Does Anyone Create?

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).

3 responses to “Does Anyone Create?

  1. An interesting difference between literary works (fiction, lyric poetry) and philosophical, normative, or in general “non-fictional” works, is that with regard to the latter it’s easier to grasp a sense of ‘zuo’ between the absolute and the trivial: one might hold that a writer engages in “zuo” insofar as the claims she proposes disagree with received views/norms. I wonder whether there’s any sign of such a sense in Wang Chong’s piece or in other texts.

    I asked once on WW&W whether there was in early China any explicit reference to or attention to “fictional literature” as a genre or concept. There wasn’t a reply, so I’m asking again here. Does anybody know?

    A priori, another idea that one could imagine to be signaled by the term ‘zuo’ is a distinction between (something like) normative realism and its denial: that is, the distinction between thinking that norms are things to discover and thinking that they are things to make. Thus someone who proposed to “make” norms could be thought to be neglecting the truth of moral realism (even though realism doesn’t actually imply that one can’t make new norms; cf. realism about houses).

    But the fact that “zuo” is standardly contrasted with “shu” suggests rather that the whole picture behind the two terms is as friendly to anti-realism as to realism. As a whole menu, the terms suggest that norms are like commands: they are to be made and then transmitted, and the idea that they could be discovered without being made seems to be off the radar entirely. The problem with “making” seems only to be that some parties don’t have the standing or ability to do it.

    It’s often thought that when Confucius says at LY 15.29, “人能弘道,非道弘人 [people can widen the way, the way can’t widen people],” what he means is that people can make some norms. I have argued against this reading elsewhere; I propose instead that he just means it’s important to take the initiative to lead by example (cf. 13.1, Mencius 7B21).

  2. Hi Alexus. Wang, you inform us, considers two senses of ‘zuo’ – a trivially weak and an impossibly strong sense: hence two non-starter candidates for what people might commonly mean by ‘zuo.’ Here’s how he defines one:

    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).

    That (at least the first half in your translation; I’m not sure what to make of 端 and 更) is exactly how I would have defined the weakest possible sense of ‘zuo’. So I suppose we should read the first eight characters in his definition as nothing but a way of pointing to the examples and saying “something as new as these” – i.e. purely a matter of degree, a dimension on which he seems to choose a vague and arbitrary point. I’m not sure how such a manifestly arbitrary line could have seemed to him to catch the essence of idea or perfect ‘zuo’, so I start to wonder what was moving him.

    Other questions that cross my mind are:

    Did the idea of using the term “前始未有” in a definition lead Wang to try to note in any explicit way a distinction between types and individuals?

    Did his point about literature lead him to formulate a distinction between form and matter?

  3. Hi Bill-
    good questions! Not sure about his views on fiction–Wang in general tends to take a very literalist approach to the works he evaluates. His criticisms sometimes border on the absurd because he tends to read everything as expression of statements about states-of-affairs in the world, even some things that seem clearly symbolic, mythical, or (perhaps) fictional (in a literary sense).

    It’s not clear quite where Wang would fall on the question of normativity–although if I had to guess I’d say he’d probably accept normative realism.

    On types and individuals–one of the features of my own reading of Wang is that he did make such a distinction, but it’s hard to show he’s explicit about this. He says a number of things that suggest it, but it never really moves beyond the suggestive.

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