20. Discursive rules and shared terminology for precision in communication

shared terminology ◆ compound statements ◆ specific usage requirements for certain words and phrases

Key terms introduced in this chapter:

  • devotion
  • fidelity
  • faithfulness
  • loyalty
  • premodern / traditional distinction
  • propriety
  • true love / natural love
  • “X” and “X-like” (-like)

Key terms mentioned in this chapter that should now be familiar:

  • authoritative thought systems
  • derivatives
  • fragments
  • interpretive projects
  • love


Shareability is enhanced when we use a lexicon that we have mutually agreed upon. This practice also improves accuracy in communication which is important because of the complexity of our topic. In the real world we want—we need—”I love you” to be ambiguous. We need some “working room” in our intimate discussions, even though it is also true that this can cause some serious misunderstandings. But when we are testing various interpretations against one another, or when we are comparing results, it is helpful when the language is as accurate as possible.

20.1. Shared terminology

To that end, the course has a shared terminology. Students are to learn it and use it. If a term has been identified with an asterisk as a course key term, you are to use it according to the class definition.

20.2. Managing complexity by avoiding compound statements created by “X and Y” and “X or Y”

Statements build around the conjunction patterns “X and Y” and “X or Y” should only be used when truly necessary.

In practice, I frequently encounter these patterns in student submissions when they are unsure of their own position or want to create an effect of complexity rather than introduce actual complex thoughts.

If you wish, read these sentences from old student essay submissions and decide whether the conjunction structure enhance clarity or fogs the expression. I list my reactions after the examples. Or, if you wish, just think, “Is that extra element necessary enough to out-balance the complexity it brings?” — Our work is already complicated, so we should keep things simple whenever we can. It is better to introduce and discuss one point at a time. That affords to others the opportunity to react to the points on a one-by-one basis. If I say, “I think that film is prejudiced, intriguing and poorly made” I have tossed a lot on the table all at one. Anyone in the group might begin anywhere and the conversation can become muddled quickly.

Here are the sentences. Afterwards, I will say “yes” or “no” to indicate whether I think these compound phrases are useful or not. I will also offer a reason:

  • The aesthetically conscientious art form of Japanese papermaking derived its fixation on purity and (1) strength from Shinto beliefs.
  • Religion also became a valuable domain for establishing Japan’s independent ideals and (2) beliefs.
  • He is very charming and (3) never misses opportunity to meet a beautiful or (4) interesting lady.
  • Knowing, or (5) accepting that sumo was a direct descendent from accounts in premodern history was important in particular to the upper-classes of Edo period Japan.
  • In the rare instances when they went out, their faces were hidden behind the fans they carried or (6) the curtains of their carriages.
  • If they were able to keep the affections of their husband or (7) lovers, then they would be provided and (8) cared for.
  • 1: Yes. This is a list of equally important qualities that are more meaningful when side-by-side in the same list.
  • 2: No. What is the difference between “ideals” and “beliefs”? There are indeed differences, but they are not necessary to the conversation. The analysis is just as successful by listing one.
  • 3: Yes. This is connecting two sentences in a logical conceptual that makes the description content-rich.
  • 4: No? As a casual comment this works, but we do not make casual comments in *interpretive project reports. If there is something in a report, we assume it is there for a reason. When reading seriously like this, it is fair to ask, “What is the difference between wanting to meet a beautiful woman or an intelligent woman?” Does the write mean to make a distinction or not? This is good English and works pretty well but I would rather we tighten our comments better than this.
  • 5: No. Just one of these is a good observation. When they are both here, I begin to wonder if we are supposed to worry about a difference between “knowing” and “accepting.” That just seems to be a confusing question to raise in the middle of describing something else.
  • 6: Yes. This is like the first one—a necessary and useful list.
  • 7: Yes. This is like the one just mentioned.
  • 8: No. I am not sure what the difference is unless one is financial and the other is emotional. If that is the case, then it is better not to make the reader guess. Say it. And if spelling that out creates too much language in terms of words or clauses, drop one of them. It is already a strong and interesting sentence with just one.

20.3. Accuracy in specific terms

Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

20.3.1. Course-defined difference between “premodern” and “traditional”

Consider these sentences related to cultural behavior:

“It is traditional for Americans to eat turkey at Thanksgiving.”

“My Chinese parents are very traditional.”

“Our nation’s traditions of the past should be honored.”

All of these sentences have something in common—they all attach a provisional status to cultural practices. If we make the possible implied portion explicit:

“It is traditional for Americans to eat turkey at Thanksgiving but not everyone does these days.”

“My Chinese parents are very traditional and sometimes I feel a gap with them because of this.

“Our nation’s traditions of the past should be honored—some say this, but I wonder if it is really a good idea.

In this course, we use “*tradition” and “*traditional” in this sense, when we can remember to do so. It helps us understand the status of *values (and *worldviews, once they become no longer universally accepted and the topic of discussion), namely, “I know that many feel that way but I think this is something that is becoming more limited and fading from common practice and I feel some pressure, but not a lot, to submit to this particular *value.” An American example might be thank you cards, or tipping the postman(woman) at the end of the year. Using “tradition” in this sense is good for us because it helps us convey the dynamic, changing nature of culture (*values change over time) and the independent perspective of the individual in the face of culture (“some feel that way, but for me ….”).

“Premodern” is less complicated. This is just an objective adjective or noun meaning “before modern times.” For example, if I assert, “The ethical expectation that a military wife—out of devotion, loyalty, and respect to her husband—would kill herself once her husband had been killed in battle is a premodern *value of Japan dating from the Middle Period.” I am neutral as to what the status of this might be now, and I am taking no personal relationship to it (as in, “I don’t agree …, I want some distance from this *value”). I am simply stating what I believe to be an historical “fact.” Deciding what “modern times” designates is no simple matter of course. It will be used in this class to designate the point at which East Asian ideas have begun to be influenced by “the West”—Western European romanticism, individualism, communism, democracy, Christianity, the mashup of cultures that is the result of globalization, and so on.

In this way, we will use “*premodern” just to date whatever it modifies and “*traditional” to note that we are taking a perspective outside of the *value or *worldview (at least some still think …).

Just one more minor point, though. I would like to think of “*premodern” as “pure” in the sense of “not modified by modern times, modern changes.” In this way of thinking, “*premodern Buddhism” is Buddhism as it was before modern times, while “*traditional Buddhism” is Buddhism as practiced today, but taking its past seriously and upholding many of those *values, albeit probably in some updated form.

20.3.2. “Buddhist” vs “Buddhist-like” and similar structures

The distinction between “X” and “X-like” follows the distinction between an *authoritative thought system and a *fragment. If you want the reader to take your description as referring to the full *authoritative system use the term. “He is Buddhist in the way he eats.” In this case the person is a practicing Buddhist following (probably) monk rules for what, how, and when to eat. If you want the reader to consider your description as seeming to be perhaps related to Buddhism in some way, then use the “-like” suffix. “He is Buddhist-like in the way he eats.” This describes someone with the feel of a monk in his behavior or attitude, but you actually do not know whether this is the case or not. It just seems that way, enough so that the designation works. (If you are in the world of *derivatives, then “He is somehow peaceful in his eating style” or such would be more appropriate and leave out all reference to Buddhism.) Here are couple of other examples:

“Baoyu, the main male character in Story of the Stone, 17th c. Chinese long narrative, is Daoist in much of his behavior. However, Jin (“Wind”), one of the main character of House of Flying Daggers, a 21st-century Chinese film, is Daoist-like. By that, I mean the director is drawing on a Daoist notion of a highly capable, spiritually advanced individual who moves freely about, not tied to this society. However, the director isn’t really exploring Daoism; it is just one way to help fill out the character of Jin.”

Double Suicides at Amijima, an 18th-century Japanese play, at the point when the two lovers kill themselves, is definitely a narrative that accepts the Buddhist perspective that romance leads to suffering. It draws authority from that Buddhist claim. To ignore the strong presence of Buddhism in that narrative is to distort it. On the other hand, in my opinion 3-Iron, a 21st-century Korean film, ends with the phrase: “It is sometimes difficult to know the difference between dream and reality.” That is drawn directly from Buddhist teaching but the film is more surrealistic than Buddhist and so, at least in my interpretation of the film, I would like to call that a ‘Buddhist-like’ moment, not real Buddhism.”

20.3.3. Special course requirement when using the word “fate”

“Fate” is one of those words with such a broad definition as to cause us some trouble. “It was fate that we had a test today.” “I am fated to be president.” “Just accept that he got the job, not you. It’s just fate.” “Fate meant for us to meet.” And so on. Because of this highly flexible use of the word in English, and because Daoist notions of fate (state of the cosmos), Buddhist fate (karma), and Western notions of fate (God’s intention)—just to name a few—are so different, please specify when you use the word “fate.” The risk that there will be a miscommunication around this word is exceptionally high.

For these reasons, when you use the word “fate” the best practice for the purposes of this course is to support the term with other phrases that point the reader in the correct direction.

So not this …

“The powerful attraction between Baoyu and Daiyu in Story of the Stone is fate.”

… but instead, this:

“The powerful attraction between Baoyu and Daiyu in Story of the Stone is fate in that on the immortal plane they the stone that was reborn as the mortal named Baoyu had over-watering the flower that was reborn as the mortal named Daiyu. Their mortal bond is fate in that it reflects a relationship already existing on the immortal plane.”

… or this:

“In Nine Cloud Dream, Master Yi meets many beautiful women in the mortal world whom he marries. It seems like he is fated to do so, but I would like to argue that this is simply a reflection of a standard story line related to the caizi-jiaren story-telling pattern. It is misleading to think of it as fate unless one wants to argue that in order to learn the error of his ways on the immortal plane, Master Yi was forced to descend to the mortal plan and play out, there, the full course of the lesson, which included meeting and marrying beautiful women.”

20.3.4. Special, narrow course definitions for “loyalty,” “faithfulness,” “fidelity,” and “devotion”

The English terms and phrases “loyalty,” “being faithful,” and “devotion” have frequent and varied meanings in natural English. “Sorry, but I’m loyal to my girl.” “He was disloyal—I think maybe that was the main reason we broke up.” “One of the traits I look for in a partner is faithfulness.” “I have problems being faithful in a relationship.” “I was super devoted to him for a short time.” “His devotion was nice but it began to make me nervous.” And so on.

Because of the way these English words cross over loosely in describing modern ideas of monogamy, infatuation, and intense emotions, because of the reality that we are using English translations of East Asian narratives where translators are casually using these words, because we discuss *premodern narratives as well as contemporary ones, and because these words (in an English-speaking environment) can evoke Western ideals of *love, it is best to narrow and specify the definitions of a set of words related to reliability, participation hierarchical structures, and romantic commitment.

This will help to achieve accurate, shareable language for *interpretive projects. These narrowed definitions create a certain degree of awkwardness in expression, but they improve accuracy.

The following is the set of words for this course related to reliability, participation hierarchical structures, and romantic commitment. In this area, it can often be better to explicitly state what is on your mind beyond just using on of these terms, but just using the terms themselves according to these definitions is a step towards accurate communication among members of the class.

  • “*Loyalty” as we will use it is narrow in meaning, and quite distant from our usual use of the word. “Loyalty” will be used to designate specifically and solely *premodern Confucian zhong (忠). This is discussed more fully in the chapter on Confucianism. Briefly stated we define zhong to mean “behaving in ways that support the needs, position, or honor of one’s superior.” It has nothing to do with monogamy, so sentences such as “I’m loyal to my girlfriend” are out-of-bounds unless you mean she is your superior and you behave in ways that uphold her position.
  • “*Faithfulness” will be used to designate *premodern Confucian, or Confucian-like, xin (信) which can be cursorily defined as “keeping one’s promises or being reliable.” This term, then, also has nothing to do with monogamy exception indirectly: if one promises to uphold *fidelity in the relationship and does so, one has been *faithful to the promise and so, by association of the outcome, also *faithful to one’s partner.
  • “*Fidelity” will be used to designate monogamous behavior while in a relationship. Whether it means monogamous in both body and mind, or just body, is left undefined. What “in a relationship” means is also left undefined. The scope of these words change with cultural contexts as well as at the individual level of a narrative figure.
  • “*Devotion” will be used to designate a single-minded, high-valuation of one’s partner where one humbles oneself before the beauty of the partner as if before God, shows a type of commitment to a person as one would to a religious faith, or hyper-values the partner as perfect.

These will be our definitions. The assignment material will not follow these rules, of course. They are specific for this course alone. When you read such words in a literary work or a secondary work, understand them in the way they are meant to be understood in that context. However, when you use them in discussion or report for this class, please follow the above definitions. A linguistic park bench named “loyalty”

If you enjoy the nuances of words, or want to think further on the problem of finding the right word in this class, or just want to review your understanding of Confucian principles, read on. Otherwise, feel free to not take a seat on this park-bench and skip this little sub-section.

The problem is that such a use of “loyal” is grounded in a modern construct and so confuses the issue when considering *premodern or *traditional *values having to do with Confucianism. In modern times a man and a woman more or less choose to be “loyal,” that is, to be monogamous even in the face of temptation. It is a natural and informative use of the English word “loyal.”

Unfortunately, then, “loyal” tosses into one word the *premodern or *traditional Confucian values of xin (信, “*faithfulness”), yi (義, “uprightness” “duty”), and li (礼, “propriety”), and has very little to do with zhong (忠, “loyalty”).

If you want to talk about a modern couple’s action of remaining monogamous or something along those lines, please use the less frequent English word “*fidelity” to replace “loyalty” or consider “*devotion” if that seems more appropriate. “*Devotion” in this class means the high valuation placed on another and one’s unwavering commitment to that individual based on warm reasons, not a sense of duty.

The above requirements end confusion with zhong.

If you want to talk about a *premodern couple’s action of remaining monogamous, please remember that it is not necessarily about a romantic free-will choice to stay with one person that you love, to not sleep with others. It might be simply a strong sense the you must uphold social norms (li, 礼, “*propriety”), or fulfill your duty as a wife or husband (yi, 義, “uprightness” “duty”), or keep your promise of commitment (xin, 信 “*faithfulness”). It might also be a marker for the presence of intense passions when no one else interests the lover(s). This is not a Confucian value (“one should …”) but it is part of the *East Asian linguistic world of romance: qing (情, Chinese), nasake (情, Japanese), and jeong (情, Korean). Further, strong bonds might also be understood in terms of karma (sense of an invisible bound sense to another).

If the *premodern or modern couple’s intimate closeness seems to include wanting to take care of someone out of a strong sense of benevolence or sympathy, then ren (仁 “*human-ness”) is part of the mix.

On the other hand, if the premodern or modern couple’s intimate closeness seems to include wanting to be taken care of by someone seems to be an important characteristic, then *amae (甘え, if the context is Japanese) or something similar to this (if the context is Chinese or Korean) is part of the mix.

20.3.5. Special course definition for “true love” and thoughts on “natural love”

We will reserve the term “*true love” to designate Western idealistic love, that is, love that is grounded in the Greek vision that truth is what is good, beautiful, and endures. “**True love” suggests Christian notions of unselfish, unconditional love that could be called godly or divine.

We will use “*natural love” to designate some more Daoist-like sense that if two people seem to be together naturally and easily, and harmony seems to be part of the relationship, and the relationship fits in well with the larger world, then the love can be called good and, in some sense, “true.”

The concept of “*natural love” is new to this course and started with a comment by a student who used the term as a definition, and clearly with a sense that others would understand: “But it was a natural love!” I think “*natural love” is a collection of ideas about *love that needs fuller exploration and articulation. I started that process by asking the class to submit their working notion of what “*natural love” might mean. Here are some of the responses, all by students from East or Southeast Asia. This area deserves further thought.

“Natural love is a love that comes naturally, and parties involved should not feel the need to put in effort in maintaining the love. Everything should be in harmony naturally and no effort is required to achieve that state. There is inherent compatibility with each other between the parties involved.”

“Natural love is the relationship that does not require any one to make specific efforts and exertion of will. Like two gears which engage with each other perfectly with little or no pressure, two people that in natural love have an absolute harmonized compatibility. Natural love will not last forever, but the break-up is still peaceful. Thus, they become together naturally, get along with each other naturally, and break up naturally.”

“Natural love is when two people find each other easily and live in harmony without trying too hard in the relationship. Inherent compatibility is built on natural love. Not many actions are required in natural love since it’s a continuous exchange of energy.”

“Natural love is built on coherent compatibility between couples by following the natural flow of cosmos and allows energy exchanged. It creates a harmonious relationship between couples by discouraging pursuing anything beyond one’s control. It aligns with Daoist principle non-action and allows energy fluid. Different than Western notion of true love, natural love does not require monogamy or permanency and it certainly is not destined.”

“Natural love contains three levels. The first one is moving to the right person with the power of cosmos, which should not be turbulent. In the developing level, natural love allows feelings of each other to naturally expand and change in their own manner, which is aimed to keep the harmony in a non-action way in the relationship rather than trying hard to chase harmony. The third level is about the way of expression. The couple should understand their roles and accept the exchange of energy between them to get better chance at balance. Natural love slightly differs from true love in western notion, emphasizing on the impermanence and the disobedience of monogamy which is regarded as the core value in true love. The thoughts through the natural love include passivity and compatibility of each other.”

And there was this that compared the two terms and offered an opinion of when “*true love” might be used in a Chinese context:

“The concept is very ideal. Love should be practical. Two people put efforts into the relationship. Natural love is different than true love in the West. For Westerners, if we love each other, we are willing to sacrifice for each other. In Hong Kong, Natural Love feels as Platonic love, we describe that couple feel unstressed and communicate well, similar value and attractive to others, and this love not include sexual life, more focus on spirit and soul. True love is when the people have the strongest passions for each other. In the west, people might see natural love a part of true love. In true love, we have to accept the differences. In natural love, the two people have to change to adapt to the other person. In true love, the partners can accept the imperfection. Actually, how to define “Love”? Each people has their standard, however, at least, it should be based on respect, loyalty, willing to spend time and efforts into the relationship.”


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Interpreting Love Narratives in East Asian Literature and Film Copyright © 2019 by John R Wallace is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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