Rhetoric as a Political Tool in Early China: General Observations

Workshop: Rhetoric as a Political Tool in Early China I

Tuesday, 10:30-13:00, 505





Abusive mouths and sharp tongues: the dynamics of persuasion in Warring States' China

The philosophical adventure begins in ancient China with a sharp consciousness about the power and the potential dangers deriving from words. In spite of all the efforts made by Confucius in order to subjugate discourses to an ethical code and to certificate a strict and appropriate relationship between names and deeds, the truth is that the Warring States period can be characterized by the increasing intellectual and political influence of a new class of wandering orators who, stripped of any moral fastening, conceive persuasion from a purely strategical perspective. As it is the case in the art of war, as it is understood in early China, this kind of persuasion needs malleability, adaptability, simulation and dissimulation, an exhaustive knowledge about the adversary and, at the same time, an impenetrable secrecy and opacity about our own intentions. In my paper, I will try to show the essential dynamics of these rhetorical techniques as well as some of the most relevant attempts in order to neutralize and evade the persuasive capacity of professional orators.


It's A Jungle Out There: Zhuang Zi's Dilemma with Political Persuasion

In modern Chinese idiomatic expressions, there is a common one that concerns political persuasion—— "to attend to a ruler is just like keeping a tiger company" (ban jun ru ban hu 伴君如伴虎)——it ruthlessly exposes the potential danger of serving a political superior. The locus classicus of the expression comes from the "Renjian shi" 人間世 ("In the world of men") chapter of the Zhuangzi (see below). This may be a least expected source to some because the Daoist master Zhuangzi is universally known as the most apolitical, if not anti-political, thinker in early China. Granted that the so-called Outer and Mixed Chapters of the Zhuangzi do contain discussions on political issues, the "Renjian shi" chapter comes from the Inner Chapters, which are generally considered to have been penned by the master himself. Indeed, even though the master appears to have no active interest in politics, the unwelcome concern looms oddly large in the Inner Chapters often as an ominous backdrop and finds explicit expression in the "Renjian shi" chapter in particular. This paper highlights the issue of politics in the Zhuangzi and argues that the Daoist classic is peculiarly sensitive to the art of political persuasion. Through a close analysis of the work with a focus on the Inner Chapters and specifically the "Renjian shi" chapter, it explores the use of rhetoric in political persuasion and the philosophical attitude that underlies it as a necessary evil.