Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Jeremy Bentham vs. Yang Wan Li


Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure—

Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.

Such pleasures seek if private be thy end:

If it be public, wide let them extend

Such pains avoid, whichever be thy view:

If pains must come, let them extend to few.

(Jeremy Bentham)

'When Yang Wan Li, prefect of Changzhou, found leisure to write some poetry he found the difficulties of administration grow light. Unfettered from past models, writing in a natural style, he was astonished by his own productivity. Having returned to the capital, Yang received a letter from an old friend 'Changzhou has recently had another change of prefect. The prefecture you once found no trouble in administering is now at least ten times as difficult! Are you still not ready to bring out those poems you wrote there?"


'The Poems are a tool to straighten out the world. There are people who say, “In the Way of the sages, the Book of Propriety is strict, while the Poems are easy-going.” Well, I must ask: who is there who understands that the Propriety is easy-going within its strictness, and the Poems strict within their easy-going nature? When the sages were finding the way to straighten out the world, they first had to find how to hunt out the world’s strongest common feelings. 
When they had found these common feelings, and worked in accordance with them in the task of straightening people out, how could they fail to be obeyed? For reform grows from repentance, and repentance grows from [acknowledgement of] public society. If repentance is not spoken about, it is no longer unsettling: if it is not spoken about in public, self-interest and denial take over. ... The sages would never allow the world to lose the sting of repentance, or to deny the force of public criticism. And so in this way they called on the public to make the criticism, and used that criticism to inspire repentance. So the world’s miscreants cannot avoid
repentance. Repentance brings reform, and reform brings return to the fold of goodness. This is the way that the Poems teach! Are the poems really easy-going, then? Majestic in the inexorability of their criticism, absolute in the implacability of their judgments: are the Poems really not strict?'
Yang Wan Li, Shilun

What the Celestial Emperor in wry jest has spoken
I understand- the paulownia leaf as jade token
Enfeoffing poor poets
Poor poets! We gain grief not land.
This is my version of Yan Wan Li's
(from 'Sunflower Splendor'- my favourite Chinese anthology)
In my version, I've put in a reference to the founder of the Sate of Chin (from which we get the name China) who was enfeoffed jestingly by the Emperor with a paulownia leaf cut to look like the jade token of feudal office.
Yan Wan Li somehow captured my imagination when I was young. I now think that he represents a sort of Utilitarian ontological dysphoria that unites all that is best in Buddhism with China's own long and variegated tradition of literary culture as inculcating zeal for the common good.

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