Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The "Three Doctrines Discussions" of Tang China: Religious Debate as a Rhetorical Strategy

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The "Three Doctrines Discussions" of Tang China: Religious Debate as a Rhetorical Strategy

Article excerpt


In this essay I will be introducing the "Three Doctrines Discussions" of medieval China. These were imperially-sponsored debates between representatives of China's three major religious systems, these being Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. These debates had a long history. They began during the Period of Disunion (221-580 C.E.), when China had splintered into a number-of separately-ruled, contending states, and they continued during the reunification of the empire under the short-lived Sui dynasty (581-617). After reaching their apogee in the early half of the Tang dynasty (618-960) they then underwent a decline in the mid-Tang and were abandoned after 870.

This study of the "Three Doctrines Discussions" may be of interest to students of argumentation and debate in several ways.(1) The "Discussions" are one of the few instances in which the Chinese state sponsored semi-public, adversarial debates. Fortunately there is a wealth of historical materials and primary sources, including many verbatim accounts, which allows us to paint a fairly comprehensive picture of these debates and their development.(2) Despite the significant differences of language, philosophical heritage, and cultural context between medieval China and the contemporary West, I expect that the procedures, standards of judgment, and underlying rationale of these debates will be surprisingly familiar to Western-trained students of debate. Finally, the abundant records of these debates allow us to trace out a suggestive parallel between the emergence, evolution, and disappearance of the "Three Doctrines Discussions" and major shifts in their political context.

In what follows I first briefly describe the precursors to the "Three Doctrines Discussions" - that is, the varieties of debate whose forms, topics, standards, and functions were the likely models for the "Three Doctrines Discussions." After describing the emergence, growth, and decline of the "Three Doctrines Discussions," I place their history within the larger story of Chinese dynastic politics. Based on this correlation, I propose that the evolution of these debates is best explained as an instance in which the legitimizing functions of the impartial judgment of reasoned debate were rhetorically exploited to political ends. Specifically, by appearing to engage in dispassionate, reasoned judgment of these debates, rulers sought to reinforce their ethos, and that of the dynasty, and thus to contribute to its legitimation. Conversely, the less need they had of such enhancement of their ethos, the greater the tendency to reduce the "Three Doctrines Discussions" to a ritual enactment of a debate, and finally to drop them entirely.

Sources of the "Three Doctrines


First, let me briefly review the argumentative activities from which the "Three Doctrines Discussions" developed, an especially needful task given the common belief that China did not have a tradition of argumentation and debate (Becker 1986). During the Period of Disunion (220-581 C.E.) there developed two distinct practices of philosophical disputation. First, the Buddhists sponsored frequent debates on points of Buddhist metaphysics. These debates took place at the lecture halls associated with Buddhist temples, and they were open to all to attend and even to participate in. There was also a secular, private type of philosophical debate associated with "Pure Talk" (qingtan) activities. These sessions of disputation and explication, limited to invited guests, were drawn from the literati, and the topics ranged over the doctrines of many philosophical schools (Garrett 1993).

In both these kinds of philosophical disputation the discussions concerned abstract metaphysical and ethical themes. There were widely-accepted rules of procedure that were quite similar for both. Seating was based on reputation as a debater; the more well-known the individual, the closer to the host's seat he was placed. …

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