Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Confucian Swordsman I

Kano Eitoku - Scholars playing weiqi (go in Japanese)
Confucianism often gets a bad rap - in its Japanese context it is characterised as a form of not so enlightened paternalism, intent on preserving the hierarchical authority and keeping women and peasants in their place.

The trouble is, that even as I read decidedly anti-Confucian works like the Tao of Pooh (or was it the Te of Piglet?), I couldn't help sympathising with the Confucians - the ideals ascribed to them, though a little outdated, seemed to me more attractive than the muddle-headed approach of the bear with very little brain. Nobility, loyalty, humanity - they don't sound too bad.

Meanwhile, Zen, of course, has received a lot of attention with regard to it's role in various arts and ways. Too much attention, many would say. This is not to deny that it did have influence in a number of fields, but perhaps not as much as its supporters would like to have us believe. Part of the problem is that many disciplines share the same vocabulary and related or analogous concepts. So, while Zen is cool, (Daoism even more so), Confucianism is straight-laced and conservative - anything that sounds interesting is habitually ascribed to Zen, and anything connected with hierarchy, paternalism or empty theorising, is blamed on Confucianism.

A little balance?
In terms of Japanese martial arts, Draeger had some interesting things to say about neo-Confucianism, chiefly dwelling on the role of the Wang Yangming school (O-Yomei in Japanese), with its emphasis on action, on the main figures of the anti-government movement which culminated in the overthrow of the Tokugawa government in the 1860s. For Draeger, an ex-marine, the philosophies of action seemed attractive (he was also a populariser of the theory of Zen influence in Japanese martial arts), but he didn't touch on the deeper influence of neo-Confucian thought in the disciplines themselves. However, even his description O-yomei neo-Confucian sounded suspiciously like a Zen substitute.

The first work available in English that did look at this issue on its own terms was a translation of the Tengu Geijutsuron (a translation from German into English, as it happens - although William Scott Wilson's far better version is now available). The title, Zen and Confucius in the Art of Swordmanship alerted the reader to the subject matter, although rather misleadingly, threw Zen into the mix- probably out of habit. Unfortunately, for the sake of our understanding, the original writer seems to have lacked the authority of a real master of the sword. An enthusiast he may have been, but he appears to have only partially understood some of the deeper aspects of the art. That his work was criticised by his near contemporaries, and on quite specific points, also attests to its popularity and influence on other writers.

It does, however, provide an interesting counterpoint to the better informed works, and can be usefully read with them.

So, why look at neo-Confucianism anyway?
Firstly, because it did influence classical Japanese martial arts, and this influence has stayed with them, in one way or another until the present day. Gaining an understanding of these influences can help us understand a little more of the arts themselves.

Secondly, Neo-Confucianism offers an interpretive framework that is firmly rooted in its own time, and yet is also fairly accessible to us in the present day. Its thinking is recognisably rational and, more-or-less, logical, rather than mystical or religious, and it seeks to explain with reference to the everyday. A number of writers used it as such, knew what they were doing, and so provided us with authentic perspectives of these martial arts when they were in a very different state than today. The terms and the analogies they use may be unfamiliar, but they are open to analysis and exploration, making the study of works written from this perspective to be quite rewarding. They appeal to our understanding, but the best of them stand as something more than theoretical interpretations.

Finally, due to their concern with life and living, they situate the practice and ideals of martial arts within daily life, providing a perspective on issues that are still very relevant to practitioners today.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Thanks.

    I think the teachings of Confucious are greatly misunderstood. If I had to sum up my own understanding of what Confucious taught, it would be: "sincerity".