CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


On Lun | China Heritage Quarterly

China Heritage Glossary

On Lun

Christopher G. Rea


To discourse [lun] is to be [like] a wheel [lun]. This means that the purport of this book [The Analects] is complete, well rounded and can revolve endlessly, like the wheel of a chariot.

—Huang Kan (皇侃, 488-545),
Preface to Elucidation of the Meaning of the Analects 論語義疏•敘[1]


The time to pronounce the last word on a man's character is after his death.

—Lin Yu 林幽, The China Critic, vol.10, no.1[2]

I have been a nudist all my life without my knowing it.

—Lin Yutang 林語堂, 'Confessions of a Nudist', The China Critic, vol.9, no.12[3]

Fig.1 A cartoon from the second issue of Shanghai Puck 上海潑克 (October 1918) depicting devilish Peking authorities wielding the sword of 'force' 武力 in arresting fifteen journalists (labeled 'free speech advocates' 言論家) and suspending eight dailies for having reported on a secret loan to the cash-strapped government.

Lun 論 straddles the boundaries of speech and writing, verb and noun, activity and genre. Lunyu 論語, a collection of texts often collectively called the Analects of Confucius, is literally the 'ordered sayings' of the Master.[4] It is also an oral record: a discourse (lun 論) that was spoken (yu 語), heard by multiple ears, and then written down and edited by many hands. Like the Analects, the character 論 lun has been subject to a variety of interpretations. Among other things, it is a motif of cyclicality that has propelled cultural revolutions from Confucius's time to our own.

Zheng Xuan (鄭玄, 127-200) of the Han dynasty, one of the mostinfluential early commentators on the Analects, wrote:


To discourse (lun) is to weave (lun), to revolve (lun), to organize (li), to put in sequence (ci), and to compile (zhuan).[5]

Huang Kan, another important Analects commentator of the Southern and Northern Dynasties period (420-589), expanded on the multiple positive connotations of the verb lun 論. As John Makeham describes, Huang 'proposed an interpretation of this word to support his claim that the Analects defies attempts at reductionist classification'. Huang followed Zheng Xuan both in making associations based on the common pronunciation of lun and in 'disregarding the pronunciation in order to derive its meaning solely from its written form'. Huang's commentary suggests that the passages of the Analects follow an intentional 'order' or 'sequence' (ci 次); that it is philosophically comprehensive in containing all 'patterns' (li 理); that it binds the past and present with a 'silk cord' (lun 綸); and that it is 'complete and perfect like a round wheel [lun 輪], which can be rotated endlessly'. The logical extension of this parsing of lun is that the Analects itself is 'a metaphor for perfection'. Huang was thus at pains to account for the text's repetitions and inconsistencies.[6]

Dictionary definitions, though not always as detailed as Zheng's or Huang's glosses, confirm that lun has for hundreds of years been understood to encompass a wide variety of expository and persuasive modes of discourse. The Han-dynasty dictionary Commentary on and Analysis of Characters (說文解字, ca. second century CE), for example, defines lun 論 simply as yi 議 (to discuss, confer, or opine), which in turn is glossed more broadly as yu 語 (to speak). We find more extensive discussions of lun in pre-modern works of literary theory and philosophy. As one might expect of one of the two title characters in the collected sayings of the Sage, lun 論,in these works, is a genre marker with a moral dimension. Their explanations of the term consequently tend to be prescriptive, describing not just what the term means, but what values the genre it denotes should embody and how the writer should realize them. In Chapter 18 of The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons 文心雕龍, an important pre-modern work of literary and rhetorical theory, for example, Liu Xie (劉勰, ca.465-522 CE) writes:

The principles propounded by the Sage are known as jing 經, or Classics, and the works which explain the Classics and set forth their underlying ideas are known as lun 論, or Treatise or Discourse. Lun 論, or to discourse, literally means lun 倫, or to set in order.[7]

Liu's definition, like those of Zhang and Huang, followed a longstanding practice of explaining the meaning of characters by resort to paronomasia (a play on words), whether homophonic or homographic. The Warring States philosopher Xunzi 荀子 even uses homophonic argumentation in his theory of the relationship between the names of things and the practice of naming:

名無固宜,約之以命 —《荀子》22.8

Names [ming] have no intrinsic appropriateness, [appropriateness] is agreed upon by designation [ming].[8]

Fig.2 Lun in the Han dynasty dictionary, Commentary on and Analysis of Characters 說文解字 (ca. second century CE)

To Xunzi, then, words gain meaning by conventions of use. While such putative associations can at times be misleading or far-fetched, or result in circular argumentation, they often imbue the term with the semantic richness of an evocative motif. Thus, in the early dictionary Erya (爾雅, ca. third century BCE) we have '"Ghost" [gui] is "that which returns" [gui] 鬼者,歸也',[9] which may be interpreted in multiple senses. To name just two: a ghost is a dead person who has returned to the numinous realm; ghost, as a metaphor, also represents the endless recall of human memory for a past that is 'dead' and gone. Similarly, in The Doctrine of the Mean 中庸 Confucius says: 'A "human" [ren] is "one who is humane" [ren] 人者,仁也.'[10] By implication, it is only through being humane that an individual realizes his or her essential human qualities and thereby distinguishes himself or herself from birds, beasts, and other living beings. Like the Italian traduttori traditori ('the translator is a traitor'), paronomasic resemblances can sometimes become canonized as truisms that radically influence conventional perceptions of the word and its meaning.

In Liu Xie's discussion of lun 論, he goes on to describe the genre context of the lun 論 (Treatise) in relation to its various types:

When it treats of government, its style is in harmony with that of the yi 議, or Opinion, and shuo 說, or Discussion; when it comments on the Classics, it has the same form as the zhuan 傳,or Commentary, and zhu 注, or Note; as a historical judgment, it is used together with the zan 讚, or Encomium, and the ping 評, or Critique; as an attempt to elucidate a certain text, it is treated like the xu 序, or Prologue, and yin 引, or Introduction. Thus, yi means to talk properly; shuo to speak; zhuan 傳, to transmit [chuan 傳] the master's instruction; zhu, to give explanatory notes; zan, to express one's judgment; ping, to evaluate the validity of arguments; xu, to give a preliminary arrangement of things; and yin, a preface, or foreword. They are eight distinct forms, but all have the same ultimate import as the lun.[11]

Following a review of various historical examples, Liu states: 'As a genre, the lun performs the function of establishing what is true and what is not'.[12] Consequently, a lun should be to the point. Superfluous discussion, self-cleverness and meandering structure are contrary to its purpose. Shuo 說 (Speech, Discourse), the other genre Liu Xie discusses in this chapter, he equates with the homographic yue 悅 (to please), offering one injunction: lucid eloquence must not devolve into hypocrisy, flattery, or obfuscation. In modern Chinese, lun and shuo are often combined into the binome lunshuo 論説 (discourse).

Liu Xie followed in the footsteps of Emperor Wen of the Wei dynasty, better known as Cao Pi (曹丕, 187-226). As David Knechtges writes in the introduction to the first volume of his translation of the Wen xuan 文選, a major sixth-century genre anthology compiled by Liu Xie's contemporary, Xiao Tong (蕭統, 501-531): 'In his essay "On Literature" ("Lun wen" 論文), which was a chapter of his only partially extant Classical Treatises (Dianlun 典論), Cao established "four classes" (sike 四科) of writing:

As for literature, its roots are the same, but the branches are different. The Presentation (zou 奏) and Opinion (yi 議) ought to be elegant. The Letter (shu 書) and Treatise (lun 論) ought to be logical. The Inscription (ming 銘) and Dirge (lei 誄) should favor verisimilitude. Lyric Poetry (shi 詩) and the Rhapsody (fu 賦) should be ornate.[13]

A later influential critic, Lu Ji (陸機, 261-303), prescribes that the lun be 'refined and subtle, lucid and smooth'.[14]

The word lun not only described Confucian exegesis, but also in philosophical debates between proponents of Buddhism and Daoism conducted both in writing and as staged performances at court. Shortly after Liu Xie's time, for example, a courtier named Zhen Luan 甄鸞 presented On Mocking the Dao 笑道論 to Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou dynasty (557-581), which rebutted and scoffed at beliefs expressed in Daoist scripture. The treatise did not go over well: the emperor had it burned on the spot.[15] The use of lun to mean 'on' or 'regarding' or a 'discussion of', however, was a widely used convention in the medieval period both as the title for stand-alone polemical essays, and as chapter titles in anthologies of debates, such as the Hong ming ji 弘明集 and the Guang hong ming ji 廣弘明集, dating from the Liang and the Tang respectively, such as 'On the Spirit Never Perishing' 神不滅論 or 'On Disputations of the Way' 辯道論.[16]

Lun 論was thus part of a wide and ever-shifting canon of written and spoken discourses used to settle matters of practical as well as theoretical import. The Wen xuan, mentioned above, gives a hint of this broad scope: it includes 761 pieces classified into thirty-seven generic categories, including twenty-four pieces classified into three types of lun: Hypothetical Discourse (shelun 設論), Treatises from the Histories (shi lun 史論), and Treatises (lun 論).[17]

This proliferation of terms, as well as the tendency of critics to define them in relation to each other, indicates that plenty of slippage occurred between them both as modes of discourse and as literary genres. Looking beyond these canons, the relational matrix of lun 論 spans types of discussion from the formal shi 釋 (explain) to the informal tan 談 (chat or talk about) and ma 駡 (curse). Etymological dictionaries distinguish between lún 論 ('to discuss,' 'to examine', or as a variant on lún 倫, 'principle' or 'category') and lùn 論 ('theory').[18] The lexical waters muddy further as we get closer to the present. The Sea of Words 辭海, a dictionary compiled in the early twentieth century, for example, equates the various meanings of lun 論 with yi 議 (opine), ping 評 (critique), lun 倫 (categorize), li 理 (put into order) and si 思 (consider, think about), as well as binomes like kaoliang 考量 (evaluate) and juezui 決罪 (deliver a verdict [on punishment]).[19] Lun also has a more vernacular contemporary usage as a preposition, such that one might calculate by month (lun yue 論月) or act on the basis of friendship (lun jiaoqing 論交情).[20] Lun is a surname. Lun also means to 'take someone to task verbally'.

Lun today bears the imprint of major changes to the Chinese lexicon that occurred in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century. In classical Chinese, for example, to lilun 理論 is to 'make an argument based on reason or principle' (ju li bianlun 據理辯論). Lilun may also be taken as a verb-object compound, such that one might 'refine an argument' 理論 just as one 'styles one's hair' 理髮. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the binome was re-imported to China from Japan, where the Kanji compound riron 理論 had been used to translate modern Western notions of 'theory', and lunlixue/ronrigaku 論理學 to translate 'logic'. 'Criticism' (pipan/hihan 批判) and 'critique' (piping/hihyō 批評) followed a similar trajectory as 'return graphic loans'. The distinction between the latter two was not hard and fast, as both had long ago been glossed as types of 'critical discourse' (pinglun 評論).[21]

These lexical changes had broad implications for the way discourse and theory was discussed in Chinese. A measure of this range can be taken from Lydia Liu's Translingual Practice, which lists a selection of sixteen compounds from modern Japanese using the suffix 'theory' or '-ism' (-lun/-ron 論), including:

aetheism 無神論
conclusion (of a syllogism), verdict 結論
dualism 二元論
epistemology 認識論
fatalism 宿命論
idealism 唯心論
materialism 唯物論
methodology 方法論
solipsism 唯我論
theory of evolution 進化論[22]

The popularization of vernacular baihua 白話 in the early twentieth century resulted in a shift in the written language from single-character to multiple-character words. To take just one earlier example: whereas the two characters in the title of Cao Pi's treatise, 'lun wen' 論文 mean 'On Literature' in their third-century context, as a 'Sino-Japanese loanword' in modern Chinese, lunwen now typically refers to a treatise, thesis or dissertation.[23]

During the late-Qing period, influenced by Meiji models and faced with a growing sense of national crisis, Chinese writers gave lun new prominence as a genre marker for polemical essays on discrete—albeit often sweeping—topics published in newspapers and other periodicals. Liang Qichao's (梁啟超, 1873-1929) 'On Fiction and its Relation to Governance' 論小説與羣治之關係 (1902), published in the Yokohama-based magazine New Fiction 新小説 (est.1902), is one of the best known examples of the blossoming genre of public opinion pieces. In this new cultural climate of experimental and increasingly assertive—if not completely unfettered—public discourse, anything could be discoursed upon. A number of Liang's longer political polemics, such as A Comprehensive Discussion of Political Reform 變法通議 (1896) and On Rejuvenating the People 新民說 (1902), are comprised entirely of sections entitled lun 論 on topics such as the perils of not undertaking reform, the civil service examination system, scholarly societies, women's education, translation, currency, political conservatism, public morality, liberty, self-governance, progress, self-respect and military affairs.[24] At the turn of the twentieth century, the 'editorial' (yulun 輿論 or shelun 社論) was also fast becoming established as a fixture in Chinese-language newspapers.

Fig.3 Yao Wenyuan's essay 'Critique of Three Family Village' (1966), which was published in Shanghai's Liberation Daily 解放日報 and Wenhui Daily 文匯報; in the radical magazine Red Flag 紅旗; and in booklet form—one of several denunciatory articles that he wrote in the lead up to the Cultural Revolution.

The renewal of lun during the late Qing as the genre of moral critique was freighted with nineteenth-century notions of 'national character' and Social Darwinism. We see this influence in the titles of other pieces by Liang Qichao and his contemporaries such as 'On the Future of the Chinese Race' 論中國人種之將來 (1899),[25] 'On the National Moral Character of the Chinese People' 論中國國民之品格 (1903) and 'On National Essence not being a Roadblock to Europeanization' 論國粹無阻於歐化 (1905). Major newspapers like Eastern Miscellany 東方雜誌 also published opinion pieces on themes such as 'On the Origins of the Dependent Character of the Chinese People' 論中國人民之依賴性 (1905) and 'On the National Character of the Chinese' 論中國之國民性 (1908).[26] As one might imagine from such portentous titles, 'discoursing' also came to be parodied and travestied in the late-Qing entertainment press which anticipated, albeit in a different key, the humorous tone of writers of 'casual essays' xiaopinwen 小品文 in the 1930s.

During the early Republican era of the 1910s and 1920s, the New Culture Movement (ca.1915-1923) spurred an acceleration of interest in literary cultural 'theory' 論 and '-isms' 主義, which had begun decades earlier. These suffixes appear in radical cultural manifestoes such as Hu Shi's 胡适 'Toward a Constructive Theory of Literary Revolution' 建設的文學革命論 (1918). Wu Mi's 吳宓 'On the New Culture Movement' 論新文化運動 (1922) is an example of a polemic written against the tide as part of a public debate or 'discursive war' (lunzhan 論戰). Many of these debates were anthologized selectively, with only one side presented in a particular author's collected works; in a few cases, though, an effort was made to represent a diversity of opinion.[27]

The appearance of lun 論 and pinglun 評論 in the titles of numerous magazines and journals in the 1920s and 1930s indicates a rise in the market value of a public discourse that was 'evaluative' or 'critical' and involved a contestation of ideas.[28] In periodicals like Modern Criticism 現代評論, The Independent Review 獨立評論, Free Critic 自由評論, Soviet Russia Review 蘇俄評論, The Book Review Monthly 圖書評論, The New China Review 中國新論 and The Current Review 時論 we find lun in the form of discussions, arguments, opinions, critiques and editorials.

The China Critic 中國評論週報 (1928-1940, 1945), an Anglophone publication that is the subject of this issue of China Heritage Quarterly, stands out because it not only translated texts between Chinese, English and other languages in a literal sense but also, as an institution, figuratively 'translated' Chinese discursive practices of lun 論 into an English-language print medium.

The bilingual writer Lin Yutang (林語堂, 1895-1976), for example, used the term lun in translating essays he had originally written in English for 'The Little Critic' column of The China Critic into Chinese in the 1930s. Through these essays, Lin made the genre of lun more intimate than ever before by applying it to discussions of his personal views on an array of social, political, and cultural topics, such as 'On Political Sickness' 論政治病 (1932e/1933c), 'On Chinese and Foreign Dress' 論西裝 (1933e/1934c), 'Confessions of a Nudist' 論裸體運動, literally 'On Exercising in the Nude' (1935e/c), 'On Crying at Movies' 論看電影流淚 (1935e/1936c), and 'On Shaking Hands' 論握手 (1935e/c).[29] The latter begins:

One great difference between oriental and occidental civilizations is that the westerners shake each other's hands, while we shake our own.


Lin was, to some degree, writing lun in English and then translating them into Chinese, but his genre adaptation was in fact far more complex. His Chinese version of 'Confessions of a Nudist', for example, 論裸體運動 begins not with a focus on Lin Yutang the Accidental Nudist (alluded to in the third quote at the beginning of this essay), but rather the idiom 物極必反 ('things always reverse upon reaching an extreme')—that is, with familiar rhetorical device rather than a familiar persona. While the Chinese version maintains a humorous personal tone, Lin 'broaches the topic' 破題 of nudity as if writing a civil service eight-legged examination essay 八股文, re-framing the essay in a different genre context and style of argumentation.

Lin Yutang and other writers favoured a personal voice to public criticism, in contrast to what they saw as a tradition of smug critical pedantry. Lin Yutang's brother, Lin Yu 林幽, in his piece for The China Critic's special issue on the Song dynasty statesman Wang Anshi (王安石, 1021-1086), cites and questions the axiomatic phrase gaiguan lunding 蓋棺論定—'the time to pronounce the last word on a man's character is after his death'—which might be translated alternatively as 'the final verdict follows the coffin's close'. In fact, as that issue of the weekly amply demonstrates, The China Critic and its peers saw it as their mission to reopen 'closed' debates from a modern perspective, and to revisit verdicts on cultural figures they believed to have been wronged by critics past. The possibility of their being such a thing as the 'last word' (dinglun 定論) is thus a misleading, if poetic, conceit.

The China Critic wasa handmaiden to the birth of The Analects Fortnightly (論語半月刊, 1932-1937, 1945-1949), one of the most influential Chinese-language literary periodicals of the 1930s, and which it shared many of its editorial staff. The Analects Fortnightly, as its title suggests, drew on the 'spoken discourse' motif of its Confucian namesake, the Lunyu 論語. Its allusion to this canonical text was reverent yet playful, inspired in part by Lin Yutang's crusade to rescue Confucius, whom he considered to be a tolerant and humorous humanist, from the Confucians. Lin found Confucians—and especially 'neo-Confucian' since Zhu Xi 朱熹 of the Song dynasty—to have distorted the Sage's persona into that of a grim moralist. This revolution of lun 論 was thus at once reverent to its classical muse and critical of the popular discourse wrought by that muse's earlier critics.

Writing discourses became de rigueur for intellectuals and belles-letterists alike in the early twentieth century, and many major writers at least dabbled in the practice. Even Lu Xun (魯迅, 1885-1936), no fan of 1930s trends in essay or xiaopin wen writing, turned the convention to his own purposes in pieces such as 'On "Relieving" and "Retreating" ' 論'赴難'和'逃難' (1933) and 'A Second Opinion on "The Third Type of Person" ' 又論'第三種人' (1933). Qian Zhongshu (錢鍾書, 1910-1998), like Lin Yutang, Lao She 老舍 (1899-1966), Zhou Zuoren 周作人 (1885-1967), Su Qing 蘇青 (1914-1982) and others, used it in the title of essays on sundry topics, such as 'On Vulgarity' 論俗氣 (1933), 'On Neo-Classicism' 論復古 (1934), 'On Writers' 論文人 ([1939] 1941) and 'On Happiness' 論快樂 (1941).

This discursive trend persisted into the war years, with essayists like Zhu Ziqing (朱自清, 1898-1948), a contributor to Lin Yutang's periodicals, publishing lun 論on various topics like 'oneself' 自己 (1942), 'other people' 別人 (1943), 'sincerity' 誠意 (1940), 'bombings' 轟炸 (1942), 'things' 東西 (1942), 'affectation' 做作 (1943), 'youths' 青年 (1944) and 'nonsense' 廢話 (1944). Zhu continued writing in this vein in the postwar period, which saw the revival of many periodicals (including The China Critic and The Analects Fortnightly), and he published a collection of his miscellaneous lun 論essays under the title On Appealing to Both Refined and Popular Tastes 論雅俗共賞 shortly before his death in 1948.[30]

If Liang Qichao politicized the genre back in the late 1800s, Mao Zedong ( 毛澤東, 1893-1976) and his political secretaries revolutionized it. During the Long March (October 1934-October 1935), and subsequently in the communist base of Yan'an into the 1940s, Mao consolidated his leadership of the Chinese Communist Party rhetorically by authoring manifestos on political, cultural and military matters. These pieces originated variously as speeches, internal memos and newspaper essays and were later anthologized many times over; lun 論 comprise a minority of these writings (Mao favoured the discursive prefix 'Regarding…' [guanyu 關於]) but include several of Mao's most famous policy statements, including 'On Practice' 實踐論 (July 1937)[31], 'On Contradiction' 矛盾論 (August 1937), 'On Protracted War' 論持久戰 (May 1938) (in which Mao 'refutes' 'the Theory of National Subjugation' 亡國論 and also condemns 'the Theory of Quick Victory' 速勝論) as inadequate to securing 'perpetual peace'), 'On Policy' 論政策 (25 December 1940), 'On Coalition Government' 論聯合政府 (24 April 1945), and 'On the People's Democratic Dictatorship' 論人民民主專政 (30 June 1949).

During the 1950s, Mao revised the above essays, along with several others, for inclusion in his Selected Works 毛澤東選集, the first four volumes of which were published in 1951, 1952, 1953 and 1960 respectively. (A fifth volume was published a year after Mao's death, in 1977.) The effect of this canonization process was to elevate theory to an unprecedented level of prestige, while also disseminating it to a wider popular readership than ever before through a centralized mass media run by the Party-state. Lun 論 were now required reading for political leaders and the general populace alike. Selected Works of Mao Zedong became a common wedding gift, the ornament of self-respecting Red households nationwide. Lun was revived as a serious undertaking, as it had generally been in the late Qing, while the humorous familiar essay vanished into obscurity. The Party's publishing apparatus anthologized Mao's words in isolation from any other voice, presenting the 'discursive war' (lunzhan 論戰) as if it had been already won—lun 論 as doctrine rather than debate. Endless study sessions were instituted to make sense of it all for the common citizen.

This new age of theory had profound effects on Chinese society and public discourse. Discoursing on politics increasingly became a top-down affair, with erstwhile critics were reduced to making 'critiques' (ping 評) or 'criticisms' (pi 批) on individuals or discrete topics, rather than attempting to shift policy through publically-voiced individual opinions on major political issues. The effect was emasculating. In the academy, 'tentative remarks' (shilun 試論), along with 'preliminary explorations' (chutan 初探) and 'outline studies' (luëlun 略論), became a popular self-protective critical convention in the 1950s within a political climate that discouraged provocative thinking. 'Tentative' remarks, after all, are easy retracted or corrected, just as 'concluding words' (jieyu 結語)—another newly popular convention—are less daring or final than a 'concluding argument' (jielun 結論). The Party leadership reserved for itself the prerogative to issue the 'final verdict' (jielun 結論) on the political behaviour of an individual and establish the 'fixed political determination' (dinglun 定論) of historical and other questions. After Mao's death, and in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, many of these verdicts were overturned, even as new ones were issued. The Party's most famous 'final word' of this period was that Mao had been seventy percent right and thirty percent wrong in his leadership of the nation (so-called sanqi kai 三七開). Even today, jielun is a powerful term signifying the party-state's position on matters of national importance.

Fig.4 An English translation of Zhang Chunqiao's 張春橋 most famous lun 論, which was published in 1975 and disseminated widely, shortly before his arrest in 1976 as a member of the 'Gang of Four' 四人幫.

During the Maoist period, ordinary critics were deprived the mantle of political theorist. Fiery criticisms at the sub-theory level nevertheless could earn wordsmiths attention and promotion in the central bureaucracy. Propagandists Zhang Chunqiao (張春橋, 1917-2005), the editorof Shanghai's Liberation Daily 解放日報, and Yao Wenyuan (姚文元, 1931-2005), a leading voice in the Anti-Hu Feng Campaign (1955), for example, rose to the highest ranks of the Party bureaucracy thanks not least to the radicalism of their rhetoric, which helped fan the early excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).[32] Only at the height of their political power during the latter years of the Cultural Revolution, and with Mao's backing, did they have the audacity to publish lun 論 of their own. Yao's 'On the Social Basis of the Lin Biao Anti-Party Clique' 論林彪反黨集團的社會基礎 (March 1975) and Zhang's 'On Exercising All-Round Dictatorship Over the Bourgeoisie' 論對資產階級的全面專政 (April 1975) were distributed nationwide a year before their downfall as members of the 'Gang of Four' 四人幫.[33]

The market reform era that began in 1978 enabled the belated importation of foreign theories and epistemologies that had been officially proscribed for thirty years, providing material for a dramatic democratization of public discourse. New magazines, newspapers, and journals helped fuel a 'high culture fever' on the mainland during the 1980s, eroding the monopoly of Mao Zedong Thought.[34] The most daring political debates that arose in civil society during this period were cut short by the violent repression of the 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square. Popular culture took a noticeably commercialized turn after 1989, but interest in foreign ideas, theories, and paradigms nevertheless only intensified, as intellectuals sought alternative paradigms to explain China's past and present.

Since the 1990s, the Chinese publishing market has been afflicted by yet another manifestation of what Huang Kan, the commentator on the Confucian Analects,called the 'inexhaustibility' of discourse: what we might now call 'churn'. The effects of churn have been particularly apparent in Chinese academia, which has seen increasing pressure on academics to publish to maintain and advance their position. Combined with aggressive manuscript solicitation practices on the part of publishers, the pressure has also led to a widely-acknowledged publishing crisis, seen in a growing inversion between the high quantity and low quality of much published scholarship. A boom in academic journals and low standards of peer review, combined with production imperatives have fostered a climate of endemic recycling and plagiarism.[35] Knock-offs (shanzhai 山寨), spoofs (e'gao 惡搞) and various forms of parody have meanwhile created new genre contexts in consumer culture and popular discourse.

To conclude this discourse on discourse, or 論論, lun is never solely a product of the individual. As Stephen Owen has argued, even The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons is best viewed less as the expression of Liu Xie's own views on literature than as a product of a ' "discourse machine," which produces utterances by its own rules and requirements'.[36] A similar principle can be found at work in the discourses of any period surveyed in this essay, from Liu Xie's day to the late Qing, the May Fourth era, the Nanjing decade, the Sino-Japanese War, the Mao years and the Reform era. Lun 論continue to revolve, and the debates continue as to which of them are actually moving the chariot forward.


[1] I am grateful to Geremie Barmé for the invitation to contribute this glossary entry and for his many helpful comments and suggestions. Translation here and in the Xunzi example below modified slightly from Wolfgang Behr, 'From embellishment to argument: On poetical and philosophical etymology in Old Chinese', a paper presented at 'Literary Arguments' conference, Oxford University (16-18 September 2009), slide 17. My thanks to Professor Behr for sharing these materials with me.

[2] Lin Yu 林幽, 'Wang An-shih And His Time,' The China Critic X.1 (4 July 1935): 10. Word 'of' changed to 'on'.

[3] Lin Yutang, 'The Little Critic: Confessions of a Nudist', The China Critic IX.12 (20 June 1935): 79.

[4] Edward Slingerland, trans. Confucius Analects, with Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2003), vii, xiii. James Legge glossed Lunyu as 'digested sayings'. See: James Legge, 'Prolegomena', The Chinese Classics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893), 2. A full text version of Legge's translation hosted by the University of Adelaide is downloadable here: Bilingual versions with Legge's translation are available here and here

[5] Quoted in the preface to The Annotated Analects 論語注疏義. Online at:

[6] John Makeham, Transmitters and Creators: Chinese Commentators and Commentaries on the Analects, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003, pp.89-91. For an expanded discussion of Huang Kan's definitions, see Makeham's section on 'The Name "Lunyu"', pp.89-94.

[7] Translation here and below modified slightly from Liu Hsieh, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, Vincent Yu-chung Shih, trans., New York: Columbia University Press, 1959, pp.101-108. In-text pagination is from this edition.

[8] Translation modified from Behr, slide 2.

[9] Translation from David Der-wei Wang, The Monster that is History: History, Violence, and Fictional Writing in Twentieth-Century China, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004, p.262.

[10] Cf. Legge: 'Benevolence is the characteristic element of humanity'. See:

[11] Translation modified from Liu Hsieh, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, pp.101-102. Compare with Huang Kan's comments on the historical changes up to the Western Han (206BCE-9CE) and Eastern Han (25-220CE) of these various textual methods of transmitting meaning, as discussed in Makeham, Transmitters and Creators, pp.94-95.

[12] Ibid, p.104.

[13] David R. Knechtges, 'Introduction', in Xiao Tong (501-531), Wen xuan, or Selections of Refined Literature (Volume One: Rhapsodies on Metropolises and Capitals, David R. Knechtges, trans., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982, p.2. Extant fragments of Cao Pi's treatise are translated and discussed in Stephen Owen, Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992, pp.57-72.

[14] Knechtges, Wen xuan, p.2.

[15] See Livia Kohn, Laughing at the Dao: Debates among Buddhists and Daoists in Medieval China, Magdalena, NM, 2008, pp.7, 32.

[16] For examples of the former, see ibid., Appendix 1 ('The Texts of Medieval Debates'); the latter two have been published together in a 1991 edition by Shanghai Guji Chubanshe. I thank Benjamin Penny for bringing these to my attention. An online version of Hong ming ji is available here: An online version of Guang hong ming ji is available here:

[17] Knechtges, Wen xuan, pp.21-22.

[18] Alex Schuessler, ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007, p.369.

[19] Shu Xincheng 舒新城, et al, eds, Sea of Words (collated edition) 《辭海》(合訂本), Hong Kong: Zhonghua Shuju, 1976, p.1249.

[20] Lin Yutang, Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage, Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1972, pp.854-855.

[21] Lydia H. Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity—China, 1900-1937, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995, pp.312, 339 and 350 ('Appendix D: Return Graphic Loans: Kanji Terms Derived from Classical Chinese'; 'Appendix E: A Sampling of Suffixed and Prefixed Compounds from Modern Japanese').

[22] See ibid, pp.351-352 ('Appendix E').

[23] Ibid, p.297.

[24] These and dozens of other lun 論of various lengths are reproduced in The Complete Works of Liang Qichao 梁啟超全集, Beijing: Beijing Chubanshe, 1999, vols 1 and 2.

[25] Some title translations used here are from Liu, Translingual Practice.

[26] See Eastern Miscellany 東方雜誌 (I.5): 91-94 and (V.6): 93-99 respectively.

[27] For an example of the latter, see Lee Helin 李何林, ed., Debates on Chinese Literature and Art 中國文藝論戰, Shanghai: Zhongguo Wenyishe, 1932. Further work on anthologizing these debates has been done since the 1980s. See, for example, Chen Song 陳崧, ed., Selections from Debates on Eastern and Western Cultures from around the May Fourth Period 五四前後東西文化問題論戰文選 , Beijing: Zhongguo Shehuikexue Chubanshe, 1989.

[28] Qian Zhongshu says of these two characters, 'the historical exegesis of lun is ping, implying the contestation and jousting of ideas' '"論"字的訓詁是'評也',就有爭鳴而且交鋒的含義。' See: Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書, 'Opening Remarks for the Academic Symposium on "Lu Xun and Chinese-Foreign Cultural Relations" (Digest)' 《'魯迅與中外文化'學術研討會開幕詞(摘要)》 (dated 19 October 1986), in: 錢鍾書《寫在人生邊上,人生邊上的邊上,石語》(系列:錢鍾書集), Beijing: Sanlian Shudian, 2004, p.201.

[29] Notation in the main text refers to the dates that these essays were first published in English (e) and Chinese (c). English and Chinese versions of these and other essays appear in Qian Suoqiao, ed. Selected Bilingual Essays of Lin Yutang, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2010. Chinese versions of Lin's essays were published variously in the periodicals The Analects Fortnightly 論語半月刊, Shun Pao Monthly 申報月刊, and Cosmic Wind 宇宙風. For datings, see Qian, Selected Bilingual Essays, pp.232-234.

[30] These pieces may be found in: 朱自清著,朱喬森編《朱自清散文全集》(中集), Nanjing: Jiangsu Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 1998, pp.193-306, 343-346, 373-397.

[31] I thank Geremie Barmé for his prompts and suggestions regarding the connotations of lun in Mao-era China, from which I developed the following analysis. A sixteen-page English pamphlet edition published by the People's Publishing House in Bombay in April 1951 translates this essay as 'Concerning Practice'. Mao's essays were revised several times and printed in multiple editions; the Chinese and English versions linked to from this essay are provided solely for general reference, as they are not the earliest published editions and may not correspond with each other.

[32] Yao was a member of the Politburo from 1969 to 1976 and from 1971 to 1976 effectively controlled the national propaganda apparatus. Zhang had a similar tenure as a Politburo member, later being appointed to its Standing Committee (1973-1976), to the State Council (1975-1976), and to the political leadership of the PLA. On Zhang and Yao's finding favour with Mao Zedong and Jiang Qing during the Anti-Hu Feng Campaign, see: Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao's Last Revolution, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006,pp.15-19. For an example of one of Yao's early Cultural Revolution newspaper editorials, which was soon thereafter published as pamphlets, see: Yao Wenyuan 姚文元, A Critique of "Three Family Village": The Reactionary Nature of "Nighttime Chats on Mt. Yan" and "Anecdotes from a Three Family Village" 評"三家村"—《燕山夜話》《三家村札記》的反動本質, Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 1966.

[33] On the political context of these two essays, see MacFarquhar and Shoenhals, Mao's Last Revolution, pp.392-395.

[34] See Jing Wang, High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng's China, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

[35] Western media have reported extensively on this phenomenon. See, for example: Yuehong Zhang, 'Chinese journal finds 31% of submissions plagiarized', Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science, vol.467 (9 September 2010): 153 (a PDF version is available at:; Elizabeth Redden, 'Plagiarism epidemic shuts down U.S. program in China', USA Today (27 July 2010); Louisa Lim, 'Plagiarism Plague Hinders China's Scientific Ambition', National Public Radio (3 August 2011).

[36] Stephen Owen, 'Liu Xie and the Discourse Machine', in A Chinese Literary mind: Culture, Creativity, and Rhetoric in Wenxin diaolong, Zong-qi Cai, ed., Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001, pp.175-191.