Paronomasia in the Mengzi


Mengzi in script and character
“Mencius (Mengzi)” in seal script (top) and regular (bottom) Chinese characters

Week 9, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Define dao
  2. Discuss the role of paronomasia in the Ruist tradition (li 禮, li 利, li 里; ren 人, ren 仁, ren 訒)

Dao 道 can be rendered as “path,” or “the way,” or “road,” but we should consider the metaphysical implications of the use of the definite article “the.” The English language requires us to include an article, whether “the” or “a” and we do recognize there is a difference between “the way” and “a way,” don’t we? In the Ruist context to this point we see dao 道 has come to mean “the proper way to do something” giving the term a sense of an artistry.

The character is composed of two elements: shu 疋 (foot) and shou 首 (head, hair and eyes). Ames and Hall read these elements as indicating a “passing over” or “leading through on foot” (shu) with what is “foremost” and “to give a heading” and therefore “to lead.” Dao 道 in this last sense is found in the ancient Book of Documents where the term is used to describe the “leading” of cutting a channel in order to lead a river away and thereby prevent its future flooding. (Ames & Hall, Daodejing, 57)

Recall that in our last lecture we discussed fatalism. We see this expressed in Analects 20.3:

Kongzi said, “One who does not understand fate (ming 命) lacks the means to become a gentleman (junzi 君子). One who does not understand ritual (li 禮) lacks the means to take his place [as in, they don’t know where to be in the world]. One who does not understand words lacks the means to evaluate others.”

Roger Ames tells us, “In fact, according to the Analects, not only do we need to understand how to use language in general, we are exhorted to realize what is at risk in the choice of every word.” Indeed, these are the last words in the “collected sayings,” the meaning of the term Analects. (“Paronomasia: A Confucian Way of Making Meaning,” 37)

Today I’d like for you to be able to define the term, “paronomasia,” a play on words; puns. It is a technical term for a semantic device. This is critical for our appreciation of the Ruist philosophies.

Ames helps us understand the utility of this technique in the following passage:

“The technical term for defining, and in fact, redefining, expressions using words that sound alike or that have a similar meaning is ‘paronomasia.’ Significantly, in this paronomastic process, the expectation is that we are not just ‘discovering’ definitions about an existing world, but actively delineating a world and bringing it into being.” (“Paronomasia: A Confucian Way of Making Meaning,” 38)

To illustrate this point, let’s look at Analects 12.3 where a student has asked Confucius about demonstrating authoritative conduct (ren 仁).

Kongzi replies, “Authoritative persons (ren 仁)are cautious in what they say (ren 訒).”

Ren 訒 means, “to speak with caution and modesty.” This second term, combines a word for knife/blade ren刃 with the character yan 言 “proposal, word, speak.” Yan is composed of a radical for “lid” (亠)with the number two (er 二) and a mouth (ko 口).

In other words, Kongzi is suggesting to us that the person of consummate character, this authoritative person, is that person who knows the value of measuring their words before committing others to a fight.

The first thing that I would like for you to note about our reading from Mengzi is that it begins with a series of puns.

Temple to Mencius
Yasheng Dian (“Hall of the Second Sage”, i.e. Mencius), the main sanctuary of the Temple of Mencius in Zoucheng.

King Hui of Liang greets Mengzi:

Mengzi 1A1
“Sir, you have come, not regarding one thousand li 里 as too far. Surely you will have something to profit (li 利) my state?” (Van Norden translation)

Note li 里 which is a unit of measurement (gongli 公里 is “kilometer” today) and li 利 “profit” are in this passage. The reason these words appear here is not only to set the stage for the effort Mengzi has made to help a king who is clearly struggling, but also because the reader familiar with Chinese should, after hearing or reading li 里 and li 利 should also associate another critical term: li 禮, “ritual propriety.”

Mengzi and the Ruist school of philosophy are marked by their excellence in transmitting and refining ritual technology, li 禮. It is through proper attention to ritual performances, the Ruists argue, that true kings can protect themselves against civil unrest in their kingdoms as well as rectify the preponderances of the cosmos at large so that the human community can flourish.

Mengzi replies to King Hui saying he would rather the king focused less on li 利 (profit) and instead focused on “righteousness” (yi 義). Let’s look at this character and how it is composed. It features the word for “I, me, my” (wo 我) with the word for “sheep” (yang 羊).

Why do you think these two go together?

We see this character, yang 羊 come up again when we use the second-century lexicon Shuowenjiezi to try and define the word jun 君 of junzi 君子. The Shuowenjiezi tells us that jun 君 is defined as qun 群, “gathering.” Ames states that that this association of jun 君 and qun 群 is made “because of the underlying assumption that people will gather round and defer to exemplary persons.” (“Paronomasia: A Confucian Way of Making Meaning,” 38)

Paronomasia is a useful tool for aiding in memorization of long passages of text (which is a significant technique for illiterate folks), and it is also a useful tool for stimulating the moral imagination of the listener and reader.

I’ve created this simple app to help you practice memorizing some of the Chinese philosophical terms in our class:

Now that we’ve spent some time with these sheep, let’s look at King Xuan’s decision to spare the ox when consecrating the bell, in Mengzi 1A7 shall we?

We are told that Xuan is not considered to be a true king because he does not rule with virtue (de 德). Xuan says that he couldn’t bear to see the terror in the ox’s eyes as it was led to the sacrifice and so commanded that the ritual be stopped and that a sheep be substituted in its place.

Because Xuan had the ritual interrupted and then broke away from the prescribed way that this ritual is supposed to be performed, the people came to believe that Xuan had made this substitution out of miserliness. To this accusation Xuan replies, “What was this feeling really?! It’s not the case that I grudged its value and exchanged it for a sheep. But it makes sense that the commoners would say that I was stingy.”

Mengzi replies to that it makes sense that Xuan would have his heart moved by the ox’s fear of death. And it is because Xuan has this capacity to have his heart moved by others that there is hope for Xuan to become a true king (a king who reigns with virtue, de 德). The trouble for Xuan, though, is that his kindness has been extended to this particular ox, but his kindness is not being extended to the common people in his kingdom. Mengzi tells Xuan, “For the old to wear silk and the black-haired people to be neither hungry nor cold, yet for their ruler not to become a king—such a thing has never happened.”