Lun Yu 1.8 & 1.9

Negation & State Formation

Lun Yu 1.8 & 1.9

Chapter 1

Saying 8


Kongzi (孔子), i.e. Confucius

Words To Know:

子: Zi. Master.

曰: Yue. To say, to call, to mention

君子: Junzi. A gentleman

不: Bu. No, not, can’t, the “either” in “either …or…”

重: Zhong. Heavy, prudent, respectful, serious.

无: Wu. No, none, doesn’t have, If not, without, the no in “blah blah blah, no?”


We are officially halfway through the first book of the Lun Yu! Here we have every white American nerd’s first Chinese word: Wu (无). Yeah, the one from the koans. Today we will celebrate by going over the basics of how negation is used in Chinese philosophy.

Before we start, I must mention that the second through fourth sentences are an exact repetition of an inner book analect, specifically 9.25, so I won’t do too much interpretation now. Further, heaviness - Zhong (重) - has already been covered in analect 1.5; in fact the last paragraph there is directly relevant here.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about negation. Many languages have no specific words for negation & affirmation. Chinese is one of them. Japanese also works something like this, but not Korean. Instead, echo responses and the adverb Bu (不) are used. For instance, in response to the question “Are you going?” a Chinese speaker could answer “Going” or “Not going”. Bu (不) and Wu (无) are negators but not typically used by themselves.

The character 无 in traditional script is 無. Both are images of a man dancing with something in his hands. If that seems strange to you that’s because it is: in the oracle bones of the Shang dynasty, the image of the dancing man was in fact used to mean “dancing”. In the Shang dynasty the character for Wu was a variation on the pictogram for “mother” (itself a variation on the pictogram for “woman” - the dots are nipples). Specifically, she has her arms disapprovingly crossed. In Old Chinese Wu was pronounced Ma, and by the Zhou dynasty the homophones were combined. In old Chinese negatives always have m or p in them, Bu (不) being originally “Poh”.

Speaking of, the character for Bu, 不, also has a funny story. It was originally a pictogram of a flower bud and meant that. It was turned into a negative by adding it to the character for mouth 口 to form 否, but since this came up a lot more often than “flower bud”, the meaning shifted back onto the original character.

So with all this etymology out of the way, let’s move on to the most famous use of Wu (無): Zhaozhou’s Dog from The Gateless Gate.


Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps translate this as

“A monk asked Joshu, a Chinese Zen master: ‘Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?’

Joshu answered: ‘[Wu].’”

Is it really the case that Wu (無) in Joshu’s Dog really is a demand for the speaker to unask the question? Yes, basically, but perhaps not for the reasons Pirsig gave. More likely it is a reminder of skillful means: that all Buddhist doctrine is a means to solve real problems. Joshu & Mumon don’t want you to ask questions of them because they are the kind of questions you ask priests, but to be honest about what your real problem is. This can be seen in Mumon’s commentary, and somewhat more entertainingly, in Nakanojo’s attempt to debunk a spirit medium.


Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps translate this commentary as

“To realize Zen one has to pass through the barrier of the patriarchs. Enlightenment always comes after the road of thinking is blocked. If you do not pass the barrier of the patriarchs or if your thinking road is not blocked, whatever you think, whatever you do, is like a tangling ghost. You may ask: What is a barrier of a patriarch? This one word, [Wu], is it.”

That Wu (無) is the gate to meditation is ultimately a reflection of the doctrine that the Lotus Sutra is the final and sufficient means for enlightenment.

But that’s all far in the future from Confucius’s life. It is relevant because negation as a logical concept is a timeless puzzle. Really, does any concept make a budding philosopher of logic quake more than negation?

The issue begins with what Frege called “force” (Kraft). A positive statement has far more assertive force than a negative one - “Markets are not complete” tells you very little. Frege goes so far as to allow that many negative statements have no determinant truth value: negative names have senses - they are not something - but in general no reference. Thus the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy quotes Aristotle:

“The affirmative proposition is prior to and better known than the negative (since affirmation explains denial just as being is prior to not-being) (Metaphysics 996b14–16)”

This theory of negation is, in a sense, non-binary, but negations is non-binary in a way which philosophers of such extreme binary truth value as Aristotle and Frege could handle. Aristotle, Frege and Pirsig all try to resolve their issues by introducing a continuous concept which could bridge the chasm: priority, force and quality respectively. This is clearly what Mumon would have advocated, as the Mulamadhyamakakarika also advocates binary truth values mixed with continuous concepts (in this case, causation).

So Pirisig I think is 90% right and 10% wrong in his analysis of classical Chinese negation.  But why does he get that 10% wrong? What Pirsig is getting wrong is the contrast with western negation. He was not alone in this. Around the same time, Derrida tried to encapsulate the problem of western negation by calling the problem the “metaphysics of presence,” but positing a container for negation hardly gets one out of the situation.

Why did Pirsig and Derrida both think Aristotle never heard of a truth gap? The answer, I think, is that there was a revolution between Frege and Pirsig which erased some of Frege’s insight: Bertrand Russell. Russell believed Wittgenstein had developed a path around Frege’s ‘force’ which would make negation clear - no more truth value gaps. Pirsig is deceived by what Thomas Kuhn dubbed “the invisibility of scientific revolutions”. Pirsig is like the traditional Lun Yu commentator going into unrelated Buddhist doctrine and logic at the slightest excuse.


Saying 9


Zeng Shen (曾参), here called Master Zeng (曾子). One of the ‘four sages’.

Words to know:

慎: Shen. Prudent, careful, sincere.

终: Zhong. End, to come to an end. Here this is specifically a euphemism for “to die”

追: Zhui: to chase, to hunt, to pursue romantically, as an adverb: posthumously.


As always, when we move from Confucius to a disciple we move from a negative to positive theology. I forgot to mention it directly about saying 1.7, but whenever a sentence ends with Yi (矣) in the Lun Yu that indicates the sentence is being shouted - like the okay in “I’m working, okay!”. It’s too normal a particle to always be read in this way, but here “Hosanna!” might be a good translation.

Zengzi (曾子) going whole hog Confucian makes this a good place to put some structure about the origin of the Chinese state generally. Why does Zengzi (曾子) so passionately believe sacrifices to distant ancestors will restore social life?

Xunzi (荀子), a non-mainline Confucian, has a simple explanation. Heaven’s principles are constant and beyond human matters. Therefore, the merely human moral principles were invented by the great ancestors - the sages, the Sheng Ren (圣人) - to bring peace. Zengzi (曾子) in Xunzi’s understanding, is invoking Wen Wang (文王) not as an ancestor of the Ji clan but as the source of the Zhou Yi (周易) also called the I Ching. Not as a biological father, but as a moral father. For him “prayer to the distant ancestors” is, in fact, invoking the most disinterested principles which could directly apply to human conduct.

There is certainly some truth in this. A less brilliant and more complicated – but in my opinion more likely – explanation is that while Wen Wang (文王) is being celebrated as the author of the Zhou Yi (周易) and thus moral father of the state but also as the actual father of the ruling Ji clan. Remember that the three families that dominated Kongzi’s political world were just other branches of the Ji clan.

To understand this it is helpful to think about how tribal and state societies blend into one another. Francis Fukuyama has covered extensively the process of going from a tribal to a state organization of society and the decline of states in his masterpiece duology The Origin Of Political Order and Political Order & Political Decay. He covers China extensively, but mostly the Qin Dynasty and after.

To move into the theory itself, before the state there was the tribe and before the tribe the family. One of the masterpieces of traditional thinking about tribes - with all the problematic and even terrible stuff left unashamedly intact - is Ernest Gellner’s Saints Of The Atlas. This is specifically about the tribal structure of Berber society in the 60s, but the mode of thought is general.

According to Gellner, a tribe is “a segmentary and patrilineal society, which mostly conceives of relationships between its own sub-groups in genealogical terms,” which can form fusions by symbolic gift exchange: “One can assert as a general principle about Berber society that whenever one finds a relationship, it will be based either on a belief about kinship, or on a prestation [i.e. gift giving], or both”.

Fukuyama emphasizes that it is the second, the new moral-political technology of abstract gift giving, that gives tribal society its power over pure family based societies.

It should not at all be thought that this mode of governance is unduly restrictive: it is, if anything, too easy to ‘resolve’ disputes. Gellner reports that a gift to an ancestor was never turned down no matter how much the giftee didn’t want it. Conflicts therefore were often ‘resolved’ without easing tensions. Family law disputes continue to have this character today.

The transition from late Shang to early Zhou is remembered in traditional Chinese historiography as a transition from a patrimonial government - the tyrant Shang Di Xin (商帝辛) treating the bodies of the people as his personal toys - to what Fukuyama calls, following Weber, a modern state - King Wu of Zhao (周武王) dispensing power by merit. I think this is too much to claim. The evidence is consistent with King Wu of Zhao (周武王) considering the state to be Ji clan property and ‘merit’ meant ‘merit within the Ji clan’.

I also tend to question the importance of so-called ‘Legalism’ in the state formation. I think the stable modern state that was the Han dynasty is better explained by the unique circumstances of the first Han emperor, Liu Bang (劉邦). Liu Bang (劉邦), the Supreme Ancestor Of Han (汉高祖), was the only peasant-born emperor in Chinese history. This meant that he could not draw on his clan and allies for state bureaucracy, the kind of thing many American voters attempt to demand today. Second, Liu Bang (劉邦) was able take the Qin bureaucracy strangely intact after the failure of the Eighteen Kingdoms experiment.

I would argue that what happened in the Shang-Zhou transition (about 800 years before the Qin-Han transition), in Weberian terms, was a transition from a patrimonial to a semi-bureaucratic state with a charismatic transition period. In the next 500 years, that is between the founding of the Zhou dynasty to the time of Confucius, the semi-bureaucratic state decayed (in Fukuyama’s sense) into a tribal-patrimonial state with a semi-bureaucratic ideology.

I will today concentrate on the charismatic transition period, since that is what Zengzi (曾子) is invoking. That period was engendered by the emergence of Ji Chang (姬昌), titled Zhou Gong (周公) - Duke Of Zhou - and posthumously titled Zhou Wen Wang (周文王) - Culture King Of Zhou. This is a lot of names, but it’s worth having them all together because different sources give him different titles.

Coming back to the Shang-Zhou transition: people – commoners and warrior-aristocrats alike – went to the charismatic Zhou Gong (周公) and not to the tyrant Shang Di Xin (商帝辛) to resolve disputes. The tyrant Shang Di Xin (商帝辛) tried to co-opt and coerce Ji Chang (姬昌) and the Ji clan into the structure of the Shang dynasty, but failed.

The somehow intrinsically authoritative judgements of Ji Chang (姬昌) were compiled by - or more likely, on the orders of - his son Dan (旦) into the Zhou Yi (周易). After the Gong He Interregnum, the Zhou Yi (周易) and other early Zhou cultural works were widely promoted for propaganda purposes - as in “We used to have authority! Look how much authority is here!”.

One of the results of this propaganda drive was the Shijing (诗经). An example is the 272nd song in the Shijing (诗经) is titled Wo Jiang (我將), which Arthur Waley translates “We Bring”:





Here is a reading of Wo Jiang (我將). Waley translates Wo Jiang (我將):

“We bring our offerings

Our bulls and sheep.

May Heaven bless them!

Our rituals are patterned

On the rules of King Wen.

Daily we bring peace to frontier lands.

See? King Wen blesses us,

He has approved and accepted.

Now let us day and night

Fear Heavens wrath

And thus be shielded.”

Wo Jiang (我將) can be compared to the first part of the 245th song in the Shijing (诗经), titled Sheng Min (生民), which Waley translates “Birth To The People”:




Here is a reading of this Sheng Min (生民). Waley translates these portions of Sheng Min (生民) as follows:

“She who in the beginning gave birth to the people

This was Jiang Yuan.

How did she give birth to the people?

Well, she sacrificed and prayed

That she might no longer be childless.

She trod on the big toe of God’s footprint,

Was accepted and got what she desired.

Then in reverence, then in awe,

She gave birth, she nurtured,

And this was Hou Ji.

Truly Hou Ji’s husbandry

Followed the way that had been shown.

He cleared away the thick grass.

He planted the yellow crop [millet].”

Hou Ji (后稷) - “Prince Millet” - was the mythical supreme ancestor of the Ji clan, who supposedly lived in the neolithic Xia dynasty. Hou Ji (后稷) legendarily introduced millet farming - the main staple crop - to China.

You might notice that the character for Ji in Hou Ji - 稷 - is different than that in Ji Chang - 姬. That’s because these are different names: the tones are different. The Ji (姬) in “Ji clan” means “Princess”. The Usener theory of myth suggests a clan named Princess would have a female founder, and so we see this in the first line of Sheng Min (生民). Meanwhile, the Ji (稷) in “Hou Ji” means “Millet”, which is also quite interpretable in Usenerian terms. Normally I don’t go into tones, but dropping them here makes things more confusing.

Speaking of myths and the criticism of myths, Sheng Min (生民) makes clear Xunzi’s understanding of the world. Di (帝) created millet, not Prince Millet, not Hou Ji (后稷). Hou Ji (后稷) sees how to go on the way - Xiang Zhi Dao (相之道): plant millet as a crop. This begins the cybernetic process of transitioning China to an agricultural society. Xunzi sees the creation of millet by Di (帝) to be beyond human matters, our lot is to hold true to the ways of Hou Ji (后稷) in order to continue to smooth the Dao (道). This is a kind of social contract theory founded on a different approach to “totality” than Rousseau’s.

Coming back to the comparison of the songs Wo Jiang (我將) and Sheng Min (生民), two things immediately jump out:

  1. The first is linguistic.

    1. The divine in Wo Jiang (我將) is called Tian (天), Heaven. 天 is a pictogram of heaven above a large man. Tian (天) is the Zhou term for the divine.

    2. The divine in Sheng Min (生民) is called Di (帝). There are several interpretations of what pictogram is intended by 帝, personally I feel that 帝 is heaven above an altar. Whatever the intention, Di (帝) is the Shang term for the divine.

  2. The other is conceptual.

    1. Wo Jiang (我將) is credits its hero personally for creating rules and rituals.

    2. Sheng Min (生民) merely honors its hero by rituals.

These reasons are why I feel justified in saying the hero of Wo Jiang (我將) is being honored for charisma in addition to his role as ancestor - as Wen Wang (文王) in addition to Ji Chang (姬昌).

The charisma of Wen Wang (文王) had as much strength for Confucius as the charisma of John Calvin did for Max Weber. We will see how Confucius diagnoses these Weberian issues in the coming books.

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