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  • 'Jiaohua' 教化, Transcendental Unity, and Morality in Ordinariness:Paradigm Shifts in the Song Dynasty Interpretation of the 'Zhongyong'
  • Junghwan Lee

In 1040, Zhang Zai, a 21-year-old young man who then indulged in military affairs but would later become one of the so-called Five Northern Song [Daoxue] Masters, expressed his ambitions in a letter to Fan Zhongyan. Fan, the leader of the Qingli reform, recommended that Zhang instead read the Zhongyong, a text whose history suggests that the zealous young literatus might not have deemed it significant.1 This moment is but one point during the Zhongyong's gradual elevation to its canonical status, a process taking place over four centuries. It traces back to Li Ao's (李翱: 772-841) (re)discovery of the potential significance of this text, as detailed in his essay "Fuxing shu" 復性書, which was circulated within his close circle in the year 800, and culminated in the canonization of Zhu Xi's commentaries in 1241.2 In this regard, the present paper aims to outline the history of the interpretation of the Zhongyong in the Song within a broader historical perspective.

Because of the widespread conception of the Zhongyong as a philosophical text, previous studies of the text have generally taken ahistorical approaches. Wing-tsit Chan identified the nature of this text as "a philosophical work, perhaps the most philosophical in the whole body of ancient Confucian [End Page 151] literature."3 In line with Chan's estimation, Roger Ames and David Hall "have attempted to present this important philosophical text in such a way as to permit Western philosophers to engage it. . . ."4 Taking one step further, Wei-ming Tu attempted to reconstruct "the Confucian metaphysics" based on this text.5

From a retrospective view, it is generally true to say that the main impetus for the Zhongyong's elevation during the Song came from its inherent "philosophical" implications. Since the early Song, this text received considerable attention from scholars seeking a Confucian counterpart of Buddhist views on "metaphysical" subjects such as human nature and Heaven, about which, as Zigong 子貢 confessed, Confucius himself had rarely discussed.6 Conversely, Sima Qian's cursory description that "Zisi, [a grandson of Confucius,] wrote the Zhongyong"7 inspired them to rediscover genuine Confucian views therein on these subjects, which, they contended, had been transmitted to Zisi in an exclusive and esoteric fashion. Zhu Xi was one of many scholars who claimed to have accomplished this mission, and the Song government recognized its validity posthumously in 1241.

Nonetheless, as discussed in the present paper, the philosophical elements of the Zhongyong did not predetermine the perspective, approach, and purpose adopted by its interpreters during its four-century-long elevation. The text indeed embraces diverse subjects such as metaphysical concepts, guidelines for self-cultivation, and principles for governance in terms of only its central themes. This multifaceted nature provided a large number of renowned Song intellectuals with a legitimate channel for expressing their distinct views not only on metaphysical subjects but also on a wide range of social and political topics.

This raises the methodological question of how the Song interpretation of great diversity can be placed within a historical context. To address this question [End Page 152] within limited space, while exploring important essays, commentaries, and comments, I focus on the conceptual framework and teleological perspectives (on the purpose of the Zhongyong) that were shared by the interpreters of particular periods or groups as well as on the fundamental changes over time or "paradigm shifts." On this basis, I demonstrate the correlation, albeit limited, between the Song interpretation of the Zhongyong and the history of the Song.

Firstly and specifically, I investigate the dramatic change in the Northern Song interpretation of the Zhongyong that largely coincided with fundamental shifts in the view of the state's moral leadership over society. As symbolized by the rise and fall of the New Policies, a thorough rethinking of the state's role and authority took place during the Northern Song.8 Leading scholar-officials of the late Northern Song challenged the centralization of authority in the earlier period and sought new and substantial sources of values and authority beyond the secular power of...


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