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Theory Of Music In Ancient Chinese Philosophy Essay, Research Paper


JiKang’s Naturalistic Theory and Criticism of Art

In China, from the ancient times, a synthesis of all forms of art that includes poetry, song, and dance has been called “music”. According to the standard Confucianist viewpoint on music, this synthesis was dubbed “politeness-music.” The main characteristic of Confucianist music theory lies in its emphasis on music as a political instrument. Confucianists ordered society according to hierarchcal distinctions and simultaneously attempted to harmonize differentiated classses through music. Furthermore, by connecting the basis of its music theory with the order of the universe, it helped to justify the Confucian establishment. It was JiKang, a Daoist thinker of the Wei-Jing era, who was in direct opposition to the Confucianist music theory. By emphasizing that music has in it neither grief nor joy, JiKang criticized Confucinaists by denuding the underlying political implication of Confucianist ruling order and its music theory. According to JiKang, there must be a clear distinction between subjective value system of humans and objective factual world of nature. Jikang, stressing nature’s independence from human values, supported the idea that human beings have no right to govern nature within their value system. Rather, human beings are a part of nature and they can feel supreme joy only when they obtain the characteristics of nature. In this paper, focusing on some points related to Jikang’s criticism, the author examines the formative process of Confucianist music theory that purports to claim that music has in it grief and joy. Jikang’s critical task proceedes by recovering the significance of the existence of music. Instead of old music theory that emphasized the social utility of music, JiKang’s keen criticism and his own new music theory helps reestablish the appropriate position of art in its original sense. The implication of this reinstitution of music in its ideal state is that music is now taken to claim its own ground and nature, no longer subordinated to human society and emotions. In this regard, music comes to have its own purposive value, and no longer used as a means of governing and control. To sum up, in this paper, via the analysis of Ji-Kang’s theory that music has in it neither grief nor joy, Jikang’s criticism of the existing Confucianst music theory which is said to subordinate aesthetic consciousness to ethical consciousness helps reveal the true significance of art and the aesthetic consciousness of naturalism.

I. A thesis of Confuciansim on “LiYue” (rites and music)

The form of control of one social class over other classes is two-fold. One half of this two-fold form is a control by coercive power of the state. The other is a form of leadership that is manifested by such conventional institutions as education, religion, and the customs. In order to establish a stable controling power of one social class over other classes, it is thought preferable to reach a consensus rather than to use force. Control based on consensus is feasible through voluntary agreement. If those ruled firmly believe that the interests of the ruling class reflect the overall interests of social members of a nation, and that social justice is fulfilled by the ruling class, this will increase the cooperative tendency between the ruling and the ruled. A deep trust in the legitimacy of the ruling class’ power will internalize this as a kind of moral awareness. The moral awareness will demand sensual positiveness just as much as reasoned judgement. Our sense has an attribute of attributing some values to things that are the objects of our tacit intention. Sense forms one’s own belief system and desire. Henceforth, it is important to have the sensual motivation through which the objective of reason is identified, morally, with bodily desire.

In this context, Confucianism seizes upon the a form of art which affects a person’s psychological state. Such an art’s ethical persuasiveness surpasses attempts to awaken reason through mere preaching for persuasion. Ancient Confucians understood and recognized this point. In this context, we can see why Confucius once said that “one who knows it (the way) is not the equal of one who loves it, and one who loves it is not the equal of one who takes joy in it.” (Analects, Book Six) Joy draws on the pleasure via sensory organs. If one receives “Dao” as joy through sensory organs, the pleasure coming from physiological functions can no longer run counter to “Dao,” the object of reasoned thought. If a sensual system associated with the physiological function of sensory organs is in harmony with Dao completely, that harmony will become a concrete force that commits us to Dao’s ideals and objectives.

In order to legitimize the status quo ruling power and draw internalized obedience, as a means of appeasement, human beings began to use art before employing ethical norms outright. In China, “yue” appeared prior to “li.” In ancient times, irrespective of whether they are western or oriental, the form of art encompassed poetry, songs, and dance. In ancient China, this undifferentiated comprehensive form is called “yue” (music). During the pre-Qin era, the efficacy of the politics of “yue” (music) was brought into high relief. Confucianists since Gongzi commonly referred to “yue” as “shishuliyue” (poetry, books, rites, and music) and regarded it as a publicly recognized canon. But literate peoples during the period ranging from the Warring States period to the Wei-Jin era distinguished between philosophy and art, and eventually they subdivided art itself into various genres.

Jikang’s differentiation of the voice of nature from human voices was made possible by the prior differentiation of poetry from music. Jikang emphasized the natural character of the sound of music and simultaneoulsy criticized the theoretical premises on which the traditional social function of music and art was based. Here I will first characterize the chronological process of the formation of the Confucian music theory ranging from the pre-Qin era to the era when the Book of Rites, with a section on “musical instruments,” first appeared. Then I will concretely describe and analyze the definining characteristics of the Confucian claim that “music has in it grief and joy”.

China’s perspectives on music were not concretly described prior to Xunzi’s writings on music. Only some fragmentary descriptions of it appear in some literature such as the Chunqiu (The Spring and Autumn Annals). Here I will explore some perspectives on music pertaining to Jikang’s critical attitudes toward Confucianist theory on music. In doing so, for the Xianjin era, I will base my argument on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu), the Tales of the States (Guoyu), and the Book of Documents (Shujing). I will also use the Analects (Lunyu), since it correlates “liyue” with an awakening of internal emotions, and Xunzi’s “Treatise on Music” (Yuelun), which developed Gongzi’s music theory. The Book of Rites, and in particular the “Book of Music” (Yuezhi) section, will also be a principal source of analysis.

I-A. Shamanistic function of pre-Qin era music

During the Western Zhou era, the Rites of the Zhou Dynasty (Zhouli) provided a standard for rulership. And it was widely read, being used as a basis for the handling of political affairs by feudal lords as well as central dynastic kings. It was also the standard for determining right from wrong, thus playing a key role in restoring order, and even in determining the destiny of the dynasty. In this period, it was informed heavily by clan practices and its main regulations were deeply embued with religious concerns. Therefore, in this period, people regarded natural gods and ancestral spirits as “Heaven” (Tian, or “Heavenly God”), and followed natural principles as the “Way of the Heaven” (Tiandao). They regarded the power of Heaven over human beings as taking the form of a “Heavenly commandment” (Tianming), and the ruler controlled his subjects in accordance with divine power. Society was agricultural, emphasized the observance of natural phenomena, and regarded this as an indication of divine providence determining the fall and rise of all the works of human beings. This line of thought that exemplifies the primacy of Heaven over human beings, and as such formed the foundation of the Confucianist political thought. As a constituent of this political body, ancient music was closely related to agriculture, and changes of the agricultural calendar were said to have engendered changes in music. Furthermore, folksongs were collected and reperformed before the ruler in order to track public opinion. Music (yue) was also employed as a way of parading the emperor’s success symbolically. Along with dance, music was made a required subject for succeeding princes. This was based on the belief that “yue” encompassed poetry, songs, and dance, that it was a valid measure to read the public opinion, and moreover that and singing and dancing could exert incantatory power in warfare.

Due to this, the duty of music officials was very important politically. Their duties included the measurement of climatic changes (Book of pre-Han Dynasty, Book 21 ), the estimation of an enemy’s morale in warfare (Spring and Autumn Annals, Ranggong 18) , the education of the offspring of the aristocracy (Book of Documents, Shundian ch.), assessing the justice of specific policies, gathering samples of public opinion and transmitting it to the emperor, the composition of musical scores glorifying the dignity of the ruler, and even the manufacture of musical instruments (Tales of the States, Guoyu).

Certain music officials, called both “gu” and “shi” thus helped to observe the Way of Heaven and extend its mandates. While cumulating scientific information via objective observations of natural phenomena, these music officials analogized these phenomena (a subjective process) to shifts in society, then using these analogies to predict significant events.

For the sake of illustrating the functions that music served more concretely, the following points are in order.

In 555 B.C., the Spring and Autumn Annals (Ranggong 18) states: “Shiguang blew the flute and predicted its country’s loss in warfare. The people of Jing dynasty were told that Chu Dynasty would invade in the forseeable future. At this time, Shiguang said: ‘They could not hurt us. I blew the northern tunes via this luguan, and also southern tunes. But southern tunes were lacking in vivacity and they were dying sounds. Chu Dynasty would fight us but never prevail over us.’”

In order to understand this historical folklore, some knowledge of the science and civilization of the time is required. According to Needham, at the time people believed that each military army had its own unique “qi,” and this qi hovered over the heads of soldiers as kind of energy field. As an attempt to measure and assess the qi of an entire army, music officials were required to blow speically-made luguan, thus exercizing special incancatory music. When the produced sound of this flue was muffled and unclear, it was believed that it showed the qi of the soldiers to be incomplete and unstable, which in turn meant great losses or defeat.

There was also a belief that the oft-found incantatory power of pitch-pipes, dance, and bell could form a qi energy field, and even that a certain state of mind could be transmitted via instruments. This was based on a simplistic sort of understanding of the nature of qi. In fact, this form of incantatory belief in music (Yue) was used as a significant standard for judgement. According to Needham, the blowing of pitch-pipes signified the beginning of a military campaign for an army, and the readiness of its adversary to attack. In keeping with the divinatory music of magicians, they were also used to issue the command to charge or withdraw. Thus, tens of thousands of solidiers’ lives depend on the content of magicians’ music.

This belief in the supernatural power of magic and incantation, however, grew weak and eventually collapsed along with the collapse of the ruling system that was based on rites or rituals. The rise and fall of a nation did not draw on the commandment of Heaven anymore, and rather the power struggles among human beings for hegemony in real situations were perceived to be the determinant of the destinty of a nation. This new perception gained currency among intellectuals and ruling classes and, as a result, they no longer sanctified the existing li (rites) and yue (music). Following this new perspective, rulers then demanded a new interpretation of the existing yue (music) and insisted upon changing its form. As a consequence, a new ruling class began to exploit the symbolic image of the emperor and thus made free use of all the imperial titles and “wuyue” (martial music)

I-B. Confucius’ thesis on music as a vehicle of political virtue.

Confucius himself respected the politics and culture of the Zhou dynasty. He also worshipped the virtues of the Yao-Shun era, thus he took a rather reactionary attitude toward the old ways. Given this, when the family practiced the wuyue, it not only represented for him the practicing of yue (music), but constituted an encroachment upon the imperial authority which was represented by yue (music). In this line of thought, Confucius correlates yue (music) with the political authority it represents, an idea that can be found in many parts of “the Analects”. In Book 7, for example, we find the following: “When the Master was in the state of Qi he heard the Shao music, he for three months after did not even notice the taste of meat. He said, ‘I never imagined that music could be so sublime.’” Further, Confucius says that music should use sage-king Shun’s shao music. The reason for his admiration for the Shao music was not merely the beauty of that form of music, but also the way the sage kings’ righteousness and “ren spirits” were incorporated into it. Thus, what counts for Confucius is not the joy drawn from the harmonious interconnectedness of various elements of the music, rather the appropriateness of the message of music, or even the extent to which the spirits contained in the music can relate to his own ideals. Confucius also exemplified this tendency in his insistence that it would have been better to get rid of Master Zheng’s music. Master Zheng’s music was one of favorite musics that former tyrannies liked most, thus if his contemporary kings were drawn into it, Confucius reasoned, their imperial rule might collapse. This example demonstrates that Confucius’ perception of music was more influenced by the historical result of Master Zheng’s music (a result that was at loggerheads with his idealized view of the Zhou dynasty administration) than by its formal elements.

Added to this belief is a further belief that music reflects the personality of the emperor. The thought that shao could help one to inherit the spirit of Shun, furthermore, is in congruence with Confucius view that the music enjoyed by one of former tyrannies should be rejected and discontinued. Confucian political philosophy stresses enlightenment and nurturing. The edifying effect of music enables the people to voluntarily agree to certain social norms. The message content of music that the ruler wants to propagates is actually transmitted via the lyrics or “poetry,” and in this process Confucianism assumes that the content of music is immanently contained in the sounds of music. In the Analects, Confucius says that “If he is not an emperor, he will not talk about rites or rituals, nor will he create music “. In view of the social influences of music, the control of the ruler over music is conjoined with his authority over ethical norms. Confucianism argues that the personality of the virtuous person is contained in music. Yet, Confucius says that “As for wu music, although it is practiced beautifully, its goodness is not fully fulfilled “. This saying represents Confucius’ desire to subject aesthetic consciousness to ethical consciousness, and it simultaneously signifies that goodness and beauty should be appreciated independently from one other. In other words, this shows that to strengthen his own sense of independence, the sage as a social mananger elevates and enlightens his aesthetic sense.

I-C. Xunzi’s theory on correspndence between emotion and sound.

The Confucian proposition that music reflects virtue is persistently applied in Xunzi’s theory on music. “Music is something which the sage kings found joy in, for it has the power to make good the hearts of the people, to influnece men deeply, and to reform their ways and customs with facility.” Xunzi recognizes that music transforms and moves the hearts of the people. In his thesis on music, Xunzi says that “music is joy, an emotion which man cannot help but feel at times. Since man cannot help feeling joy, his joy must find an outlet in voice and an expression in movement.” Here he argues that music is something man cannot help but feel. The joy is created by music’s voice and movement. Music , therefore, is perceived to be inseparable from original human nature. Music is created and produced following the needs of human nature. Namely, the rationale for music and its origin lies in the human heart. Therefore, the emotions of human beings produce a voice. In other words, all kinds of sound set its foundation in the particular emotions of each human being, Voice, denoting some emotions, transforms and gives rise to certain emotions in human heart.

Xunzi also argues that music that is created due to the needs of human nature should be pliable and revisable according to norms. According to his view, human desires are drawn from nature, thus all human beings have them in common. He regards desires as a natural nature and takes it to be recognized per se. Despite this, however, he argues that the action and the way to realize desires have to be controlled artificially. In his view, music plays the role of nurturing and controlling these desires.

Li (rites), whose purpose is to establish order to human society, does not play its role merely to moderate human selfish desires that are the roots of social disorder. Rather its purpose lies in culturing and establishing mutual harmony between human desires and goods. Li as a criterion for moderation and self-constraint will give order to human society. Li will manifest its function by clearly determining the vertical hierarchy of social roles. The established of li-compatible “fen” (distinctions) is requirement for the development of society. However, human society is not maintained only by a hierarchy of social differences. Social integration and harmony is another fundamental aspect of order preservation. This function of harmony depends on music. In Xunzi, music is inseparable from harmony and li is also inextricable from reason. “Music unites that which is the same; rites distinguish that which is different.” Xunzi says that “music is the most effective means to government,” thereby emphasizing the socially harmonizing function. He provides some evidence as to how music fulfills social ethics. The passage is as follows:

“When music is performed in the ancestral temple of the ruler, and the ruler and his ministers, superiors and inferiors, listen to it together, there are none who are not filled with a spirit of harmonious reverence. When it is performed within the household, and father and sons, elder and younger brothers listen to it together, there are none who are not filled with a spirit of harmonious kinship. And when it is performed in the community, and old people and young toether listen to it, there are none who are not filled with a spirit of harmonious obedience. Hence music brings about complete unity and induces harmony.”

This passage demonstrates that when rites are performed in the household, community, and nation, expression of reverence and honor toward superiors will encourage obedience to authority.

The idea of using ritual music as a means to govern is also found in the “Yueji” chapter of the Book of Rites. There it is said that “rites, music, justice institutions and governing bodies are different, but the ultimate purpose of these is the same.” The purpose is to give order not only to the hearts of individual people, but also to society as a whole.

I-D. Book of Rites on “Yueji”: connecting rites and music with cosmological order

As a source of the Confucian perspective on music, the “Yueji” chapter is quite representative. It enriches and deepens early theories of music. Xunzi’s basic claim to bring about the social function of music is also eminently laid bare here: “Music harmonizes human hearts, rites differentiate social differences. Harmony gives rise to mutually better understanding and distinctions will encourage mutual respect. When honor and reverence is formed, distinction between the noble and the ignoble will become clearer, and music’s harmonizing power is exercized, harmony between high stratum of society and low stratum of society will follow.”

The rationale for the notion that music should be used to maintain social and national order lies in its power to arouse human spontaneity. The “Yueji” declares that “music is created from within whereas rites are engendered from without.” Hence, when music is created from within, this signifies the tranquilizing power and when this power is reached at its pinnacle, hatred in human hearts will disappear. As to the social efficacy of rites and music, the tone of “Yueji” is bluntly transparent. “ Early sage kings were said to have governed by exercing modesty as a virtue” in this context signifies the governing through the medium of rites and music.

As a means to justify political authority, rites and music form a connection with the foundation of nature and cosmology. In the “Yueji,” “music is the harmony of Heaven and Earth and rites are the order of the universe. Rites represent the principle of Heaven and Earth distinction whereas music embodies the principle of harmony.”

Now rites and music are not merely confined to regulating human action as a moral instrument, nor are they just producing organized sounds to please the ears. They become a foundational origin of nature which is the root of human existence and thus they are a body of harmony. Music, described this way, is the mytaphysical origin and posseses what is the eqivaletnt of a supernatural capacity to oversee both the natural order and human society. The distinction between the noble and the ignoble, or between the old and the young, originates from music such that human beings now grow transparent to music. This line of thought, insofar as it identifies the source of music with that of the universe, is not unique to Confucianism. The “Yueji” is basically founded upon Confucianist music theory, but it incorporates Daoism, the Science of the Divination (Yixue), Yin-Yang thought, and Wuxing thought. Hence, this attempt to connect with the foundation of metaphysics is a result of the influences of both Daoism and modest naturalism. But, the defining characteristic of Confucianism the way it explains music – namely, by attributing human emotions and value to the condensation and dissipation of all creatures of the universe.

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