"people of the book"

Paul Frank paulfrank at POST.HARVARD.EDU
Sat Jun 16 08:14:49 UTC 2001

> >      Many Asians, like Jews, are "people of the book" (the Mandarin
> > and
> >      Talmudic traditions) and are ascending America's surest ladder
> > of
> >      social mobility, the system of higher education.
> >
> > We discussed this phrase in early December of 1999; it's originally
> > (a
> > translation of) an Arabic expression referring to those who share
> > with
> > Muslims a reverence for the (variously defined) Bible (mainly to
> > Jews and
> > Christians).
> This also puzzled me when I first read it, though generally I read George
> Will with the same reverence and open acceptance of a Baptist reading the
> Old Testament. Obviously (hopefully) it was a metaphor for one culture
> that accepts another quite different culture because of some common
> thread. Note that he used quotation marks, and Will does not use them
> with the abandon of Bernstein's sign painter and poster letterer.
> Will is a very careful, if sometimes abstruse, wordsmith.  He could not
> have misconstrued the meaning of "people of the book." Please. Otherwise
> my entire belief system comes crashing down on my head, witht he last
> page of Newsweek fluttering down to finish the job.
> D

Will's phrase and gloss are infelicitous. True, there _was_ a mandarin
tradition in China. A meritocratic bureaucracy was established as early as
the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) and a civil service exam system was introduced
during the Han (206 BC-AD 220) and Sui (581-618). But it would be silly to
refer to the Chinese as people of the Mandarin tradition. People of the
Confucian tradition is more like it. Until fairly recently all literate
Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese were schooled in the Four Books: The Great
Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Analects, and the Mencius. Perhaps
that's what Will means by People of the Book. For what it's worth, the OED
defines People of the Book as "a body or community whose religion entails
adherence to a book of divine revelation," and more specifically as "Jews
and Christians as regarded in Muslim thought." Confucianism rejected divine
revelation from the outset. As Confucius himself put it in the Analects: "To
give one's self earnestly to the duties due to men, and, while respecting
spiritual beings, to keep aloof from them, may be called wisdom."

Paul Frank
English translation from Chinese, German,
French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese
Business, law, and the social sciences
Phone (France) +33 450 70 99 90
mailto:paulfrank at post.harvard.edu

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