Thursday, May 15, 2014

Zhongyong and Addiction

Despite having cultivated cannabis for its hallucinatory effects since at least the Neolithic era, cannabis has not proven to be a preferred intoxicant among the Chinese since that time. Hui-Lin Li suggests that this is due to the near-universal adoption of the lessons contained in the Confucian classic text, Zhongyong 中庸 which Li refers to as the “Doctrine of the Mean” (300). Li argues that it's because cannabis is a Phantastica (a hallucinogen that induces mental exhilaration and nervous excitation), as opposed to opium, which is an Euphorica (having sedative qualities), that the Chinese would not be inclined to consume cannabis. That, Li argues, family life is the primary socializing agency and because cannabis consumption—on Li's account—leads to fantasy, unreality, and violence, cannabis would disrupt family life (300). Opium, on the other hand, could be consumed communally and brought about a relaxed state in the users. “In a way it incidentally served to preserve the large extended family system, thus reinforcing the teachings of filial piety [xiao 孝] and ancestor worship” (300–301).
 (, hemp, in zhuan script)

In his short essay Li puts forward a number of arguments about the role of cultural techniques in the formation of Chinese culture and the unfolding of China's entrance into the Modern era. The essay opens with a discussion of textile fibers as defining features of ancient Old World cultures: the Mediterranean region cultivated linen, there was cotton culture in India, and in East Asia there was hemp culture (293). The casual reader might be surprised that East Asia is not marked as a silk culture, but Li tells us that from the earliest times the cultivated fields were referred to as “land of mulberry [which attracted silk worms] and hemp.” Hemp was a crucial element in observing ritual propriety (li 禮) since before the days of Confucius. According to the Liji 禮記 one must wear rough hempen clothing during the mourning of one's parents. for example. Confucius states in the Analects 論語 (9.3) that “The use of the hemp cap (麻冕) is prescribed in observance of ritual propriety li 禮. Today people use silk as a matter of frugality. I would follow accepted practice on this.”

You'll note that Li relies upon the first translation of Zhongyong that the Protestant missionary James Legge created, “Doctrine of the Mean.” Twelve years later Legge would later abandon that translation in favor of “The state of equilibrium and harmony.” There's no question that those in power throughout China's history have been influenced by the Zhongyong as all bureaucrats were required to memorize the text as part of their standard exams. But how do we understand the text? Although I disagree with Li that the Zhongyong is primarily a text about moderating one's behavior (a la Aristotle's Golden Mean), I am intrigued by the reading of the Zhongyong as a user's manual. Translating the work is difficult in part because it is straightforward in what it says, but philosophically it appears incoherent at first.
(, hemp, in contemporary hanzi)

The Zhongyong discusses the role of education (jiao 教) in the process of enhancing and developing one's natural tendencies (xing 性) so that one may become consummate in the performance of one's daily affairs. Through this process of harmonization and consummation one is elevated to a status of cosmic co-creative status. That's not to say that one creates worlds ex nihilo, but that through this practice one learns to align with the creative forces of the universe.

I've argued elsewhere (Boshears, Boeri, Harbry 2011; Boshears 2012; Boeri, Gibson, Boshears 2014) that addiction is a networked phenomenon: one is apprenticed into addiction and out of addiction. In so far as "addiction" as a concept is philosophically coherent it is a description of learned technological relating that has gone askew. In my dissertation I will consider drug use from the perspective of cultural techniques and as a case study I will examine how addiction came to be articulated by colonial European agents acting in China. The creation of the concept of addiction was a means of naturalizing colonial Europe's cultural techniques and providing a pretext for further subjugating non-Europeans. I suspect that unpacking the Zhongyong's position on education will help us understand what is possible in pedagogy and contribute a novel interpretation of how addiction "happens."

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