I’ve been thinking recently (as always) about Wang Chong and philosophical dispute in the Han dynasty, and my most recent reading of Wang’s 對作 (“Replies on Creation”) essay in the Lunheng coincided nicely with my reading of Jiyuan Yu’s recent post on zuo (creation) and shu (transmission) in the Analects at Warp, Weft, and Way, which suggests that shu is not merely a secondary and descriptive project of recounting earlier teachings, but something akin to philosophia in the Ancient Greek tradition. Culture and tradition give us zuo, according to Yu’s interpretation, and thinking and reasoning within this tradition using its tools and following its lead, is shu.
In Wang’s essay on zuo, he’s mainly concerned with defending himself against the (presumed) accusation that he’s engaging in zuo with his writing of the essays of the Lunheng, and thus doing something unacceptable. Interestingly, Wang’s view in Dui Zuo is similar to Yu’s position in that it takes zuo to be something culturally foundational, but (unlike Yu’s position), Wang argues that no literary work is zuo in the problematic sense, and that every literary work is zuo in a trivial sense. What Wang attempts to do, in the end, is to shift the focus of the dispute away from the consideration of whether a literary work is or is not zuo to the more important consideration (according to Wang, at least) of whether a literary work contains truths (實 shi) or falsehoods (虛 xu).
The reason Wang’s view on zuo vs. shu (transmission) here interests me is because it puts pressure on the view that common Han dynasty view (and one that spanned most of the history of Chinese thought) that zuo is problematic. Wang argues that the view that one engages in zuo when composing a new literary work is either trivially true or necessarily false.
Wang’s argument for the latter is basically a version of “there is nothing new under the sun.” Every literary work relies on the styles, concepts, and views of others in the past and present, and thus no literary work can be completely innovative. According to Wang, one only engages in zuo if one creates something that did not exist before, as in the case of the first creation of writing or chariots (造端更為，前始未有，若倉頡作書、奚仲作車是也). His use of non-literary examples here is meant in part to show that no literary work can meet such a standard. The invention of writing itself may have been zuo, but nothing written is zuo.
Wang’s argument for the triviality of zuo in a different sense is simple. If we understand zuo in the above sense, it is clearly impossible for any literary work to be zuo. But if we think of it in a more conventional sense, in which to engage in creation is simply to produce something new through one’s own efforts, then clearly any literary work is zuo. Even a commentary on the Analects by a devoted Confucian would be zuo in this sense.
While we might take issue with Wang’s two senses of zuo (that is, it seems Wang’s two senses don’t exhaust all the possibilities of what one might mean by ‘zuo‘), the view is nonetheless interesting because of the pressure it puts on the position that zuo is problematic. What is it about zuo, we might imagine Wang saying, that is so problematic? It clearly can’t be the trivial sense of zuo that people object to. Presumably, what one might find objectionable about attempts to engage in zuo is that they are unnecessary or unwise given that there is already sufficient material available to us (from the sages) in the realm of ethics, politics, or whatever else. To engage in zuo is to try to “reinvent the wheel.” What Wang does in Dui Zuo is to (among other things) point out that no one in the history of literature has actually done this or even attempted to do this (even the sages themselves–who related norms they didn’t invent through writing them).