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jian 諫, remonstrance

Jan 5, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Admonition or critique (jian 諫) was brought forward in case ministers or authorized functionaries were not convinced by an imperial decision. The term thus denotes remonstration against a verdict or legal decision, but also the rejection of a document because of formal or factual deficits.

The word is used by Confucius (Lunyu 論語, ch. Li ren 里仁) to stress that sons, serving their parents, may be allowed to remonstrate with them, but only in a gentle way. Liu Xiang 劉向 (79-8 or 77-6 BCE), author of the collection Shuoyuan 說苑 (ch. Chenshu 臣術), brings it into the context of court politics, and recommends criticism towards faulty decisions of a ruler because silence in case of errors would endanger the state and damage the ancestral altars. Liu defines "admonishment" (jian 諫) as a kind of critique the non-acceptance of which by the ruler leads to the functionary's own decision to leave the court (bu yong ze qu zhi 不用則去之). "Disputation" (zheng 諍) was a kind of critique the refusal of which by the ruler might lead to the critic's execution (bu yong ze si 不用則死).

An example of such a risk is given in the Tang-period 唐 (618-907) story Yangdi kaihe ji 煬帝開河記 (transformed into the novella Sui Yangdi yi you zhao qian 隋煬帝逸游召譴, ch. 24 of Feng Menglong's 馮夢龍 [1574-1645] collection Xingshi hengyan 配世恒言). Emperor Yang 隋煬帝 (r. 604-617) of the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) had all critics of his canal projects executed (jian zhen bu kai he zhe, jian zhi 諫朕不開河者,斬之). Another paradigm of execution for critique is Wu Zixu 伍子胥 (d. 484) who was ordered to commit suicide (cisi 賜死).

There were apparently five different modes for presenting critique (wujian 五諫), but terminology and classification varies. The Shuoyuan (ch. Zhengjian 正諫) enumerates them as direct admonishment (zhengjian 正諫), devious admonishment (jiangjian 降(= 譎?)諫), loyal admonishment (zhongjian 忠諫), reckless admonishment (gangjian 戇諫), and indirect admonishment (fengjian 諷諫). Ban Gu's 班固 (32-92 CE) Baihutong 白虎通 (ch. Jianzheng 諫諍) calls them allusive admonition (fengjian 諷諫), conciliatory admonition (shunjian 順諫), watching admonition (kuijian 窺諫), indicating admonition (zhijian 指諫), and daring admonition (xianjian 陷諫). The summary of Li Yun's 李雲 (d. 160 CE) biography in the official dynastic history Houhanshu 後漢書 says that indirect/allusive admonishment (fengjian) was the most respectable form. A commentary by Li Xian 李賢 (654–684) adds that the conciliatory admonition (shujian) attempted not to hurt the ruler's mind, the watching admonition (alternatively written 闚諫) was voiced while regarding the sovereign's facial complexion, the indicating admonition (zhijian) was expressed while bringing forward substantial arguments (zhi zhi 質指), and the daring admonition (xianzhi) pointed at the potential harm inflicted to the country without consideration of one's own life (wang sheng 忘生).

The collection Kongzi jiayu 孔子家語 (ch. Bianzheng 辨證) quotes Confucius who listed the five types of admonishments as devious admonishment (juejian 譎諫), reckless admonishment (kanjian 戇諫), dismissive admonishment (jiangjian 降諫), direct admonishment (zhijian 直諫), and indirect admonishment (fengjian 風[= 諷]諫). He Xiu's 何休 commentary on the Classic Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳 (Zhuanggong 莊公 24) finally gives examples for the five types of admonishments, which are indirect admonishment (fengjian 諷諫), conciliatory admonishment (shunjian 順諫), direct admonishment (zhijian 直諫), remonstrating admonishment (zhengjian 爭[= 諫]諫), and reckless admonishment (kanjian 贛[=戇]諫).

The typical documentary form of remonstration was jianyi 諫議 or jianshu 諫疏. These documents usually weighted pros and cons of an imperial decision and then suggested a better solution than that stipulated in an imperial edict. In pre-imperial China, the word jian is often used when a sovereign was criticized for a notorious behaviour endangering government finance, political security or the dynastic altars.

The word jian 諫 or jianyi 諫議 is also the abbreviation of Grand Master of Remonstrance (jianyi dafu 諫議大夫, jian dafu 諫大夫). The office was created by the Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE) and was subordinated under the Chamberlain for Attendants (guangluxun 光祿勳) during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). During the Sui and Tang periods, the duty of remonstrating was divided among a left and right Grand Master of Remonstrance (zuo jianyi dafu 左諫議大夫, you jianyi dafu 右諫議大夫) who were subordinated under the Chancellery (menxiasheng 門下省) and the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省). The office was abolished in the early Ming period 明 (1368-1644). The Remonstrance Bureau (jianyuan 諫院) was a Song-period 宋 (960-1279) office charged with the duty to scrutinize documents flowing to and from the throne and to criticize proposals and policy decisions considered improper. It was a relatively small institution with remonstrators (sijian 司諫) and exhorters (zhengyan 正言), with a total number of six functionaries, and was abolished in 1382. Thereafter the remonstrance functions were assigned to the Censorate (duchayuan 都察院) and the Six Offices of Scrutiny (liuke 六科).

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