The 84th George E. Morrison Lecture In Ethnology
One of the most notable features of Warring States-period (Zhanguo 戰國, 453-221 BCE) political discourse is the extraordinary self-confidence of intellectually active men-of-service (shi 士). Having positioned themselves as collective possessors of the Way 道, these intellectuals claimed recognition as moral guides for both rulers and society at large. A major way in which they asserted their superiority over rulers was by proliferating historical (and quasi-historical) narratives that uniformly cast rulers as recipients of their advisers’ wisdom.
In this lecture, I will explore the counter-discourse aimed at undermining intellectuals’ authority. Two texts stand out for their systematic assault on fellow intellectuals. The Book of Lord Shang (Shangjunshu 商君書) was arguably the earliest major text to turn the tables on intellectuals who sought appointment on the basis of perceived moral superiority. But it was Han Feizi 韓非子 that most mercilessly exposed the moralizers’ fallacies and their abuse of history. The assault by the authors of these texts on their fellow intellectuals created a paradox, though. In dismissing their rivals’ claims to offer moral guidance to rulers, the authors also undermined their own intellectual authority over the throne. Moreover, they ruined forever their texts’ prestige in the eyes of the educated elite. Why did they adopt the stance of “class traitors”? What can we learn from their example about the power and the weakness of Chinese intellectuals—from the Warring States era on and well into the present? And how do internal cleavages among Chinese intellectuals resonate elsewhere? This lecture shall address these questions.
Yuri Pines 尤銳 is Michael W. Lipson Professor of Asian Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research focuses on early Chinese political thought, traditional Chinese political culture, early Chinese historiography, history of preimperial (pre-221 BCE) China, and comparative studies of imperial formations worldwide.