From the Wei-Jin through Tang-Song periods, social structures and customs in China underwent great change. In the case of sitting positions, these periods saw a shift from the “floor-sitting era” prior to the Qin to the “era of raised sitting” following the Tang and Song dynasties. In the interim, there was a period where the seated squat (juzuo
The study of historical shifts in social customs must begin with a close look at the daily lives of ancient people. Both because we cannot access those times and because historians tend to document change rather than the norm, the value of extant visual materials from historical periods is immeasurable. The Song (960–1279) dynasty reproduction of the Bei Qi jiaoshu tu
1 Beginnings: The Sitting Positions of Five People in the Bei Qi jiaoshu tu
The scene depicted in the Bei Qi jiaoshu tu corresponds to an event recorded in the “Wenyuan liezhuan”
The version of the Bei Qi jiaoshu tu seen by the Northern Song (960–1127) calligrapher Huang Tingjian
Fan and Huang were not looking at the same painting. Descriptions in relevant texts all say there were several copies of this painting already during the Song dynasty. […] While differing in coloring, brush strokes, or in there being “twelve scholar-officials” versus “only five scholar-officials,” they all share the collating-books theme and depict the main subjects with similar composition and detail. Thus, the original must be the work of a single artist.3
Hence, the copies seen by Huang and Fan likely come from the same source. According to the explication of Song Minqiu
It is reasonable to assume the five men seated in the extant Bei Qi jiaoshu tu to be among the twelve that received the imperial decree to collate texts. Occupying the center of the painting are four men sharing a raised sitting platform, upon which are placed various accoutrements. This is a depiction of the daily life of the literati of that time (Figure 1). One man poised to leave sits with his legs dangling off the side of the platform while a servant puts on his shoes. This tells us it is customary to remove one’s shoes when taking one’s seat and to sit on the platform barefoot. Another man playing the zither turns with his hand extended to keep the man from leaving. His hand holds the leaving man’s waist-tie, unwittingly revealing the partially bare leg beneath his robes. This brings attention to the likelihood that the four men had all been sitting cross-legged on the platform with layered skirts bunched between their knees. That they do not sit in the knelt position common during the pre-Han era is apparent from the wrinkled state of the skirts between the knees of the figure elegantly holding a brush. Instead, they likely sit with legs crossed so as to be able to rest papers upon the skirts gathered between his knees. The sitting platform, which easily accommodates four people, is also much more spacious than the one-person seat documented in previous historical records. The facing platform observed by Huang Tingjian must be even larger since it can seat seven people. In fact, sitting platforms at this time seemed no different than beds for sleeping. As Yang Sen
Another focal point in this painting is the man seated on a foreign stool. Dressed in red robes, he is attended by six servants, one hunching over as he stands before him, holding open a scroll for his viewing (Figure 2). The foreign stool he sits on is rather low to the ground with a sparse design; only horizontal wooden rods on each side support its legs. The way the legs cross diagonally recalls the folding stools of today. It reads as a lightweight piece of furniture designed for portability and convenience (Figure 3). Shang Binghe
The foreign stool, known today as the tripod, is also called a hemp press (mazha
麻榨). As they are held together by hemp rope and can fold and expand, the Hu people often carry them about …. A piece of string lays over the center connector of the foreign stool. It expands during use and folds when not. One can use it to tie the stool to a horse’s harness or to hang it from the shaft of a cart, or on a wall.6
More recently, we can see in images of the Shinü tu
Ji goes on to write, “Though light and convenient, from the Sui (581–618) through Tang dynasties (particularly before the Middle and Late Tang periods), foreign stools never graced the great halls of learning. Tang people still preferred heavier-set interior seating meant for sitting in a fixed position. They also maintained the custom of floor-sitting.”9 This explanation overlooks evidence in the Bei Qi jiaoshu tu from which we see that scholars of the Northern Dynasties (439–581) clearly had two ways of sitting: sitting upon raised platforms and sitting on foreign stools. Both differ greatly from pre-Han floor-sitting. When sitting on a raised platform, one removes one’s shoes and sits cross-legged. When sitting on a foreign stool, “one’s legs dangle and one’s feet are set on the floor” in a seated squat position.10 The foreign stool depicted in the Bei Qi jiaoshu tu is lower to the ground, so the dangling calves of the red-robed scholar-official are angled slightly forward and his upper body leans slightly forward. His posture is very similar to how we today sit on small stools.
Given all of this, we can conclude that, by 556, the scholar-officials of the Northern Qi had adopted two new manners of sitting – sitting cross-legged and sitting in a seated squat – which departed from the floor-sitting customs that had preceded. However, prior to this, in 426, the seated squat had served as a catalyst for a major political incident.
2 Squatted Eating: How One Sitting Position Instigated a Political Quarrel
Squatted eating (jushi
As a scholar-official of the Eastern Jin (317–420) through the Southern Dynasties period, Fan Tai exemplified literati who believed in both Buddhism and Confucianism. Born of the Fan clan of Nanyang, he entered scholarly learning through the study of the classics and histories. He became an Erudite of the Imperial Academy 太學博士, then, the Minister of Ceremonies 太常. During the Liu Song dynasty, he was appointed Grand Master of the Palace with Golden Seal and Purple Ribbon 金紫光祿大夫, then the Chancellor of Education 國子祭酒. In his youth, Fan became deeply interested in the wave of Buddhist thought spreading through China. In the first year of the Yongchu
In the third year of the Yuanjia
Yoshikawa has analyzed the reasoning behind Huiyi’s opposition to Fan Tai as follows:
Mohe sengqi lü
摩诃僧祈律(Mahāsāṃghika-vinaya), the Sanskrit text that Fa Xian 法顯brought back from central India, was translated into Chinese by Buddhabhadra, who was residing at Daochang Temple 道場寺in Jiankang. Work on the translation began in the eleventh month of the twelfth year of the Yixi 義熙era (416) and finished in the second month of its fourteenth year (418). Shortly after, this text on Buddhist discipline was accepted by Huiyi along with fifty monks residing at Qihuan Temple. The sitting customs included in this work differed from those considered proper eating forms in China (sitting formally or upright). Instead, they based eating posture on crouched sitting positions from India (such as the seated or slanted squat). One might consider Qihuan Temple, described as a place where “many renown monks from the western regions stopped” to “transmit Buddhist scriptures and teachings,” would be a worldly place that easily accepted customs from other countries.15
Mohe sengqi lü, the Buddhist guide to precepts, spread to China in the final years of the Eastern Jin, after the construction of Qihuan Temple. As the temple was more open to foreign influence than most institutions, its people adopted the guide to precepts early on. The sitting position they used while partaking in food – based on “crouched sitting positions from India” – substantially diverged from that of other temples. According to the early Tang text Nanhai jigui neifa zhuan
Why was Fan Tai so opposed to monks eating in a seated squat position? Fan mentioned a few reasons in his correspondence. The first pertains to Huiyi et al., arguing that if they could give up the Indian custom of eating with one’s hands then they naturally should also be able to give up squatted eating. Point two appeals to Emperor Wen of Song
The question becomes, then, why Fan Tai considers squatted sitting to be incompatible with Chinese rituals and customs. The sitting kneel (guizuo
3 The Dividing Line between the Sitting Kneel and the Seated Squat
As a symbolically significant aspect of social life and customs, the evolution of sitting positions once captured the attention of archaeologist Li Ji
The sitting kneel was originally part of the daily life of the specter-worshipping Shang dynasty ruling class; through practice, it developed into a part of ancestor worship, sacrificial rites to deities, and etiquette for hosting guests. As the Zhou dynasty adopted and expanded on Shang customs, it evolved into a ritual system that would serve as the foundation for China’s three-thousand years of Confucian culture. For the first half of this history, the nucleus of this ritual system – ingrained in its very DNA – was the sitting kneel. However, this, too, changed after the Southern and Northern Dynasties.
The sitting kneel lost its place within Chinese daily life due to the import of foreign stools and the influence of the lotus sitting position brought over by Buddhist monks from the east. However, its total demise would not come about until after the popularization of the folding stool. Though the prominence of the sitting kneel had started to wane even during the Han period, it was still largely in practice then.20
Based on Li’s assessment of this cultural milestone, it is reasonable to refer to the period preceding the Qin (221–207 BCE) as the “era of floor-sitting” (guizuo shidai
The Qing dynasty (1616–1911) scholar Wang Mingsheng
From the previous discussion on the squatted eating incident, one can see that, unlike squatting, the lotus position did not evoke the same repulsion from Confucian scholar-officials like Fan Tai. While they seemed to accept the lotus sitting position, they were completely intolerant of the seated squat. Why, when both sitting positions stem from Buddhist customs, were Confucian scholar-officials able to accept the lotus position while only able to view the seated squat with deep enmity?
Let us first examine the sitting kneel, which developed out of the kneeling position. Shen Wenzhuo
Now let us take a closer look at the Buddhist lotus sitting position. The lotus position is achieved by crossing one’s legs so that one is resting the backs of one’s feet against the opposite thigh. The knees touch the ground while the bottoms of the feet face upwards. The calves rest flat against the ground and the upper body remains upright. There are clear similarities between this and the traditional Chinese sitting kneel position. For instance, the knees touch the ground in both cases. This explains why the Buddhist lotus position is more readily acceptable to traditional Chinese scholar-officials. Yoshikawa Tadao refers to both as proper traditional Chinese sitting positions (i.e. sitting upright or formal sitting).
In the Shuowen jiezi
Based on the above discussion, we can take whether the knees and bottoms of feet touch the ground as a measure to divide the sitting positions discussed thus far into two categories: one which includes kneeling, the sitting kneel, and the lotus; and one which includes squatting, sitting with legs outstretched, and the seated squat (Figure 5). The former is considered proper, and the latter implies disrespect. A huge gulf divides the two.
Fan Tai was not alone in his distaste for the seated squat. In fact, similar positions can be found in numerous textual examples. The “Gaozu benji”
Debates around the sitting position belie a deeper cultural and ideological clash. Rather than stemming from sitting itself, the dividing line between the sitting kneel and more crouched or squatted sitting positions delineates the conflict and tension between foreign and Chinese ritual conduct. For Fan Tai, the dividing line illustrated in Figure 5 is as clear as the need to repel the seated squat. His attitude exhibits a staunch protectiveness towards the Confucian ritual code as well as the walled-off interiority of a Confucianist who rejects non-Chinese cultural norms.
That Fan Tai spent his youth admiring foreign-originated Buddhist teachings suggests that he is not an incorrigible conservative. However, when it comes to new trends and customs that accompany Buddhism and that may threaten to change long-held domestic social norms, Fan’s wish to safeguard the core features of China’s bygone eras placed him squarely on the conservative side. That is why he was willing to go so far as to instigate a political quarrel to stop the relentlessly advancing tides of change.
4 Structural Shifts in Concepts and Institutions
From the pre-Qin “era of floor-sitting” to the post-Tang through Song “era of raised seating,” Chinese society underwent a wholesale institutional and structural change. The Wei, Jin, through Southern and Northern Dynasties, marked the transitional period for this change, and the seated squat sitting position represents an exemplary case study for examining that change. As Southern Dynasties people debated the legitimacy of the seated squat, Northern Dynasties society had already embraced the new sitting position as part of its customs. Even in as lofty a context as noblemen collating the classics, one sees someone squat-sitting on a foreign stool as if it were the most natural occurrence. The “era of floor-sitting” has passed, never to return; ultimately, it is the Tang through Song’s “era of raised seating” and all the accompanying dangling-legged sitting positions that would establish a permanent place in history.
Along with sitting position, these hundreds of years of transition also saw the evolution of many co-occurring shifts in various aspects of social life and customs. With sitting positions as his starting point, John H. Kieschnick expands on some of these shifts:
The appearance of the chair on the domestic scene demanded many changes in the Chinese household. Household objects are intimately connected. When mats are used as the chief sitting implement, other pieces of furniture must also be low to the ground; conversely, once people began to sit on chairs, other furniture had to rise as well. […] The size and shape of the tableware changed accordingly. […] Extant Tang bowls and serving dishes point to the recognition that when dining on a mat, tall, larger eating implements are more convenient. In the Song, when eating utensils were placed up on the table, the spatial relationship between one’s body and the food before one changed, and for this reason, smaller, more delicate bowls, plates, and cups soon became the fashion. After the chair came into use, the position of windows, screens, and ceiling heights all underwent dramatic changes, as did clothing, gestures, and how people interacted and perceived each other indoors. Entire industries withered and died with the rise of the chair, while other enterprises rose with it.32
One sees here the deep interconnectedness of daily life. With a shift in sitting position comes changes in the scale of furniture construction, the shape of everyday objects, the position of windows, and the height of ceilings, not to mention the clothing, shelter, food, and movements of people. Even the feelings and attitudes of people changed due to imperceptible influences. No wonder so many scholars describe this as a “domestic revolution of magnitude.”33 Referring to it as a “revolution” draws attention to the start and end points of several hundred years of change and overtrains the comparative lens on some transcendental rupture between and imagined “before” and “after.” In actuality, change is slow and gradual, disordered, multifaceted, and vacillating. As Kieschnick writes, “Tang people sat on the floor.” In other words, it is not as though an epochal trend disappeared overnight; in this case, it retained its traces even after the transitional period. The complexity of transition is apparent in various aspects of social life; shifts in every life, in turn, affect changes in social customs which, ultimately, affect change on a larger institutional scale. Although many scholars have investigated these changes from particular perspectives, the scale of comparisons – either macrocosmic or scattered – is still far too limiting. There remains much work to be done.
What drew the curtain on the “era of floor-sitting” is a deep ideological and conceptual fissure, one capable of instigating social evolution. Zhu Dawei
This new development, the rise of xuanxue, occurred during the Wei and Jin dynasties. Zong Baihua
Ji Kang and Ruan Ji are often charged with the crime of destroying Confucianism. From my perspective, however, this assessment is wrong. During the Wei-Jin era […] those who appeared to be denigrating Confucianism were actually the ones who most acknowledged it, and believed too faithfully in it. This is because what most considered upholding Confucianism at the time was, in fact, using it for personal gain. Such conviction is fickle. When Cao Cao
曹操killed Kong Rong and Sima Yi 司馬懿killed Ji Kang, it was due to both being unfilial; however, can either Cao Cao or Sima Yi claim to be more filial? They merely borrowed the word to assign blame to those who opposed them. A genuine person can only view such abuse of Confucian teachings as blasphemy, the ultimate injustice, one against which they feel helpless. This shock causes them to stop preaching Confucianism, to stop believing in it, and to even go against it. But this is only a matter of attitude. At heart, they most likely continue to believe in Confucian teachings. They hold it preciously and more steadfastly, in any case, than the Cao Caos or Sima Yis of the world.36
In retrospect, accompanying the steady prominence of traditional Confucian thought throughout the Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties was always the rising abuse and misappropriation of its ethics. Although Confucianism enjoyed a period of revitalization during the Han period, by the end of the Eastern Han (25–220), it was once again in a state of crisis. Like a worn, unwieldy machine, this time it had fallen into an irreparable state of disrepair. In the words of Hsiao Kung-chuan
As the term implies, it refers to the action that takes the direction of fierce opposition to something. Say, for instance, one was brought up under the strict moral training of extreme traditional Confucianism. Currently, one harbors intense hatred towards Confucianism, towards morality; eventually, one gives free rein to these intense emotions. […] One’s actions are bound to take an extreme turn in the opposite direction and try to act in violent contradiction to one’s past. This is the kind of reactionary behavior I here refer to as intrinsic or self-effacing.38
Wei-Jin obscure learning might be considered a counter reactionary movement against Confucianism. It is precisely because Kong Rong, Ji Kang, and Ruan Ji began as the most devout believers in Confucian teachings that they were pushed towards the polar opposite stance of desiring its destruction. Following on its heels, the spread of Buddhism to China was able to send another shockwave to Confucianism because it aimed at the fissure left by obscure learning. Then, through force and impact, through an intense process of relinquishing and remaking, that which was surface-level, extraneous, superficial, and rotten was finally abandoned. In place of the void left, a new kind of momentum swept in, breathing new life into an aging body.
Perhaps now we have a clearer picture of how Fan Tai’s struggle failed. At a moment when, following on the heels of the anti-Confucian obscure learning movement, Buddhism had amassed about two hundred years of history in China, Fan Tai drew on his position as a great almsgiver and tried using the issue of sitting positions to put pressure on the monks of Qihuan Temple. In his desperation to safeguard traditional Confucian teachings, he focused on the minutiae of ritual, rending his impure motives clear as day. Fan seemed unaware that the cracks in the old Confucian system were long present. Cao Cao and Sima Yi tried lashing out against it with political power, but, across hundreds of years and along multiple axis of social institutions, change quietly happened. Confucian teachings melded first with Daoism, then Buddhism. Foreign stools became a part of daily life in China. Fan may have wanted to hold on to the last vestiges of traditional Confucian teachings, but his most lasting legacy is history’s laughing stock.
Translated by Casey Lee
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Huang Bosi writes in “Ba Bei Qi kan shu tu hou”
Fan Tai 范泰, “Yu Wang situ zhuren shu lun daoren jushi”
Yoshikawa, Liuchao jingshenshi yanjiu, 120.
Ibid., 4: 484, 496.
Yang Hong, “Hu chuang,” 255–56.
Li Ji, “Gui zuo dun ju yu jiju: Yinxu shike yanjiu zhiyi,” 4: 484.
From the “Zhi le”
Duan Yucai, Shuowen jiezi zhu, 399.
Li Ji, “Gui zuo dun ju yu jiju: Yinxu shike yanjiu zhiyi,” 4: 491–92.
Hou Han shu
John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 227–28.
This explanation is drawn from French scholar Donald Holzman, cited in Ibid., 228.