21.09.2017, Qufu [Conference: "8th Session of the World Confucian Conference"]

Cai Yong’s Notion of Empathy as Evidenced in His Qincao 「移情」的心理現象對漢儒蔡邕的意義和使用–以《琴操》为基礎

Cai Yong 蔡邕 (ca. 133–192) was one of the most brilliant Confucian scholars of his time. His oevre comprises more than a hundred single contributions. Among his works is, though largely neglected, also the Qincao琴操, a collection of stories introducing the background of about 50 qin pieces, with a preface by Cai Yong, which attests his expertise as a musician, more precisely of the seven-stringed zither qin.

At a closer reading of these stories one finds that the pieces assembled in the Qincao are reported as having been composed under very emotional circumstances. The spectrum of these emotions is broad and comprises joy, even pride on the one hand and sad feelings such as disappointment, longing, resentment, and even outright anger on the other hand.  

Remarkably it is in one of these qin pieces contained in the Qincao – “The Immortal in the Waters” (Shuixian cao 水仙操) – that the term  “yi qing” 移情, “to transmit one’s feelings (to someone else)”, occurs for the first time in a Chinese text.

Since all these stories serve to support a qin adept in visualizing and reenacting the feelings of the composer and thus give him the final polish in understanding the essence of a qin piece, the Qincao thus may be understood as the textual basis for a subtle training in the art of empathy, the locus classicus of which is, of course, the famous story of Boya and Zhong Ziqi, his intimate friend (zhi yin 知音).

And what is more, a search for the sources which Cai Yong may have used when he had compiled his Qincao reveals that already in texts that may be dated to the Han dynasty and even before,  such as the Hanshi waizhuan 韓詩外傳, or the Kong congzi  孔叢子, stories in which the capability to sense empathy for others is being trained are found, most of them centering around Master Kong, and in them the picture is conveyed that Master Kong had already used the qin for the moral education of his disciples.

Even if we do not know if Confucius ever learned to play the qin or if he had really used it in his school, the idea that individuals should develop their capability of reenacting other individuals’ pains and sorrows to be able to act out of humanity (ren 仁) is, of course, one of the most fundamental values found in the teachings of Confucius. The master’s maxim that one should not impose on others what one would not desire for oneself 「己所不欲,勿施于人」(Lunyu 15.24) is closely linked with an individual’s ability to perceive the situation of someone else. By compiling a text which serves as a training in empathy and thus adopting a tradition which has traced such a training back to Master Kong proper, Cai Yong on the one hand demonstrates his being rooted as a scholar in the values represented by the ru. On the other hand, his approach also differs from texts such as the “Yueji” of the Liji, where the emotional aspect of music is something the Confucian doctrine must bring under control, by addressing in his preface to the Qincao the primary task of the instrument as a means of an indvidual’s emotional self-control.