Confucius, Eloquence, and Rhetoric

Verbal eloquence was not valorized by classical Chinese thinkers, and on the contrary the views found in their texts reveal a general mistrust of it, a sentiment common to almost all major school of thought despite their fundamental philosophical differences, but it is most conspicuously and extensively reflected in Confucian texts (Xu 115).

Though all three chapters discuss the historic roots of Chinese rhetorical practices and their relationship to Confucian thought, there are many places that they seem to diverge. Xu’s article seemed to be saying that eloquence itself – what Westerners might call the goal of rhetoric – was unanimously looked down upon in Chinese ideology by way of Confucian texts and ways of thinking. Eloquence, in this view, is not the apex of rhetorical ability as it was for Cicero, nor did it connote an ethical stance as it would have for Quintilian. Rather, it was associated with “glib speaking” and considered a moral failing, as well as a danger to the state and community. For Xu, “rhetoric is broadly defined to include the practice and theory of the use of discourse to accomplish a didactic, aesthetic, or persuasive object; and eloquence is the skillful, artistic verbal expression for rhetorical effect” (116). Xu explains the seeming “irony of the Confucians employing speech to denounce eloquence” through a continuum of virtue to vice; though silence is the highest attainment, the words of the wise and “superior man” is justified provided that he speak “righteously, cautiously, reflectively, and slowly” (122).

While I understand that what is considered “eloquent” in one culture will vary in another, is it not possible that eloquence in this context might be defined as speech that is righteous, reflective, and slow? It seems that in most Western perspectives that we have examined, shallow, insincere, hypocritical speech is denigrated, thus I am not sure how this differs significantly from Western ideas of ethical uses of rhetoric. Could not one affect a show of righteousness and reflexivity while speaking slowly to enact a delivery that appeared “virtuous” just as easily (or with as much difficulty) as falsely enacting Western standards of eloquence?

At the same time, I appreciated the discussion about the various levels of speech, from privileged to denigrated, in the Confucian system, as well as the underlying ideology surrounding restrictions about speaking “glibly” in inappropriate situations. As Xu notes, “eloquent exposition upon ideas different from the officially sanctioned doctrines could be labeled as ‘spreading fallacies to deceive people,’ and often [carried] dire consequences,” which seems to be an inherent warning against speaking in any way that falls outside of the eloquence (righteous, reflective, slow) deemed socially correct (124).  Who decides the boundaries of “eloquent” or “glib” in this situation? Speak against injustice… but not too well…?

The Chinese, especially the ancient Chinese, do not share many western assumptions about language, communication, and the individual… While obviously there are rhetorical activities in China, how do you define rhetoric in a culture without a homologous word? If you simply import rhetoric as a concept, what are the implications of bringing western concepts to Chinese culture? (Lyon 132-3).

In Lyon’s chapter, the focus is on remonstration and silence, where both are situated

Analects of Confucius

within particular contexts and interactions, and thus gain meaning and interpretive value based upon those situations. Silence, here, is contrasted with speech and careful attention is placed upon “the danger of speech that alienates and damages relationships” (138). Remonstration, too, is based in relationality rather than persuasion where “there is instead an emphasis on remonstration within a relationship of trust” (139). This, according to the article, differentiates the purpose of rhetorical action (if it can be called thus) within Chinese thought and action, as the purpose of discourse is not to persuade but to be in process with someone, rather than to hold persuasion or “getting one’s way” as the end goal. According to Lyon, “remonstration together with silence works to create a respectful society where the continuation of hierarchy is perhaps too enabled, but also one where connections among people are more important than a single individual’s will or judgment” (141). Though I am not sure how (or if) this dynamic works in conjunction with Xu’s noted consequences for speaking glibly or eloquently against officially sanctioned doctrines, as that seems to both contradict and support the assertions made by Lyon.

I appreciated the discussion by Lyon on the importance of community and relationship beyond all other considerations and couldn’t help but note the similarities and differences in ethics between what she described and the conventional Western way of thinking. In the classic Kohlberg morality scale, the highest level of moral reasoning that women (supposedly) achieve is a relational scale where they value connections and relationships more highly than laws, whereas men are (in Kohlberg’s decidedly sexist estimation) typically superior, as they tend to chose laws over relationships in making moral decisions. The Confucian story (140) illustrates an alternative hierarchy where relationships – even within the limited scope of the family – are higher on the moral scale than upholding laws.

I also appreciated the statement about envisioning a democratic function for rhetoric in China where “we need to have full and constant cognizance that China is not western and that what would constitute a more democratic government in China would not be western” (142). I think that this is a very important point, as Westerners think that “democracy” is and can only be how they envision or practice it, to the point that they become imperialistic, violent, colonizers in the name of “democratic progress,” an agenda that seems wholly out of balance with democratic ideals. Noting that there are other ways of imagining democracy in non-Western terms is an important issue, I think, when examining cross-cultural rhetorics and political ideologies/processes.

If we stop fretting about the ever-baffling notion of a Chinese rhetoric ‘in its own terms,’ and assume instead that the general understanding of rhetoric as dealing with effective use of symbolic resources in discursive and sociocultural practices is applicable cross-culturally, then an abundance of available textual evidence would certainly lead us to the conclusion that the Chinese had early reached an impressive level of sophistication in what is readily recognizable as rhetorical thinking (Liu 147).

Liu, in contrast to the previous two writers, seems to have no compunction about applying Western terms to Chinese rhetorical practices, asserting instead that the Chinese have long had a vibrant rhetorical tradition that, while different and practiced in a different manner, can be equivalently understood using Western terminology. Rather than viewing Chinese philosophy and rhetoric as separate – a compunction that Liu sees as a Western tendency – he says, “it is unwarranted, at least for a historical reconstruction purportedly from a rhetorical point of view, to continue identifying originators of classical Chinese discourse as primarily ‘philosophers’ or ‘thinkers’ who happened to take an incidental interest in rhetoric” (152). He also maintains that views on oratory were largely agreed upon across schools, which did, on many matters, engage in productive, inventive debate. This debate was not at “cross-purposes,” but rather demonstrates that “they were capable of critically engaging one another’s ideas rather than being trapped in their own ideological soliloquies; and that their contentious interactions were oriented toward the invention of new ideas and perspectives rather than a mere vindication of rejection of existing ones” (155). This points to a use of rhetoric for furthering thought about rhetoric, which very much reminds me of academic discourse in the present, and also shows the possibilities for inventional strategies via deliberation.

Overall, I think that there is much to learn in these discussions of Chinese rhetoric, and while I see the ideological and cultural distinctions (such as the focus on the community rather than the individual) I would also argue that postmodern rhetoric and thought is moving more toward these ideas than away from them. I agree that classical Western, male-dominated rhetorical practices were (and arguably still are) wrapped up in contention, argument, domination, and “winning.” However, feminist and postmodern rhetorical approaches seem to attempt to take ideas about community and the individual within that and attempt to speak across these (supposed) binaries. I would be curious to see how the writers of these chapters would address ideas in rhetoric from the past fifty years, rather than the classical lens through which these discussions were filtered. Of course, from a contemporaneous historic perspective, looking at classical Western rhetoric and comparing it to Chinese practices makes sense – I am just curious about an ongoing dialog in these areas cross-culturally.


All references taken from Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Ed. Lipson and Binkley. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 2004. Print.


2 comments on “Confucius, Eloquence, and Rhetoric

  1. I especially liked the discussion of binaries in your last paragraph. There were definitely binaries set up between east and west–community vs. individualism. And as you mentioned, we can find binaries all over traditional rhetoric: “classical Western, male-dominated rhetorical practices were (and arguably still are) wrapped up in contention, argument, domination, and ‘winning.'” I can see how Plato and Aristotle would fall into these categories. Their main goal were essentially exclusionary in the end–there is only one true/ultimate/absolute truth (and there is a series of things you can do to attempt to attain the truth and then persuade others to this truth). I liked that Quintilian fought against this line of thinking–that persuasion wasn’t the ultimate goal for him.

    I always enjoy the pictures on your blog posts.

  2. “Who decides the boundaries of “eloquent” or “glib” in this situation? Speak against injustice… but not too well…?”

    This question, “Who makes the decision?” is one that haunts me in various forms when I talk about Chinese rhetorics. Here, as you’ve point out, what separates eloquence from glibness is at time blurry and seems to a be a thin line that only Confucius himself can see.

    One of the interesting notes that several of the readings offered is that there was always a form of recognition that being as heaven or tian was the most desirable, particularly in speech. Tian was (almost?) always silent and yet everything moved as tian willed, supposedly. Tian also served another function in ancient Chinese society, the choosing of rulers. Through tianming (I think it’s called), the Mandate of Heaven, a ruler was said to receive authority. However, exactly how one received tianming is a bit unclear (or at least from what I’ve read). If I recall correctly, whenever leadership changed hands or was overthrown, new rulers appealed to tianming, claiming they had received the Mandate and they had rights to rule. But naturally, this was only ever true when they succeeded in conquering. A failed coup never had the mandate. So who decides who has the mandate? Power, it would seem. And in the same way, the ambiguous power of the schools of through seemed also to control that line between the glib and eloquent. Perhaps.

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