Time, Timeliness (shi 時), & Passing (shi 逝)

Here are some comparative philosophy theses we could discuss, from Sarah Allan’s (1997) book, The Way of Water and Sprouts of Virtue:

“There is no Classical Chinese word equivalent in meaning to the English word time. In the Analects (IX.17), we are told that Confucius, standing by a river, said, ‘What passes is perhaps like this: day and night it never lets up.’ In this passage, the imagery of the river suggests time passing, just as it did for his contemporary Heraclitus when he said that you cannot step into the same river twice. However, a specific term for ‘what passes’ or ‘passes by’–what we call time–is noticeably absent. Nevertheless, a Chinese word, sometimes translated as ‘time,’ shi 時, is a key term in early Chinese philosophy. The original meaning of shi is “season.” By extension, it also means seasonality or timeliness and refers to doing something at the appropriate time, the time or season at which an action can succeed. Shi is meaningful in the context of a natural order to which people, as other living things including plants, must correspond in their actions if they are to flourish and achieve success in life. However, it is not equivalent to our idea of ‘time’ and it cannot be used to discuss the phenomenon of time passing for which Confucius used the metaphor of a river.” (p. 11-12)

Following up on the Analects IX.17 passage, in which the idea of time “passing” is expressed with the (different) character shi 逝, Allan makes the following analysis:

“…in the absence of a word that specifically means time passing, Confucius simply compares the passing stream with ‘passing away.’ What ‘passes’ is both that which we call time and life itself. In another passage from the Analects, shi 逝 is used explicitly with reference to the passage of time: ‘The days and months pass by (shi 逝), but the harvest is not given to me’ (XVII.1). In Classical Chinese, days and months were also literally ‘suns’ and ‘moons’ and so they could also be said to pass by in a literal sense. In later texts, shi 逝 is used as a conventional euphemism for death or dying, just as we speak of someone ‘passing away.’ … Shi 逝 is not, however, ‘passing on’ which carries the implication of another world where one goes after death.” (p. 37)

Allan makes two suggestions based on this. First, that this is reflective of a way of thinking in which individual human lives, though “bounded by birth and death” (p. 12), are also regarded as links within the continuum of the ancestral heritage. Second, that it is reflective of a trend in the “metaphoric structures” through which the early Chinese think, according to which radical distinctions between things are not nearly as much the norm but that continuity among them is. So, an example of that is the significant use of the classification wu 物 “things,” in which humans, animals and plants are all classified together–not trivially, but for important purposes. Based on these sorts of considerations and examinations of textual passages, Allan argues in the book for a set of “root metaphors” that inform the early Chinese conceptual scheme in certain ways.

There are lots of interesting things in this book, including Allan’s discussion of the water and plant metaphors, but I’d be interested in what you think about her observations about early Chinese ways to talk about time: timeliness and passing (away). I’m not as sure as Allan is that large conceptual differences arise from this.

9 replies on “Time, Timeliness (shi 時), & Passing (shi 逝)”

  1. What struck me was not any specific connection to the Christian conception of the material world’s taking up only a finite temporal duration because throughout Judaic/Christian/Islam philosophical investigations of time, philosophers have taken a wide variety of views on whether time itself was finite (and whether it has a compact topology) consistent with the material world having finite duration. Rather, it was interesting that passage was framed in a way that avoided any hint of the metaphors that motivate (modern) dynamic theories of time. The core motivation for dynamic theories is to make somehow literally true (in the fundamental metaphysics) the passage metaphor. I was wondering whether the Confucian tradition lacks hints of dynamism, i.e. lacks a metaphor of some kind of motion/change behind the scene.

  2. (Hey Doug! Good to hear from you.)

    There are some people, the “Whiteheadians” roughly, who think there’s no core metaphor of substance/substantiality in early China and that everyone (Confucians, Daoists, et. al.) assumes some kind of dynamism, at least in the sense of “porous” ontological borders among things. The idea is that metaphysical assumption and speculation is oriented around becoming rather than being. So, on the Whiteheadians’ readings, the early Chinese assume a dynamism underlying everything as primary.

    On the other hand, I think there’s more evidence that in fact, the idea of some kind of core stillness–some kind of motionless pool, to use a water metaphor–that underlies motion and change is the dominant metaphor, from the stillness of the Dao to the stillness of the emperor. That still doesn’t imply underlying substrate or anything like that. But it indicates that dynamism is more surface phenomenon than deep.

    I’m still not sure how the idea of “passing away” is different from “passage.” Isn’t motion the primary metaphor in both? More interesting for you, I think, might be “phase” theories of history in early China. “Phases” (xing 行) are something like thematically formulated dominance markers of time/eras. The “five phases,” (wu xing 五行) sometimes translated more crudely as “five elements,” are metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. The “age of metal” would be something like the Western astrological “age of Aquarius”–it is a time marker that is thematically indicated, but with no obvious link to motion or passage.

  3. Interesting! I haven’t read Allan’s book. Here are some thoughts anyway, more elementary than the earlier thoughts in the string.

    “However, a specific term for ‘what passes’ or ‘passes by’–what we call time–is noticeably absent.”

    They didn’t have a word for what? I don’t think I recognize a clearish familiar idea of time in Allan’s phrase ‘what passes’. We say time passes, but we don’t think it’s the only thing that passes, and the metaphor seems to me offhand both casual and a little confused. A particular time such as June 6 passes from the future to the past, and particular events do the same; but “time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping, into the future,” and objects such as ourselves keep moving or marching into the future (“building a bridge to the 21st century” etc.). Only when we die do we pass, into the past like events (“You’re history!”) or into the Beyond.

    I would have said the core of the everyday modern conception is that time is an abstract dimension and/or quantity, shown by clocks and distinguishable from the things laid out in it – an idea that would have developed gradually from the ideas of seasons or days or drops from a water-clock, and maybe depends on some such cashing-out in order to be coherent. (“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven.”) I don’t know whether this dimensional idea is friendlier to fundamental dynamism or fundamental stillness, but there’s a sense in which it sort of suggests fundamental stillness, by being the unmoving axis on which motion is laid out.

    This idea, being abstract and supposedly distinct from events such as seasons, might depend on an interest in radical distinctions between form and content, or an interest in measurement and math.

    Separately, there’s the perspectival idea: the concepts “past, present, and future”—the coming time and the gone time. This set of concepts doesn’t look like a development of (a). This sort of idea seems to fit individualism and to fit a practical cast of thought – which looks like a wash from the point of view of early China v. modern West.

    The passage metaphor seems to involve these perspectival ideas: saying that things pass by the viewer/present, from past to future or vice versa, rather as the waters passed by Confucius.

    One would expect an agricultural society to be sophisticated about time. On the other hand, an interest in history and in recovery of the past might bring in different approaches to time, swamping those rooted in agricultural concerns. ??

  4. I was wondering whether the Confucian tradition lacks hints of dynamism, i.e. lacks a metaphor of some kind of motion/change behind the scene.

    This is also building off what Manyul has already mentioned, but in Allan’s book she goes on to explain mountains and rivers as metaphors for constancy and change (pp. 36-37); and then claims that quan 泉 (a spring) was originally a pictograph of a cave with water gushing forth. Springs therefore “signify the whole cosmos” (pp. 54).

  5. Sweet! Thanks for the reference to check out, Manyul! The paper I am working on (that I proposed for the NEH seminar) deals somewhat with this topic (specifically, with how notions of understanding one’s life as situated in time impact what it means to “cultivate the self” in Xunzi/Confucius).

    A quick note — there is a very interesting piece that deals with the idea of lives as “bounded by birth and death” by Lee Yearley. It’s called “An Existentialist Reading of Book 4 of the Analects” and it is in the Van Norden anthology “Confucius and the Analects, New Essays.”

  6. Hey Bill, interesting–not the least in your easy familiarity with pop-cultural time references. I think what Allan means is that there isn’t a specific term for the abstract subject of motion, ‘time,’ as in “Time flies like an arrow” (Groucho Marx: “…but fruit flies like a banana.”).

    I have to wonder whether ‘time’ is necessary to use as a subject, in ordinary discourse (not theoretical), if there are relatively concrete events that can be the subject of such metaphoric motion–e.g. “The eight-row dance dragged on like a slow gruel paste.” On the other hand, I’m not sure how ‘timeliness’ for shi 時 could be understood without an abstract notion of time. So, maybe this is one of those cases where the absence of an explicit term for the abstract notion of time doesn’t indicate an absence of the concept….?

  7. Great lines!!

    I agree with your general point that the absence of a term doesn’t prove the absence of a concept, but I think you’re saying here that the presence of a term (shi 時) indicates the presence of a different concept.

    Here’s why I think maybe not: Suppose shi 時 means “at the right season(s),” rather as “wang” means “the right kind of king.” Then I’m not sure it needs an abstract concept of time as distinct from seasons, any more than “in the right box” needs an abstract concept of space.

    As for the question whether the early Chinese had the concept of time, I want to say I’m not sure I understand the question. To propose they “lacked the concept” is to propose something pretty radical-sounding. But that’s not the issue for Allan, is it? There is some specific way of thinking about time that she’s saying they hadn’t articulated or clearly distinguished from others?

    I wonder whether one can say this in ancient Chinese: “Even the dancers found the slowness a grueling pace.”

  8. Hi Chris, excellent question! From Manyul’s post it looks to me as though Allan is talking mainly about representations (primarily words, secondarily standard metaphors), and thinking that one’s repertoire of representations is an important constraint on the kind of sophisticated articulate thinking one does.

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