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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Remonstrance (4)—The Aesthetics of Remonstrance

Click here for the introduction to Round and Square's series on remonstrance.

We continue our study of remonstrance with a series of posts that grew out of my participation in the Tenth East-West Philosophers Conference in Honolulu in May 2011. The theme was “Business Practice in a Global World,” and it was an exhilarating ten days of discussion and contention with philosophers, administrators, and entrepreneurs. My own work there centered on remonstrance, and my specific task was to convey the richness of the concept to philosophers, on the one had, and practicing business people, on the other. The next dozen or so posts under this “remonstrance” header will deal with that material.
Although it may seem to be an esoteric topic, it is very far from it. In East Asia and the West, it lies at the heart of administrative practice and a great deal of public life. It is a social dynamic with powerful implications for the political order, and it has figured, just in the past few years in events ranging from the world financial crisis to critiques of domestic policy across the globe. The spirit of remonstrance is social and public, and that is precisely why those who wish to admonish think twice or thrice…and those in power fear it.

              Remonstrance 1                Remonstrance 2                 Remonstrance 3
              Remonstrance 4                Remonstrance 5                 Remonstrance 6
              Remonstrance 7                Remonstrance 8                 Remonstrance 9
Remonstrance (4)—The Aesthetics of Remonstrance
This post (and those that follow it for the next few weeks) will examine the ethical and managerial implications of the concept of remonstrance (諫) on organizational practices both today and in the past. Although it is one of the least examined of the core philosophical concepts in the Chinese tradition (analysis of the term is dwarfed by the volume of work on concepts such as 仁, 義, 孝, 忠, 誠 and almost a dozen others), remonstrance has provided important contexts for “managerial thought” over several millennia. One of the clearest explications is found in the Xiaojing 孝經 (Classic of Filial Piety), and prominent examples are scattered through early Chinese historical works—notably the Zuozhuan 左傳 (Commentary of Zuo) and the Han classics, Shiji 史記 (Historical Records) and Hanshu 漢書 (History of the Former Han). Perhaps the finest articulation of the role of remonstrance in practical situations of interest to a wider “managerial” audience can be found in Sima Guang’s (1019-1086) Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑑 (Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling).

Above all, remonstrance needs context, and these first few posts will tease out the implications of the concept through the lens of a skillful and idiosyncratic interpreter of the Chinese tradition, Marcel Granet (1884-1940). A French scholar of Durkehimian sociology and Chinese studies, Marcel Granet understood the full power of remonstrance, and articulated it in several of his books. He is one of the most interesting intellectual figures of the twentieth century, and I will have much more to say about him on Round and Square.

***  ***
Consider the figure of the remonstrating son. Lips quivering, garments secured in respectful fashion, and standing firmly with weight equally balanced on both feet, he focuses on a combined message of loyalty and earnest admonition as he resolutely implores his father toward correct conduct. His father has strayed from the path, and it is his duty—a deep, ethical obligation with few rewards and almost certain failure—to steer him back onto it, with a smile and a warm meal waiting for him at the end.  Admonishment is only part of the story; the “manner” is equally or more important. The French sinologist Marcel Granet’s account of encounters between father and son is one of the most evocative ever written. Surely, it is one of the most prescriptive, and that has as much to do with Granet’s major source (The Book of Ritual—禮記) as his French literary flair.

We will examine closely several pages on the aesthetics of critique that are embedded in his work, La civilisation chinoise (Chinese Civilization). To the extent that the subject of remonstrance has been treated in the past, my approach could be considered out of the ordinary—and that is precisely my point. Rushing to “the heart of the matter” (“…but how does it work?”) would set us off course in ways that would make it difficult to engage the full potential of the concept. It will change your business and personal life. Read on.
Granet begins with what I wish to call cultures of physicality.

          In the presence of parents, gravity is requisite: one must therefore be careful 

          not to belch, to sneeze, to cough, to yawn, to blow one’s nose nor to spit. 
          Every expectoration would run the risk of soiling the parental sanctity. It would 
          be a crime to show the lining of one’s garment. To show the father that one is 
          treating him as a chief, one ought always to stand in his presence, the eyes 
          right, the body upright upon the two legs, never daring to lean upon any object, 
          nor to bend, not to stand on one foot. It is thus that with the low and humble 
          voice that becomes a follower, one comes night and morning to pay homage. 
          After which, one waits for orders.[1]

From these basic guidelines, we move to proper conduct in the presence of the father, careful to note that the son is not to be a quavering sycophant. From the start, we see an elaborate balancing act between loyalty and rebuke, deference and assertion.

          One cannot avoid executing [the father’s orders], but one is expected to give 

          one’s opinion. The son, like the vassal, should offer advice in all sincerity and 
          not hesitate to administer reproofs: only, come what may, he must preserve a 
          gentle tone of voice, a pleasant expression, and a modest air. If the parents 
          persist in their decision, the children must only redouble their gentleness, that 
          they may return to favor and so be able to renew their warnings. When wounded 
          to the quick, they feel neither indignation nor resentment, and they obey....[2]

Even from these first images of the remonstrance concept, it is clear that the son is to give his opinion, all the while striving to stay in the father’s good graces—and this for the greater good. The larger social unit is of ultimate importance, but it cannot be protected unless the key relationship between father and son is preserved. It is incumbent upon the son not to burn the bridges to his father’s good will. It is, in many ways, the son’s duty to steer the ship of family (or of state)…from the back of the boat, as it were.

[1] Marcel Granet, Chinese Civilization (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1930), 328-329.
[2] Granet, Chinese Civilization, 329.

Granet, Marcel. Chinese Civilization. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1930.

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