Author Archives: L. Y. Tsang

Gunpowder and the End of the Aristocracy

Gunpowder for ever changed the social relations of Europe over the course of six centuries by gradually rendering irrelevant the traditional reciprocal obligation between knights and peasants, and the natural moral basis for the rule of the knightly aristocracy; with the First World War came the death knell of the warrior aristocracy. We cannot intelligibly return to the particular arrangements of the old system, but on the other hand no adæquate replacement has yet been found.

The process began earlier in China, during the early Song dynasty, when the replacement of the traditional aristocracy with an exam-selected bureaucracy happened to align with the loss of Tang dynasty horse-rearing lands and the replacement of cavalry tactics with massed crossbows and eventually gunpowder arms. The reduction of the warrior aristocracy’s political power was intended to avoid repeating the fall of the Tang dynasty by denying generals the use of local power bases, but it reoriented even the education system. The massive use of an examination system to populate the imperial civil service, replacing the traditional aristocratic recommendation system, oriented Confucian classical education toward success in examinations. For the last thousand years, therefore, to meet the needs of the imperial bureaucracy, Chinese classical education has increasingly stressed memorization and model answers over the dialogue seen in the Analects and the Mencius, despite some countervailing tendencies in the Qing dynasty’s (1644–1912) bannerman military aristocracy. In a process parallel to that experienced by Europe, then, one may see in China a sea change in social structure over the course of the last thousand years.

What kind of system is to replace, by translation for new material conditions, the system that upheld traditional ideals and cultivated virtue in the age before gunpowder?


Hong Kong Muwashshaḥ?

It would be interesting to see the Arabic muwashshaḥ strophic form used in the context of Hong Kong to write songs in classical Chinese with a kharja (‘exit’) in either colloquial Cantonese or English (or both).

Peter Lombard on the Priest’s Power to Bind and Loose Sin

The great mediæval schoolman Peter Lombard, in Distinction 18.6 in his Sentences, may surprise papists with his understanding of the priest’s power to bind and loose. He says,

But he [i.e., God] did not grant this power [i.e., of remitting sin] to priests although he did grant them the power of binding and loosing, that is, of showing that men are bound or loosed – wherefore the Lord himself first restored the leper to health, and then sent him to the priests, by whose decision he was shown to be cleansed; so also after Lazarus was brought to life he gave him to the disciples to be loosed – because even if anyone is loosed by God, he is not on that account held to be loosed in the sight of the Church, except through the judgment of the priest. Therefore in loosing or retaining guilt, the priest of the Gospel so works and judges as the priest of the law in times past for those who were contaminated with leprosy, which signifies sin. Wherefore Jerome in his commentary on Matthew, where the Lord says to Peter: ‘I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound also in heaven and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven’: ‘Some persons who do not understand this passage’, he says, ‘assume something of the superciliousness of the Pharisees, so that they think they are to condemn the harmless and loose the harmful, when it is not the opinion of the priests, but the life of the doers, which is regarded by God. In Leviticus the lepers are commanded to show themselves to the priests, not that they make them lepers or clean, but that they distinguish who are clean or unclean; so also here.’ – It is here clearly shown that God does not always follow the judgment of the Church which judges sometimes dishonestly and ignorantly; but God always judges according to truth. And in remitting or retaining sins the priests of the Gospel have the power and office, which formerly the priests of the Law had under the Law in curing lepers. They therefore remit or retain sins, in so far as they judge and declare them to be remitted or retained by God. For the priests invoke ‘the name of the Lord on the sons of Israel, but he himself blesses,’ as we read in Numbers. This way of binding and loosing Jerome indicated above.

According to Lombard, then, the priest does have power from God to judge and speak for the Church on whether someone is bound or loosed; yet we must distinguish this judgement from that of God himself, who always judges according to truth and does not always agree with the Church.

Calvin on Baptism’s Efficacy to Remit Sins and Regenerate the Baptized

John Calvin says in his Antidote to the Council of Trent 1.5,

We assert that the whole guilt of sin is taken away in baptism, so that the remains of sin still existing are not imputed. That this may be more clear, let my readers call to mind that there is a twofold grace in baptism, for therein both remission of sins and regeneration are offered to us. We teach that full remission is made, but that regeneration is only begun and goes on making progress during the whole of life.

Anglican ‘Calvinists’: ‘Sorry, that’s Anglo-catholicism.’

Why I Stick to the Sermon Manuscript

When I go off script for a sermon, I say things in ways that only I understand, and the Bible says I should not speak in tongues without an interpreter!

Lordship in Psalm 8

Read Psalm 8 carefully, considering how God has ordained strength out of the mouth of babes and sucklings, God who has been mindful of frail man and visited the son of man and crowned him with glory and honour. And then look at this image and think about the psalm again:

The Theotokos “of the Sign” Icon | A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

Peter Lombard on the Self-Offering of Christ

The Birth of Scholasticism from a Series of Fortunate Mistakes | Church  Life Journal | University of Notre Dame

To start off Advent a fortnight early like an old Hispanic of the Mozarabic Rite, I give you Peter Lombard, 12c. mediaeval schoolman and Bishop of Paris, the Master of the Sentences (as Aquinas calls him), on the self-offering of Christ:

Christ is the priest, as he is also the victim and the price of our reconciliation. He offered himself on the altar of the cross not to the devil, but to the triune God, and he did so for all with regard to the sufficiency of the price, but only for the elect with regard to its efficacy, because he brought about salvation only for the predestined.

This teaching, under the formula ‘sufficient for all, efficient for the elect’, became the standard teaching of the Occidental churches, and was maintained by English Reformed divine John Davenant at the Synod of Dort. Today, we can remember that we are able to offer salvation to all, upon condition of faith, because Jesus himself did so in offering himself to God for all, and saw to it that his elect would actually believe and be saved. And what God has offered, we are permitted to offer: God died for you, and therefore you can be saved.

The Old Dominion and Old China in Sympathy

Talking with a friend today, I recognized something consciously that had been only intuitive in feeling before: part of the appeal of Virginia to me, part of the reason I could identify with Virginia despite my much looser relation to America, was its familiarity to my Chinese blood. The aristocratic and localist agrarian culture of the Old Dominion bears a certain resemblance – even a ‘family resemblance’ – to the agrarian culture you can see in, say, a 1980 Hong Kong drama set in the countryside of Guangdong province.

Obvious differences between Anglo-Saxon and Chinese cultures notwithstanding, the culture of the Old Dominion is perhaps the most Chinese culture native to America. Common to rural Guangdong and the Old Dominion was a conservative power of local agrarian élites, and a respect for settled custom. Church vestries, dominated by plantation laymen, were socially powerful in colonial Virginia, and they wanted to keep it that way rather than having local bishops sent from England to interfere in local affairs. This would have been very familiar to a Chinese villager from Guangdong province. In rural Guangdong, villages had elders who led and advised villagers, but the local Confucian gentry dominated village politics. Rarely would anything change without the permission of the local landlord, and rarely would an actual official from the emperor show up. To have anything referred to the actual officials was a big deal, and villagers generally avoided such trouble even if the judgements of the landlord were not to their liking. Besides, the bribery that might be required for fair judgements from county magistrates was beyond the means of most common folk. Unsurprisingly, much about old Virginia was something my heart grasped, because of the place my own family had come from, the place where my family had lived for 700 years or more.

Needless to say, old China was a deeply flawed society, in need of reform and perhaps even social revolution in the early 20th century; in view of some of the injustices in this system’s last decadent period, it also is unsurprising that villagers during the Cultural Revolution rose up against long-resented landlords. Nevertheless, to an urban Hong Kong audience in the 1980s there could also be a measure of nostalgia for this old China in which everyone knew each other, and there was a known order. For all its flaws, it was also a deeply human order in which the drama of human struggle could be appreciated on the TV screens of Hongkongers 70 years later.

I believe that sympathetic appreciation of this old order, warts and all, is essential for the formation of America’s future, but that very thing is what America lacks today. The success in 1980s Hong Kong of a daily TV drama series told from the point of view of a peasant family, with sympathetic treatments of the landlord, the village gossip, and other characters, suggests the value of such literature even in a modern urban society. Dixie has had William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and others, but there seems to be a vacuum today. Virginia needs new prominent literary voices to show its human drama in a way that people today can understand and relate to, voices that love the South for what it is and sing out the dramas of the Virginian heart.

Unusual Camera Angle in Beauty and the Beast

In Beauty and the Beast, camera angles from the height of Gaston’s boots:

What did they mean by this?

Polybius Against Modern Commodified Conceptions of Citizenship

In an age when people think of citizenship mostly in terms of taxes paid and services gained, commodity for commodity, ancient thought about citizenship and political constitutions of republics challenges us. Polybius, in book 6 of his Histories, describes the constitution of the Roman republic, and about 40% of his discussion is about the structure of life in the Roman army. What does this tell us about citizenship?

José Antonio Primo de Rivera on What Makes a Nation

One Hour of Music - José Antonio Primo de Rivera - YouTube

José Antonio Primo de Rivera, in his essays on nationalism, April 1934:

Every people or every grouping of peoples is thus not a nation. Only those are who accomplish a historical destiny differentiated from the universal. From this it follows that it is superfluous to specify if a nation possesses qualities of geographical, racial or linguistic unity; its importance is determined if it possesses, within the universal, the unity of a historical destiny. The classical ages understood this with their customary clarity. That is why they never used the words ‘fatherland’ and ‘nation’ in the Romantic sense, nor anchored their patriotism in the obscure love of the soil. They preferred, on the contrary, expressions such as ‘empire’ or ‘service of the king’, that is to say, expressions that refer to the historical instrument.

A necessary clarity today, when people under the tyranny of neoliberalism have no idea what a nation is, and are reduced to muttering about ‘taxpayers’ and the state as a commodity. I shall not attempt to disguise my scorn for that way of thinking and – if we may call it that – living.

2021 West Coast Chinese Christian Conference (WCCCC)

This year’s West Coast Chinese Christian Conference (WCCCC) is happening not just online but also on site!

Calvin: The Israelite Sabbath an Abrogated Symbol of Sanctification

Calvin on Genesis 2:

Afterwards, in the Law, a new precept concerning the Sabbath was given, which should be peculiar to the Jews, and but for a season; because it was a legal ceremony shadowing forth a spiritual rest, the truth of which was manifested in Christ. Therefore the Lord the more frequently testifies that he had given, in the Sabbath, a symbol of sanctification to his ancient people. Therefore when we hear that the Sabbath was abrogated by the coming of Christ, we must distinguish between what belongs to the perpetual government of human life, and what properly belongs to ancient figures, the use of which was abolished when the truth was fulfilled.

Calvin was not a Sabbatarian like many of the puritans who hated Christmas.

Chinese Academic Dress for a Christian Cleric

Cassock? Mortarboard? What is that?

Álvaro Semedo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest in China at the end of the Ming dynasty:

Nicolas Trigault, a French Jesuit priest in China around the same time:

Though a Protestant should know not to trust the Jesuits, in this case the Jesuits made a sensible choice, to adopt Chinese dress in China, specifically the dress of Chinese Confucian scholars. Two centuries later, Protestant missionary Hudson Taylor made a similar choice to adopt Chinese dress, much to the chagrin of his English missionary colleagues.

James Hudson Taylor – Church History Review

Even though the everyday clothes of ordinary Chinese are much more Westernized today, the everyday clericals worn by Christian priests and deacons ought to reflect the native meaning system in clothes, rather than shout FOREIGN. For this reason, something like the above, analogous to English cassock, gown, and college cap, is what we should come to expect in China of even priests that are come to serve from overseas.

Lawful and Prudent Treatment of Departed Saints in Chinese Culture

Arilje : Sanctuary: Officiating Church Fathers

There is one law of God, because God is one, but in human society it takes multiple concrete forms. The morality of the same outward acts can vary between cultures, even though the inner law, the moral law of God, is unchanging as God himself. How Christian saints are treated in Chinese culture, then, should be calibrated for the existing Chinese symbol system. Evelyn S. Rawski describes part of this system in The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions (University of California Press, 1998), 205–206:

Christian Jochim argues that ritualized obeisances are ‘acts both of humility and privilege’. By kneeling and kowtowing before Heaven and his imperial ancestors, the emperor partakes of their numinous power; by kneeling and kowtowing before the emperor, ministers, princes, and others participating in an audience ritual partake of the powers flowing through the emperor. The emperor’s obeisance to his mother carries a somewhat different symbolic message, one that reifies the hierarchical relationships within families that lie at the core of the Confucian order.

The symbolic significance of sitting to receive ritual homage was broadly understood in Chinese society. The same action confirms the submissiveness of the young bride to her new parents-in-law, the subordination of a concubine to her husband’s wife, of a maidservant to her mistress. By extension we find in Chinese society the symbolic vesting of authority in both a specific chair and in the pose itself. By at least Song times some of the legitimacy conferred by this symbolically charged act had been transferred to the chair itself. Chan Buddhist monasteries during the funeral of an abbot placed the deceased man’s portrait in the ‘dharma seat’ – the seat occupied by the abbot – until a new successor was installed, thus drawing on the same symbolic vocabulary found in discussions of the throne in the Taihedian.

The argument that Chinese ritual culture gave primacy to performance of the act rather than to a specific throne or chair can be supported by popular religion, where deities in Chinese temples are portrayed in a seated position, to receive the worship of the people. The tablets denoting Heaven and the imperial ancestors in the Temple of the Ancestors were also ‘seated’ on thrones during rituals. Deities in the popular religion are depicted in this seated pose to the present day. The popular woodblock prints known as zhima, which continue to be produced in the People’s Republic of China, show the deity in a seated frontal pose, ‘like a statue in a Chinese temple’: ‘This effect is no accident, since prints of this type (some authors have called this an ‘iconic’ print) were the focus of domestic religious ceremonials and received offerings, such as incense, from family members.’ As with deities, so with the emperor – or perhaps the statement should be reversed. When the new emperor sat on the throne and received the obeisances of the nobles and officials, he was performing a ritual action that not only echoed those of ordinary persons in the society but also replicated that of the gods in Chinese popular religion.

So the Chinese should not, I think, depict departed saints sitting in a frontal pose, because these saints must not be seated to receive homage. We are, after all, not servants of Mary and the other departed saints, but servants of the Most High. Rather than sitting, then, a departed saint could be depicted standing to praise God together with the living, since dead and living alike ascend to heaven to join the angels and archangels in worshipping the one holy God.

Necessarily an avoidance of depicting the dead as seated would call for changes in ritual depictions of dead parents, for instance, but some changes in standard practice are to be expected. A Christian who has gone to be with the Lord is no longer in a position of living authority on earth. The rites should be modified to exclude all ‘sitting’ of the dead, so that ritual homage in the full sense is done only to living authorities: the reigning emperor, a person’s parents, a bride’s new parents-in-law, a concubine’s mistress (her husband’s first wife), a maidservant’s mistress, and so on. It was customary to depict the dead both seated and facing the viewer, as if God had placed them as intermediate authorities between himself and the living; the truth of the gospel, however, suggests that we should depict them not only standing to praise God, but also facing upward toward the left or the right, wherever God may ritually be imagined to be.

In contrast, when my younger brother married, he and his bride knelt to serve tea to my parents, and my parents sat in chairs side by side to receive this act of homage; my parents then gave them advice and symbolic red packets of money. After order of seniority, I myself also sat to be served tea by my brother and his bride, though they stood rather than kneeling, and like my parents I also gave them words of advice. It was a touching moment for me, to receive thanks from my younger brother and his new wife, and to urge them in turn to do all things by the word of God and raise up godly children. A departed ancestor, however, is no longer in a position of living authority delegated by God, and therefore cannot rightly take a seated posture in relation to the living on earth. Therefore it is right to treat them differently when the Lord has called them to leave this earthly life and its authority, and to await the resurrection of the dead.