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Monday, September 12, 2011


Remonstrance. Look it up. It is not a word we throw around very much in American life or everyday English usage. You know you’ve heard it before (or you may not know until tomorrow, when you will start hearing it every fourth day or so—or reading it in a Jane Austen novel). It will be like noticing the shirt you bought at L.L. Bean or the light gray Honda Civic that suddenly is everywhere on the freeway. It is not rare or esoteric; you (probably) just haven’t noticed it yet.
Moreover, you (probably)—like the vast majority of people—aren’t exactly sure, even in context, what the word means. This has a great deal to do with the fact that the concept is versatile, slippery, and enduring—albeit on a small scale and what might be called a minor chord. 

It is “out there,” in at least two senses of the phrase. It pops up in reading and speech occasionally; it is also “out there” in the sense that it is just beyond our everyday mix of speech acts, as an aging kind of Oxford philosopher might call them. Sure, if you have mastered your SAT vocabulary work you might well be able to define it. Can you use it, though? I think not, and that is far from being a criticism (don’t be touchy about this, please). The problem with remonstrance is that it means a great many things, and all require a deep understanding of context—more so than the vast majority of terms “out there.” 

And that’s just English. How is the word used in French, German, Italian, and Spanish? How, indeed, is it used in Russian, Polish, Arabic, or Farsi? And how, to get to the point of this series of posts, is it used in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean? How, indeed?

Culture has a great deal to do with the way we view the word. In English, we tend to look at it along the lines of “admonition” or “reproof.” In East Asia, “remonstrance” has a distinctly hierarchical component. That is where we will begin, but before we are done with this series of posts (it could go on for years), we will have a full, rich, sense of what the concept means in speech, literature, and—this is the whole point of these posts—managing our lives.
[c] Harmony RF

Let me explain. I have been studying the concept of remonstrance for thirty years—ever since I first learned the word and thought I knew “what it meant.” I relied on context. If I recall, it was used in a sentence not unlike “…and then Père Lapin (Daddy Rabbit) remonstrated with the bunnies, urging them to apply themselves to their studies.” Or something like that. I was sure that it was a synonym for “exhort.” Positive. 

But then, by chance (I was a college student reading French children’s books on the sly—more on that at another time), I came across the term in a completely different context. A Chinese minister of government—we might have said “courtier” if we were still speaking of France—remonstrated with tenacity over the conduct of the ruler. Here is the precise quotation as I read it in Achilles Fang’s translation of The Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government (資治通鑑). I was in college, and my fledgling Chinese was not up to recognizing words such as 諫 (remonstrance) yet. 見 (to see) was about the best I could manage then (this is just a little nod to those who struggle with the language; it is difficult for all of us).

The emperor desired to move one hundred thousand households of soldiers from Jizhou to Henan.  At that time heaven had sent down drought and locusts; the people were starving.  The flock of court officials considered this impossible, yet the emperor’s intentions were rigid. The shizhong, Xin Pi, along with other court officials, sought an audience.  The emperor knew that they desired to remonstrate, and took on an angry countenance when meeting with them.  No one dared speak.  Pi said, “Your majesty desires to move these soldiers’ households.  What is your plan?”  The emperor replied, “Are you saying that my moving them is mistaken?”  Pi responded, “Your minister sincerely considers it to be mistaken.”  The emperor replied, “I will not discuss this with you.”  Pi responded, “Your majesty, not taking your minister to be inferior, appointed him attendant and remonstrating official.  How can it be that you will not discuss it?  That of which I speak is not a private matter—it concerns our very state.  How can you be angry at me?” 

The emperor did not respond, but rose and went inside.  Pi followed and tugged on his robes; the emperor shook free and did not return.  After a long interlude he reemerged, saying, “Zuozhi, how earnestly you struggled!”  Pi responded, “If now you move them, you will lose the people’s good will.  You also do not have the means to feed them.  Therefore I dared not but contend vigorously.”  The emperor thereupon moved half the planned number. [1]
I was surprised. This was not the Dad Rabbit exhorting his little flock (or herd, or, well, you know) to work hard. This was a person far outranked by the emperor…scolding him…and maintaining that he had every right—indeed, I interpreted it as “duty”—to dissuade him. I was puzzled, but also so intrigued that I have spent the better part of the past thirty years thinking about it. 

These posts are meant to consider the term in its full, florid contexts—in Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The emphasis will be a little more on Asia, to be sure, since I have spent a great deal of my time reading and studying its traditions (if we really can say “it” for Asia). We are going to think about just what this word means, and how it is used.  

It is the key to managing oneself, one’s family…and all under heaven (天下).

[1] Achilles Fang, The Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms V. 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), 13.


Fang, Achilles. The Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms (2 vols). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.

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