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Chinese Classical Rhetoric

Page history last edited by Lin Dong 10 years, 7 months ago

Classical Chinese Rhetoric, by LIN DONG


Time Period

Unlike classical western rhetoric implies a historic period of ancient Greece and Rome from roughly the fifth century B.C. to the early Middle Ages, classical Chinese rhetoric, broadly defined, refers to the art of discourse that can be dated as early as Xia Dynasty (22rd. B.C. E.) until the ruin of the last imperial Qing Dynasty (1912 C. E), a period of its recorded pre-modern and ancient history of five millennia; however, strictly speaking, as researchers in Chinese rhetoric field did following an academic convention, the classical Chinese rhetoric limits to the pre-imperial stage from 22rd to 221 B.C.E. ( the year of the establishment of the first unified empire Qin) with a focus on 5th-3rd B.C.E, the period of Spring and Autumn and the Warring States.

The chronology of Pre-Imperial, Ancient Chinese dynasties and periods is (by Lu, 1998):

21st-16th centuries BCE: The Xia Dynasty (a legendary dynasty about which little is known)

16th–11st centuries BCE: The Shang Dynasty (aka. Yin)

1027-770 BCE: The Zhou Dynasty (which Confucius looks back on as the golden age)

722-481 BCE: The Spring and Autumn Period (Chun Qiu)

475-221 BCE: The Warring States Period (Zhan Guo)

The earliest recorded example of the power of speech in context is Shu Jing, or “The Book of Documents”, which records “deliberations at the royal council, memorials to the throne, records of the beliefs and politics, orations and charges to feudal lords” of Xia Dynasty (Ch’en, 61-62). But the practice of rhetoric embraced its prime time until the period of Spring-Autumn and Warring States (772-221 B.C.E.), a period that was depicted and evaluated vastly as one in which “hundreds of schools of thought contended”. Characterized by the decline of the aristocracy, endless wars among autonomous states, social chaos, and a crisis in cultural values, this era asked for people who could proposed effective prescriptions to restore social order and reconstructing Chinese society and culture. Known as shuike, or “talking visitors”, these political counselors and diplomats, who were in fact the practitioners of political rhetoric, were sent by individual states and warring powers to their neighbors. Such persuasive encounters between shuike and the rulers were at the center of rhetorical activity (Lu, 1998). Intellectual debates among the different schools of thought, which promoted by a free environment of expressing ideas, eventually helped to formulate and cultivate the art of language and persuasive discourse. Credited to its rhetorical impact on Chinese culture and value up to present day, researchers in Chinese rhetoric and comparative rhetoric define the rhetorical tradition in the period of Spring-Autumn and Warring States as “classical Chinese rhetoric”, and thus compare it to the western classical rhetoric, especially the Greek rhetoric in ancient time, which owns almost equivalent time in history.


Rhetorical practices and Terminology

Although Chinese rhetoric has enjoyed an extremely long history, it did not acquire the status as a distinct discipline until the early twentieth century (Harbsmeier, 115–116), nor was it distinguished as an art from politics, ethics, or literary criticism (Kennedy, 144). What classical Chinese rhetoric does not have is a single and unified term that is equal to “rhetoric” in western scholarship, but what it has is the rich persuasive and artistic expressions embedded in works of literary, philosophy, history, ethics, and epistemology.  Thus, “rhetoric” has been known under a variety of different terms. Lu (1998) provides the meanings of key Chinese rhetorical terms as used in classical Chinese texts:

Yan () language, speech;

Ci () modes of speech, artistic expressions;

Jian() giving advice, persuasion;

Shui/shuo() persuasion/ explanation, idea, thought;

Ming() naming, symbol using, rationality, epistemology;

Bian () distinction, disputation, argumentation

Among these terms that overlapping in meaning but serve particular roles in different contexts, Lu argues that “the western study of rhetoric is comparable to the Chinese Ming Bian Xue (辩学), the Study of Naming (Ming) and Argumentation (Bian)” (4).



Although different schools of thought hold various rhetorical perspectives, in general, they share some common opinions which in turn form the characteristics of the Chinese rhetorical tradition: moral, epistemological, dialectical, and psychological (Lu, 1998).

Moral Emphasis

Moral appeal was the most powerful rhetorical tool for regulating imperial conduct. The notion of “tian ming” (the mandate of heaven) is the highest moral standard for no matter the kings, politicians, or common people; it was used quite often in moral persuasion and rhetorical practice in order to maintain a stable, peaceful, and harmonious social order, as well as to culture individuals to achieve moral perfection. Chinese philosophers, such as Confucius, Mencius, and Mozi, believe that being moral was the most important feature for rhetoricians and only a moral person could speak well. Rhetorical techniques to achieve moral persuasion include metaphorical use of language and analogical reasoning.

Epistemological Emphasis

Ancient Chinese were concerned about the cosmos and formulated their epistemology using symbols, such as yin/yang, ming/shi. Yin/yang were primordial entities resulting from mixing chaos at the creation of this world. Yes and no, light and dark, up and down, talking and being quiet are examples as pairs of such complements rather than as contraries because they interplays with the other as a pair and wields mutual influence. This two universal elements constitute the cosmology of ancient Chinese and also form the rhetoric perspective that differences of viewpoint cannot be overcome by contention (Oliver, 1971:176-177). Ming (names) and shi (the objective world), which was proposed by Mingjia School is the application of yin/yang in rhetoric. Ming was a linguistic and rational tool for understanding the universe thus reflected the reality of shi; “manipulating the relationship between ming and shi could directly affect the outcome of persuasion” (Lu, 291). Logic persuasion applies to “lei tui” (classification) and “ming gi” (understanding cause), which are similar with Greek deductive and inductive reasoning.

Dialectical Emphasis

The dialectical cosmology of yin/yang is very prevalent in many types of genres in ancient Chinese rhetoric, such as philosophical discourse, political discourse, even poet, and paradoxical language. The aim of “bian”(argumentation), according to Laozi and Zhuangzi, was not to demonstrate the superiority of one view over another, but to connect the opposites and bridge the differences to achieve the dao, a harmonious situation. It is similar with Aristotle’s argument on the nature of rhetoric as being concerned with opposites and arguing on either side of a question.

Psychological Emphasis

Psychological appeals became pervasive and replaced the moral persuasion in the Warring States period, when acquiring land by military power was the major aim for every state king. The rhetoricians (you shui, in Chinese) employed rhetorical means such as chain reasoning, citing historical examples, and analyzing perceived benefits and risks using rhetorical figures such as metaphor and analogy, as well as emotional appeals (fear, shame, weeping, crying) in persuasion; Lu(1998) thinks these techniques tell that rhetoricians had a good understanding of the psychological mindset of the audience.



Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse.   Trans. George A. Kennedy. (2nd ed.) New York: Oxford University Press. 2007.

Ch’en, Shou-yi. Chinese Literature: A Historical Instruction. New York: Ronald, 1961.

Harbsmeier, Christoph. “Chinese Rhetoric.” T'oung pao. 85.1/3 (1999):114-126.

Kennedy, George A. Comparative Rhetoric: an historical and cross-cultural introduction.New York: Oxford University Press.1998.

Lu, Xing. Rhetoric in Ancient China, Fifth to Third Century B.C.E.: A Comparison with

Classical Greek Rhetoric. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.1998.

Oliver, Robert T. Communication and Culture in Ancient India and China. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. 1971.

Wright, David Curtis. The History of China, 2nd ed. Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood. 2011.




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