Time, Timeliness (shi 時), & Passing (shi 逝)
Here are some comparative philosophy theses we could discuss, from Sarah Allan’s (1997) book, The Way of Water and Sprouts of Virtue:
“There is no Classical Chinese word equivalent in meaning to the English word time. In the Analects (IX.17), we are told that Confucius, standing by a river, said, ‘What passes is perhaps like this: day and night it never lets up.’ In this passage, the imagery of the river suggests time passing, just as it did for his contemporary Heraclitus when he said that you cannot step into the same river twice. However, a specific term for ‘what passes’ or ‘passes by’–what we call time–is noticeably absent. Nevertheless, a Chinese word, sometimes translated as ‘time,’ shi 時, is a key term in early Chinese philosophy. The original meaning of shi is “season.” By extension, it also means seasonality or timeliness and refers to doing something at the appropriate time, the time or season at which an action can succeed. Shi is meaningful in the context of a natural order to which people, as other living things including plants, must correspond in their actions if they are to flourish and achieve success in life. However, it is not equivalent to our idea of ‘time’ and it cannot be used to discuss the phenomenon of time passing for which Confucius used the metaphor of a river.” (p. 11-12)
Following up on the Analects IX.17 passage, in which the idea of time “passing” is expressed with the (different) character shi 逝, Allan makes the following analysis:
“…in the absence of a word that specifically means time passing, Confucius simply compares the passing stream with ‘passing away.’ What ‘passes’ is both that which we call time and life itself. In another passage from the Analects, shi 逝 is used explicitly with reference to the passage of time: ‘The days and months pass by (shi 逝), but the harvest is not given to me’ (XVII.1). In Classical Chinese, days and months were also literally ‘suns’ and ‘moons’ and so they could also be said to pass by in a literal sense. In later texts, shi 逝 is used as a conventional euphemism for death or dying, just as we speak of someone ‘passing away.’ … Shi 逝 is not, however, ‘passing on’ which carries the implication of another world where one goes after death.” (p. 37)
Allan makes two suggestions based on this. First, that this is reflective of a way of thinking in which individual human lives, though “bounded by birth and death” (p. 12), are also regarded as links within the continuum of the ancestral heritage. Second, that it is reflective of a trend in the “metaphoric structures” through which the early Chinese think, according to which radical distinctions between things are not nearly as much the norm but that continuity among them is. So, an example of that is the significant use of the classification wu 物 “things,” in which humans, animals and plants are all classified together–not trivially, but for important purposes. Based on these sorts of considerations and examinations of textual passages, Allan argues in the book for a set of “root metaphors” that inform the early Chinese conceptual scheme in certain ways.
There are lots of interesting things in this book, including Allan’s discussion of the water and plant metaphors, but I’d be interested in what you think about her observations about early Chinese ways to talk about time: timeliness and passing (away). I’m not as sure as Allan is that large conceptual differences arise from this.
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