Yang Xiong (53 BCE–18 CE)

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(53 BCE18 CE)

Having achieved his youthful ambition to become court poet, Yang Xiong spent his thirties and forties producing the occasional fu (rhapsodic poems) the throne required. Sometime around his fiftieth year, perhaps in reaction to the factionalized politics at the capital, Yang came to disparage his own poetic genius, equating the verbal pyrotechnics with childish games injurious to the moral process. In consequence, Yang turned to composing and then defending three works, the Taixuan jing (Canon of Supreme Mystery ; c. 4 CE), the Fayan (Model Sayings ; c. 12 CE), and the Fangyan (Dialect Words ; unfinished?). Creating these new "classics" (jing ) required greater ingenuity on Yang's part than writing fu, for Yang sought to capture both the inner message and the outer form of the canonical works: The Mystery was patterned after the Yijing (Classic of Changes ); the Model Sayings, after the Lunyu (Analects ); and the Fangyan claimed inspiration from the ancient Chou transcriptions of the Odes and possibly also the Erya, an early word list ascribed to Confucius. By such bold attempts at "renewing the old," Yang would restore the authentic teachings of the sages.

In imitation of the Yijing, an abstruse divination text turned philosophical work by the addition of "Ten Wings," the Taixuan jing unfolds on two levels: For the ordinary reader, its divinatory formulae prescribe the virtues of humility, respect, and cautiousness that make for social order and personal safety. More sophisticated readers correlate a series of vignettes drawn from daily life and keyed to the calendar with graphic emblems, cryptic summaries, and Yang's own auto-commentaries to discover the complex relations binding human conduct and preordained fate. In Yang's view, four main factors determine the quality of life: Time, Tools, Position, and Virtue. Although the workings of fate (ming )equated in Yang's work with Timelie outside human control, time's depredations may be offset to some extent by other factors under better human control. Using the most advanced scientific theories of his time, Yang sketches the finely tuned cycles of yin/yang, and the Five Phases, relating them to decision-making and the hierarchical orders of civilization. In outlining these regularities, Yang touches upon the main topics of Han debate, including the existence of ghosts and providence, the role of divination and the divine, the origins and stages of the universe, and definitions of "good rule."

If the single most important theme of Yang Xiong's Mystery is the interaction between human will and divine fate, the Fayan sees single-minded devotion to the Good leading to an exquisite appreciation of the social and cosmic orders which itself constitutes the highest happiness of which humans are capable. In its brief dialogues, the Fayan constructs a compelling argument in favor of this inherently unprovable assertion by juxtaposing hypothetical cases with the examples of famous men and women, so as to assert three linked propositions: First, a crucial distinction exists between popular "heroes" and current officeholders and the "true" Ru faithful to Confucian ideals who neither pursue material success nor confuse the subtle Way with factual knowledge or rule-making. Second, the very process of learning to intuit the sages' intent so hones the learner's being that it gradually experiences the most exquisite pleasure known to humankind, a kind of moral connoisseurship called "the ultimate in discrimination" (zhishi ) (chap. 6). Third, this therapeutic and pleasurable journey toward Goodness is the only sure reward for an expenditure of effort, as the pursuit of Goodness is "easy": it entails no trickery or treachery; it imparts mental equilibrium along with an ability to understand and predict human behavior (chaps. 2, 9); and it reveals an entire world marvelously balanced.

Given the broad strokes of the Mystery and the sweeping claims of the Fayan, some find it hard to place the Fangyan, a meticulous record of dialect expressions within the extended Chinese cultural sphere. The melodic patterns of human speechas well as musical rhythms, the calligraphic forms of written characters, and the geographical configurations of the earthintimate the divine order. Word patterns in particular fascinate Yang, for "words are the music of the heart-mind (xin ); and writings, its painting" (Fayan, chap. 5). Yang's highest goal was to employ artistic forms to excite the sensibilities so that they might become more receptive to the serious business of moral edification. Therefore, Yang was the first to develop theories of aesthetic concepts and the hermeneutic enterprise, then to demonstrate the emotive power of language through his own rhetorical masterpieces.

During his lifetime, devoted disciples regarded Yang as Master, though some contemporaries mistrusted Yang's incredible versatility. Following his death, Yang was elevated to the pantheon by many. Han Yu (768842), for example, named Yang Xiong as the single master qualified to "transmit the [Confucian] Way" after Mencius; Sima Guang (10181086) went further, insisting that neither Mencius nor Xunzi could compare with Yang. However, some Song thinkers, especially Zhu Xi (11301200), condemned Yang for his eclecticism, his arrogance in daring to create classics, his willingness to serve two dynastic courts, and his outright rejection of the Mencian theory of human nature. Only with the Qing Evidential Research movement did interest in Yang's work revive.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Chinese Philosophy; Confucius; Han Yu; Hermeneutics; Mencius; Time; Xunzi; Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi).


works by yang xiong

Fang-yen. Annotated and translated by Paul L. M. Serruys as The Chinese Dialects of Han Time According to Fang Yen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959.

Fayan yishu. Compiled by Wang Rongbao. Beijing: Zhonghua, 1987.

Taixuan jiaoyi. Compiled by Zheng Wangeng. Beijing: Shifan daxue, 1989. The best edition of the Taixuan jing.

Fayan zhu. Annotated by Han Jing. Beijing: Zhonghua, 1992.

The Canon of Supreme Mystery. Translated with commentary by Michael Nylan. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Fayan. Translated by Michael Nylan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, forthcoming.

works about yang xiong

Knechtges, David R. The Han Rhapsody: A Study of the fu of Yang Hsiung, 53 B.C.A.D. 18. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Pan Ku. The Han shu Biography of Yang Hsiung (53 B.C.A.D. 18). Translated and annotated by David R. Knechtges. Tempe: Arizona State University Press, 1982.

Michael Nylan (2005)