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"Bright new light on ancient ideas"

September 23, 2014:

The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu) by Confucius, translated by Martin Palmer
Penguin Books, 2014

Following the July, 2014 publication of Martin Palmer's translation of The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu) the China Daily newspaper published this very positive review (below) by former Reuters editor Paul Bolding.

Bright new light on ancient ideas

Revelations on the emperor of the Terracotta Warriors

The first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, continues to fascinate, most recently for television viewers in Britain through Andrew Graham Dixon's The Art of China (BBC). Qin's Terracotta Army in Xi'an attracts tourists by the busload, but what is less well-known is his decree ordering the destruction of all books except those covering medicine, war, divination or agriculture. He wanted people to believe that no values or ideas had existed before he seized power in 221 BC. A kind of year zero.

Top of his hit list was the Shang Shu, but it survived at least in part and is the topic of a new translation by Martin Palmer. It is one of the five classic manuals of Chinese administration and has benefited from the connection with Confucius, who is no longer thought to have edited the text but did comment on it.

To Confucius, the ideal state for the individual (man) was that of the sage but since that was difficult to attain, he created the notion of junzi, usually translated as gentleman. That was based on his reading of the ancient texts like the Shang Shu.

The five texts were central to the Chinese Imperial Examinations system that was abolished only in 1905. Reading it today benefits anyone who seeks to understand the traditions that underpin the way China is run.

The Shang Shu is a guide to the evolving leadership styles in China over many centuries. Palmer has provided us with what the blurb calls a "fluid" translation, and it certainly reads well. We also get a clear, comprehensive introduction that adds life and meaning to the text. He goes through its history and its rediscovery in a style that is rigorous without being dry. More than that, Palmer is our guide as we read the text, with brief notes atop many chapters. The 256-page volume ends with a guide to the personalities of the book.

Some sections have been reworked as poetry by collaborator Jay Ramsay, reflecting the rhythm of elements of the original text.

Beside poetry, chapters take various styles of writing including announcements, speeches, chronicles and instructions. That sounds bureaucratic but the text is alive with the deeds and misdeeds of Chinese rulers, some told in graphic and gory detail.

But what is the original text? The story of how people defied Qin Shi Huang's decree and hid copies of the book (on bamboo strips bound with thread, which rots away first) in wall cavities makes fascinating reading. They did the same during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), so nothing new there.

We know that one of the imperial historians, Fu Sheng, hid a copy but that only about a quarter survived 40 years immured in his home. Had he memorized the rest? Had others done so? The book arose in any case from oral tradition, and there existed a practice of reciting sacred texts by heart as with Islamic scholars and the Quran today.

Of about 100 original chapters of the Shang Shu at the time of Qin Shi Huang's ban, the present volume comprises 58, of which 28 are thought to date from the earliest surviving example. Different versions appeared over time, and the one that comes down to us today appears on steles carved by imperial order in 837 AD.

Palmer's introduction is witty and eschews any sign of academic-speak. Explaining one of the early sections, he writes: "Failure to honor the ancestors is second only to the failure to honor Heaven in the crime sheet compiled against corrupt rulers."

Early on, we are introduced to the Mandate of Heaven, which controversially subverts any leading role for the deities. "Heaven, like us, sees clearly and hears clearly. Heaven inspired awe and rewards accordingly, and this the people can see clearly," we read in chapter four.

This is subversive because of the implication that if the people believe that Heaven has withdrawn its mandate from a leader, then it is legitimate to instigate regime change.

As recently as 1976, writes Palmer in the introduction, that thinking was part of the background to the overthrow of the "Gang of Four".

The author, himself a Christian lay preacher, explains the role of the Emperor of Heaven or Ruler on High, the figure sometimes referred to as "God" by the earlier translator James Legge. "I have not used that term because I think it gives a false sense of what the nature of the various Chinese terms mean," Palmer writes. "If anything, the notion of a 'Ruler on High' reflects a standard of virtue and authority which has to be at the top of the classic model of the universe as envisioned by the Confucian world view."

The Shang Shu is divided into four sections reflecting traditional eras of Chinese history, the Yu, Xia, Shang and Zhou, covering the best part of two millennia from 2357 BC but with long gaps.

In the Book of Xia, the Covenant at Gan is a rallying cry from a king to his warriors before going into battle. "Do as you are expected and you will be honored in front of the ancestors." All very Henry V.

Regime change strikes in the Book of Shang, where, in Chapter 10, we are told: "But it is Heaven that has decreed that the ruler of Xia must be executed because of all his many crimes." We are left in no doubt as to why. "Let's be frank, the ruler of Xia lost sight of what is virtuous. As a result, the people were living in a state of great fear."

The Book of Zhou is the longest, and chapters 27 to 29 are an account by King Wu of the Zhou of how he was commanded by heaven to overthrow Zhou, the Shang ruler. Zhou's barbarity is well known in China and his crimes are referred to in the text:

Listen: he dissected the bare legs of those who work deep in the paddy fields and cut out for casual inspection the hearts of the highest men!

This is rather terse but Palmer is on hand to explain the grim legend; the present reviewer will spare you the detail.

Some of the book has clearer and more direct references to problems that resonate in China today. Chapter 38 rails against officials misusing funds to get drunk. As recently as January last year, President Xi Jinping made a similar plea against wastefulness.

It was important to the ancients that order be maintained in the cosmos, and chapter 32, the Great Plan, outlines some core elements of Chinese philosophy dating back at least 2,000 years.

It has Five Elements, Eight Regulations, Five Conducts and advocates "careful use of the Five Good Fortunes with a respect for the Six Extremes". Naturally.

Palmer's favorite is the Exploration of Uncertainty. "When it comes to appointing good people, three people should be consulted and follow any two who agree."

The themes range from the prosaic ("Just do what is right and proper and all will be well") to extraordinary detail about punishments and funeral rituals, and the bizarre ("...those very strange foreigners who, for example, button their coats on the left side...")

There has been a revival in interest in China in Confucian ethics in recent years as people search for moral points of reference.

The Shang Shu is part of this, and Martin Palmer has presented the English reading audience with an excellent route to an understanding of these ideas.

The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu), paperback, Penguin Classics, 9.99 pounds (12.65 euros)

(China Daily Africa Weekly 09/05/2014 page26)

You can download a PDF copy of the original review here.

Further links

Penguin Books

International Confucian Ecological Alliance

Confucianism and Ecology

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