Is There a Pre-Modern Tradition of Rhetoric in China?

A colleague writes:

I do not believe there existed a “Chinese rhetorical tradition” as it did in ancient Athens and Rome–and would like to hear your opinion on this subject.

Rhetoric as an institution whose purpose and goal was to persuade seemed at odds with pre-modern Chinese concepts of language, politics, and law. (Of course, the skills for persuading an emperor to change his ways was important–but such skills never got transformed into a set of institutional practice which one could learn and on which basis one’s performance was judged as it was in 16th and 17th century European universities.)

The absence of a rhetorical tradition in China did not manifest itself simply linguistically, but also in art and music. Statues in China prior to the 20th century were limited to statues of gods but not to heroicize human beings (Gigantic, monumental, and emotion arousing statues in China century appeared only in the 20th century after Westernization–esp. after China had learned the art of propaganda.)

It would be wonderful to hear whether you think rhetoric as an institution existed in China before the 20th century.

With her permission I share these thoughts here. What think you all?

11 replies on “Is There a Pre-Modern Tradition of Rhetoric in China?”

  1. One possible answer is, “No, and so much the worse for Athens and Rome.”

    A must-read on this topic is Garret Olberding’s Dubious Facts (2013). You won’t find anything about schools of rhetoric as such, but if there’s a case to be made for the existence of a “rhetorical tradition” of a less institutional sort, this would be the place to find it.

  2. There was no Quintilian in ancient China, but there was definitely an art or arts of persuasion, practiced not solely in law courts (as at Rome) but also and chiefly before the rulers of the day, and to an increasing extent, before the literate public of the day. The Micians were among its most conscious practitioners (Mician logic is in part a theoretical underpinning of the rhetoric of convincement). The earliest Mician art of persuasion may be studied in MZ 17, the oldest antiwar piece; it was definitively influenced by the lawcourt conventions of the early 04th century. But there were several modes of argument, including the argument from paradox, much used by the Dauists as well as by later Mician persuaders. An aid in making clear the fine inner structure of some of these persuasions or sermons exists in the form of s frequency-based atylistic analysis test (BIRD, the Brooks Index of Rhetorical Difference), which among other things gives an objective measure of the degree of continuity or discontinuity between consecutive segments of an argument. The structure can help to make clear the rhetoric. Mencius and the Micians turn out to have somewhat different styles of argument, as should surprise no one. The BIRD test was introduced to the Early Christianity field at a conference held at UMass two years ago, and to the Sinological field at the AOS conference a few days ago. It will be published in the second volume of the Project’s journal Alpha (due out late this year) and the third volume of Warring States Papers (roughly at the same time).

    Meanwhile, it seems in principle dubious to pin Mediterranean tags on Chinese arguments or persuasions, since there is a lot that does not fit, and what does seem to fit may be misleading, in evoking an inappropriate larger social context or decorative inventory. It may be better to analyze Chinese arguments on their own, for twenty years or so, before bringing them to the table for intercultural comparison.

  3. Garrett Olberding’s book looks really fascinating.

    I gather that civil service examinations tested in part for sheer literary skill? I wonder—I don’t know—what function the literary skill was supposed to serve; for example, how far the idea was that literary skill would help an official help the state rule hearts and minds.

    There seems to be a theory of music as rhetoric in the Liji

  4. I think there is rhetoric in China if one expands the definition. While it is supposedly methods of structuring arguments to convince, rhetorical tropes were used for literary composition. Also for philological analysis of texts.

    So I would argue that rhetorical tropes are to be found in Chinese literature, even if there was no formal theory of rhetoric.

    I opened at the Lunyu in Burton Watson’s translation at random and quickly found two tropes:

    When you don’t understand life, how can you understand death?

    Apart from being a clever evasion by the Master, this is a rhetorical device in the form: You don’t know A, so you cannot know B. (11.12)

    Another rexample of a common trope:

    Subjects the Master did not discuss: strange occurances; feats of strength, rebellion, the gods. (7.20)

    Here what should not be done is presented as what the Master would not do. There are many other instances like this.

    A final example:
    Let the ruler be a ruler; the subject, a subject; the father, a farther; the son, a son.

    Here a phrase that is logically trivial points up the gap between ideal and actual behavior

    This is one of those things I would study if I were given fifty more years. A problem, however, is that the polysemy and lack of inflection in ancient and clasisical Chinese, seems to make it harder to identify formal patterns.

    I am curious what others think.

  5. Kirkpatrick, A. (2005). China’s first systematic account of rhetoric: An introduction to Chen Kui’s Wen Ze. Rhetorica, 23(2), 103-152.

    Abstract: Chen Kui (陳騤) published the Wen Ze (文則), The Rules of Writing) in 1170. Chinese scholars commonly describe this as the first systematic account of Chinese rhetoric. This paper will place the Wen Ze in its historical and rhetorical context and provide a translation and discussion of key extracts from the book. In providing a summary of the key points of The Rules of Writing, this paper presents the main principles of Chinese composition and rhetoric as laid out by Chen Kui. It will also provide evidence that rhetorical styles are a product of their times. Like fashions, they flourish and fade and then flourish again.

  6. Although there are a lot of other people who are much better placed to answer the question from ancient Greek side, I generally agree with Prof. Brooks’ comment that the contrast cannot be oversimplified.

    As far as I know, the beginning of the tradition of ‘rhetoric’ is often attributed to Empedocles and Gorgias, both of who are before Socrates: The first sentence in Aristotle’ Rhetoric begins “Rhetoric is the “counterpart” of Dialectic (1354a)”, and Sextus writes, “For Aristotle says that Empedocles got rhetoric started, of which dialectic is a “counterpart” [antistrophon] – that is, correlated with it [isostrophon], because of being related to the same material… And Parmenides would seem to be not inexperienced in dialectic, since again Aristotle took his companion Zeno to be the originator of dialectic (Against the Mathematicians I. [6-7])”. Then, Empedocles is thought to be a teacher of Gorgias (Diogenes Laertius VIII, 58 (DK31A1)). As we can see the contrast is between rhetoric and dialectic, but not rhetoric and philosophy.

    Plato is thought to be the first one who seriously attempted to make such a sharp dichotomy. In the Platonic dialogues, ‘hē rhētorikē tekhnē’ is traditionally translated as the art of ‘oratory’ or the art of ‘rhetoric’ (while translators of Aristotle tend to use the word ‘rhetoric’). There are two possible different nuances, one in each translation, depending on how the rhetorical art is being understood, i.e. either as (i) piecemeal memorized speech focusing on the practice and a merely apparently persuasive tool (cf. Gorgias 448d8-10; “what is called oratory”) or (ii) the technical and analytical ability to apply different speeches to different listeners on different occasions for the purpose of persuasion (cf. Gorgias 452e1-4; Phaedrus 270b4-9; Aristotle’ Rhetoric 1377b21 ff.). Although in the Sophistical Refutations 184a1-8, Aristotle diagnoses Gorgias’ teaching as the former, this does not necessary need to correspond to Gorgias’ own view of his art.

    (Quoted with minor modifications from my MA research Thesis:

    It is also sometimes confused with “sophistry”, whose relation with rhetoric was rather obscure at that time. Noburu Notomi (2015; Who was The Sophist? 1st pub. in 2006) distinguishes the differences between sophistry and philosophy in Platonic dialogues as follows:

    [1: Form of Activity] (S: Sophists/P: Philosophers)
    (S) Travel around all over Greece
    (P) Stay in and contribute to their own country
    (S) Educate people for fees received.
    (P) Freely have dialogues with people in the city.

    [Content of Activity]
    (S) Claim that they teach aretē (excellence/virtue) to their students.
    (P) Question the very possibility of teaching/learning aretē’.
    (S) Aim at persuading people with speeches.
    (P) Seek for the way to correctly use language.

    [Foundational Thoughts]
    (S) Claim all sorts of knowledge.
    (P) Admit ignorance of knowledge themselves, and also make other people aware of their ignorance.
    (S) Employ forms of scepticism and relativism.
    (P) Inquire into the truth.

    (*I haven’t yet asked permission from Prof. Notomi to quote here his book that was originally written in Japanese. This is my translation. Please ask him for further and more accurate details of his research on sophistry in ancient Greece, which is truly a wonderful contribution to the field.)

    If we take Plato’s distinctions between dialectic and rhetoric, philosopher and rhetoricians/sophists (given that such sharp dichotomies have ever been made) there are various possibilities for categorizing most of Chinese ‘philosophers’ either as philosophers, rhetoricians or sophists in one way or another. (C.f. also the ‘noble lie’ in the Republic.)

    I am sorry for this rough outline: I just hoped that the information might be of any use. Thank you very much for raising the interesting question!

  7. I’d need to hear more about why your correspondent doubts that there was rhetoric in pre-modern China in order to be able to respond meaningfully. What exactly does she mean by “rhetoric” in the first place? What does it have to do with gigantic statues?

  8. For this interesting topic, I would also recommend the special issue of the journal “Asiatische Studien” (Volume 68, Number 4, 2014) titled: “Masters of Disguise? Conceptions and Misconceptions of ‘Rhetoric’ in Chinese antiquity”, co-edited by Wolfgang Behr and Lisa Indraccolo. Beside some very stimulating contributions, the introduction by the editors is in my view a highly pertinent piece…

  9. The very first response in this thread, from Justin Tidwald, brings up an important point, which is that there is a difference between something existing as a tradition and as an institution. This logic is employed often when talking about 孝 xiao in the West. The West did not develop this idea as deeply as China did, including an entire book dedicated to the idea of xiao that was canonized by Confucians, but that does not mean that the West did not have this concept or this tradition. We should look at rhetoric in China the same way.
    Rhetoric tradition definitely existed in Pre-modern China, even if we can not find an institutional equivalent to the Quintillian.
    Early scholars indeed relfected on the nature of rhetoric and its related devices and utility. B. Brooks already brought up the good example of the Mohists. In the 《小取》chapter of Mozi, Mozi discusses the definition of an analogy and how it is different from parallels. In the 《说苑》there is a story where 惠施 explains to the King of Liang why analogies are necessary in discourse.
    The 《说难》(shui nan) chapter of Han Fei zi, while focusing on the intricacies of persuasion, can be seen as holding important lessons on how to use rhetoric to attain that goal of pursuading one’s ruler.
    Also above, G. Redmond gives examples from the Analects. I would add that Mencius and Zhuangzi, the books, have even more examples of diggerent semantic and rhetorical techniques.I believe that these examples amply demonstrate to the sceptic that, even when these philosophers did not engage in reflexive discussions about rhetoric, they were very much aware of it and used many different rhetorical devices in their myriad texts, thus showing a strong tradition of rhetoric in pre-modern China.

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