CHING FENG: Journal on Christianity and Chinese Religion and Culture


VOLUME 38, No. 2.


June 1995




Dr. Stephen T. Chan



John B. Henderson. Scripture, Canon, and Commentary: A Comparison of Confucian and Western Exegesis. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.


                        Shortly after its publication, Scripture, Canon, and Commentary has gained a wide interest and recognition as a first of its kind work that inaugurated and shaped the new study of hermeneutical thought and practice in Chinese Confucianism. John Henderson, professor of history at Louisiana State University, has successfully constructed his hypothesis of the commentarial assumptions of Chinese classics and compared these assumptions correspondingly with their Western counterparts in the major stages of their historical development.

                        The object of this book, as stated by the author, is "to relate how commentators approached the classics, especially what assumptions they made regarding the character of the classics - for example, that they are consistent with one another - and how they dealt with problems in canonical texts that seemed to challenge or contravene such assumptions." (p.4) If the object of Henderson's study seems to be ambitious, the scope of his comparative inquiry is even more astounding. He seeks to compare Chinese Confucianism with five other major commentarial traditions : "Vedanta, Quaraic exegesis, rabbinic Judaism, ancient and medieval Christian biblical exegesis, and the classical epic (mainly Homer)." (p.4) At last, the aim of the work is to demonstrate that in regard to the production and use of their revere classical texts, Chinese Confucianism shares an often neglected similarity with other major intellectual and religious traditions of the world.

                        It is an undeniable fact that classics exist in every culture. One of the common phenomenons of classics is the attribution of their origins to saints, sages and prophets. As "law" in the Hebrew tradition was by Moses, "gospel" in the Christian tradition was of and about Jesus, so in Confucianism, the Analects was also of and about, or even allegedly by Confucius. While the origins of classics are often attributed to sages and masters in order to substantiate and justify their classical status, the process of canonization, that is the historical course of "identification and stabilization of a body of classical and sacred texts that is declared to be authoritative, frequently proceeds to be political, ecclesiastical, or literary fiat." (p.38) One can recall ample historical examples from many traditions to support this hypothesis: the canonization of the Hebrew scriptures at the Council of Jamnia (A.D. 90) in the Jewish tradition; the codification of the first major Christian creed at the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) in the Christian tradition; and in the development of early Confucianism, one of the most crucial historical turning-points is usually attributed to Tung Chung-shu's (179-104 B.C.) legitimation of Confucianism at Han dynasty. Nevertheless, these historical arguments do not warrant a reductionistic reading of the classics that turn these historical documents into committee papers. An interpretation of the intrinsic nature of classics, therefore, is needed in order to fully understand the powerful influence of classics in human culture.

                        Henderson then proceeds to assert three major commentarial assumptions regarding the character of almost any canon of any traditions. A canon, according to Henderson, is always assumed to be comprehensive and all-encompassing in scope, logical and coherent in order, and self-consistent in its teachings. Following these three major assumptions, one can derive three minor characters of canon, that the classics are moral, profound, and that they contain nothing superfluous or insignificant.

                        These commentarial assumptions of canon can be found in Hinduism, Islam, rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and especially Confucianism. Thus constitutes the thesis of the book. The historical development of the early Confucian Five Classics (wu-ching), or Six Classics, to the Four Books (ssu-shu), according to Henderson, serves as the example par excellence of his commentarial assumptions. The Five Classics (I-Ching, Spring and Autumn Annals, Book of Documents, Songs Classic, and Record of Rites) were legendary attributed to Confucius as editor and expurgator. Some traditions further held that Confucius is the author of two of the five books, viz. I-Ching and the Spring and Autumn Annals. The Five Classics occupy a central place in classical Confucianism and exhibit all the commentarial assumptions of canon. They are allegedly to be of one body from the beginning and consist of cosmic comprehensiveness, internal well-orderedness, and consistency. These canonical characters have been subjected to endless speculations by Confucian scholars of all ages. The Five Classics have been compared to the five colors of nature and five viscera of human beings. This macrocosm, furthermore, corresponds to the microcosm of human nature. The Five Classics revealed the mind, judgements, virtues, nature, and will of Confucius and teaches us the five constant virtues: humanity, rightness, rites, knowledge, and trust. (pp.46-49)

                        At the time of the great Sung Neo-Confucian Chu-hsi, the Five Classics were supplemented, and later superseded, by the Four Books (Analects, Mencius, Doctrine of the Mean, and Great Learning). But the same commentarial assumptions can be found in the new Neo-Confucian canon with an added pedagogical purpose. As Chu-hsi stated in the Reflections on Things at Hand, "I want people first of all to read the Great Learning to set a pattern, next to read the Analects to establish a foundation, next to read the Mencius to observe its development, and next to read the Doctrine of the Mean to seek the subtle points of the ancients." (p.52) The consummation of Confucian classics in Sung and Ming resulted in the codification of Chinese classics forever as the Five Classics and the Four Books. As a matter of fact, the usual Chinese way of expression is "ssu-shu wu-ching." The Four Books often come before the ancient Five Classics.

                        Given the broad purpose and scope of the work, it is not surprise that technical flaws can be noticed and identified. But judged from its stated purpose and arguments, Henderson undoubtedly has achieved a ground-breaking study of Confucian hermeneutics from a comparative perspective. Instead of the traditional philological-philosophical approach, he sets a new path of Confucian study by concentrating on the hermeneutical functioning of "scripture, canon, and commentary" in the Chinese Confucian tradition as understood in the larger context of other "book" cultures.

                        Although the title of this book is "Scripture, Canon, and Commentary," Henderson does not provide much elaborations on the concept of scripture. It seems, to him, scriptures are the canonized classics of various traditions. Since both scriptures and classics can be rendered as "ching" in Chinese, some sinologists tend to see them as equivalents. Hence, perhaps, what Henderson has in mind are the topics of "classics, canon, and commentary." But the relationship between scriptures and classics is surely a problematic issue that demands further investigation by works such as David Tracy's theological appropriation of the concept of classics and Wilfred C. Smith's recent work on the comparative study of world scriptures.

                        But the major question one can raise in regard to Henderson's project of comparative study of Confucian and Western hermeneutics is his deductive approach. The six commentarial assumptions of canon seem to occupy an a priori position and the rest of the study, thereby, becomes the deduction and elaboration of these premises. As of all premises of any arguments, the question of justification is always at stake. Are these premises exhaustive or illustrative? How do one arrive at the premise without falling a victim to circular argument? These methodological questions, of course, cannot be answered because the premise cannot be challenged by its nature. A way out of this impasse is to substantiate the deductive approach by historical inductive studies. Further in-depth and comprehensive historical studies can surely supplement Henderson's work. What we need in the future, as Henderson himself suggests, can be "a comprehensive historical survey of the major commentaries stemming from each of the Confucian classics, as well as of all the principal schools in the history of Confucian and Neo-Confucian discourse." (p.11)

                        Besides further historical investigations, a comparative study of Confucian hermeneutics can also proceed on a theoretical dimension. One can expect some seminal works will emerge in the future that seek to engage directly the philosophical insights of modern hermeneutical theorists, such as H-G Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur, in the vast field of the study of Confucianism and Chinese literature. In sum, Henderson's work is the pioneer of a long-awaited study of Confucian hermeneutics and he blazed the trail for all later study in this field.

                        Finally, Henderson's book becomes one of the first of recent publications that probe into the vast field of hermeneutical study of different religious traditions. For similar comparative hermeneutical studies in Buddhist tradition, see Donald Lopes ed, Buddhist Hermeneutics. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988. For Hindu tradition, see Jeffrey Timm ed, Text in Context: Traditional Hermeneutics in South Asia. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1992.

Stephen T. Chan

Chicago, U.S.A.


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