Posted 09 March 2005 - 12:54 AM
An essay on Ji Kang, probably the most admirable of the Seven Sages, that I wrote in 2002. Footnotes not included. Enjoy!
“MUSIC HAS NEITHER SORROW NOR JOY”
- An Analysis of Neo-Daoist Concepts in Ji Kang’s Philosophy of Music
The poet-philosopher Ji Kang (223-262) has, in the 20th century, attracted the interest of scholars in both China and the Western world - for Chinese, mainly because his scepticism about the value of Confucian traditions seems to foreshadow their own recent experiences of Marxism and modernisation; for Westerners, because his liberal and unconventional approach to life represents a road not taken in ancient Chinese society, one made all the more tragic by the fact that his beliefs ultimately cost him his life.
However, these scholars have generally been less comfortable with placing Ji Kang within the context of the xuanxue (“School of Profundities”, usually called Neo-Daoism in the West) philosophy that flourished among intellectuals of his time, not to mention identifying his contributions to that philosophy. According to Robert Henricks, for example, Tang Yongtong – one of the leading experts on Neo-Daoism in the 1940s and 50s – “defines hsuan-hsueh (xuanxue) in such a way – as a move to the wu-yu (wu-you) cosmology and abandonment of interest in Yin-Yang and the Five Elements – as to exclude thinkers like Hsi K’ang”. Neo-Daoist philosophy has come to be characterised by the emphasis on Non-being (wu) and Non-action (wuwei) in the writings of Wang Bi and Guo Xiang. In contrast, Ji Kang’s interest in immortality and aesthetic beauty, as well as the antics of his friends among the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, are often seen as little more than a transitory diversion from the continuity of Wang and Guo, bearing a closer similarity to religious Daoism than to Neo-Daoist metaphysics.
My essay, then, is an attempt to relate Ji Kang’s philosophy to the larger framework of Neo-Daoism, and to do so through what is probably his most famous and most original piece of writing, the essay “Music Has Neither Sorrow Nor Joy” (Sheng wu ai’le lun). In this essay, Ji Kang takes the persona of “The Host of Dongye (the Eastern Wilds)” to engage in a debate with a “Guest from the West (literally from Qin, the western region around Chang’an)”. Using the then-popular debating style of Pure Conversation (Qingtan), the Guest puts forward the traditional, Confucian view of music: that it carries the emotions of both the composer and the musician, and then instils these same emotions in the listener to various degrees depending on the listener’s skill or sensitivity. Ji Kang, as the Host, argues instead that music does not carry any emotional meaning in itself, nor does it cause emotions in others. Rather, music stimulates and releases emotions that were already present in the listener; there is therefore no such thing as intrinsically “happy” or “sad” music, “morally-proper” or “morally-corrupting” music.
This thesis had far-reaching implications for the Confucian orthodoxy of the time, and central to much of its impact is the Neo-Daoist concept of ziran (naturalness). Aptly enough, Ji Kang’s most famous line, written at the beginning of the essay “On Dispelling Self-interest” (Shi si lun), is “transcend orthodoxy and give freedom to spontaneous nature” (yue mingjiao er ren ziran). Ji Kang, himself a gifted musician, was keen to emphasise that music has a spontaneous nature of its own that transcends political or ethical considerations, unlike the Confucian position that music is justified only by how well it performs the function of moral education for the people. But there is a far deeper dimension to the term ziran (literally “that which is so by itself”) when he asserts: “Heaven and Earth united their virtues and the ten thousand things by this were born. Cold and hot succeeded one another, and the five elements as a result came to be. These became manifest as the five colours and issued forth as the five tones. The arising of musical sounds is like the presence of odours in the air; they are either good or bad. And though they get mixed in with other things, they remain in essence what they are and don’t change. How could love and hate change the melody, grief and joy alter the beat?”
Ji Kang is, in effect, arguing that music is an unchanging part of the natural world that has always existed, and not (as Xunzi believed) a component of the man-made construct called “culture”. The Confucians had always taken music and ritual to together constitute “culture”, but Neo-Daoists like Ji Kang generally de-emphasised ritual as extraneous “branches” and re-located music at the “root” of either wu or ziran. Ironically, the explanation that Ji Kang offers for this is still too rooted in Han Confucian cosmology to qualify as ‘pure’ Neo-Daoism. In fact, the early Han “Book of Music” (Yue Ji) has very similar words on the subject: “With Heaven high and the earth below, the myriad things dispersed and differentiated, rituals were formed and put into practice. Flowing without stopping, combining together and transforming, music was made to arise therein.”
However, we should recognise that none of the Neo-Daoist philosophers ever completely discarded the cosmology of Yin-Yang and the five elements in theorising on the origin of the ten thousand things; they sought rather to determine the one underlying principle behind this multiplicity of factors. For Wang Bi, influenced primarily by his study of the Laozi, that principle was the original Non-being. For Ji Kang’s friend Ruan Ji, writing his own “Treatise on Music” (Yue Lun), it was Harmony (he): “What we call Music contains the spirit of Heaven and Earth and the nature of the ten thousand things. If we adhere to this spirit and this nature, then music is harmonious and harmonises all other things; if we diverge from this spirit and this nature, then music is disharmonious and throws other things into disharmony.” In “Music contains the spirit of Heaven and Earth” (fu yuezhe tiandi zhi ti), we find clear echoes of another famous line from the Yue Ji: “Music is the harmony of Heaven and Earth” (yuezhe tiandi zhi he ye), suggesting that Ruan Ji also took that classic work as a reference point.
Where Ji Kang differs from Ruan Ji, though, is in his argument that Harmony is naturally intrinsic to all music and cannot be taken out of it by man: “though music may be fierce or tranquil, fierce and tranquil both have the same harmony. And whatever [emotion] is moved by harmony is spontaneously released.” Certainly Ji Kang recognises that music can sound good or bad in aesthetic terms, but he believes that despite this, all music is inherently tuneful and harmonious, otherwise it would not be considered music (one wonders what Ji Kang would think were he to attend a modern trash metal concert!). Furthermore, he acknowledges (and being a musician definitely considers it a good thing) that musical pieces differ in style, tone, pitch and rhythm, as well as according to the kind of instrument they are played on. “However,” he continues, “In all of these cases, the essential factor is that the music is simple or complex, high or low, or good or bad, and the emotions respond by being restless or tranquil, concentrated or scattered… the essential thing in music is that it is simply either relaxed or intense; the response of the emotions to music is also limited to restlessness or tranquillity.”
Since Ji Kang emphasises the natural nature of music, it should not seem strange that he also uses rather prosaic analogies of tears, sweat, food and wine to demonstrate that music is a part of the natural world and not man-made: “The tissues secrete water and it beads up in the flesh; when pressure is applied it comes out. It is not controlled by grief or joy. It is just like the process of straining wine through a cloth sack. Although the device used to press it through may differ, the flavour of the wine is unchanged. Musical sounds are all produced by one and the same source. Why must they alone contain the principles of grief and joy?” “The flavours each have a different beauty but the mouth in each case knows it. The five flavours are completely different, but they find their great union in beauty; song variations though many also find their great union in harmony… But the feelings that change with songs are cut off from the domain of harmony, and the mouth that responds to sweetness is severed from the realm of beauty.”
Cai Zhongde finds unconvincing such an equation of music (a “product of consciousness” ) with bodily functions, but he fails to understand the Neo-Daoist belief that the Way and its virtues are reflected in all things, even the most base and lowly. This drew its inspiration from the Zhuangzi, as did Ji Kang’s direct allusion to the Music of Heaven in its diversity, “blowing differently through the ten thousand things”. The important thing to note about physical processes and the natural flavours of food is that they are neither dependent on human effort for their existence, nor subject to human control, which ties in with the important Daoist (and Neo-Daoist) concept of wuwei. Even wine is not created or produced by man, but only ‘transformed’ through the natural process of fermentation. In the same way, Ji Kang seems to be saying, just because music is Natural does not mean there is anything mystical about it – like beauty, it exists even without any action on our part, that is all. However Ji Kang did not believe, as Wang Bi did, that the value of wuwei was rooted in wu (Non-Being). Nor did he agree with Ruan Ji that Harmony is all that is needed for music to truly reflect the Way. For Ji Kang, the ideal for music (and also for life itself) lay in what he termed Balance (pinghe).
Ruan Ji does use the phrase pinghe a few times in his “Treatise on Music”, but nearly always as a synonym for he – referring to the social harmony facilitated by harmonious music, where each is happy and content with his place in life. Furthermore, to Ruan Ji, sorrowful music is the antithesis of Harmony and not true music at all, while pinghe as a state of mind must be nurtured by joyful, harmonious music. His argument was made especially pointed by the fact that since the Han Dynasty, there had been a strong penchant in popular culture for “sad” (bei) music. Ruan Ji was, of course, not alone in believing that music should instil positive emotions – the Confucians had been teaching that for a long time. The Yue Ji carried the pun to extremes by stating repeatedly that “Music is Joy” (yue, le ye), but the author was also careful not to be seen as endorsing “wantonness” in the enjoyment of music , probably taking as a guide Confucius’ famous comment in praise of the first song in the “Book of Poetry” (Shi Jing): “There is joy without wantonness, and sorrow without self-injury” (le er bu yin, ai er bu shang). The Confucian aversion to any excess of pleasure or grief as being morally corrupting for both the individual and the state is seen in their frequent condemnation of music in the “Zheng-Wei” style (i.e. that traditional to the ancient states of Zheng and Wei) as wanton and decadent, and in the other famous comment in the Preface to the “Book of Poetry” that “the songs of a well-ordered age are peaceful and happy, but the songs of a doomed state are sad and melancholy.” Ji Kang alludes to these Confucian sayings in his essay, but does not directly oppose their validity. Instead, he steps out of that entire frame of reference by suggesting that the best kind of music (zhi yue) need not affect the emotions at all, and correspondingly the best kind of person (zhi ren) is not emotionally affected by any kind of music. This absolute equanimity is to him the essence of Balance, and “Balance is the essence of music” (shengyin yi pinghe wei ti).
How does the concept of Balance support Ji Kang’s thesis that music has neither sorrow nor joy? “If one has achieved Balance, then sorrow and joy will be one and the same, and there will be no original emotions to be released from within. Thus, all that one feels is restlessness or tranquillity. If, however, emotions are released, then one was already inclined within towards a certain emotion and had lost one’s Balance. Speaking from this perspective, restlessness and tranquillity are the effects of music, but sorrow and joy are an inclination already existing among one’s emotions.” For Ji Kang, that music carries no emotion of its own is proven by the fact that not only may different people have very different emotional responses to the same piece of music, but there are also some exceptional people in whom music does not produce any emotional response at all.
This may remind us of the earlier debate between Wang Bi and his mentor He Yan, in which the latter believed that the sage has no emotions, while the former argued that the sage does (and must) have emotions, but is not tied to or controlled by them. The terms of the debate were actually classically Confucian, recalling the sagely qualities of “Equilibrium and Harmony” (zhong he) defined in the “Book of Rites” (Li Ji): “When there are no stirrings of pleasure, anger, sorrow or joy, we call it the State of Equilibrium (zhong). When those feelings have been stirred, and all in their due measure and degree, we call it the State of Harmony.” He Yan seems to have believed that constant Equilibrium was necessary for sagehood, while Wang Bi argued that Harmony was sufficient. We may infer that Ji Kang would have inclined towards He Yan’s position, but his advocacy of Balance, a modification of Equilibrium in which sorrow and joy are not so much absent as indistinguishable, is arguably based more on a concept that lay outside both Confucian and Neo-Daoist philosophy. This was the concept of “the Nourishing of Life” (yangsheng), which drew more from religious Daoism than from the Zhuangzi, but was very influential among intellectuals like the Seven Sages – and it is on this practical prescriptive level, and not his philosophy of music per se, that Ji Kang does move away from the metaphysical questions that occupied Wang Bi and Guo Xiang.
The aim of yangsheng was not, as with most religious asceticism, to bring one closer to the next world, but rather to cultivate the physical and emotional health that would lengthen one’s life in this world. Such ‘worldly’ priorities made complete sense for religious Daoists to whom physical immortality was the ultimate afterlife, and also for Neo-Daoists to whom union with the Way made an afterlife unnecessary and irrelevant. In an essay on this subject (Yangsheng lun), Ji Kang emphasised three means of nourishing life: dispassion; avoidance of wealth and rank; and correct diet. The latter two were rooted in wuwei and religious Daoism respectively, but dispassion was probably the most important factor to Ji Kang. The main reason was that strong emotions consume energy and thus damage the body: “thoughts and apprehensions diminish the refined spirit, and sorrow and joy (ai’le) injure the calm essence.” Ji Kang expressed his approach to nourishing life as not “to suppress the emotions and endure the desires”, but to transcend ordinary emotions and desires, to cultivate supreme disinterest in them.
In Ji Kang’s view, music that produces feelings of tranquillity, and thus does not stir up any strong emotions, is clearly more conducive to nourishing life than music that produces restlessness. It is only in this light that one can understand the last section of his essay, where the Guest asks whether Confucius’ statement that “For improving customs and bettering traditions there is nothing better than music”, or his condemnation of Zheng-Wei music as morally-corrupting, are invalidated by the Host’s argument that music has neither emotional nor moral content. Ji Kang does not take this opportunity to assert that there is nothing wrong with Zheng-Wei music, that it is the Confucians who are at fault for hijacking music for moral education without seeing any purely aesthetic value in it. He argues instead that the problem with Zheng-Wei music lies not in any wanton emotions that it embodies, but in its extreme aesthetic beauty and richness that triggers the wanton release of emotions in its listeners. Ji Kang had earlier argued that “the stimulation of men’s hearts by harmony is in fact like the uninhibiting effect that wine has on their natures” – a drunken man may exhibit extremes of delight and anger, but one cannot say that these emotions were instilled by the wine. He now returns to this analogy to argue that Zheng-Wei music, as “the most exquisite music of all”, is like wine or female beauty in having the power to make people lose their self-control.
In modern terms, the songs of Zheng and Wei would be the musical equivalent of an Ecstasy pill: as a stimulant that releases huge amounts of energy in the user, it brings great pleasure but is very bad for health in the long term. Music can have a healthy, cathartic effect on the emotions, but if that catharsis is too exhilarating, there is a danger of becoming addicted to it. According to Ji Kang, the sage-kings of old understood that with such “lovely and alluring” music, the world would get lost in pleasure and never return to the Way of Balance and nourishing life. Thus “they cut off [music’s] greatest harmony and did not fully explore its potential transformations” , and the result was music that was more like bland meat-broth than the peony blend, which was said to contain a perfect mix of the five flavours. By such measures were people made “joyful without being licentious”, but Ji Kang makes it clear that Balance does not equal Blandness, it is only the weakness of ordinary human character that forces it to be so.
Thus Ji Kang does not believe, like Wang Bi did, in a Great Music (dayin) that lies beyond any differentiation into the five tones. Drawing on the Laozi for his concepts of Non-being and One, Wang Bi postulated an original Music that was essentially soundless. While Ji Kang does allude to Confucius’ words in the Li Ji: “music that has no sound is the father and mother of the people”, this actually refers to an inner harmony (i.e. Balance) that is not adequately expressed by music , at least not by the aesthetically-diluted kind that is suitable for normal people. There is a closer similarity with Wang Bi’s other theory that “words do not fully express meaning”, and Tang Yongtong indeed suggested that this theory provides the “backbone” for Ji Kang’s philosophy of music. But on a deeper level, Ji Kang maintains a faith in the ability of the Perfect Man (zhi ren) to appreciate the most exquisite music without getting emotionally carried away. In his own life (and death), Ji Kang evidently tried to exemplify this ideal: on the day of his execution he played for the last time on his zither the Guangling San, a moving melody of “extraordinary beauty” , but unlike his audience he displayed no sign of emotion at all and preserved his Balance to the last.
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3. Ronald Egan, “The Controversy over Music and ‘Sadness’ and Changing Conceptions of the Qin in Middle Period China”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 57 No. 1 (June 1997)
4. Gao Chenyang, Ruan Ji Pingzhuan (“A Critical Biography of Ruan Ji”). Nanjing: Nanjing Daxue Chubanshe, 1994
5. Robert G. Henricks, Hsi K’ang: His Life, Literature and Thought. Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1976
6. Robert G. Henricks, Philosophy and Argumentation in Third-Century China – The Essays of Hsi K’ang. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983
7. James Legge (trans.) Li Chi, Book of Rites. New York: University Books, 1967
8. Michael Puett, “Nature and Artifice: Debates in Late Warring States China concerning the Creation of Culture”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 57 No. 2 (December 1997)
9. Tian Wentang, Ruan Ji Pingzhuan: Kangkai renqi de yisheng (“A Critical Biography of Ruan Ji: The life of an unrestrained liberal”). Nanning: Guangxi Jiaoyu Chibanshe, 1994
10. R.H. van Gulik, Hsi K’ang and his Poetical Essay on the Lute. Tokyo: Sophia University, 1941
The dead have passed beyond our power to honour or dishonour them, but not beyond our ability to try and understand.