Before Confucius: Studies in the Creation of the Chinese Classics

Edward L Shaughnessy. SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. 262 pp. Paperback $19.95. ISBN 0-7914-3378-1.


This volume collects most of the individual essays written by Edward Shaughnessy, professor of East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago, since the publication of his outstanding PhD dissertation, 'The Composition of the Zhouyi' (Stanford, 1983). It includes two chapters each on the Zhouyi (Yijing), Shangshu, and Shijing and one chapter each on the Yi Zhou shu and Zhushu jinian.

Besides these essays, Shaughnessy has made immense contributions to the field of early China studies through his authorship of the authoritative and indispensable handbook 'Sources of Western Zhou History: Inscribed Bronze Vessels' (University of California Press, 1991) and chapters on the Yijing and Shangshu in 'Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide' (Society for the Study of Early China, 1993). He has also edited the journal 'Early China', the Mawangdui manuscript of the Yijing (published as 'I Ching: The Classic of Changes' [Ballantine Books, 1997]), and 'New Sources of Early Chinese History: An Introduction to the Reading of Inscriptions and Manuscripts' (Society for the Study of Early China, 1997).

It is therefore with trepidation that I, a student of the Yijing who prefers lining the well to muddying the water, find it necessary to take issue with some of Shaughnessy's historical methodologies. Though I have misgivings about both of Shaughnessy's Zhouyi essays, in this short review I will concentrate on only one of them – his positing of a historical 'meaning' of hexagram and line statements in the oldest layers of the Yijing text. Unhappily, Shaughnessy bases his major interpretive ploy on a sand castle built in the 1920s by the Chinese contextual critic Gu Jiegang. In doing so, he helps perpetuate a twentieth-century myth about the Zhou dynasty that is at least as pernicious as the traditional myths that Gu and his fellow iconoclasts attempted to destroy.

Gu himself was cautious when he tossed off his suggestion, but Shaughnessy has intercepted it and carried it to the one-yard line. As Shaughnessy notes in the first essay in this book, 'Marriage, Divorce and Revolution: Reading between the Lines of the Book of Changes,' Gu described his Zhouyi and Shijing interpretation as little more than a 'guess' (p 16). That is an accurate description, though I would be more inclined to describe it as a fantasy. But in Shaughnessy's hands the 'guess' becomes both an 'insight' (p 21) and, in the introductory preview, historical fact (p 6).

What is this guess-become-insight-become-fact? It is Gu's juxtaposing of lines from the Zhouyi with lines from the Shijing, or Book of Songs, to reach the conclusion, in Shaughnessy's elaboration, that the founder of the Zhou dynasty, King Wen, married the daughter (or sister or cousin; translations and interpretations vary) of the Shang king Di Yi; that the marriage was a failure; and that King Wen then married a consort who became the mother of Wen's successor, King Wu.

It must be noted that it was only by connecting vague statements about the marriage of Di Yi's daughter in hexagram lines of the Book of Changes to equally vague statements about the marriage of King Wen in the Book of Songs that Gu was able to reach his ingenious and novel conclusion. He did this even though nothing in the two texts themselves indicates that they have any relationship to each other.

Shaughnessy, transmuting Gu's guess into fact, writes in his introduction that his first essay is based on 'one historical vignette mentioned in the line statements of the Classic of Changes, the marriage of King Wen of Zhou … to a daughter of the penultimate Shang king Di Yi …' (p 6). It will come as a surprise, then, to unwary readers of the essay that nowhere in the line statements of the Book of Changes is any reference made to King Wen's supposed marriage to Di Yi's daughter. Only if one accepts Gu's connection of the hexagram line statements to his fantastical interpretation of lines from the Book of Songs can one reach Shaughnessy's conclusion.

But why dwell on this matter? Don't we all sometimes grasp at straws when constructing elaborate theories? Shouldn't a reviewer allow an author his foibles?

No. Shaughnessy himself states (p 7) that the use he makes of Gu's exegesis and of more traditional exegeses 'is a paradigm of what I have tried to do in all of these studies – using new evidence to reconsider, while trying to remain faithful to traditional understanding.' That is an admirable goal, but if the paradigm is founded on unreliable 'new evidence,' how sturdy can it be?

A more level-headed view of Gu's work is given by K C Wu in 'The Chinese Heritage' (Crown, 1982), a well-thought-out presentation of early Chinese history. Wu, a prominent Guomindang politician in the first half of this century, quarreled with his superior, Chiang Kai-shek, and retired to a life of historical study in the United States. His work appears to have garnered little respect in American academic circles since he was out of the loop, but he was present in China when Gu began publishing his theories and was a friend of Fu Sinian, the respected critic who believed Gu's guess.

In an excellent appendix, 'On the Usability of Ancient Chinese Writings as Sources of History,' Wu describes the iconoclasm adopted by himself and other intellectuals of the time:

When Gu Jiegang published his first volume of 'Gushibian' in the mid-1920s, asserting that Yu, the famed controller of the Great Flood in Chinese history, was not really a man but a sort of mythical animal, I still remember vividly how I grabbed one of its very first copies and read it with gusto. (Wu, p 455)

But Wu later reconsidered the context-critical movement. Because early-China historians have paid little attention to Wu's book, it is worth quoting at some length his explanation of Gu's guess:

Until the 1920s, no one suggested that there might be a connection between the poem 'daming' and the line 'diyi guimei' in the Book of Changes. But then Gu Jiegang claimed that according to the poem, Wen Wang was married to none else than the twenty-ninth Yin emperor Diyi's sister. For proof, he pointed out that it was because the sovereign was her brother that she was said to be 'verily like a sister of Heaven.' But then Wen Wang's consort has been always known as Taisi, Si being the surname of the house of Xin, which is different from Zi, the surname of the house of Shang. So Gu ventured that Taisi was a lady-in-waiting sent by Diyi to accompany the princess as a would-be concubine, and Wen Wang married her after Diyi's sister's death. But then Taisi was said in the poem to be from the state of Xin 'On the north of the Qia, on the banks of the Wei,' a state that is known to have been in the neighborhood of Zhou. Gu insisted, however, that Taisi came from a different state of Xin, which was situated in the west of modern Shandong, quite adjacent to Anyang, the Yin capital. (Wu, p 462)

Wu's conclusion: 'Gu might be complimented on his fertile imagination, but one should be excused for not thinking his suppositions too well grounded.' Most significantly, he adds that 'regretfully, some contemporary historians have taken such materials as reliable sources and duly reported that Wen Wang may well have been related to Yin, or Shang, by marriage.'

In the West, Shaughnessy is not the only historian to have been misled by Gu Jiegang or Fu Sinian. For example, Cho-yun Hsu and Katheryn M Linduff, in 'Western Chou Civilization' (Yale University Press, 1988), cite Fu Sinian in stating that 'King Wen of the Chou had married a Shang princess from whom was born King Wu. … The princess, according to an episode in the I-ching (Book of Changes) was a sister of Ti I.' On such shaky ground they then build an elaborate theory as to why the Zhou kings worshipped Shang ancestors as well as their own. Still, why make a federal case out of a misrepresentation based on what I contend is faulty 'new evidence'?

First, there is one's respect for truth, or at least for distinguishing between fact and fiction. If Shaughnessy and other historians wish to repeat Gu's argument, they should at least make clear that it is not based on historical evidence but is exactly what Gu called it: a guess. No matter how many times these historians repeat the mantra 'King Wen married Diyi's daughter,' this guess will not be magically transformed into historical fact. The context critics, in deluding themselves into believing that the Yi – or a book of poems such as the Shi – can be read as gospel-truth history, even if this history must be read 'between the lines,' grant themselves historiographical liberties. Digging in the Songs for historical nuggets may have been accepted practice by ancient Confucian interpreters, but if the Shi and the Yi are to be cited as historical fact today, then it must also be acceptable to cite Ezra Pound's Cantos and Edgar Cayce's channelings as fact.

Second, there is one's awareness of the contradiction in Shaughnessy's contention that he and other context critics such as Gu are seeking to recapture the 'original meaning' of the hexagram lines and the texts of other Chinese classics. In doing so, they cast aside the original intention of the Yijing, which was divinatory, not historical. By treating this text as if it were a historical document presenting gospel-truth facts, they do violence to the spirit in which the text was created. Because it is an oracular text, its original meaning can best be determined in the course of consulting it as an oracle.

In their own way, these critics do as much violence to the spirit of the Yi as the Confucian moralists whose interpretations of the hexagram lines as universal truths they sometimes denigrate (though Shaughnessy himself values the ideas of Cheng Yi). Surely the first obligation of context critics – or critics of any variety – is to remain faithful to the spirit of their sources. All Yijing interpreters need to keep in mind the mantra repeated so often by the twelfth-century Confucian educator Zhu Xi in his quarrel with the moralists: 'The I was originally created for divination.' (See Joseph Adler, 'Chu Hsi and Divination,' in 'Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching' [Princeton University Press, 1990], p 178.)

That said, I would be remiss to end this review without noting that I heartily agree with Shaughnessy's major conclusion from his Yijing studies: that far from being a jumble of unrelated statements, the classic exhibits 'considerable creative consciousness … in the composition of the text.' We should also take to heart his conclusion that 'ancient China was a supremely literate culture, at least at the royal court and among the social elite, and was fully capable of producing the literary works of the received canon usually attributed to it.'

My quarrel with Shaughnessy's too-ready acceptance of Gu's guess does not preclude an awareness that no one in the American academic establishment has thought longer or harder or more productively about the original Yijing than Edward Shaughnessy. But unless newer and more credible evidence appears, this particular idea needs to be stopped short of the goal line.

[First published in 'China Review International' Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring 1999), pp 261–265.]


Ed's note – I too have taken exception to Professor Shaughnessy's handling of Gu Jiegang's 'guess', in appendix II of The Mandate of Heaven (pp 155–158). I point out that a far better guess would have been that Di Yi gave his younger sister to King Ji, King Wen's father, rather than to King Wen himself. This interpretation involves far fewer difficulties, if any. King Wen's mother, Tairen, according to the Shijing (ode 236, 'Da Ming'), came from Shang to marry King Ji in the Zhou capital. This is why King Wen sacrificed to Shang ancestors, because his mother was Shang. In this sense Wen Wang was indeed related to Shang by marriage. It is strange then that Gu's 'guess' was so wild, when there was a far better guess concerning 'diyi guimei' in hexagrams 11/5 and 54/5 quite close by, in the same ode 236, in which he seems to have missed the obvious and seen instead a convoluted fantasy. That someone as experienced as Shaughnessy should later come along and further talk up the 'guess' perhaps says something about the estrangement from common sense that academic specialisation can sometimes lead to. I am indebted to Ken for pointing out the comments by K C Wu on this matter, which I was unaware of when I wrote my own work.