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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Remonstrance (3)—East Asian Definitions

Click here for the introduction to Round and Square's series on remonstrance.
[a] Remonstrance (35724)  RL
              Remonstrance 1                Remonstrance 2                 Remonstrance 3
              Remonstrance 4                Remonstrance 5                 Remonstrance 6
              Remonstrance 7                Remonstrance 8                 Remonstrance 9

Let's look at some definitions in a great dictionary of the Chinese language, Tetsuji Morohashi's Daikanwa jiten 大漢和辞典. I will devote an entire "Beginnings" post to this formidable and delightful work, but we will mine it today as we examine entry number 35724—, "remonstrance." If you knew the full story behind the dictionary, you would bow down, weeping with gratitude for the skillful author, even if you don't read Chinese and Japanese. It is that impressive as a work of scholarly virtuosity.

When it comes to remonstrance, I think that the East Asian dictionaries provide the most useful avenues to understanding behavior including in the West. They tend to have more subtle senses of social life and its subtle hierarchies than almost any Western dictionary contains. The normal way to approach this matter would be to say that the situation is significantly different in East Asia. While this is surely true on several levels, I think that it misses the point. All we need to do is examine Kent's remonstrance with Lear to realize that almost all of the following definitions "fit" the situation—and many work better for understanding Lear than do the English language definitions. Think about that for a while, and then we'll begin. 

It should come as no surprise that what follows is not merely "quoted" from the 大漢和辞典. Clearly, that is not an option, so I have chosen instead to provide what might look a bit like a brief essay that examines the various entries under character number 35724. 
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The Chinese character is 諫, a combination of various parts, most significantly the "speech" radical set against a two-part phonetic (to use a term chose by Jesuit linguists) that together gives the sense of  "choose in a bundle previously opened," or "to pick, cull." The early Chinese etymological dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 has the following instructive formulation:
Remonstrance—from "bundle" (and) from "eight."
(And various etymological matters).

I will go further in a moment, but what we have here is a "picking and choosing," indeed, a culling of words (揀). For those who do not read Chinese, just look at the element on the left of the character:
It is called the "hand" radical, or character element. You will see the connections to the character remonstrance very clearly, which has the "words" radical" on the left.
It is not hard to see the similarity of the two characters. The first is "hand + bundle," to simplify things just a bit; the second is "words + bundle." The right-hand elements are the same (these are the things that the Jesuits called "phonetics"). The one is a kind of picking and the other is a kind of criticizing. I liken them to a kind of verbal curling (I am thinking of the winter sport)—a collecting and polishing of choice words meant to make a key point from junior to senior, with images of smoothly polished ice (swept relentlessly) as the words flow right to their target, landing (if perfectly executed) slowly and calmly right at the center, with nary a clunk or overshot.  

This curling (culling) image may not be as much of a "reach" as it first appears. The Daikanwa jiten gives a number of key ideas that contribute to the smooth flowing and functioning of remonstrance, at least in its more idealized forms. For example, the entry (#35724) begins with the following phrases: 

直言    禮儀を以て人の過を正す 
Straight words—ritual and decorum used to correct a person's mistakes.
These definitions clearly give the sense of direct words and correction, but there is more. One remonstrates with ceremony and decorum; correction of mistakes is beautifully attuned to the rituals that hold society together. One follows the paths of correct behavior in criticizing a superior. It is rarely a mere matter of rebuke; one smooths the way—polishes the ice—with ritual and decorum.

A few more straightforward definitions should set the tone nicely: 

The remonstrator uses ritual and decorum to correct (a person)
The "insider" critiques his superior's mistakes.
Remonstrance—(it is a kind of) stopping
So, what we see wrapped in these definitions is a combination of correction of errors, on the one hand, and proper ceremony and deference, on the other. We can also tease a few more contexts out of this. Note the "insider" (內) status of the one who corrects his superior. It is also interesting that the last definition emphasizes "stopping" (止) rather than the related character "correction" (正). This is telling.

All of these definitions lead me to think of remonstrance in an East Asian context as much more rigorously connected to social structure and power issues than one sees in most English definitions. The East Asian definitions give much more context for criticism than their English dictionary counterparts, which tend to stress mere "reproach."
Another quotation deserves its own paragraph. The following excerpt, also taken from the lead definitions in the Daikanwa jiten is instructive:

Remonstrance, remonstrance-admonishment—straight words with which to awaken a person.

The last sense of "to awaken"(悟) is much more than veneer, I think. It is a character used frequently in Buddhist writings throughout East Asian history, as might be guessed. The key in remonstrance is to reawaken a sense of right conduct that the father or ruler already knows. This is not the teaching of new knowledge, but rather the reminding (gently or otherwise) of a well-informed ruler of the principles at the heart of his government (or the father with his family).  

Taken together, these definitions give us a rich array of interpretive possibilities. They are much more than mere "protest" or "criticism." They are richly engaged with social status, hierarchy, and social action. They are part of a deep pattern of ritual ties that bind senior (先輩) and junior (後輩) in the social hierarchy. Above all, they tap into a shared tradition of knowledge that goes far beyond the individualized interpretation of a single minister of government or rebuking son. They are part of a shared body of knowledge that, at least in principle, all participants understand.
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Let us go just a bit further with our discussion of remonstrance in a dictionary sense. The key meaning of "criticizing from below" can be sin in the compound (言+束+八), or can at least be read into it ("a bundle of words"—trust me). It is in the practice of daily life and government that the concept comes into full bloom, however. Let us examine some key compounds to see if we can find patterns that help us understand remonstrance "in action," mostly within the context of government.  
(remonstrance + stop):
to dissuade
(remonstrance + death):
to risk one’s life in remonstrance
For the institutionalization of remonstrance, we have another useful set of terms. It is important to note that this concept is not merely about individual actions. It is about the manner in which groups and institutions "think," as well. All three of the terms below refer to remonstrance officials in government, but each has subtle differences.
(remonstrance + government official):
remonstrance official
(remonstrance + government minister): 
remonstrance official
(remonstrance + aristocratic status):
remonstrance official
Finally, there are the terms that date well back to ancient times—ancient ideals that persisted in the political imagination for millennia and formed an important part of the rhetoric of historiography and political discourse in imperial China.
(remonstrance + plank): 
remonstrance board; “criticism tablet”
(remonstrance + drum)
 remonstrance drums
We'll explore many of these ideas in the coming weeks. When we see all of this put into practice—into the drama of political critique, as it were—we will see images from early China of even the common people pounding the remonstrance drum and criticizing the ruler, protected by the ideal that everyone from the highest officials down to the lowliest of the common people should be heard. Does that sound sort of familiar? Does it surprise you to think of it in China?

Well, get ready for surprises. The remonstrance ideal is alive today in China, just as it was three thousand years ago. Does that mean that people beat remonstrance drums in their cities and counties when injustice is done? Well, yes...and not exactly. Remonstrance has always been an ideal, and has always been underplayed and overplayed by various protestors in a complicated hierarchical political system (be that a family or the state itself). It is a concept that will require a great deal of philosophical, historical, and, indeed, anthropological work.

It will be fun. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. Have you read The Secret History of the Mongols Rob? I'm going to return to it after this I think, and after experiencing some serious authoritarian stuff yesterday here in Mongolia...

    This also makes me think of the "netizen" phenomenon in China (though that seems mostly aimed at peers rather than those higher in the hierarchy? I don't know too much about it.)