The `Three Doctrines Discussions' of Tang China: Religious debate as a rhetorical strategy

by Mary M. Garrett

Argumentation & Advocacy

Vol. 30 No. 3 Winter.1994


Copyright by American Forensic Association

INTRODUCTION 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 (581617). 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 Discussions" 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 1956). 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. Usually the host initiated the debate, but sometimes he took challenges from other contenders. These debates were generally constructive: a proponent proposed an argument for a thesis or interpretation and defended his position; should he lose that round, his opponent then advanced and defended his own position. The participants themselves, as well as the audience members, reached a consensus on who won. Audience members could become participants if they could hold their own in the debate, thus providing a further check on the quality of the argumentation. The descriptions of these Buddhist and Pure Talk disputations show that both the disputants and the audience were expected to find the better argument, the one more in conformity with "reason," more convincing. What "reason" (li) means in this context can be determined from two different kinds of sources. First, there is a small body of literature which reflects on and prescribes appropriate criteria for judging competing arguments, especially those on abstract, dialectical topics.[3] Whether they knew these works or not, in practice most participants in these disputations assumed the standards articulated in these works, as can be seen when they objected to points in others' arguments or when they admitted defeat. Such instances reveal the normative standards for conforming to "reason." They include such criteria as: internal coherence and non-contradiction; consistency with canonical texts; sufficient evidence; adequate response to objections; conformity to established principles; justification for overriding precedents and principles; and, less often, relevance, consequences, and predictability. These criteria are no doubt familiar to readers of this journal, and their application in these debates would be equally so, once the Western reader became comfortable with the differing philosophical context. The goal of these disputations--to discover the more defensible and thus, presumably, the more likely or the true conclusion--also echoes traditional Western justifications for debate as a means of testing ideas. This rationale for debate was taken quite seriously; there are many recorded instances in which the loser of a Pure Talk or a Buddhist disputation not only ceded to the winner, as the spirit of the enterprise demanded, but praised the winner's reasoning and publicly switched to that position. There was an even longer tradition of debate on policy issues at the ruler's court, debates which encompassed such issues as equitable taxation, management of government monopolies, foreign relations, points of ritual, and appointments to official positions. Such proposals were subjected to much deliberation amongst officials and other members of the elite. These debates were less formally structured than the philosophical disputations but were equally competitive and serious. Generally such debates over policy would be carried out orally at the court, or through a lengthy process of written proposals, rebuttals, and counter-attacks which were submitted to the throne and circulated among the officials. Indeed, astute rulers solicited as broad a range of opinion as possible, so as to illuminate all sides of the issue and test the support for various positions. However, the ruler did not usually declare a winner. Instead, after weighing the arguments, the ruler announced his decision and its policy implications, sometimes explaining the reasons for both.[4] In the case of these court debates as well, prolonged pro/con debate was assumed to be an effective way to inform and improve decision-making. In fact, rulers frequently called for submission of written opinions or convened a court conference (tingyi) of high-ranking officials when they were unsure of how best to proceed.[5] What's more, there are many cases in the dynastic histories in which a ruler abandoned a proposal after good reasons were advanced against it. During the Period of Disunion the debates over policy at the courts of the various rulers expanded to include issues raised by the infiltration of Buddhism from China. Buddhism, with its renunciation of family ties and of social and political obligations and its substituting of an alternative source of moral authority and hierarchy, called into question the underpinnings of the traditional Chinese social and political order. Unlike the indigenous Chinese religions, Confucianism and Daoism, which recognized or at least did not overtly challenge the supremacy of secular political authority, Buddhism brought with it radical notions of the religious as an autonomous, even superior sphere. This clash was neatly encapsulated in the question of bowing. In India emperors bowed to monks. Must Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns still bow to their parents and to the ruler, as Confucianism and custom prescribed? There was also an economic aspect to the conflict. Not only were monks and monasteries exempt from taxes, Buddhist establishments accumulated huge fortunes from donors and became money-lenders themselves. With money came power and corruption. In response; from the fifth through the tenth centuries there were periodic attempts at state-mandated reforms or purges of the Buddhist religious establishment. The "Three Doctrines" Discussions To explore and resolve the social and political issues raised by this foreign religion, the leading lights of Buddhism, Daoism, and, less often, Confucianism, were invited to court to explain and to defend their doctrines. At issue were considerations not only of truth, but of the purported consequences of their doctrines for society. The ruler often proposed a specific thesis, attended and judged the argumentation, and issued policy directives afterwards. Sometime during the Northern Wei (386-584) the imperial house instituted the practice of "birthday debates" (danchen tanlun; Zan, 999/1924, p. 248a-b), holding such discussions as part of the celebration of the emperor's birthday. These occasional debates continued through the Tang dynasty, when they were referred to as "explications and discussions of the Three Doctrines" (san-jiao jiangtan or jianglun or jiangshuo). The first two Tang emperors refused to hold such debates on their birthdays, perhaps not wishing to grant Buddhism this mark of imperial favor. However, they did hold them on other occasions, most notably at the imperial Academy (guozi xue) after the emperor performed the sacrificial ritual (shidian) there. The first of these debates took place in 624, six years after the establishment of the dynasty, when the founding emperor Gao Zu visited the imperial Academy. Emperor Gao Zong (reigned 650-683) returned to the custom of also holding these debates on the emperor's birthday. The practice of holding religious debates, especially on these symbolically portentous days, continued through much of the Tang dynasty. Though interrupted by the An Lushan revolt of 755-763, they were resumed in 796. They were also discontinued during the Huichang persecution of Buddhism (842-845) but were revived in 849. The last such debate of the Tang dynasty was held in 870. In many ways these competitive, adversarial debates reflect a confluence of the court debates over policy issues and the philosophical disputations of Pure Talk and Buddhism. Like the debates at court, the "Three Doctrines Discussions" were an affair of the imperial court, not open to the public; only well-placed officials and selected members of the religious and secular elite were invited to watch the matches, and the populace learned of the results by official imperial proclamation. More significantly, like the debates over policy issues, these "Three Doctrines Discussions" could eventuate in governmental action. For instance, after the debate of 705 on the authenticity of the text Laozi Converted the Barbarians [Laozi huahu jing]; a work which described the Daoist sage Laozi as the source of Buddhist teachings, emperor Gao Zong ordered that all copies of this text be burned.[6] Even more substantive real-world gains were possible; after the Buddhist Zhi Xuan triumphed in the debate of 849, the emperor Xuan Zong commanded that all the monastic establishments which had been demolished by the previous emperor be rebuilt (Zan, 988/1924, p. 744a). As often as not, though, the debates revolved around doctrinal claims. For instance, the emperor Tang Wu Zong (reigned 841-846) proposed the question of whether one could learn to become an immortal, as well as the proposition that "a large country should be governed as though frying a small fish," that is, with minimal interference (Zan, 988/1924, p. 743c). Both these notions were associated with Daoism, an amalgamation which espoused linguistic scepticism, non-action, detachment, and, somewhat inconsistently, the search for immortality. Given such abstract topics, the debate was very similar to the more philosophical disputation of Pure Talk and the Buddhist monasteries; the reasoning generally proceeded at a very abstract level, the argumentation was heavily text-based, and such standards as consistency with canonical texts and non-contradiction were more central. Perhaps the best way to appreciate this similarity to the philosophical disputations is to look at a representative excerpt from a "Three Doctrines Discussion." In a debate held in 625 at the Imperial Academy, the Buddhist Hui Cheng was the opening speaker. After an effusion of praise for the Emperor and a synopsis of Buddhism, Hui Cheng turned to his first target, the Daoist Li Chungqing. Hui Cheng pointed out that the first half of the Daoist text The Classic of The Way and the Power [Daode jing] illuminated the Way (Dao) and he asked whether there was anything greater than the Way. Li answered negatively. Hui Cheng then attempted to trap Li into a contradiction. Objection: "If the Way is the most extensive and greatest of all, and there is nothing greater than the Way, then is it also admissible that the Way is the most extensive normative pattern, and that there is no normative pattern beyond the Way?" Answer: "The Way is the most extensive normative pattern, and there is no normative pattern beyond the Way." Objection: "The Daode jing itself says that people pattern themselves after the earth, the earth patterns itself after Heaven, Heaven patterns itself after the Way, and the Way patterns itself after nature (ziran). What is your intent in deviating from your original doctrine? If you say that there is no normative pattern beyond the Way, and the Way is the most extensive normative pattern, but there exists a normative pattern beyond the Way, what is the meaning of saying that the Way is the greatest and there can't be anything greater than the Way?" Answer: "The Way is merely nature; nature is the Way. This is the reason there is no other normative pattern which can function as a normative pattern beyond the Way." Objection: "If the Way patterns itself on nature, and nature is precisely the Way, then is it also the case that nature in turn patterns itself on the Way or not?" Answer: "The Way patterns itself on nature; nature does not pattern itself on the Way." Objection: "If the Way patterns itself on nature and nature does not pattern itself on the Way, then is it also admissible that if the Way patterns itself on nature then nature is not the Way?" Answer: "The Way patterns itself on nature; nature is the Way. This is the reason they do not pattern themselves on each other." Objection: "If the Way patterns itself on nature, and nature is the Way, then is it also admissible that the earth patterns itself on Heaven, and Heaven is earth? But in fact earth patterns itself on Heaven, and Heaven is not earth; thus we know that the Way patterns itself on nature and nature is not the Way. If nature truly were the Way, then Heaven ought to be earth." (Dao 664/1924, p. 381a-b; my trans.)[7] The text notes that Li fell silent, and Hui triumphantly sang out, "The Daoist has run into problems and can't get out!" He then capped his triumph with a witty couplet which left the Emperor beaming with approval. As well as illustrating the affinity to the Buddhist and Pure Talk disputations, this example also hints at some of the significant differences between them. First, as in this example, these debates tended to be destructive rather than constructive. Although the opening speaker often sketched out the general principles of his doctrines, he did not then defend them against challengers, as in Pure Talk and Buddhist disputation. Rather, he demanded that his opponent resolve some apparent contradiction in his (the opponent's) belief system or explicate a complex concept or puzzling passage in his canonical texts. The exchange ended when the challenger exhausted his questions or the challenged was reduced to self-contradiction or silence.[8] The parallel between these imperially-sponsored debates and the Pure Talk and Buddhist disputation breaks down in some other ways as well. For these debates the Emperor decided points of precedence such as who walked in ahead of whom, who sat in the most honored seat, who spoke first, and when the debate had ended. For instance, in the debate above Emperor Gao Zu opened by proclaiming that the Daoists and the Confucians would be seated ahead of the Buddhists, since their doctrines were indigenous to China. Observing that the Buddhist monk Hui Cheng was unhappy about this turn of events, he then announced that the Buddhist side would speak first. More importantly, the Emperor was the sole judge of the match, rewarding the victor with gifts and honorific titles, and there was no appeal of his decision. Historical Development during the Tang Ostensibly the function of the "Three Doctrines Discussions" was to illuminate all sides of the issue and to inform decision-making. During the Period of Disunion through the earlier part of the Tang dynasty rulers and emperors often behaved as if they took this notion very seriously, granting victory to the better-argued case regardless of their personal beliefs or the consequences. Thus, for instance, in 574 Emperor Wu Di of the Northern Zhou dynasty (557-581) took negative measures against the Daoists as well as against the Buddhists. As Ch'en notes, "[t]his might sound surprising, considering the favorable attitude which he [the Emperor] held toward the Taoists [Daoists], but in the series of debates between the Buddhists and Taoists held before him beginning in 568, the Buddhists had so thoroughly exposed the forged compositions in the Taoist canon, that the emperor was obliged to take some action against the Taoists also" (Dao, 660/1924, pp. 631c-632a; Ch'en 1952, p. 272). The rhetorical nature of this decision is underlined by the emperor's later softening of these restrictions in the case of the Daoists. Generally speaking, such impartial judgments became less and less the case during the middle and the later Tang. During the ninth century the outcome of these religious debates could be predicted on the basis of the emperor's ideological preference; the winner, if there were one, was almost always the Daoist. The apparent exception, the reign of Empress Wu, bears out the general rule: Empress Wu based her usurpation on a Buddhist text, and under her reign the Buddhists consistently won. n these debates. Early on there appeared a tendency to a compromise solution; in 713 Emperor Xuan Zong proclaimed that the debate had demonstrated the underlying unity, and thus the truth, of all three doctrines! In 735 he went further, convening a debate for the very purpose of demonstrating this conclusion. This syncretic solution was commonly summed up in the phrases huisan guiyi, "to bring together the three [doctrines] to return to the one [truth]" or sanjiao tiaohe, "the three doctrines harmonized." This, despite the fact that the debates were still competitive and adversarial, that none of the debaters themselves had advanced such a thesis, and that this resolution of the debate was usually incompatible with the arguments just presented. During the middle and late Tang dynasty emperors also diverged from the customary procedures more often and more egregiously. Sometimes the Confucians were not represented, and the Buddhists began to be dropped from the invitation list in 844. Even when a doctrine was represented, the emperor rather than the clergy now selected its spokesman, and the imperial choices could be quite capricious. For example, in 827 the renowned literatus and poet Bo Juyi, who was sympathetic to Buddhism, was commanded to defend Confucianism, and he was paired up against a Buddhist monk who could not respond to the simplest queries (Dong, 1814/1961, pp. 87768779; Waley, 1949, pp. 169-171). Not surprisingly, the quality of the argumentation deteriorated markedly. This devolution reached a logical conclusion in 870, when the "court jester" Li Keji wittily argued that the central sages of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism were all women (cited in Luo, 1968, pp. 172-3). After this there are no more records of such debates during the Tang. After the Tang dynasty fell in 918 China lapsed back into contending fiefdoms, giving this period its name of "The Five Dynasties." The "Three Doctrines Discussions" lingered on in a desultory and truncated fashion during the early part of this period. There are occasional references to imperially-sponsored debates between representatives of Buddhism and Daoism, most notably those held by the first and the second emperors of the Posterior Tang dynasty; each scheduled them for their first birthday on the throne (in 923 and 926, respectively). By the mid-Tang, then, the "Three Doctrines" debates had become a ritualized performance, a theatrical representation of debate. Why this transformation, and why did these staged debates continue? I propose that the explanation can be found by looking at the large-scale shifts in political power of the times, and specifically at the need and the resources for dynastic legitimation. The Medieval Political Context Vigorous efforts at legitimation might hardly seem necessary in the Chinese system of imperial rule. Not only were there no institutionalized checks and balances, there was no notion of inalienable human rights. On the contrary, in theory the Chinese emperor possessed the entire kingdom and he had absolute power over every one of his subjects: There were no legal or institutionalized restraints on his actions. What's more, as the "Son of Heaven" only he could perform the sacrifices upon which the welfare of the entire nation hinged. Because of the emperor's unique religious status he was set apart by various privileges and taboos; for instance, speaking or writing the emperor's personal name, even inadvertently, was punishable by death. However, the emperor's legitimacy was not just religiously-based; it also rested on a pragmatic, procedural notion of legitimacy (Friedrich 1963, p. 236). This performance-based legitimacy was explicitly codified in the notion of the "Mandate of Heaven" (tianming), according to which Heaven itself sanctified the Emperor's rule. The "Mandate" was always provisional-should the Emperor's moral character, and thus his government, degenerate, the populace would become disaffected and Heaven would signal its displeasure through portents. Should these warnings not be heeded, Heaven would "withdraw the Mandate" and bestow it on the most worthy candidate, who then founded a new dynasty. The "Mandate of Heaven" was a crucial element in every Chinese dynasty's legitimizing rhetoric from the inception of the Zhou dynasty (c. 1120 B.C.E.) down to this century. Such a concept naturally invited palace coups and popular revolts against weak rulers, and the "Mandate of Heaven" became a rhetorical tool in political power struggles at all levels. A dynasty's legitimacy was always conditional and required constant reinforcement at every turn, by drawing on every resource of the ritual and the symbolic realms. In traditional China brute force was never a sufficient long-term strategy for maintaining political power. Indeed, "[i]n imperial China, several regimes and dynasties . . . lost their claim to the mandate under widespread rebellions because of the extreme use of force. Therefore, most of the imperial Chinese emperors, who were constrained by the Confucian ideology of benevolent government and the complex procedures of a bureaucratic empire, preferred to employ legal and administrative means and, in particular, indoctrination and persuasion" (Cham, 1984, p. 45). A continuing goal of this "indoctrination and persuasion" was to manifest the dynasty's legitimacy (zhengtong), to show that it still held the "Mandate of Heaven." At the beginning of a dynasty this was achieved through such actions as establishing a new calendar, with a new dynasty name and a new reign period title, selecting the capitol, revising law codes and bureaucratic procedures, manufacturing a suitably impressive family tree for the emperor, promoting canonical literature, and adapting rituals. All these functioned as implicit evidence of the ruling house's authority. The emperor, as a synecdoche for the dynasty, was a key figure in this legitimation project. Bloodline alone was not enough: the emperor's legitimacy was in large part a matter of ethos. This ethos was manifested by the Emperor conforming to his role expectations; being devoted to the well-being of the state and the people, filial, frugal, and so on. Outrageous behavior or egregious faults could be used as a reason, or, at least, a pretext, for demoting an heir-apparent or even deposing and killing an enthroned emperor. One of the major ways in which an emperor established his ethos was through the manner in which he judged the court debates over policy issues. Emperors were warned against the most serious failings. They were not to be "partial towards" or "prejudiced against" (hi) people or ideas. Similarly, they were not to be swayed by personal desire or interests, they were not to be "inclined towards" (ce) or "leaning to" (qing). Additionally, they were to avoid any reluctance to let irk unwelcome information; that is, they were not to be "blocked" (si) or "obstructed" (yong). Indeed, emperors had a special obligation to listen carefully to unwelcome advice, even to solicit it, and individuals and groups frequently sent the emperor their unsolicited opinions on an issue. And above all, emperors were urged to be gong, that is, "impartial, fair, public-spirited, disinterested." While in this state they were to evaluate proposals and discussions on the basis of "reason" (li). In short, the emperor was held to high standards of impartiality and assumed to allow the greater reasonableness of the better argument to outweigh his personal prejudices and preferences. In actuality rulers and emperors were often very interested or even conflicted parties. This was true not only for political issues narrowly construed but also when it came to religious matters. The rulers of the Period of Disunion and the Sui tended to favor Confucianism or Buddhism. However, the Tang emperors usually leaned toward Daoism. Indeed, as part of its legitimation effort the Tang ruling house, whose surname was Li, in 637 C.E. created a genealogy for itself that traced its origin back to the most illustrious bearer of that surname--the founder of Daoism! Reinforcing this ideological predilection was the Tang imperial concern about institutional Buddhism as a threat to state authority. Nevertheless, emperors and members of the Tang imperial family sometimes were sympathetic to Buddhism, at least to the extent of donating to the church and participating in some of its rituals. However, even in these cases political considerations influenced which particular sect of Buddhism they espoused (Weinstein, 1973). This political hyperconsciousness was fostered by the especially acute, ongoing "legitimation crisis" that lasted from the fall of the Han (220 C.E.) until well into the Tang. The Period of Disunion was comprised of four centuries of seemingly interminable warfare, social and political upheaval, mass migrations, brutal power politics, and innumerable failed attempts to unite the country under one ruling house (Wright, 1957, pp. 74-79). The Sui lasted only two generations, and although the Tang eventually became an epochal dynasty, its founders, looking back over the past four centuries, had every reason to be gloomy about their prospects. Added to these anxieties was the unusually powerful ideological challenge of Buddhism, which by the seventh century was the dominant belief system of China. Because of these historical contingencies the rulers of this period were especially reliant on their ethos to establish their legitimacy and that of their ruling house. Given this precarious situation, instituting the "Three Doctrines Discussions" was a rhetorically brilliant move for the ruler. Regardless of who won, the very structure of the debates legitimized the state. At the deepest level the issue raised by Buddhism was whether there could be an autonomous sphere of belief and action in China, one which operated independently of the state. By acting as the judge of these debates the emperor asserted his primacy, and thus the primacy of the state, over all three doctrines. Indeed, the debaters, in implicit recognition of this supremacy, often opened with an encomium for the emperor. (In India, by contrast, rulers observed such religious debates and rewarded the winners, but never were the judges.) What's more, merely positioning the emperor as the judge of these abstruse disputations reinforced his ethos, by attributing to him the intelligence to evaluate the argumentation and the ability to be impartial when doing so. The setting of the debates reinforced this skewed framing of the situation. The emperor donned ceremonial robes, sat on a dais raised above the contending parties, and was addressed with appropriately deferential language. During the Tang the emperor's preeminence was further reinforced by scheduling some of these debates on his birthday. Added to this was the ruler's power to determine certain procedural aspects of the debates: he decided who walked in ahead of whom, who sat in the most honored seat, and who spoke first. In other ways as well these debates worked to the advantage of the Emperor. Restaging the debates several times each year ensured that victory was fleeting for any one group. Encouraging debators to refute their adversaries' doctrines rather than to establish their own diminished the significance of a victory, so that the Emperor could declare a winner for a particular debate without any political consequences necessarily following from that judgment, and also without inconsistency in judgments from year to year becoming an embarrassing issue. Given these obvious manipulations of the situation, it seems reasonable to see the "Three Doctrines Discussions" as a rhetorical strategy exploited by rulers anxious to bolster their ethos. When the balance of power was especially delicate, creating the appropriate ethos by demonstrating thoughtful, impartial judgment of the arguments was crucial. However, the more secure the imperial House felt, especially in its relation to Buddhism, the less need to appear to be judging impartially and according to the standards of "reason." In short, I would hypothesize that as the need for legitimation through imperial ethos became somewhat less pressing and emperors could deal with their adversaries in more direct ways, so too the "Three Doctrines Discussions" became a shadow play and then eventually disappeared. This crucial shift in the balance of power came in 845, with Emperor Wu Zong's devastating proscription of Buddhism, a proscription which broke the power of the institutional forms of Buddhism and set the Church back several centuries (Dalby, pp. 666669). Before leaving these debates, we might ask why the representatives of the three doctrines cooperated in what became, during the Tang, a patently rigged contest, and one that apparently worked above all to the emperor's advantage? It is striking that there are not any cases recorded of a refusal to participate because of anticipated unfairness or of dropping out because of procedural irregularities. One reason was surely that individuals did not have an entirely free choice; by balking one risked calling down imperial displeasure on oneself or one's group. Furthermore, there were advantages to playing the game. Not only was there the lure of victory; lacking that, one still had an imperial forum, and the chance to cultivate the favor of the ruling house. Although, technically, one side might win by arguing its opposition into repeated embarrassed silences or damning contradictions, the ruler might still be secretly swayed by the losing arguments, and nothing restrained him (that is, there was no check on his power to prevent him) from favoring the losers in other ways afterwards. In addition, at a deeper level each of the three doctrines was legitimized by the very process of participating, even when they lost--they were recognized as "players." Far worse not to be invited at all! This validating effect of mere inclusion was especially important for the Buddhists because of the foreign origin of their religion. Finally, we might speculate that the Buddhists in particular may have had a false sense of optimism about their chances in these debates. Buddhism is a rationalistic religion, and never more so than in those strains of Indian Buddhist philosophy which were absorbed during the early Tang. In addition, some Chinese Buddhists monks of the Tang studied argumentation; there are contemporary references to Tang monks translating and lecturing on Indian works on philosophical disputation (yinming; Garrett, 1992). These interests and biases might well have encouraged an unwarranted faith in the power of reasoned argument, especially when reinforced by their victories. Or perhaps their religious convictions impelled them to seize any opportunity to proselytize, and they measured success by a different standard than that of victory in debate. CONCLUSIONS The ostensible function of the "Three Doctrines Discussions" mirrors certain Western notions about the function of debate in testing and weighing propositions. One widely accepted and well-developed notion of a "reasonable" or "rational" belief is that such a belief obtains its guarantee of reasonableness from the procedures by which it is tested. On this view a claim must be submitted to open, critical debate, a debate judged solely on the basis of the merits of the arguments. The presumption is that competitive debate will reveal the weaknesses and strengths of all arguments, and thereby lead to better decision-making. The "Three Doctrines Discussion" are a cross-cultural testimonial to the appeal of this notion of competitive debate as an aid to exploring issues and evaluating propositions. But what, then, of the refashioning of such debate into a ritual performance staged for political purposes? I have argued here that this seeming devolution was a deliberate rhetorical strategy, one by which the appearance of reasoned debate and impartial evaluation of such argumentation were turned toward other ends than the discovery of the better position. Ironically, this shift in function is, in its own way, a further tribute to the force of this notion of impartial judgment of reasoned debate. The impression that such debate is occurring can be a powerful rhetorical strategy, but the Chinese experience shows that this strategy cannot work for long if the debate is a debate in name only. Just as lies are parasitic on truth, so too the exploitation of the appearance of reasoned debate can only function so long as there are still some instances in which it is more than just an appearance. It was when this was no longer true that these debates degenerated into a farce, and then disappeared. I do not mean to suggest that this is a process unique to medieval China. Arguably, a similar dynamic may be at work in many contemporary situations. Faculty meetings, task forces, the United States Supreme Court,--there is an ample field for research here, and the Chinese case study suggests a chain of hypotheses that, may be explored in such cases: that under certain circumstances or in certain instances the institutionalization of reasoned debate and judgment of it may function largely as a rhetorical strategy; that this rhetorical strategy is intended to validate the participants and to establish a particular ethos for the judges; that this particular ethos functions to legitimize these judges; and that this legitimization of particular individuals or institutions then legitimizes the larger political system in a diffuse way. We might extrapolate two further hypotheses from this Chinese case study, hypotheses about the relative gains for participants in such debates. First, the fiction of impartial, reasoned judgment of debate can work to a participant's advantage so long as the judge is heavily invested in maintaining his or her ethos to strengthen legitimacy. The Chinese materials contain a number of instances in which a ruler was forced to acknowledge the better-argued position, despite his personal opposition to it, and to act accordingly, at least for the time being. However, when power was held more securely and this fiction became less important, the emperor's decisions were less closely tied to the actual argumentation and participants could not exploit the fiction to their advantage. However, even in these cases participants could subvert such debates to other ends, such as personal glory or, perhaps, proselytizing another audience other than the emperor. Such lines of explanation may explain other cases in which debaters opt to subscribe to a sustained pretext that all are engaged in a reasoned debate to determine the stronger arguments despite the likelihood that, in reality, they are party to more or less arbitrary exercises in power. In closing, I would like to return for a moment to the syncretic resolution of these debates mentioned above. Within a competitive debate framework, the conclusion that the clash of arguments has demonstrated the truth of both or all doctrines seems odd, if not outright illogical. From a philosophical standpoint, the notion that each religion expresses the same truth in its own way is a respectable intellectual tenet in China as in the West. However, it is not one that the structure of the competitive debate format of the "Three Doctrines Discussions" would seem to encourage, or even be consistent with. One final thought we might take from this case study, then, is that particular procedures of debate may presuppose particular assumptions about truth, assumptions which in turn forestall certain conclusions about the thesis and thus restrict our perspective on it. 1 So far as I am aware there is no English-language study of these debates. There are two articles in Chinese by Luo Xianglin on the subject; the first (1954) covers only the Tang dynasty, the second (1964) is more comprehensive. 2 The accounts of these debates are found in a variety of medieval Chinese sources, each with its biases. One major resource is the several Buddhist compilations of materials related to the controversies they engendered. These include letters, petitions to the throne, and responses to opponents' petitions and proposals, as well as purportedly firsthand records of the various debates. In chronological order, these are Seng You's Hongming ji (c. 515/1924) Dao Xuan's Guang hongming ji (c. 664/1924), and his Ji gujin fodao lunheng (664/1924). Other accounts of the debates are scattered throughout the collections of monks' biographies for this period; these are Duo Xuan's Xu gaoseng zhuan (c. 660/1924) and Zan Ning's Songgaoseng zhuan (988/1924), The dynastic histories for this period incorporated many kinds of primary records, including (presumably) verbatim renderings of argumentative essays and petitions relating to religious matters which, however, were edited from and commented on within a Confucian perspective. Finally there are encyclopedia of various doctrinal stripes and other miscellaneous historical records. (Unfortunately for those interested in pursuing this topic, only bits and pieces of these primary sources have been translated into English.) Although--or perhaps because--they were written by those close to the events, these materials are not unproblematic as historical records. The natural tendency to give an ideological slant (one's own) to description and evaluation of the debates was reinforced by the culturally-sanctioned belief that historical writing should be didactic. Once this source of bias is accounted for, though, there is a remarkable congruence in most of the records of these debates, especially concerning such historical data as dates and frequency of occurrence, participants, and political consequences. 3 The most comprehensive early works treating standards of judgment are those of the Later Mohists, which survived in highly corrupted form in chapters forty through forty-five of the book Mozi. According to Angus C. Graham's (1978) reconstruction of the text these five chapters contain several related texts dating to the third century B.C.E. During the early Tang a small number of Indian Buddhist tracts on philosophical argumentation (yinming) were translated into Chinese. However, they only achieved a limited circulation. The Song gaoseng zhuan (Zan, 988/1924) records that certain Tang monks taught such works on argumentation, but they were a tiny minority (Garrett, 1992). 4 In actuality dowager empresses, acting either as regent or as de facto emperors, were often the real power behind the throne, to the point of attending court, formally receiving proposals, and issuing edicts. However, only Empress Wu (reigned 684-704) dared to establish herself as the ruler, proclaiming her own dynastic title, calendar, and other apparatus of legitimation. Since the political system was overwhelmingly male-dominated, I will use the male pronorm throughout. 5 For the historical roots of the court conference in the Han dynasty see Wang 1949, pp. 173-178. 6 For citations as well as a discussion of whether a similar debate took place in 688, see Forte, 1976, pp. 88-91. 7 The rest of the debate appears in another text; see Dao 660/1924, p. 634a-b. 8 This format was not always followed strictly. For instance, the Emperor Gao Zu allowed Lu Deming to question representatives of the three religions at will (Ouyang 1040/1971, p. 5640). For the differing sources for the dating of this debate, which put it at either 624 or 625, see Ran 1966, p. 21, n. 55. REFERENCES T. = The Tokyo edition of the Tripitaka, Taisho shinshu daizokyo. Ed. and comp. Takakusu Junjiro et al. 85 vols. Tokyo: Taisho Issaikyo Kankokei, 1924-32. Becker, Carl. "Reasons for the Lack of Argumentation and Debate in the Far East." 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