The traditional Chinese literati were capable of great sophistication and subtlety of expression and thought in their literary and artistic creations. This was due in great measure to the shared cultural tradition central to Chinese civilization that each generation had passed on to the next through a unique education and civil service system that remained stable for centuries. Entry into the educated class was theoretically open to all men regardless of class origins. But it was not until the development of a popular literary culture, with the commercial application of woodblock printing in the Song 宋 (960-1279), that the reality began to movein the direction of the ideal. Education was no longer the strict province of the nobility, or the political or economic elite. It became a popular enterprise. So what happened to the elite cultural tradition as it was subjected to increasing popularization in the burgeoning urban culture of the late imperial age is a subject of considerable interest. A serious study of the thought and cultural significance of the thirteenth century educational text the San zi jing 三字經 (SZJ) and one of its major commentaries, the San zi jing xun gu 三字經訓詁 (XG), would therefore have been a welcome development.
Friedrich Bischoff's book purports to be such a study. Near the beginning of the book he usefully notes that the XG covers "the philosophy and all the background knowledge" contained in the SZJ, and is based on the refresher examination school teachers were required to take once every three years (pp. 10-12). The book promises, then, to offer insights both into the education of teachers and into the character of the knowledge passed on to their students. So it is with some disappointment that one reads that the very quest upon which the book embarks is itself nearly impossible. Writing about one passage from the XG Bischoff says:
We are faced with the Hexeneinmaleins of Chinese philosophy, where the same kanjis are forever shuffled round and round, with only slight variations. Indices [End Page 356] and dictionaries are of little help. Our present elucubrations are tentative, and we may abstract the lesson that it is infinitely more difficult to give a precise interpretation of a philosophical commentary than it is to provide for the commented text a sleek translation which 'makes sense'.(p. 75)
Herein are suggested the root problems with this book. There are two, one having to do with the overall intellectual approach, and another concerning methodology.
The author's intellectual approach to his subject displays a strong tendency to apply general, preconceived notions about what is so about the Chinese and Chinese culture to specific problems of reading and interpretation. Here, Chinese philosophy is characterized by the term Hexeneinmalein, a German word meaning "a series of unrelated pseudo-logical reasonings which invariably obtain the same result" (p. 272), according to the glossary to the book, a necessary feature in a study replete with idiosyncratic technical terms. Armed with such notions, Bischoff takes interpretive flights that are not always appropriate to the context. At its most superficial level this approaches what can only be termed stereotyping, however well meaning. We read that "Chinese love to laugh" (p. 15), that "intercourse without ejaculation" is "a practice common among Chinese" (p. 63), that "the Chinese attach great importance to the abundant secretion of 'joy water' by the man as well as by the woman" (p. 64), that "following the example of Confucius, Confucianists are known to be pederasts and detestable husbands" (p. 69). Now, the sexual references and tone of these statements are important, and I will return to them in a moment. For now, it is important to address a deeper intellectual problem that pervades this study. Chinese philosophical writing, it seems, is an endless repetition through time of loose groupings of characters that inevitably obtain the same result. Books, essays, and treatises offer no unique and distinctive argument within the tradition, but rather lead to the...