the nine-ding were made from metals collected from all over the realm, it symbolized the realm itself and served as the physical manifestation of the Mandate of Heaven. In short, the owner of the nine-ding was the rightful Son of Heaven (Zhou King's title). Hence, it was the exclusive treasure of the Zhou King and the number of ding that one could be buried with strictly depended on your rank (9 for the Son of Heaven, 7 for the dukes of the realm, and less for their ministers and retainers). I'll have more to say on the ding in future parts.

So since Qin came knocking on Zhou's door with an army (秦 興 師 臨 周), that influences how we should translate 求. Qin is not politely "requesting" or innocently "looking for" the the nine-ding, but rather "demanding" it with brute military force. Now, returning back to 而... This is a function word, which is a term for words with little/ambiguous meaning to coordinate relationships among other words. Here, it is coordinating the verbs 臨 (to arrive) and 求 (to demand).  Depending on the context, it frequently means "and" or "but." So how should we translate it in this context? If a mugger pointed a gun at you, is it natural to expect him to demand money from you, or would it be contrary to your expectations? Obviously, it's the former. The same applies here, meaning that we should translate 而 as "and" not "but." So the full first sentence reads "Qin raised an army that approached Zhou and demanded the nine-ding" (秦興師臨周而求九鼎). 
The next three characters 周 君 患 are pretty self explanatory. The Zhou king/ruler was worried. A fun side-note about 君. As you'll note, "you" is one possible definition, and it's the kanji for "kimi" or the honorific "-kun" in Japanese. As you can tell from its other definitions like ruler or sovereign, it used to have a much loftier meaning attached to it than its more ordinary usage in Japanese today. This popularization of exclusive words/terms happens in other languages as well. For instance, in Spanish, vos (meaning "you") was originally reserved for only royalty, then was later extended to nobility, only to later be appropriated by the general public. By the late 17th century, addressing a noble with vos became an insult and so usted had to replace the vos's lost function as a formal way to say "you."But the usage of vos survived in Spanish colonies with less frequent/close contacts with peninsular Spain (see: voseo).

Returning back on-topic, the tricky part for beginners is what comes after 周君患, which is 之. This character is a particle with several different uses. One is a possessive, equivalent to "of" or "...'s" in English. In fact, you could write Ruler of Zhou as 周  君, but the 之 is dropped in the sentence because simply saying the Zhou ruler already makes perfect sense. In the case of 周 君 患 之, however, 之 is not functioning as a possessive, but as an object pronoun for the verb . In literary Chinese, rather than explicitly writing me/him/her/it/them or I/he/she/it/they, the pronoun is often either dropped and only implicit, or simplified in the form of 之. So here, the most logical interpretation is that the Zhou ruler was worrying over "it/this." What is "it/this"? It's the whole clause that preceded it. In other words, he's worried about the Qin army approaching Zhou and demanding the nine-ding. 

Lastly, we have the coverb 以, which has many meanings ranging from "with/by means of" to "in order to." Coverbs are basically like helper-verbs that modifies the meaning of the main verb it's acting upon. English doesn't have any, because the same function is accomplished through prepositions such as with/from/at. So in a sentence like "He works from home" the preposition "from" is modifying the meaning of the verb "to work." While coverbs may share similarities to English prepositions, they still act as transitive verbs, meaning they take objects. A typical order in literary Chinese can look something like this: [subject] [coverb] [coverb's direct object] [verb] [verb's direct object]. For 以 告 顏率, we only have a direct object for the verb, not the coverb. This direct object is Yán Lǜ, the name of a man. For beginners, the whole sentence would probably be less confusing if you just ignored the 以 and focused on 告 顏率 to realize that the Zhou king informed Yán Lǜ about his worries.

But what 以 is really doing here is clarifying the relationship between the two verbs. So let's break it down. 周君    患    之        告   顏率 can be summarized as [subject] [verb 1] [verb 1's object] [coverb] [verb 2] [verb 2's object]. The coverb 以 is trying to clarify that verb 1 (to worry) must happen before verb 2 (to inform) because there's a consequential relationship. For instance, in the sentence "I read and eat," the conjunction 'and' signifies no consequential relationship between the reading and eating. It could mean either I did the eating before the reading, vice-versa, or maybe even together at the same time. If this unrelated connection was what I wanted to express, 而 would be used. But here, the writer is telling us that Zhou king's worry is what caused him to inform Yán Lǜ. If it weren't for verb 1 (to worry), the king never would have bothered to do verb 2 (to inform). In English, the preposition that best conveys this consequential relationship would be "to" as in the sentence, "I prepare myself to fight." But in the case of translating 周君患告顏率 to English, I think translating 以 simply as "and" makes for a more readable translation. Another way of thinking about this is since 以 is a coverb that means "to use," the Zhou king is "using his worries" in order to go about telling Yán Lǜ.
In conclusion: 
秦興師臨周而求九鼎 : "Qin raised an army that approached Zhou and demanded the nine-ding"
周君患之以告顏率 : "The Zhou ruler was worried about this and informed Yán Lǜ."

In Part 3, I'll cover a few more important coverbs in order to decode the next few sentences.


  1. Just reading this makes me feel like a certified >200IQ big brained nigga. Anything regarding bronze age history, especially regarding early state formation or the development of formalized language or religion really fascinates me.

    Looking forward to Historie 105, keep up the good work Hox.

    1. Anon, I look forward to it too. Good to see you here