Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in 3rd Century AD China

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Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in 3rd Century AD China

Unread postby WeiWenDi » Wed Mar 04, 2015 12:11 pm

Moving this discussion to a new thread - don't want to clutter up Sun Fin's fine thread over here collecting 3K English-language sources! Basically this is just to get my thoughts down as I read. I don't want to miss anything, and I feel like summarising as I go along will help to organise my thoughts on the subject.

~~~

Okay, just got into the meat of Howard Goodman's Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in Third-Century AD China, and I wanted to get some of my thoughts down here while they're still fresh. Sun Fin, even though the book is putatively about one man and his place in history, this is actually very much a book about the Three Kingdoms, and particularly about the Cao-Sima transition between 249 and 290.

First off, even though the book focusses on one individual (Xun Xu 荀勖) of the later Cao Wei / early Xi Jin Dynasties, the book covers a far more expansive territory than that. The introduction is incredibly dense, to the point where even a guy with a decent knowledge of Classical Chinese might easily end up getting completely lost. This fellow Goodman knows his source material, did a lot of the translation work himself, and even a fair bit of the footwork tracking down stele inscriptions and funerary records in Yingchuan and piecing together the portrait of the Xun family's growth, movement and reputation, and then later piecing together Xun Xu's specifically. Once you get into the actual history text, though, things start getting interesting.

The Xun family were a rural clan who lived outside Luoyang. There were two brothers Xun; one was named Xun Shu 荀淑, and many of his descendants (starting with Xun Shuang 荀爽) went on to become famous for their politically-coded (but no less viciously-punished) resistance first to the Empress and eunuch factions at the end of the Han Dynasty (being essentially wanted men and outlaws under the eunuch-led 'court solidification' 黨固 persecutions), then for their more active resistance to Dong Zhuo. The first chapter of the book focusses intensely on funerary rites, and how they can be read as acts of political allegiance or dissent depending on their recipient and how that recipient was remembered. For example, Xun Yu 荀彧 first organised a few local self-defence units (organised usually by the heads of several rural households who trusted each other) against Dong Zhuo, and then sought refuge first with Yuan Shao and later with Cao Cao in 191 as a part of the campaign against Tao Qian. Xun Yu's suspicious death after having remained silent on Cao Cao's attempt to accrue greater titles for himself was met with a funerary commemoration composed by Pan Xu 潘勖, which, long story short, was politically pro-Cao (recognising Cao Cao as a legitimate 'king' under the Han) but contained several elements comparing Xun to the sage-kings of former times, which Goodman believes reflect a kind of flexible ambiguity about the family's commitment to Cao Cao's cause.

Goodman then talks about several other members of the Xun family, including Xun Yu's son, the romantic, proto-Zhengshi 'daoistic' provocateur Xun Can 荀粲, who alienated himself from his brothers and uncles by praising his distant relative Xun You 荀攸 over his own father, and by marrying a daughter of Cao Hong 曹洪, thus demonstrating his loyalty to the Cao clan. Xun Can was also highly aesthetic in his ideals of love, believing that beauty mattered more than talent or helpfulness. But he spent most of his time 'in entertainment' with his Lady Cao; when she died, he grieved over her so passionately that he died very shortly afterward. Other members of the Xun family, though, kept to a more classical, 'Confucianistic' idea of filial piety, family comportment and proper mourning - most prominently Xun Yi 荀顗, who moved into Sima Yi's good graces by supporting the anti-Cao Shuang xuanxue scholar Fu Gu 傅嘏. Yi, though, didn't really hold truck with the xuanxue way of doing things; his work for the early Xi Jin was more focussed on building up a correct, Confucian legal structure and mourning culture to bolster the authority of the new Sima rulers. Chapter 1 gives us sort of an overview of the changing intellectual culture - having right Confucian ideas wasn't any guarantee of success; a great deal of leeway was given to independent-minded youngsters like Xun Can (but also Fu Gu, He Yan and Xiahou Xuan) to freely discuss the Classics (particularly the Yijing) on their own terms, in small groups of other independent-minded youngsters. This culture eventually gave rise to the Zhengshi 正始 counterculture of informal philosophising and search for the dao of the ancient sage-kings, to which the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove 竹林七賢 belonged.

So it's in this environment that Xun Xu, the musicologist, comes into play, in Chapter 2 of Goodman's book. Having (Goodman presumes, with fairly good reason) been educated and groomed for an official position by his uncle Xun Yi, he has to navigate a new political landscape in which prior association with Cao Shuang has become toxic... and Xun Xu himself had organised a funerary rite for Cao Shuang! Thankfully, it seems the Simas were fairly pragmatic in not alienating the confidants of their former enemy, because even though they gave high positions to anti-Cao Shuang intellects within Wei, they didn't slam the door in the faces of scholars like Xun Xu but rather held them to a higher degree of scrutiny and criticism.

So that's about where I am now in the book. Further thoughts as reading progress continues!

~~~

Chapter Two is about Xu himself and his first posts under the Simas. The political climate is described in somewhat more detail here. The Wei-Jin or, more accurately, Cao Shuang-Sima transition was a tricky one, because the Simas needed to establish their military and cultural authority without upsetting too many of the gentry and intelligentsia who had been highly-stationed under the Caos. So while they did undertake a heavy purge of Cao military loyalists in 249, they also held the door open for people Goodman describes as 'Former Wei Loyalists of Deferent and Pious Comportment'.

Xun Xu himself counted as a Cao loyalist in Goodman's reckoning; however, his uncle Xun Yi did not. As mentioned above, Xun Yi had supported the anti-Cao xuanxue scholar Fu Gu, thus placing him practically automatically in the Simas' good books. However, Xun Xu placed himself in the Cao Shuang loyalist circle by leading funeral and mourning rites for Cao Shuang after his death in 249. But Sima Zhao not only didn't punish him for this, but after Xun offered his services to Jin he also gave him a minor noble title (關內侯) in Anyang. Goodman attributes this to Xun's family ties in Yingchuan, but an alternative interpretation could simply be that Sima Zhao wanted to keep an eye on him for the time being. Xun soon proved his cooperation with the Simas by urging military caution, by advising against assassinating Liu Shan 劉禪 (former ruler of Shu) and - most importantly - by essentially turning against his in-law Zhong Hui 鐘會, before he planned an anti-Jin rebellion within Shu.

The book then turns to Xun's role as a faction leader - as a close ally of Sima in-laws Jia Chong 賈充 and Lady Jia Nanfeng 賈南風. He was also highly critical of Jin's renewed war against Wu - largely because he feared the spoils would go to his faction rivals, including his bitter ideological enemy Zhang Hua 張華. Tang Dynasty historiographers like Fang Xuanling 房玄齡 and Xu Jingzong 許敬宗 criticised Xun Xu as a dedicated factionalist, and given that the moral tenor of Tang historiography under the direction of Tang Taizong 唐太宗 was fairly roundly anti-Jin (the official attitude of the Tang Emperors was that Cao Cao and the Wei dynasty had been justly given the Mandate of Heaven, but that the Simas had unfairly usurped power before they could unify China), Xun's place in the official histories of Tang was essentially one of a morally-bankrupt traitor (albeit one clever enough to have avoided getting himself killed in court intrigues).

The author notes that factions in the Jin Dynasty were not like political parties. They were fluid, often centred around one or two important individuals, and often focussed on a single political goal, whose achievement would mean the dissolution of the faction. However, individual friendships, marital alliances, enmities and even ideological stances (whether more 'Confucianistic' or 'Daoistic' in orientation) could mean that factions could share the same members or basic orientations.
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Re: Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in 3rd Century AD C

Unread postby Bush Leagues » Wed Mar 04, 2015 12:18 pm

Star. I'll want to come back to this - no time right now.
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Re: Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in 3rd Century AD C

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Wed Mar 04, 2015 1:29 pm

Very intresting, thank you.

I doubt being seen as an ally of Jia Chong helped Xun Xu's rep in the aftermath of Jin's fall

Xun Can was also highly aesthetic in his ideals of love, believing that beauty mattered more than talent or helpfulness. But he spent most of his time 'in entertainment' with his Lady Cao; when she died, he grieved over her so passionately that he died very shortly afterward.


As I understand it, his mourning was met with much disapproval though I wonder if his death might have had more to do with his efforts to heal her. I have heard different versions of what Xun Can meant with his comments about beauty
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Re: Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in 3rd Century AD C

Unread postby WeiWenDi » Wed Mar 04, 2015 1:55 pm

Dong Zhou wrote:I doubt being seen as an ally of Jia Chong helped Xun Xu's rep in the aftermath of Jin's fall


Heh, oh yes. There were multiple factors, but this one seems to have factored in largely. His reputation was cemented during the early Tang Dynasty as a quarreler and an overly-ambitious schemer.

Dong Zhou wrote:
Xun Can was also highly aesthetic in his ideals of love, believing that beauty mattered more than talent or helpfulness. But he spent most of his time 'in entertainment' with his Lady Cao; when she died, he grieved over her so passionately that he died very shortly afterward.


As I understand it, his mourning was met with much disapproval though I wonder if his death might have had more to do with his efforts to heal her. I have heard different versions of what Xun Can meant with his comments about beauty


That's what Goodman seems to think. Certainly from a Confucian point of view, Xun Can's entire comportment was wildly disproportionate; and probably deliberately so, since he enjoyed being a philosophical provocateur. He publicly criticised his own father and praised his uncle. And then, mourning beyond all measure for his wife to the neglect of his family and possibly his own health, would have been seen as irresponsible at best and exhibitionist and self-seeking at worst.
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Re: Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in 3rd Century AD C

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Wed Mar 04, 2015 4:59 pm

WeiWenDi wrote:That's what Goodman seems to think. Certainly from a Confucian point of view, Xun Can's entire comportment was wildly disproportionate; and probably deliberately so, since he enjoyed being a philosophical provocateur. He publicly criticised his own father and praised his uncle. And then, mourning beyond all measure for his wife to the neglect of his family and possibly his own health, would have been seen as irresponsible at best and exhibitionist and self-seeking at worst.


I don't deny, from what limited I know, Xun Can rather enjoyed being provocative (I mean who would say the Xun Yu type thing to your siblings?). With his wife comment (however one interprets the exact meaning), there may be an element of defensiveness about a woman he seemed to love being slagged off for not conforming to standards. I suspect his health may have been sheltered before she died anyway (rolling around in snow nightly is not great for one's health I imagine), certainly any recovery he was going to make was not helped by his mourning and possible depression.

I do think that his rivals don't come out too well in modern day sensibilities: anti-love, anti-loving someone who doesn't confirm to modesty, anti-mourning. I do see where they come from bar the second one, trying to get Xun Can to concentrate on work more or trying to rally him (I probably wouldn't have insulted the just dead wife in doing so) and there is something about someone mourning themselves to death that one either sees as a romantic or giving up.
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Re: Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in 3rd Century AD C

Unread postby WeiWenDi » Fri Mar 06, 2015 10:53 am

Thoughts on Chapter 3:

Dealing with Xun Xu and court lyrics. Here's where Goodman starts to get more into the technical side of things.

This chapter actually reveals quite a few interesting things about the political and social context of the Wei-Jin transition. There was very much a political shift in the making, and the court poets and lyricists were very much front-and-centre of it. There's kind of an unfair stereotype in some corners of China scholarship and even Chinese popular culture, of court poets and songsters being effete, dissipated do-nothings who squandered their patronage on wine and women, but Goodman demonstrates that at least as far as Xun Xu and Zhang Hua were concerned, it was no less that setting the tone (literally) of the new dynasty. The success or failure of a new government in the old society rested on its ability to claim legitimacy, and a key component of this legitimacy lay in convincing both the common people and the scholarly elites that it could restore harmony (again, quite literally) to the cosmos. Far from being carefree aesthetes and pleasure-seekers, the court lyricists were often the foremost and most active political voices.

Another layer gets added to the tension between Xun Xu and Zhang Hua. Though the rift is better shown through Zhang's arguments with Jia Chong over capital punishments and war with Wu, his enmity with Xun seems to have originated over an approach to court lyrics. Zhang's approach was to take what was best in the Wei lyrical, poetic, material and court cultures and base the new Jin court aesthetic on what they found. Xun Xu, on the other hand, wanted to pursue a course of complete reevaluation of Wei practices by comparing them to the preferred distant-antique practices of the Zhou Dynasty. Goodman typecasts Zhang as a 'modernist' and Xun as a 'fundamentalist', though I'm not entirely sure this is a fair characterisation.

In addition, Xun Xu and Zhang Hua, along with Fu Xuan 傅玄, were all entrants in a court-commissioned lyrical competition to write on a theme: zhengde 正德 (translated by Goodman as 'Just Potency'). Goodman points out that Xun's piece, even though it conforms to the four-character line prescribed by Zhou aesthetics, nevertheless has an inconsistent rhyme scheme that may have pointed to a complex or ironic reading. Xun's lyrics turn toward a propagandistic celebration of Jin might; whereas Zhang Hua's and Fu Xuan's lyrics (also written in four-character verse) turn toward philosophical meditations. Fu Xuan turns toward a Confucian veneration of sages and ancestors, pointing toward a 'middle way', and Zhang Hua turns toward a Daoist meditation on the darkness and formlessness of skilled dancers.

Goodman is careful to position all three within the context of xuanxue studies - this was the intellectual background which all three lyricists shared. But he notes that Xun Xu, though not directly philosophical or moralistic here, did not use his xuanxue training to expound any Daoistic or creatively-negative ideas. 'Xun generally exhibits no traces of daoistic thinking.' He was all about legitimising the Jin by bringing its music precisely into conformity with the ideals of Zhou; there was little room in his intellectual worldview for contemplating the mysteries of emptiness and the creative-negative of the Dao.

But this had been the intellectual drift of Cao Wei. Cao Cao, Cao Pi and Cao Zhi had all been poets. Cao Pi may not have taken it to the extremes his younger brother did, but he was still one to 'emulate the Yellow Emperor, Yao [and] Laozi' and 'to contemplate the dark', and these were the ideas that he used his position as Emperor to promote. On the other hand, the new Sima Emperors, whether genuinely favouring a more 'Confucian' approach as a matter of family tradition, or simply reading the political winds in that direction, gave Xun Xu even greater room to determine the lyrical and ritual direction of their Jin Empire.

Again, this chapter is really technical, but there's a lot of interesting stuff going on between the lines - confirming a lot of what I'd already suspected about the official ideologies of Cao Wei and Xi Jin, and answering some of the questions I'd posed before about the landscape and intellectual drift of the Chinese society. As I'd long suspected - the Caos were not Legalists. They might have borrowed the odd idea here and there from Legalist thought, though seemingly to a much less significant extent than Shu Han did. The Cao style of statecraft as characterised by Goodman was far too loose, too informal and too close-knit for the tastes of a Han Feizi or a Li Si. And the xuanxue drift within Cao Wei, favouring free-flowing philosophical talk by countercultural youngsters gathered in their independent coteries, would hardly have been countenanced at all by a Qin Shihuang!

Kind of hard to shake the suspicion by this point, though, that Goodman tends to sympathise with Xun Xu's project! Or maybe he's simply putting on his good historian's hat and trying his best to inhabit Xun Xu's world the best he can.
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Re: Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in 3rd Century AD C

Unread postby WeiWenDi » Fri Mar 06, 2015 11:40 am

Dong Zhou wrote:I don't deny, from what limited I know, Xun Can rather enjoyed being provocative (I mean who would say the Xun Yu type thing to your siblings?). With his wife comment (however one interprets the exact meaning), there may be an element of defensiveness about a woman he seemed to love being slagged off for not conforming to standards. I suspect his health may have been sheltered before she died anyway (rolling around in snow nightly is not great for one's health I imagine), certainly any recovery he was going to make was not helped by his mourning and possible depression.

I do think that his rivals don't come out too well in modern day sensibilities: anti-love, anti-loving someone who doesn't confirm to modesty, anti-mourning. I do see where they come from bar the second one, trying to get Xun Can to concentrate on work more or trying to rally him (I probably wouldn't have insulted the just dead wife in doing so) and there is something about someone mourning themselves to death that one either sees as a romantic or giving up.


Sorry, Dong, didn't respond to you before posting the above.

I wouldn't say Xun Can's brothers were 'anti-love', though, at least not in this particular treatment of them. They certainly valued different things in women, and were probably more moralistic (or possibly pragmatic) than romantic. They would probably defend themselves by saying love has to be properly ordered, and loving one's parents has to take precedence. Whether or not Xun Can was depressed over his wife's death, and died as a result? That's certainly a valid interpretation - and the reaction from his friends and family wasn't likely to have helped matters much - though I'd also say your psychoanalysis of a long-dead historical somewhat-obscure Chinese xuanxue scholar is as good as mine. :P
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Re: Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in 3rd Century AD C

Unread postby Xu Yuan » Fri Mar 06, 2015 3:56 pm

I'd heard of this book before and it always seemed rather interesting, but I've never really gone further than that. Thank you for the summaries though, it is interesting to see life from the perspective of a man on the fringes of the court to become one of the main influences of the new regime. Also it is about the descendant of my personal personage of the era (with Liu Yu a close second).

I find it interesting that the Xun's quickly flocked to the Sima banner and it makes a good deal of sense that they would hold resent after Xun Yu's mysterious death after Xun Yu spoke out against Cao Cao's planned ascension.
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Re: Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in 3rd Century AD C

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Fri Mar 06, 2015 5:58 pm

WeiWenDi wrote:
Sorry, Dong, didn't respond to you before posting the above.


:(

No problem.

For the record, I wouldn't have argued the Cao's were Legalist but simply borrowed elements from that, Confucianism and quite frankly, whatever was practical. I would maintain that the Cao's had a tendency to be free thinking and radical in private but could be... traditionalist in public life. Cao Rui particularly.

Your first paragraph on chapter 3 doesn't surprise me, it makes sense. Just hadn't thought about it much

I wouldn't say Xun Can's brothers were 'anti-love', though, at least not in this particular treatment of them. They certainly valued different things in women, and were probably more moralistic (or possibly pragmatic) than romantic. They would probably defend themselves by saying love has to be properly ordered, and loving one's parents has to take precedence.


I don't think they were anti-love either. The wording can, and may indeed have been, seem snobbish in "not the right type of girl" (I personally quite like the theory that she inherited her father's temper and that was a big part of the disapproval) but that is hardly something modern society is innocent of. I just think the initial impression, which I certainly had, looks bad for the Confucian scholars but I do see where they come from now.

Whether or not Xun Can was depressed over his wife's death, and died as a result? That's certainly a valid interpretation - and the reaction from his friends and family wasn't likely to have helped matters much - though I'd also say your psychoanalysis of a long-dead historical somewhat-obscure Chinese xuanxue scholar is as good as mine. :P


I simply think it was harsh that Xun Can got hit for "mourning to death" as there are a number of reasons he could have died (wrecked body, simple matter of natural causes, time travelling murder) but the Chinese had a point in that one's frame of mind affects health. He could well have mourned himself into bad health and death and I'm open to that. Nowadays, that could make a good tragic movie though :)
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Re: Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in 3rd Century AD C

Unread postby WeiWenDi » Sat Mar 07, 2015 1:41 am

Xu Yuan wrote:I'd heard of this book before and it always seemed rather interesting, but I've never really gone further than that. Thank you for the summaries though, it is interesting to see life from the perspective of a man on the fringes of the court to become one of the main influences of the new regime. Also it is about the descendant of my personal personage of the era (with Liu Yu a close second).

I find it interesting that the Xun's quickly flocked to the Sima banner and it makes a good deal of sense that they would hold resent after Xun Yu's mysterious death after Xun Yu spoke out against Cao Cao's planned ascension.


Glad it's of interest! :)

As a family, I'm not sure how accurate it is to say the Xuns flocked 'quickly' to the Sima banner. Certainly Xun Yi did, and the funerary inscription for Xun Yu did leave some flex room for the Xuns to manoeuvre politically in case they fell out of favour with the Caos. And certainly there was some bad blood there because of what happened to Xun Yu. But you have to remember that the dynastic alliances between the Cao and Xun families didn't just disappear overnight - Xun Can wasn't the only Cao in-law in the family.

Also, Xun Xu himself became distinguished by his loyalty to Cao Shuang, even when Cao Shuang was already dead and the Simas were fully in power. The early Jin dynasts were fairly careful politically; they wanted people on their side who had proven their loyalty to the Cao family, but who were neither Cao zealots nor military threats to their power. I thought it was pretty remarkable, actually, how carefully-targeted, small-scale and conservative the Jin political purges were.

Dong Zhou wrote:No problem.

For the record, I wouldn't have argued the Cao's were Legalist but simply borrowed elements from that, Confucianism and quite frankly, whatever was practical. I would maintain that the Cao's had a tendency to be free thinking and radical in private but could be... traditionalist in public life. Cao Rui particularly.

Your first paragraph on chapter 3 doesn't surprise me, it makes sense. Just hadn't thought about it much


I'm more arguing against the SGYY 'read' of Cao Cao, as well as the traditional Chinese interpretation of him as a man who instituted Legalist political reforms particularly in his hiring practices. That whole angle struck me as misguided once I started reading Cao Cao's poetry. Maybe there's a case to be made there, but the informal, free-flowing way the Caos ran their court had far more to do with Huang-Lao Daoist imagery, symbolism and ideals (with even a bit of Zhuangzi thrown in for good measure) than it did with Li Si or Qin Shihuang's emphasis on theunapproachability of the all-powerful state.

Dong Zhou wrote:I don't think they were anti-love either. The wording can, and may indeed have been, seem snobbish in "not the right type of girl" (I personally quite like the theory that she inherited her father's temper and that was a big part of the disapproval) but that is hardly something modern society is innocent of. I just think the initial impression, which I certainly had, looks bad for the Confucian scholars but I do see where they come from now.


No doubt there's an element of that in their judgement of Xun Can's wife. And his devotion to / defence of his wife actually might have been part of the reason Xun was so emphatic on physical beauty being more important than the traditional Confucian wifely virtues, even though his Lady Cao was later alluded to as being pretty-but-not-that-beautiful. (I'll have to look up the reference later, though.)

Dong Zhou wrote:I simply think it was harsh that Xun Can got hit for "mourning to death" as there are a number of reasons he could have died (wrecked body, simple matter of natural causes, time travelling murder) but the Chinese had a point in that one's frame of mind affects health. He could well have mourned himself into bad health and death and I'm open to that. Nowadays, that could make a good tragic movie though :)


Quick, somebody call up Zhang Yimou! We've got our next 十面埋伏 right here! :D
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