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Kelly James Clark


Confucian Hermeneutics

Why commentaries are never definitive.

Until the late modern era in the West and even more recently in the East, the primary mode of philosophical and theological expression was the commentary. In the medieval commentarial tradition, ideas were expressed as both explications and extensions of accepted traditions. In contrast to scholars in the contemporary academy, where novelty is esteemed and tradition denigrated, medieval commentators characteristically allied themselves with a set of "canonical" texts. More important than developing a system was the understanding of texts; hermeneutics was the primary tool, with system-building secondary. The hermeneutical approach was seen not simply as a means to understanding a text but also to grasping reality.

In China and lands influenced by Chinese culture, the Confucian commentarial tradition is the most extensive. It has been conventional in the West to regard Confucius' Analects as the primary, perhaps only source of Confucianism (Confucius lived 551–479 bc). But Confucius himself claimed to be a transmitter of an ancient moral and social tradition of the ru (scholar-gentleman-leader) that was manifested in the golden ages of previous dynasties: the Xia (roughly 2100–1700 bc), the Shang (1700–1027 bc) and, especially, the Zhou (the Western Zhou, which Confucius prized, 1027–771 bc; all of these dates are rough as the dynasties likely had overlapping polities, not discrete ones as traditionally conceived). Prominent dynastic leaders were emulated, including the perhaps legendary Yao, Shun, and Yu of the Xia dynasty and historical figures such as King Wen and the Duke of Zhou. Confucianism (read ruism), therefore, predates Confucius. In these dynasties and their dynastic rulers, the tradition affirms, the ideal was real. We learn of these moral exemplars in the so-called Five Classics: the Classic of Change (Yjing or I Ching), the Spring and Autumn Annals, the Classic of History (Shujing), the Classic of Poetry (Shijing), and the Record of ...

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