Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ouyang Xiu and One-Pointed Concentration

Given the overwhelming response I got for my previous post about Shusun Tong, I know you are all waiting with bated breath to hear Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 (also spelled Ou-yang Hsiu, pronounced "Oh-yahng she-oh") give another side of the Eastern Classicist ethos in his biography of Feng Dao. (Seriously, my blog is now the tops for English-language references to Shusun Tong on Google. Pretty impressive, eh?)

Well, here it is -- and I'll even make a point about Lutheranism at the end . . .

Feng Dao 馮道 was a Confucian official of the tenth century. This was a time when North China ran through five dynasties in as many decades, while ten kingdoms divided up the southern half of the country.* While the generals were fighting for the throne, the Confucian officials were trying to maintain some kind of order. Ouyang Xiu (that's a page from his collected works in the picture) was writing a century later when the Heartland, China, had been almost all unified under the Northern Song. From the chaos of ruptured family relations and shattered dynasties he wanted to learn something about how for over a half-century men had been incapable of escaping this nightmare and returning to the Way set forth in the Classics.

As Ouyang Xiu begins his biography -- and I cite here Richard Davis's distinguished translation, pp. 438-443 -- Feng Dao appears to be the exemplary official writers of his own time had taken him to be. Ouyang Xiu writes:

Dao*** could be frugal to the point of severe self-deprivation. When the princes of Jinn and Liang [rival commanders, one a Shatuo Turk and the other a renegade peasant rebel, fighting over the corpse of the defunct Tang dynasty] faced off from opposite sides of the Yellow River, Dao lived in a thatched hut within the military compound and slept simply on bundles of straw, rather than on a sleeping mat. And whenever receiving a salary, he found quiet contentment in lavishing it on servants, permitting them to enjoy the same food and wine as he. Commanders then given to abducting the beautiful girls of the vanquished often presented some to Dao, who could not well reject them, so he would furnish a separate room as accommodation while inquiring about their original father or husband, discreetly returning the women.

Taking leave as academician to mourn for his father, he found his native Jingcheng plagued for years with famine, so Dao relinquished all his possessions to relieve the villagers, retreating to the wilderness to till the land and haul his own firewood. When others let their own lands grow wild or lacked the strength to till themselves, he would quietly proceed at nighttime to till for them. Such persons might later express embarrassed gratitude, yet Dao saw nothing particularly noble in his deeds.

But as Ouyang Xiu goes on, we notice Feng seems to be lacking something:

Dao served Emperor Mingzong [ethnically, a Shatuo Turk, and emperor of the Latter Tang dynasty] as minister for more than ten years, and after Mingzong expired, he ministered to Emperor Min. In the wake of the Prince of Liu's rebellion at Fengxiangfu, and Emperor Min's flight to Weizhou, Dao led official multitudes in welcoming the usurping Prince to the capital. The Prince became Emperor Fei, Dao ministering to him. Emperor Min was still alive and at Weizhou at the time of Fei's accession, but perished in an act of regicide three days later. Emperor Fei subsequently transferred Dao locally as governor of Tongzhou, extending honors as duke a year later. Dao likewise served the the Latter Jinn** after its conquest of the previous Latter Tang** dynasty, the Jinn monarch, Gaozu, naming him dignitary for public works with ministerial powers, honorary dignitary of education, and concurrent director of the Secretariat, while elevating his noble status to Duke of Lu. He ministered to Emperor Chu once Gaozu passed away, receiving honors as grand marshal and Duke of Yan as noble rank; reassignment to the Kuanggguo and later Weisheng governorships later ensued.

Feng Dao even served the Kitans [a Mongolic people who had invaded from the northeast] after they had annihilated the Jinn, meeting [their ruler] Yelü Deguang for an audience in the capital . . . Dao followed Deguang upon his return north, as far as Changshan then reverted to the new Latter Han** dynasty upon the accession of its Emperor Gaozu, serving as grand preceptor with the prestige-rank of fengchaoqing. He further served the Zhou Dynasty when it conquered the Han, Emperor Taizu of Zhou** honoring him as grand preceptor and concurrent palace secretary.

Now after this recital, the historian thinks it justified to tip his hand and draw some conclusions:

A youthful Feng Dao succeeding in making a name for himself by dint of contrived manners, and as high official, strove to impress others with his staid demeanor. Having served four royal houses and ten sovereigns, he increasingly presumed upon bygone merits to glorify himself. Yet courtiers of the age, the wise and witless alike, all celebrated Dao as senior statesman and heaped praises on him. Yelü Deguang once asked of him, "How are we to render assistance to the commoners throughout the world?" Dao responded with a riddle, "Times like ours would be hard to salvage even for the Buddha, should he appear. Only a man like Your Majesty will do." The Kitan decision not to exterminate the commoners of the Heartland [that is, North China] is uniformly attributed to the goodwill fostered by Dao through such deeds -- deeds of flattery.

To do Feng Dao justice, Ouyang Xiu explains how he discouraged at least for a few months the Zhou dynasty's founder, a successful general, from usurping the throne and deposing his Han dynasty predecessor.

Having once thwarted Taizu in his ambitions, Dao tends by observers to be exonerated of complicity in the demise of the Jinn and Han dynasties. Yet he never seemed especially upset at witnessing the death of rulers or the dissolution of empires.

Then Ouyang cites Feng Dao's own words to draw a portrait of him that makes him the true Lutheran living out the doctrine of vocation, doing his duty while recognizing that the good things of this world were created for our enjoyment. He draws this picture -- and shudders with revulsion:

In a world beleaguered by the universal chaos and alien invasion that gravely imperiled the fates of all living souls, Dao adopted "Old Man of Eternal Joy" as his pen name. He even composed a letter of several hundred words celebrating service to four different houses, plus the Kitans, only to find glory in the offices and titles acquired. "I have been filial to family and loyal to dynasty" he proclaims, "and experienced being a son, brother, official, teacher, husband, and father, as well as a begetter of sons and grandsons. In occasionally opening a tome or drinking a draft, but also in consuming food, savoring songs, or enjoying human beauty, I have always found contentment with the times. And with age, I found contentment within. What joy could be greater?" And so goes the language of his autobiography!

A spirit naturally Lutheran! Enjoying the good things of life, trying to help out where he can, and bending with the times. Whichever general murders the emperor, he will find Feng Dao, the truly conscientious civil servant doing his best to administer government in a fair and humane fashion. But whether the dynasty lasts or not, whether one general kills the emperor and takes his place -- that's not my department!

To Ouyang Xiu, Feng Dao had everything but principle. Feng Dao was proud that he had survived and even thrived in an age of chaos, without losing his own rectitude -- to Ouyang Xiu it was too much flexible bending with the times that made the chaos. Looking back from the stable Song dynasty, he saw men of the Five Dynasties had allowed chaos to happen because they refused to follow the principle of loyalty:

Without integrity everything is acceptable, without shame anything is done. When ordinary men are so disposed every sort of catastrophic turmoil and devastating defeat can occur. Worse yet, when high officials will accept or do anything, chaos for the world and peril to empire can scarcely be eluded.

Indeed to his shame the generals and vigilantes were more principled than the scholars, whom the classics should have trained:

For the entire Five Dynasties era, I found three officials of complete virtue and fifteen to die honorably in service -- rather than serve the enemy of their lord. It is perplexing that a great many literati presented themselves as Confucians and claimed to study antiquity, enjoyed the remuneration of mankind -- by receiving a public salary -- and served its empire. However, inasmuch as those to act on principles of righteous loyalty hailed solely from the ranks of military leaders and warriors, it only affirms the total absence of peers within Confucian ranks. Did literati of less lofty virtue so disdain the times that they dared not surface, their revulsion for the prevailing tumult notwithstanding? Or were monarchs then too undeserving to reach them?

To illustrate his point, Ouyang Xiu presents a story of the widow of an official returning home from a distant assignment of her husband's where she had been when he died. She travelled with her son and the corpse of her husband to bury at their home town. If one woman can evince such moral girth, he argued, then surely the age produced others gone unnoticed by history:

Heading eastward, she passed through Kaifengfu and stopped at an inn, where the keeper refused her lodging owing to the suspicious spectacle of an unaccompanied woman with child in hand. [Was she a prostitute? perhaps he was thinking]. The sun had already set and Woman Li refused to leave, so the innkeeper grabbed her arm to evict her. The woman now let out a long wail of protest in peering at the heavens, declaring, "How have I, the wife of another man, failed to protect my chastity by allowing this arm to be touched by another? And surely, I cannot permit a single arm to defile my entire body!" So, drawing an axe, she lopped off her own arm. [In a twisted kind of way, this reminds you of something, doesn't it? See here and here] Roadside observers then surrounded and comforted her, some pointing their fingers accusingly at the innkeeper as others wept. Upon learning of the matter, the custodian of Kaifengfu informed the court and tapped official funds to provide medicines to cover the wound. He extended generous relief to the Woman Li, and had the inkeeper flogged with a light rod.

Ouyang Xiu comments:
We lament: Literati lacking similar regard for their moral repute, men suffering shame for the simple sake of survival should be considerably ashamed to learn of this woman's integrity.

A while ago, I present two portraits, of a Lutheran champ and a Lutheran chump. What I was hoping one of my commenters would point out is that the Lutheran chump seemed, well, much more Lutheran. Fond of the good life, genuinely kind and humanitarian, aiming for peace, wary of pressing his opinion on things above his pay grade, Elector John George was a wonderful person and a complete failure either as a defender of German rights or of Lutheran existence. As for the champ, Gustavus Adolphus, with all his activity, his combination of soaring rhetoric and willingness to see blood shed in rivers, his intensity and restlessness -- in general it strikes me, as it did his contemporaries, as vaguely Reformed, in temperament, if not in doctrine.

The temperament advocated by Lutheran leaders savors powerfully of Feng Dao. Uwe Siemon-Netto has been calling for Lutheran political leaders in America. He has set before us a portrait of an exemplary Lutheran:

There is no Lutheran law – no Christian law – against earning a decent wage. We are not called to asceticism. We are not called to eschew a good glass of wine, a tasty meal, the blessings of a lovely home and an excellent car.

You can be rich and still heed your calling out of love for your neighbor, centering on the You rather than the Me. One of those was my former boss, the German newspaper magnate Axel Springer, a confessional Lutheran. He was a self-made billionaire.

He owned a villa in the best section of Hamburg, a castle in northern Germany, a manor house in Berlin, a sumptuous property on Sylt Island in the North Sea, an island in Greece, a ski lodge in St. Moritz and a town house in London. Se he was no pauper.

Still, Axel Springer bore a heavy cross. In the 1960s and 1970s he was subjected to terrorist attacks, and constant demonstrations by extreme left-wingers, not because of his ample bank account but for the unfashionable things he did for the wellbeing of his readers, his staff, and his fellow Germans, and the world community.

Then the world thought Berlin was lost, he moved his company headquarters from Hamburg right to the Berlin Wall. When all others seemed prepared to write off 17 million East Germans, he set himself up for public ridicule by campaigning relentlessly for Germany’s reunification.

When others paid no more than lip service to the reconciliation between Germans and Jews, he pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into this cause.

He donated huge amounts of money to Israel and made every one of his journalists sign a covenant promising to work for this reconciliation – and for a transatlantic partnership with the United States, a partnership the German left tried to undermine since 1968.

Axel Springer was clearly a Lutheran with a sense of calling, working out of love for his fellow man.

As far as personality goes, I was born to be, at my best, a John George, a Feng Dao. I look at Woman Li and see an escapee from the insane asylum. On this question, I have long ago recognized that I don't have freedom of the will.

But maybe it's my "hard Puritan" ancestry, but somehow I can't get it out of my head that people who make other people uncomfortable, who cut off their hands and put out their right eyes, and do justice and let the heavens fall (so often on the heads of people who had nothing to do with the matter at all), who seem to be afflicted by principles the rest of us have only a nodding acquaintance with, that such people are the kind who can actually listen to Jesus and do what He says.

At least, that is, when they're not actually insane.

*Curious sidelight: three of those dynasties were founded by commanders of the Shatuo Turks whose descendants later converted to Christianity in the eleventh century, a story I've written about here and here.

** Tang, Jinn (Tsin or Chin) Han, Zhou (or Chou): if you know a little of Chinese history, you may recognize these as names of great dynasties -- but in fact these are all pathetic epigones, who adopted the dynasty names of glorious predecessors to catch a gleam of their reflected glory.

***Dao by the way is his given name. Chinese put the family name first, but then use only a person's given name for abbreviation in writing.

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