Discussion: Kinney on Lee on Confucian Theories of Children

Our thanks to Anne Behnke Kinney for these initial comments on Pauline Lee’s fine essay, “Two Confucian Theories on Children and Childhood” (free access here). Comments on the essay, on Professor Kinney’s remarks, or on the general topic are hereby encouraged!

One thread of Pauline C. Lee’s fascinating analysis of childhood as presented in Confucian texts considers how Erik Erikson’s view of childhood, which concentrates attention on “crisis moments and delineates among important life stages,” compares to Confucian views, which focus on “the social child,” “role-specific duties for a junior in society,” and “day-to-day maintenance.”


She notes how Erikson’s view of human development “is primarily presented in the language of linear development, episodic stages, a dialectic between opposing forces, and crisis and resolution. The focus is on specific and particularly vulnerable periods in life.” Lee notes how Confucian commentaries, in contrast, focus on “maintaining and nurturing the everyday aspects of one’s daily life,” with little attention paid to crisis moments. As she describes the Confucian process, “the child grows in that he or she grows in moral and spiritual strength as she moves outward beyond the self to the family, to the larger social world.” Lee also notes how in the Chinese tradition, cultural resources, such as “symbols, words, classics, rituals and social roles,” provide “seamless continuity in one’s development” throughout one’s life. Lee then notes that one shortcoming of Erikson’s work is “a lack of adequate attention to the specific texts, specific rituals, the particular social roles and practices that enable human flourishing.”

I wonder if the contrast between focus on the gradual integration of the child into a larger social and cultural framework on the one hand, and a model of development that charts the effort of the individual child to resolve internal conflict or crisis on the other, is a result of starkly different expectations in these two distinct cultural contexts (i.e., Erikson’s modern psychoanalytic point of view vs the view of Confucian commentaries) on individualism and autonomy. To what extent are critical points in the life of the child in premodern China, for example, choice of career path, marriage partner, or sexual orientation, decided or charted out by parents and the prescriptions of classical texts, so as to preclude an emphasis on crisis and resolution, and instead, encourage the active sublimation of a sense of individual crisis and need for resolution in favor of conforming to the wishes of one’s parents or the models of behavior found in the classics? The Confucian model and Erikson’s scheme both require adaptation to cultural expectations, but the former seems more engaged with external models and the latter seems to be more internalized.

Comments by Anne Behnke Kinney, University of Virginia

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10 replies on “Discussion: Kinney on Lee on Confucian Theories of Children”

  1. I am really interested in this fascinating article, but in the interest of actually getting a comment posted before I get distracted by other things, I will focus for now on one thing. This concerns Pauline’s conclusion that Zhao Qi (and, following him, Bryan Van Norden too) got it wrong when interpreting Mengzi 4B12 (see pp. 535-6 of the article). Zhao prefers a social/political reading to an existential/psychological/developmental reading, and Pauline argues that:

    If Mengzi believes, as he does, that the greatest moral resource for all healthy specimens of humans are our nascent sprouts of virtue within our hearts and given to us from birth, then it is with the former child—the existential child—that Mengzi is most concerned.

    I can certainly see this argument, and have also tended to read the text this way. But I’d just like to note the degree to which it depends on, in essence, reading Mengzi the way that Zhu Xi does (or, as Pauline shows, Jiao Xun does): as a whole unit, with the core ideas coming primarily in 6A-7B.

    Suppose instead we are impressed by the overwhelmingly political focus of the first part of the text: doesn’t that push us to read the passage Zhao’s way? If we think about the text NOT as a whole, but as coming together in a more piecemeal fashion, this argument might get even stronger; Bruce and Taeko Brooks have been developing intriguing arguments along these lines, according to which 4B would be quite early in the text’s development, for example. (I can’t seem to find a publicly accessible statement of their views right now….)

    I admit that this comment is largely irrelevant to the deeper issues that Pauline raises, and that Anne’s comment points toward. I hope to have a moment soon to also speak to some of those issues, but for the time being, other duties call….

    • At the risk of beating a dead horse … in literature, we tend not to speak of “correct” and “incorrect” interpretations. That vocabulary is based on a bunch of assumptions that usually turn out to be untenable on closer scrutiny: i.a. that there is precisely one correct meaning of a text, and (usually) that that meaning is related to the author’s intention. Pauline too rejects Zhao Qi’s interpretation by appealing to what “Mengzi believes” and “is most concerned” with. A restatement along the lines of what Steve just said, namely that her reading of 4B.12 is more readily reconcilable with material from Books 6 and 7, i.e. without appealing to the alleged author and his beliefs, makes a lot more sense to me as an outsider to the field of philosophy.

      In the long commentarial history of classic Chinese texts such as Mencius, there are many, many diverse interpretations, some of which are mutually compatible, but many of which aren’t. I’d prefer to see them all as disparate voices in a large and rich culture–one large and mature enough to tolerate significant disagreement without collapsing–than to have to figure out which are “correct” and which “incorrect.” That is also, I believe, closer to the spirit in which Chinese literati themselves interpreted their canonical texts.

    • A straw horse?

      I disagree with this general point about “correct” and “incorrect”:

      That vocabulary is based on a bunch of assumptions that usually turn out to be untenable on closer scrutiny: i.a. that there is precisely one correct meaning of a text, and (usually) that that meaning is related to the author’s intention.

      I would say that the vocabulary, and the way philosophers inquire into what dead philosophers meant, is not based on the untenable assumption that there is just one actual fully detailed, precise and complete intended meaning of the text. Rather, it is based on the tenable assumption that there are some truths about what the author did and didn’t mean – for example, that by “小大” in Analects 1.12 Youzi meant “all parties, small to great” or he meant something else (such as “in all actions, small to great”). There can be evidence and argument about this, and there can be a fact of the matter, knowable or not.

      The philosophers’ interpretive project is perfectly consistent with the idea that a certain phrase was intentionally used with two or more quite distinct meanings (as I have argued regarding several of Youzi’s phrases), or that a claim was vague over a range we can more or less specify, or that a phrase was chosen simply to evade and confuse.

      I think the main thing philosophers (as such) do with old texts is one legitimate thing for a person to do, and properly involves “correct” and “incorrect.” What they do is to try to read the old text as one would read the work of a philosophy colleague, a “colleague in history” as it were. One tries to find out what the colleague meant to say (where that’s hard to see). Philosophers as such have reason to inquire in that way about old texts that are reputed to be wise works of an author, or short passages of a wise author. Of course sometimes the evidence doesn’t support a conclusion about what was meant. But deciding what if anything the evidence does support can be a difficult project for generations, as it can require philosophical insight and imagination, even where there is no serious question about unity of authorship. (Aside: philosophical coherence is one kind of relevant evidence about unity of authorship.) The aim, in any case, the hope, is to find something out, and that’s why “correct” and “incorrect” are appropriate terms.

      (Even aside from the question whether a certain text is all from one person, this kind of interpreter may still need to take into account how different parts of a text may spring from different kinds of occasion, or different times, etc. That’s mainly how I read Steve’s remark.)

      Historians as such have some reason to be concerned with the results of the above sort of inquiry. For example, if you’re trying to find out what happened at the courts where Mencius was an important player (if any), it can help to know what the man thought, what he was trying to accomplish. What he meant in these passages is evidence about what else he might have said, off the record, and how people viewed him.

      Of course historians as such have much more reason to be concerned about what other people said or thought about Mencius and/or the Mencius – reason to want the correct account of those things.

      Part of the philosophers’ project regarding an old philosophy text is to engage with old interpretations, as one engages with colleague interpreters. And yet old interpretations may themselves not be engaging in the philosophers’ interpretive project, or not exactly, or not honestly. Even where they aren’t doing the philosophers’ kind of interpretation, their readings may be worth considering as though they were.

      And no matter what the old interpreters are doing to the Mencius, the old interpreters may be good enough philosophers in their own right to be worthy objects of the philosophers’ primary interpretive project. That’s much of what Pauline is doing, I think, though she writes, “as scholars of childhood studies, we … ” (527).

      Paul writes, “in literature, we….” I would say that for the core cases – most poetry, prose fiction, dramatic fiction – any interpretation that looks mainly to find what propositions the author is putting forth, or considers the success or power of the work only in terms of purposes the author had articulated, is barking up the wrong tree, and is thus likely to be incorrect.

    • In response to Paul Goldin’s remark about searching for the “correct” and “incorrect” interpretations as untenable, I have to disagree with Paul on this one. There are better and worse ways to interpret a classic. Certainly Zhao Qi, Zhu Xi, Jiao Xun and those in the commentarial tradition thought they were looking for a correct interpretation. We today can look for better and worse interpretations, without assuming we can get at the author’s original intention and arrive at the one single correct meaning of a text. Bill Haines’ puts it well in his response and I will leave it at that.

    • The issue of how to read Mengzi 4B12 may be tangential to the larger article, but Steve makes a very good point. Better to say, if one reads the Mengzi as a coherent whole with books 6A-7B as the core of the text as many scholars do… But, there are good reasons to read the text in piecemeal fashion…

  2. The paper looks fascinating; I want to study it. Up to know I’ve looked at it only quickly, and I don’t know the commentaries at all, but I have one small worry. A podiatrist at her job, when dealing with children, focuses on feet. I think it would be a mistake to take that point as showing, or even suggesting, that she has a Footal Conception or Theory of the Nature of the Child (e.g. her own children at home). Does the paper make that sort of mistake, to some degree?

  3. On the interpretation issue, I think that Bill’s made some good points, which add up to: treating a text as expressing the views of a “colleague in history” is one legitimate approach to texts, although hardly the only one. It is also the more difficult to do, the less sure we are about the putative author’s relation to the formation of the text.

    I also endorse what Paul’s said about the breadth, diversity, and significance of the commentarial literature. As, quite clearly, does Pauline! I think that the issue I raised does not get very deep into her main argument, since her main point is that there are (at least) two distinct views of childhood that we can find through examining commentaries, and that both of them are interesting and worth our attention today, in a comparative context.

    I’ll leave it to Pauline herself to respond to Bill’s Objection From Podiatry.

    Finally, one thought prompted by Anne’s last paragraph. It seems correct to me that there are a range of reasons why Erikson understands things the way he does, and the Chinese models develop as they have done. One of the fascinating ideas in Pauline’s paper, though, seems to be (if I’m reading it right) that comparing models across cultures, all of which are in some sense about “children,” can help to press us (each of us, differently culturally located) to see things that we may be missing about *our* children. Is this right?

    • Yes, for the record, I don’t at all mean to suggest that Pauline’s paper has no value because of this point. I was going along with Steve’s disclaimer that this is a side issue.

      As for Bill’s response: of course there are some truths about what any author did and did not mean. The point is that those truths don’t add up to much of hermeneutic significance–if they’re even knowable, which in this case they’re not. No aspect of the transmission history of Mencius (the text) supports the notion that it represents an author’s approved statement of his ideas. It is, at best, Zhao Qi’s abridged arrangement of material of diverse origin purporting to relate information about Mencius (the man). We know nothing about the sources of the material that Zhao Qi preserved, nothing how about he arranged it, nothing about whether and how he modified it, and of course nothing about the material that, by his own admission, he eliminated. In many ways, it would be more accurate to say that we’re reading the work of Zhao Qi than the work of Mencius! In reading the product of such an interventionist editor, it is mighty perilous to be speaking of what Mencius “believed” and what he was “concerned with.”

      This is not to say that the Mencius (the text) is incoherent or has no philosophical value. Far from it. But I’m just continually perplexed by the way philosophers seem to read Zhuangzi as the work of a philosopher named Zhuangzi, Mencius as the work of a philosopher named Mencius, etc. It’s not till the third century B.C. at the earliest that you get works by philosophers who intended them to be read as much (Xunzi, notably), and there are good social reasons for that sea change.

      Enough said, I fear. I have hijacked yet another thread.

    • Hi Paul,

      I’m not sure how far we disagree. I was addressing only the general argument against of the general type of project and language, not anything about the Mencius or the Zhuangzi in particular. To this:

      of course there are some truths about what any author did and did not mean. The point is that those truths don’t add up to much of hermeneutic significance–if they’re even knowable

      I’m a little mystified by the claim that truths about what an author meant never add up to much of “hermeneutic significance.” But I’m not sure what kind of significance that is – maybe the point is a tautology? Or maybe you are talking only about some of the truths – the knowable ones – and applying a very high standard for what counts as knowledge, so that only few and simple things can pass the test.

      I think the reasonably supportable claims about what an important author meant can be of philosophical significance.

      Some people think philosophy, or Western-style philosophical abstractions, can only be BS, hot air, or (if you like) pragmatic rhetoric. Good philosophy is just good rhetoric. Insofar as that view is correct, then the idea that philosophical elegance or power is real interpretive evidence is a mistake; the hope of finding philosophical treasure in difficult aspects of old texts is misplaced; and the philosophers’ struggle to figure out what the dead people meant is a waste of time.

  4. A very big thank you to Warp Weft, and Way for posting my article on children and childhood on this blog, and much gratitude to Anne Behnke Kinney for thoughtful comments. This article is part of a larger book project on children, childhood, and play in China and I am very excited to have this chance to hear comments on the ideas. I see several threads and here, in response to Anne’s insights.
    Anne writes, “I wonder if the contrast between focus on the gradual integration of the child into a larger social and cultural framework on the one hand, and a model of development that charts the effort of the individual child to resolve internal conflict or crisis on the other, is a result of starkly different expectations in these two distinct cultural contexts (i.e., Erikson’s modern psychoanalytic point of view vs the view of Confucian commentaries) on individualism and autonomy.”
    The motivation of my article began with remarks from scholars along the lines that “no modern theory of human [and childhood] development…in culture has appeared based primarily upon the Chinese variety of human experience.” (Saari 1990: x). Hsiung Ping-chen observes that most studies of children in China assume “biophysical understandings and the Freudian psychoanalytic scheme,” and issues the challenge that we as scholars of China treat such theories as merely “a hypothesis with specific cultural historical contexts” (Hsiung 2005: 5). My aim has been to respond to such challenges and begin retrieving theories in Chinese texts on children and childhood; the method for doing so in this article has been comparative, limiting and focusing my analyses on Erik Erikson’s Identity: Youth and Crisis, and specific commentaries on Mengzi 4B12 and Analects 11.25.
    Examining the Confucian commentarial tradition (i.e., looking at Zhao Qi, Zhu Xi, Li Zhi, and Jiao Xun) I have noticed at least two views on children and childhood: one of the child as possessing nascent or realized potential in need of self cultivation (the “existential child”); a second, of the child as a “social child” fulfilling role specific duties. In comparing the “existential child” of the Confucian commentaries to the view of children and childhood in Erikson’s work, I notice a marked difference in emphasis (as Anne notes, above, gradual integration vs efforts of the individual child to resolve internal conflicts.)
    All this to say, I think Anne’s views on this are likely right. My study is limited to very specific texts and a close reading of these. My conclusions are limited to what I can draw from these texts. But a later project would be to take these native Chinese theories we have and continue to unmine(d) and place them now within a broader cultural historical context and see if what Anne proposes holds true. And also, one might conclude from extending Anne’s observations that these (i.e., Erikson’s and those within Zhuxi’s, Li Zhi’s, etc’s commentaries) are two different and powerful views on children and childhood, and for whatever reason that they are different, both can contribute powerfully to our contemporary views on how children experience and how others help shape children and the experience of childhood.

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