Most Obscure and Nearly Lost Disciplines

A Dedicated Pilgrim in the Journey of Research in “Most Obscure and Nearly Lost Disciplines”

Associate Professor Xia Shi-hua’s A Comprehensive Study of Unearthed Documents of Abdication was approved by the National Social Science Fund of China as one of the special research projects in “Most Obscure and Nearly Lost Disciplines” in 2020. This research was also awarded 350,000-yuan grant. Its author, associate Prof. Xia Shi-hua at School of Philosophy, finally comes to public notice for years of under-appreciated dedication in academic research, acquainting people with the uncommon concept of “Most Obscure and Nearly Lost Disciplines”.

Keen Passion Drives Devoted Pursuit

In the past fifty years, a great deal of documents of abdication that remained lost for over 2,000 years have finally been discovered, such as a number of inscriptions on ancient bronze objects and bamboo slips which record the abdication legend of Yao, Shun and Yu (three  ancient sage- rulers) and the abdication event of Yan State (1044 BC-222 BC), including the inscriptions on the Three Symbolic Artefacts of Zhongshan State (414 BC-296 BC), and bamboo slips of Chu State like The Way of Yao and Shun, The Story of Zi Gao, and The Rules of Yu, Xia, Shang and Zhou. Now the philosophical pursuits of Confucius scholars in the pre-Qin period (2,100 BC-221 BC) advocating the abdication legend of Yao, Shun and Yu can finally be unveiled through these documents. To play a role in reviving the unearthed documents of abdication, Xia’s research attempts to conduct a comprehensive and systematic study into the newly unearthed and already existing Confucius documents of abdication in the pre-Qin period from two aspects of text noting and philosophy sorting. Built on previous achievements, his research greatly advances the development of relatable study within this field.

Xia has shown a keen interest on the bamboo and silk documents and Confucianism in pre-Qin period during his postgraduate days. His focus then shifted into another important field of ancient Chinese philosophy after a number of documents of abdication were unearthed one after another. But at that time most researches were centered on one single document in a non-systematic way, giving Xia an idea of focusing on the handed-down and unearthed documents of abdication. Despite the challenges, Xia made up his mind in no time, and embarked on an enduring research journey which later lasted for over a decade. Receiving approval or not, Xia stated, the following years will still be devoted to revising his dissertation based on newly released researches and documents. As a scholar, Xia has been demonstrating great determination and devotion with relentless quest for knowledge.

Stay Hungry, Stay Passionate

The research process was not smooth sailing. For the unearthed documents involved, which were written in the seal script of the pre-Qin Period, there were not any references found in the handed-down documents. Even though researchers have conducted lots of basic analysis in transcription, interpretation, and other aspects of the texts by using the knowledge of philology, phonology, exegetics, philology, etc., it was still a long uphill battle to conclude a comprehensive explanation to these documents. 

Consequently, with the support of previous research, still, it was difficult to understand every word and sentence accurately. At the same time, the unearthed documents of abdication contain rich philosophical ideas, which have complex connections with other handed-down documents such as Mencius and Xunzi, two ancient classics of Confucianism. Besides, it was also a daunting task to link the newly discovered documents with the existing ones, so as to clarify the philosophical ideas and developmental trajectory of the abdication in pre-Qin Confucianism.

Xia suggested there was no shortcut to solve these problems. Only by fully absorbing the current research achievements while thinking in a critical way, can we go further in our field. As a modest and responsible researcher, Xia never hesitates to consult other scholars whenever he has doubts. Moreover, he also explores the field of ancient abdication with diligence and a thirst for knowledge.

Being a Sincere Seeker of Truth

President Xi Jinping’s thoughts on philosophy and social sciences revealed the importance of these researches. In 2016, he noted that “we should pay attention to the obscure and nearly lost disciplines, which constitute the cultural legacies of profound value. These disciplines may seem drifted from the real world, but they should be made available and useful when needed. For cultural inheritance, we should focus on the study of ancient characters such as oracle bones inscriptions, to ensure that they are undertaken and inherited.” Although scholars in these disciplines are few, their unique academic significance and value are immeasurable.

Take Xia’s A Comprehensive Study of Unearthed Documents of Abdication as an example. First, the unearthed documents being analyzed are great complement to the research of abdication. We need to analyze these ancient documents in terms of their writing, phonology, interpretation, history, philosophy and so on, and compare them with what we have known. After that, we should carry out systematic research from different perspectives in order to better categorize and study the discovered documents.

From this perspective, The Collection of Unearthed Documents on Abdication in the pre-Qin Period will be the first attempt to comprehensively compile, collate and annotate newly unearthed documents on abdication in ancient China. 

Secondly, these excavated documents are of great significance to the study of Confucian political philosophy in the pre-Qin period.

Confucius inherited and carried forward the doctrines of sage-rulers Yao and Shun. Subsequently, the pre-Qin Confucian school expressed its attitudes and views on the succession of the throne, the essential problem of political philosophy in ancient China, through advocating or criticizing the legend of the three sage-rulers (Yao, Shun and Yu), or evaluating the abdication in Yan State[ In 316 BC, Kuai, the Prince of Yan State, gave his throne to Zi-zhi, the Prime Minister of Yan. Zi-zhi once conducted the political reform in the state and was trusted by Kuai because of his decisiveness.]. Thereby, the Confucian idea on abdication during the pre-Qin period took shape.

Such idea not only triggered the disputes from Mohist and Taoist schools in the Warring States Period, but also echoed in various forms during the development of Confucianism and Chinese politics after the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). In the later long course of history, the most remarkable events where the idea was quoted or targeted are as follows: Wang Mang[ Wang Mang was the founder and the only emperor of the short-lived Chinese Xin dynasty. He was originally an official and consort kin of the Han dynasty and later seized the throne in AD 9. The Han dynasty was restored after his overthrow, and his rule marked the separation between the Western Han dynasty and Eastern Han dynasty.] usurped the throne under the guise of abdication, becoming a precedent for the succession of power since the Han Dynasty; the Confucianists of the Song Dynasty regarded Confucius' teachings as the successor of that from Yao, Shun, Tang and King Wen of Zhou[ It is generally believed that this hypothesis about the development of the Confucian ideological system originated from Zhu Xi, a Chinese calligrapher, historian, philosopher, poet, and politician during the Song dynasty.], and they claimed to carry forward the orthodoxy from Confucius; The Doubting Antiquity School[ Hu Shih argued that Chinese written history was not credible before Eastern Zhou without critical examination. This view was accepted by his students Fu Si-nian and especially Gu Jie-gang, who further advanced our traditional knowledge of Chinese antiquity was built up in successive strata, but in an order exactly the reverse of the actual occurrence.] during the New Culture Movement (mid-1910s to 1920s) put forward theories questioning the authenticity of texts and narratives in traditional Chinese historiography; The modern neo-Confucian Mou Tsung-san developed the concept of “outer kingship” by combining the necessity to promote science and democracy. All the historical evidence above proves the theoretical significance of studying the Confucian idea on abdication during the pre-Qin period.

However, in the past, the discussion and research in this field were restricted to the relevant information in the ancient classics such as The Analects of Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi and The Book of Rites. Nowadays, the historical materials have been gradually supplemented along with the continuous discovery of the unearthed documents.

An important task in the research field of political philosophy of pre-Qin Confucianism is to systematically study the theoretical connotation and historical context of the Confucian idea on abdication during the pre-Qin period by combining the unearthed documents with those ancient Chinese classics.

In this field, the approved project “Research on the Confucian Idea on Abdication during the Pre-Qin Period” is the first attempt to systematically apply the research methods from the field of human thought history, so as to focus on such important political and philosophical issue.

Nowadays, such most obscure and nearly lost disciplines similar to Xia’s field of study are still little explored due to their great research difficulty, high-level academic demand and hard-won achievements. In spite of increasing support from relevant national policies in recent years, Xia said it is not easy to change the status quo completely. “This requires joint efforts from both the government and researchers.” He said.

With regard to the future of the most obscure and nearly lost disciplines, he also expressed expectations: “I sincerely hope that more and more people would devote themselves to the arduous and unpretentious academic work, striving to make every study in-depth and systematic in search for truth. In the long run, every obscure and nearly lost research subject could be thoroughly understood through continuous efforts by conscientious scholars.”

As a dedicated pilgrim in the journey of research, Xia believes that only the truth never betrays while the heart could be broken. He also remains steadfast in the belief that a thorough knowledge of his chosen field will open a door for his comprehension in all fields of study. While staying true to his original aspiration, Xia has always been diligent and modest in the obscure research field seeking for the nearly lost truth.

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