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Wang Mingming: Chinese perspectives of others  

2008-10-10 17:45:31|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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The stomach and the snakes: Chineseperspectives of others

 

 (Openingremark, International Workshop on Ideas of Othersin Different Cultures,

March, 2007, Beijing) 

 

 

 

First, I will dwell on the ideas of self and other in theearliest Chinese lexicon Shuowen Jiezi.

 

The compiler Xu Shen finished this master piece as early as in121 AD. Shuowen Jiezi is a great book; it reflects on all ofthe key concepts in our ancestors’ mind. Opening the book, first, Ilooked for the character of “self” (ji). ShuowenJiezi does provide an entry for it. Concerning its originalmeanings, it gives the following explanation:

 

Ji (Self) refers to the central palace. The iconography of thecharacter shows an image which encompasses ten thousand kinds ofthings. The character of Ji…symbolizes a human stomach. [1]

 

Then, I searched for the Chinese character for others.Throughout the whole lexicon, there is no appropriate character forhuman others. Nonetheless, an entry for non-human others (Ta) canbe discovered. The book says:

 

Ta refers to insects (cong). The iconography of Ta is animitation of a long insect. The shape of the character looks like acurl body and hanging down tail.

In the ancient times, human being lived among plants and theywere so afraid of snakes (Ta). So they greeted each other with thesentence: “Snake is out of place?”

A part of the character for snake is sometimes deployed to meaninsects.[2]

 

When relating others (Ta) to snakes, Xu Shen was obviously notsuggesting that the character for others derived from the image ofsnakes. The way in which any reptile creep was what he sought torepresent.

 

We should not over-do comparative classification. My interest isin how the way in which snakes move (creeping) had been deployed asa pattern which represents certain ways of conduct different fromwhat the ancient Han Chinese people treated as “the right way”.

 

Through examining the original images of Chinese characters forselves and others, we can gain an impression of the ethicalcosmology of an old civilization. Selves as stomachs which “swallowthe whole world”, others as snakes which creep behind human beings:the contrast of imaginaries was available latest by the imperialHan Dynasty as a mental mechanism. Neither stomachs nor snakessound nice things to the present day human beings (we have adoptedthe dualized cosmos of subjects and objects, persons and things,mind and reality). But thinking in another place in history, weshould not too easily treat stomachs and snakes as radicallycontrasting things. Both stomachs and snakes have the curl shape.The image of a stomach as independently picturialized in thecharacter “Ji” (selves) is not so different from that of a snake(Ta). Nor should we easily conclude that Chinese people in ancienttimes did not know the benefit of others. In ancient China, therewas a proverb which suggests: “stone in other mountains can betransformed into jade” (ta shan zhi shi, ke yi gong yu).However, even if the difference is small, the distinction betweenwhat a human stomach symbolizes and what a snake signifies seems tobe the contrast between a part of human body and an harmful andeatable “insect”. During the Han Dynasty, scholar-officialsincluding Xu Shen also applied the metaphorical messages behind theiconographic scene to mark the distinction between Han and non-Hanpeoples. For instance, the people of Min (contemporary Fujian), notyet incorporated into the Han, were described in Xu Shen’s ShuowenJiezi as “a snake race” (shezhong). 

 

Like many ancient mythologies, old Chinese cosmologies werecreated in a lengthy historical period during which human beingswere being separated from nature. Ancient Chinese thinkers dweltmuch upon the interrelationships between selves and others. Theirdiverse ideas are not what we can consider in this context. What wecan say here is that many of them were bound up with thedistinction of the civilizing selves and others. While Confucianswere keenly interested in promoting civilities, Daoists chose torun into the circles of nature in which they sought to retain thelegendary oneness of man and nature. The two mainstreamphilosophies in Chinese history were two constantly interactingperspective of the interrelationship between civilization andwilderness whose contrast was conceived of as that between stomachsand snakes in Xu Shen’s Shuowen Jiezi.

 

The separation between stomachs and snakes was one of the chiefconsequences of civilization. In the cosmology of civilization, thehierarchical relationship between humans and creeping things,between selves and others, and between centers and peripheries wasthe ideological foundation of the envisaged peaceful society. It issuch a relationship that will emerge out of our consideration ofideas of selves and others in a culture of a so-called “complexsociety”.

 

Neither to repeat the redundant modern critiques of hierarchynor to encourage ethno-centric perspectives of the Chinese world, Icited Xu Shen’s example to stimulate further anthropologicalthoughts about ideas of others.

 

 

 



[1]己,中宫也。象万物辟藏诎形也己承戊,象人腹。

[2]它,虫也。从虫而长,象冤曲垂尾形。上古草居患它,故相问:“无它乎?”蛇,或从虫。

 

 

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