Concepts in Motion – Rethinking the Dynamics of Change and Changing Dynamics in Early Chinese Thought, Politics, and Intellectual Culture

Title: 1240 | Concepts in Motion – Rethinking the Dynamics of Change and Changing Dynamics in Early Chinese Thought, Politics, and Intellectual Culture
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: Philosophy
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Lisa Indraccolo, University of Zurich, Switzerland (organizer, presenter)
Andrew Meyer, Brooklyn College, United States (presenter)
Masayuki Sato, National Taiwan University, Taiwan (presenter)
Vincent Leung, Lingnan University, Hong Kong (presenter)
Constance Cook, Lehigh University, United States (chair)
Shirley Chan, Macquarie University, Australia (discussant)


In early Chinese sources, the multifaceted concept of “change” is at the core of a pervasive intellectual discourse (Cheng 2003). Emphasis is placed on its relationship with time and, consequently, on situational adaptivity, timeliness and appropriateness of moral or political action (Hon 2003; Huang & Henderson 2006). The proposed panel explores the dynamics of discontinuity in pre-imperial and early imperial China, focusing on historical and socio-political change at the macro-level, and moral or psychological change within an individual at the micro-level, and their mutual entanglements (Puett 2001). It aims to disambiguate different types of “change” studying the evolution in their conceptualizations across the ages in different kinds of sources, including historiographical records, dynastic histories, and philosophical “Masters” texts. The panel brings together both junior and senior experts in different disciplines – history, philosophy, intellectual and conceptual history. The panelists approach the issue from different angles. Andrew Meyer explores the re-reading of the past through ideologically-informed interpretations of historical change; Masayuki Sato explores the concepts of biàn 變, huà 化, and chéng 誠 in the Xúnzǐ 荀子 and the Zhōngyōng 中庸 from a contrastive perspective; Vincent Leung addresses historical change and the rhetoric of discontinuity in the political program of the Hánfēizǐ 韩非子; Lisa Indraccolo focuses on the socio-political aspects of two distinctive terms for “change” (tōng 通 and biàn 變). It is hoped that the panel will bring fresh insights to our understanding of the intellectual dynamics of change in early Chinese thought.

Panel Abstracts:
Times Are A-Changing – Concepts of "Evolution" and "Revolution" in Early Chinese Thought
The present paper studies two distinct though closely interconnected and, to a certain extent, complementary concepts of “change” employed in Classical Chinese philosophy to describe two different ways in which both natural and human phenomena can potentially morph in time and space (Needham 1965) : a) tōng 通 “evolution,” the smooth and relatively controlled – though unrestrained by external forces, happening without constriction or coercion – transition of one state or condition into another conceptually contiguous state of being; and b) biàn 變 “revolution,” the abrupt, often violent subversion or sudden overturning of one relatively stable state, possibly through external intervention, and its fractured transition into an opposite or starkly contrasting, discontinuous state (Tian 2000, Cai 2001). Tōngbiàn 通變 as a binomial is well-established in late-imperial literature. However, it is fairly uncommon in early Chinese texts, where it is occasionally used in combination with similar binary oppositional pairs, and especially with yīnyáng 陰陽, underlying its origin and initial conceptual elaboration within the Yì 易 tradition. Starting from the paradigmatic description of the concepts of tōng and biàn as two facets of a same coin introduced in the Xìcí 繫辭 commentary to the Changes, this paper explores the multifaceted meanings that these two terms assume in selected pertinent case studies drawn from pre-imperial received philosophical texts. Aim is to explore the political rather than the cosmological significance of these concepts, with attention paid to the ongoing discourse on the dynamics of socio-political change in the early Chinese philosophical context.

"Shifting times 時移": Engaging and Concealing Historical Change in Early Chinese Discourse
The Warring States and early imperial era saw rapid socio-political, economic and cultural change transpire in the larger Sinic world. I will explore the ways in which early sources reflect and respond to this process. When we examine the written records of the period, we see evidence of a variety of strategies for engaging historical change. In many instances it is acknowledged, confronted or analyzed, as (for example) in texts that note the devolution of power from the Son of Heaven, to the feudal lords, and further down the ladder of social hierarchy. At other points historical change is deliberately elided, occluded or concealed. This can be seen in the attribution of writings to figures that are anachronistically ancient, or in the evocation of persons or conditions of an “antiquity” that is fabricated to meet current agendas. In many sources we see the projection of manifestly innovative values or institutions into the distant past, thus effacing the evolutionary process from which they were produced. These mechanisms of acknowledgment and concealment are not divisible along partisan or ideological lines. Virtually all early sources manifest examples of both processes at work, sometimes within the same passage or textual unit. This essay juxtaposes and compares examples of these formulations by way of investigating what they can teach us about early Chinese historiography. Are the choices for engagement/concealment purely rhetorical, or do they express particular understandings of the nature of time? Do these figurations reveal a general orientation toward historical change and its significance?

The Virtue of Mastering Changes: The Concepts of Bian, Hua, and Cheng in the Xunzi
This presentation aims to elucidate the characteristics of three concepts in the Book of Xunzi –bian 變, hua 化, and cheng 誠 – within the intellectual context of the Warring States period, which is marked by the mutual influence and synthesis of various conceptual terms across texts. The particular focus of this paper is on the relationship between the idea of “change” in the Xunzi and the concept of “cheng” in the Zhongyong 中庸. The presenter will point out that, in contrast with the Zhongyong, where the idea of change only denotes that of people or animals, the idea of change in the Xunzi is twofold: it implies the ability to transform oneself into a virtuous person, but also to bring oneself into accord with any environmental change. Such comprehensiveness enabled Xun Zi to consolidate the foundations of his moral philosophy, which then fostered the formation and circulation of the idea of “change and transformation” (bianhua 變化) as witnessed in the “Xicizhuan” 繫辭傳 commentary to the Book of Changes 周易.

Han Feizi and the Imagination of Ruptures in the Late Warring States Period
When Han Fei gazed upon the vast landscape of the past, all he saw were ruptures. For him, between the past and present, there always existed a yawning gap. To what ideological ends did he find it useful or necessary to insist upon this vision of the past as a series of radical historical discontinuities? How did it figure in his imagination of political order and relations of power? In this paper, I will explore the politics of historical change of the Late Warring States, by placing the philosophy of Han Feizi in the context of the lively debate over the nature of historical change in this period. In various ethical writings (e.g. Mengzi, Neiye) and cosmogonic narratives (e.g. Laozi, Fanwu liuxing) of the long third century BCE, we can see anxious attempts to construct ideological entities (e.g. the “Way,” the “heart-mind”) that are defined by their resistance to or transcendence over historical change. Against this fantasy of transhistorical constancy, we also hear dissenting voices such as those of Shang Yang in the Shangjunshu and parts of the Lüshi chunqiu, that argued for the urgency in recognising radical ruptures between past and present. In the Han Feizi, interestingly, we can find engagement with both sides of this contentious dialogue. He did not simply subscribe to one and reject the other, but negotiated between the two positions to arrive at a complex argument for what remains, if the world must always be changing

This panel is on Thursday - Session 03 - Room 7

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