From ‘Awe-Inspiringly Beautiful’ to ‘Patterns in Conventionalized Behavior’ The Historical Development of the Metacultural Concept of Wén in Pre-Qín China

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Uffe Bergeton



Earlier studies of the term wén 文 in pre-Qín texts do not fully explain the relation-ship between its basic meaning ‘(decorative) pattern’ and its more abstract meanings ‘moral refinement’ and ‘tradition of conventionalized behavior’. In contrast, I argue that, when used as an epithet describing individuals in pre-Zhànguó texts, wén meant something like ‘awe-inspiringly beautiful’, rather than ‘accomplished’ or ‘cultured’ as proposed in earlier studies and translations. Wearing clothes embroidered with ‘rank indicating emblems’ (wén) and possessing ‘decorated’ (wén) accoutrements signaling authority were the prerogatives of members of the high nobility. It was not an acquired property. The meaning ‘awe-inspiringly beautiful’ derived from ‘decorative pattern’ through metaphorical extension. This analysis of wén helps us avoid the anachronistic moral interpretations (e .g ., ‘cultured’, ‘accomplished’, ‘civil’) often found in traditional commentaries and in modern translations of pre-Zhànguó texts, and improves our understanding of the role played by physical appearance in the construction of social hierarchies in the pre-Zhànguó period. In contrast, in Zhànguó-period texts such as the Zuǒzhuàn, wén was reanalyzed in moral terms, thereby giving rise to adjectival uses referring to ‘morally refined’ (wén) ‘noble men’ (jūnzǐ 君子) . In the Lúnyǔ, adjectival wén in the sense ‘morally refined’ is applied to dynasties (Lúnyǔ 3.14). Nominalized versions of adjectival wén then give rise to even more abstract uses referring to the ‘moral refinement’ of the Zhōu, that is, the ideal ‘patterns of social mores and conventionalized practices established by the former kings’, as in Lúnyǔ 9.5. Such uses of wén are often translated into English as culture. However, since the words culture and wén derive metaphorically from different basic meanings, i.e., ‘growing/cultivating’ and ‘decorating/applying an external pattern’, respectively, and since they refer to different, language- and tradition-specific concepts of ‘conventionalized behavior’ or ‘culture’, such translations are often infelicitous or misleading.

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