Han Yu and the Confucian Orthodoxy

Han Yu (768 – 824) was a Chinese writer, poet, and government official of the Tang dynasty. He is considered to be as influential as Dante Alighieri and William Shakespeare in regards to his contributions to the Chinese language and literature, especially in prose. Han Yu’s clear and concise, but also familiar style (a departure from writers before him) was used as a model for Chinese prose up until the early 20th century modern Chinese revolution in literature (and society). Scholars put him among the “Eight Great Prose Masters of the Tang and Song” (together with Su Tung-p’o).

Han Yu is appreciated now mainly for his essays (being compared, much later, to Michel de Montaigne), which covered a large variety of topics. But what particularly interested him throughout his life was to establish a “Confucian orthodoxy,” mainly because he thought Confucianism was the best way to rule and live your life. In his very influential work Study of the Way, he writes:

“Had there been no sages of old, the race of man would have long since become extinct. Men have not fur and feathers and scales to adjust the temperature of their bodies; neither have they claws and fangs to aid them in the struggle for food. Hence their organisation, as follows: — The sovereign issues commands. The minister carries out these commands, and makes them known to the people. The people produce grain and flax and silk, fashion articles of everyday use, and interchange commodities, in order to fulfil their obligations to their rulers. The sovereign who fails to issue his commands loses his raison d’être; the minister who fails to carry out his sovereign’s commands, and to make them known to the people, loses his raison d’être; the people who fail to produce grain and flax and silk, fashion articles of everyday use, and interchange commodities, in order to fulfil their obligations to their rulers, should lose their heads.

And if I am asked what Method is this, I reply that it is what I call the Method, and not merely a method like those of Lao Tzŭ and Buddha. The Emperor Yao handed it down to the Emperor Shun; the Emperor Shun handed it down to the Great Yü; and so on until it reached Confucius, and lastly Mencius, who died without transmitting it to any one else. Then followed the heterodox schools of Hsün and Yang, wherein much that was essential was passed over, while the criterion was vaguely formulated. In the days before Chou Kung, the Sages were themselves rulers; hence they were able to secure the reception of their Method. In the days after Chou Kung, the Sages were all high officers of State; hence its duration through a long period of time.

And now, it will be asked, what is the remedy? I answer that unless these false doctrines are rooted out, the true faith will not prevail. Let us insist that the followers of Lao Tzŭ and Buddha behave themselves like ordinary mortals. Let us burn their books. Let us turn their temples into dwelling-houses. Let us make manifest the Method of our ancient kings, in order that men may be led to embrace its teachings.” (1).

The fact that his thinking and writings still have an impact today, being still a well-known and much respected classic after about 1200 years is a testament that he indeed managed to establish some sort of tradition, which can be said is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. Whether this tradition is conservative or not, I’m not so sure. Maybe, in the sense that it tries to keep the old Confucian thinking alive; but I think it is also flexible enough to be adapted to the modern times – there is a lot of timeless wisdom in his writings (as is in the Confucian Analects, as well).

Works cited:

  1. HAN YÜ, in Giles, H.A. (1927). A History of Chinese Literature. New York and London: Appleton (Kindle Locations 2523-2538). (all translations of the Chinese texts belong to H.A. Giles)

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