A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Magic and Rhetoric

in Ancient Greece and China

Jennifer D. Mayton
ENGL 500
Prof. Oakley
December 4, 1998

Magic. Just saying the word out loud is mysterious. It conjures up dark and mysterious images of a figure practicing a secret craft: a man in a black top-hat, a wizard conquering the elements, and so forth. In this essay, I will explore magic not as a mysterious act, but in terms of rhetoric, or more precisely, language. The word I used in the above sentence, Aconjure,"has magical connotations. To conjure is to bring something, in this case an image, out of nothing, requiring only the presence of the word to make it happen. This is the type of magic I will focus on: the belief that words have power.1 As George Kennedy states in Comparative Rhetoric, A[m]agic...is one of the oldest human arts, and magical utterances and incantation surely made up one of the first rhetorical genres to emerge"(40). In this paper, I will argue that magic can be seen as an event that helped shape the discourse of rhetoric. In our modern world, it may seem far-fetched that such a relationship exists between magical and rhetorical acts. Yet, when we look at the development of rhetoric in ancient cultures, we discover that magic has always had a place on the periphery of rhetoric, lurking in the shadows. Both magic and rhetoric are social constructs, designed to facilitate a better understanding of our world. Magic can be seen as a category of rhetoric insofar as it is used to persuade someone or move them to action.

In his book Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy, William A. Covino expounds on a metaphor proposed by George Kennedy that rhetoric is energy: the physical and emotional energy of speaking combined with the experiential energy of receiving a message (18). It is not a far stretch, then, A...from defining rhetoric as the interaction of different kinds of energy...to calling rhetoric the invocation of invisible powers within a sympathetic universe of widely shared signifiers; that is, magic"(19). Covino argues that we can use the principles behind magic to explore the development of Aplain rhetoric"(16). In this paper, I propose to do exactly that: to explore how magic was viewed in ancient cultures and to illustrate how these ideas of magic helped shape their rhetorical practices.
The term rhetoric (rhLtorikL) was first coined by Plato in the 4th century BCE, whose disciplinary use of the term separated the art of persuasion from philosophy.2 While the term rhLtorikL is exclusive to Ancient Greece, references to magic are found in cultures all over the world. The concept of magic as an event that shaped the discourse of rhetoric, then, can be applied to different rhetorical practices that developed worldwide. While this paper cannot possibly cover all of the rhetorical practices in every culture, I have chosen to compare two models of rhetorical theory which originated in two distinct cultures. As Kennedy states in the prologue to Comparative Rhetoric, A[a] comparative approach has often proved to be useful in the natural and human sciences to reveal features of some object of study that may not be immediately evident in its own context"(1). Using Kennedy=s comparative model as a guide, I have decided to look at magic in the context of Ancient Greek and Ancient Chinese rhetoric. I feel that it is appropriate to compare their distinct rhetorical developments, since both of these cultures developed writing technologies at similar points in their history, as well as advanced schools of thought and government. A cross-cultural study of rhetoric gives the rhetorical theorist access to important rhetorical developments from other cultures, which can enrich the field of rhetorical theory.

Ancient Greek and Chinese ideas about words, language, and power are interrelated and integral to their ideas about magic. Taken one step further, these ideas can facilitate a better understanding of the rhetorical practices of both cultures. I will begin this paper by examining some key terms that illustrate how the ancient mind thought about words, language, and power. These key terms have an interesting history, and their remnants become visible in the rhetorical practices of both cultures.

Throughout this paper I will outline and examine some of the major events, figures, and rhetorical practices of Ancient Greece and China. By illustrating both the commonalties and differences between the two cultures, I hope to develop some understanding of how each viewed magic within its rhetorical discipline and to examine the development of magic as a category of rhetoric in these ancient cultures.

I would first like to discuss the possible origins of the word magic in both its Greek and Chinese contexts. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word magic comes from the Latin word magicus and the Greek mayik\s, referring to the Magi, or m<yos (186). It is defined as an adjective Aof or pertaining to magic,"and as a verb Ato transform, make, etc., (as if) by magic; also to magic (something) away, to cause as if magically, to disappear"(186). Thus far, it appears that magic is magic. This cyclical definition of magic proved troublesome, and prompted me to look further into its etymology. The Oxford English Dictionary states further that the word magic comes from its association with people known as the Magi. Historically, the Magi (magus, singular) were thought to have been an ancient Persian priestly cast, perhaps originally from a Median tribe (OED 202). In a more general sense, according to the OED, a magus is Aone skilled in Oriental magic and astrology, an ancient magician or sorcerer"(202). The Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology states that magic is Ashort for >magic art=,"crediting the Ascience and religion of the priests of Zoroaster,"or magein as its origin. The word magic may also have its roots in the Greek megas, meaning Agreat,"or A>great'science"(548). Magic, it seems, was first associated with those who practiced it. This definition fits Covino=s view that magic is dynamic social action and interaction.

Researching the Chinese definition of magic was more cumbersome than its English equivalent. This can be attributed to the fact that as a non speaker of Chinese, I had to research the definition backwards, finding the English word first and the Chinese definition that followed. According to the Analytic Dictionary of Chinese and Sino-Japanese, the word xuan means Aartifice, trick; magic"(61). The word u means Awitch, wizard; sorcery, magic tricks."Interestingly, the ideogram of this character depicts two figures next to each other engaged in a shamanistic dance (363). The idea of an ideogram representing a physical action such as the one mentioned above leads me to believe that like the Greeks, magic was also viewed by the ancient Chinese as an act.
Despite the ancient Greek=s development of rhetoric as non-magical techne, a strong bond between magic and rhetoric remained. Covino states that A[w]hile magic may be intrinsic to language, the power of an utterance resides in the social designation of a speaking symbol, enacting a phenomenon common to both magic and rhetoric...What is at issue then is not whether rhetoric is magic, but what sorts of magi/rhetors, under what sorts of conditions, produce what kinds of effects"(23). The next section of this paper will focus on the ancient magicians themselves, and how their practices helped shape the rhetorical theories of their respective cultures.

The magician in ancient Greece, A...served as a power and communications expert, crisis manager, miracle healer and inflicter of damages, and all-purpose therapist and agent of worried, troubled, and troublesome souls"(Covino 20). The same could be said for rhetors. Covino states that in the Western tradition, A...the magician and the rhetor are similar figures, and often the same figure..."(19). In the days of the ancient Greeks and Chinese, magic had an Aunderground"existence. Its purposes, to win a lover, to harm an enemy, and so forth, were perhaps not as laudable as philosophical excursions into the nature of man and theories of government, and therefore records of this type of social action are rare (Kennedy 223). Yet magic did exist, and like rhetoric, it was performed for a captive audience. The ancient poets and philosophers frequently mentioned the effects of magic. William Covino notes that A[i]n 415 BCE, the sophist Gorgias had warned that speech can >bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion'(>Encomium'41), voicing the ancient worry that words could be vehicles for diabolical forces"(6). However, Jacqueline de Romilly writes in her book, Magic and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece, that Gorgias held magic analogous to poetry -- both being divinely inspired by the gods (11). Romilly states that AGorgias'magic is technical. He wants to emulate the power of the magician by a scientific analysis of language and of its influence. He is the theoretician of the magic spell of words"(16). The technical aspect of magic, Romilly claims, influenced Gorgias'poetry (17). Gorgias'laudatory use of magic was severely criticized by Plato, who deemed it Aunworthy of the gods"and condemned by it using terms usually reserved for rhetoric: A>deceiving'(apatan) and playing on >false impressions'(dokein)"(Romilly 28). In the Sophist, Plato concluded A...that the sophist is a magician who merely imitates reality. He therefore can be counted among the conjurers"(Romilly 32). Covino, citing Jacqueline de Romilly=s Magic and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece, notes that A...Plato=s Socrates often charged his opponents with bad magic, while also weaving his own spells"(20). Although Plato disliked the sophists, the relationship between sophistry and magic became inextricably bound together.

Magic was also influencing the rhetorical practices of ancient thinkers on the other side of the world. Unlike the ancient Greek conception of magic as a deceptive speech act, the ancient Chinese magical practices were originally focused on the written word. According to Lindy Li Mark, A...the earliest form of writing was associated with divination and known as the oracle bone script. This script consisted of graphic symbols, engraved on animal scapulae and turtle plastrons, and dates from the beginnings of Chinese civilization three thousand years ago"(Legend, Lore, and Religion in China 57). Mark mentions various types of Chinese divinatory techniques, ranging from fu chi (spirit writing), suan ming (calculating one=s fate through horoscope reading), and ch=ai tze (taking apart characters or >glyphomancy=).
In ch=ai tze, a word is broken up into components Awhich are then treated as symbolic revelations of an unknown reality"(Li Mark 59). Ch=ai tze Arequires the learning of certain intellectual skills involving comparison, analysis, abstraction, manipulation of variables, and deductive reasoning"which are used Ato evaluate certain facts pertaining to real life events or problems. However,"Li Mark states, the A...written characters are only symbolically related rather than functionally related to real events"(62). Li Mark states that ch=ai tze is a part of a Alarger symbolic domain in Chinese culture"which she calls Aword magic"(62). Word magic is the belief that Athe written word [has] an intrinsic ability to affect the material world"(62). This association, states Li Mark, A...might have originated from the association of writing with divination in ancient times..."(62). In Chinese culture, A[w]ritten words are...believed to be imbued with magical powers"(63). Li Mark notes the public practice of writing the characters for prosperity and good fortune on red paper and posting it during the new year celebration as a kind of word magic. Another public display of magic is the practice of placing an amulet, consisting of Aelaborately stylized and distorted characters written on yellow or red paper"over a door or on a home altar in order to ward off evil spirits or disease (63). Based on this evidence, a relationship grew between character writing and magic in China. Yet did this Aword magic"affect ancient Chinese rhetorical practices as much as the sophist=s Amagic"in ancient Greece? In order to answer this question, we must first look at the rhetorical terminology used by the Chinese. My assumption here is that the reader is not as familiar with Chinese rhetoric as they are with Greek rhetoric. As I have illustrated above, words play a vital role in Chinese concepts of magic, and their role in Chinese rhetoric is no less significant.

The final section of this paper will deal with Chinese rhetorical practices during the pre-Qin period. The pre-Qin period is divided into five main historical time periods: the Xia dynasty (21st-16th century BCE), the Shang dynasty (16th-11th century BCE), the Zhou or Chou dynasty (1027 770 BCE), the Chun Qiu, also known as the Spring-Autumn period (722-481 BCE), and the Zhan Guo or Warring States period, which lasted from 475 to 221 BCE (Kennedy 142, Lu xv, 6). The classical period of Chinese history is thought to have ended in 221 BCE with the establishment of the Qin or Ch=in dynasty, which began the Great Wall and attempted to destroy all remnants of the classical period by censoring and burning books (Kennedy 142).

According to Xing Lu'Rhetoric in Ancient China Fifth to Third Century BCE, A[f]rom the Xia to Shang dynasties (approximately twenty-first to eleventh century BCE), the Chinese rhetorical experience was characterized by mythological and ritualistic communication in the form of the oral transmission of legends, along with rites of ancestor worship and divinations"(6). These ancient practices were usually accompanied by music and dance, and emphasized cultural values such as morality, hierarchy, and order (Lu 6). A[P]ersuasion between officials and kings, as well as between rulers and the masses, became a significant rhetorical activity,"states Lu (6). At this time, the most common method of persuasion was an appeal to tian ming, or the AMandate of Heaven,"which was a claim made by a new emperor that he was selected by the ruler of the universe to govern the new dynasty (Kennedy 142, Lu 6). This appeal to tian ming may be compared with the later European notion of the Adivine right"of kings, for both helped to maintain a hierarchy.

The formal Chinese writing system was developed around the sixth century BCE, based on pictograms dating from the second millennium BCE (Kennedy 141). With the advent of this new technology, previously oral discourse on politics and philosophy began to be documented (Lu 6). AAwareness of the power and impact of language thus increased,"states Xing Lu, Awhile the rhetorical appeals expanded into the realm of morality and rationality"(6).
The Spring-Autumn and Warring States period (722-221 BCE) was a time of great shifts in power, characterized by the emergence of a dominant lower-middle class, the decline of the aristocracy, wars, and crises in cultural values (Lu 6). There was an increased demand for political advisors and consultants, and the A...central topic of discussion was the use of language and the impact of persuasion and argumentation in shaping and reshaping human discourse"(Lu 7). Around this time, different philosophical schools emerged, each with its own rhetorical approach. Xing Lu notes:

In the articulation of their respective philosophical and rhetorical views, these ancient Chinese thinkers demonstrated their mastery of the art of Chinese rhetoric in oral persuasion as well as in their writings, where an array of rhetorical devices were employed, ranging from the metaphorical, anecdotal, analogical, and paradoxical to examples of chain reasoning, classification, and inferences. (8)

In her book, Rhetoric in Ancient China Fifth to Third Century BCE., Xing Lu presents an exhaustive analysis of ancient Chinese literary, philosophical, and historical texts. Based on her studies, Lu finds that there is A...compelling evidence for an identifiable formulation of language and persuasive discourse at the conceptual level"(8). Lu=s study included her own interpretation of texts from five ancient Chinese philosophical schools from the fifth to the third century BCE, which was a Awatershed period in Chinese philosophical discourse"(9). The texts include the philosophies of the Schools of Ming, Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism, and Legalism. ALike the canonized texts of ancient Greece,"states Lu, these texts Adefined and shaped the cultural and rhetorical traditions of China in subsequent years"(9).

One of the most interesting (and oftentimes frustrating) aspect of a cross-cultural analysis is the translation of key terms. All too often in comparative discourse, two words from different cultures are equated hastily, and invariably, the meaning of one becomes overshadowed by another. In this cross-cultural study of magic and rhetoric, I have been challenged by Xing Lu=s gentle reminder that a translation is not the same as an equation (36). For example, it may be surprising to know that although the Chinese philosophical tradition extends back thousands of years, the term philosophy did not originate in China. The term philosophy was rather Aa translated English term to parallel with the study of Chinese ethics, logic, epistemology, and political science"(Lu 9) and its etymological roots are Greek. Similarly, the term rhetoric does not have an ancient Chinese origin. In fact, the word rhetoric has no Chinese equivalent. As Lu states, A[w]hile the word rhetoric was defined by Aristotle as >the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion,'no exact equivalent for the word exists in the Chinese language"(36). The problem with substituting the word rhetoric into discourse about ancient Chinese thought is that an assumption is being made that Chinese thinking and writing patterns are similar to Western ones. Although the ancient and Chinese and Greek thinkers shared many concerns, such as what makes a good ruler, their strategies for persuasive discourse and argument are as different as their writing systems.

There are, however, a number of related words used in classical Chinese texts which Acapture and conceptualize persuasive behaviors and speech theories"(Lu 36). Lu=s work in ancient Chinese language presents each of these terms in their own philosophical and lexical context. These terms include: yan (speech, language), ci (mode of speech), jian (advising), shu/shuo (persuasion, explanation), ming (naming), and bian (distinction, argumentation). While the scope of this paper cannot possibly document the entire developmental history of these terms, I will note here that the term yan A...is used to describe forms of speech as well as to theorize the use of language"and Aming and bian are used to conceptualize and theorize language, persuasion, and argumentation"(Lu 72). Lu suggests that A...this feature of language also reflects Chinese worldviews,"and notes Mary Garrett=s observation from a 1993 study which A...indicates the Chinese cosmology of holism and perception of the world as interconnected and interrelated"(89).

It is important to note here that many of these words overlap each other in classical Chinese usage. The ancient Chinese often used this versatile aspect of their language to employ different words which shared the same meaning in order to add emphasis (Lu 89). For example, the word ming is closely related to bian (Lu 88). Both words refer to the use of language, and imply the use of logical distinctions. AHowever,"states Lu, Awhile ming deals primarily with symbolic expression and its impact on perceptions of reality, bian covers moral, rational, and artistic aspects of speech and argumentation"(88). The classical use of ming began to disappear as Ming lost it fluence after 200 BCE (Lu 89).In her 1993 study with David Frank, Xing Lu argues that A... bian is the closest equivalent to the English word rhetoric"(71). The use of the term of bian rose out of conflicts between different philosophical schools of thought. One example of the use of bian in Ancient China is illustrated in the conflict between Confucian and Mohist philosophers on the issue of morality:

In the interest of winning over one=s opponents and promoting one=s philosophical views, one=s ability to speak clearly and make sound arguments became of utmost importance. As a result, the word bian became associated with eloquence, argumentation, disputation, and debate. In fact, the ideographic feature of bian consists of the word yan (speech, language) between two xin, each standing for a prisoner in a yoke. When the two xin combined, they made up the word bian, originally referring to two prisoners accusing each other in court.
(Lu 86)

In order to effectively present his ideas and persuade his opponent to accept his point of view, an Ancient Chinese philosopher had to speak clearly. During the Spring-Autumn and Warring States period (475-221 BCE), those who made clear distinctions and eloquent presentations in intellectual debates were known as bian shi (Lu 87). The word bian has retained some of its ancient meaning, and currently refers to argumentation or disputation (Lu 88).

In her comparison of classical Greek and Chinese rhetoric, Lu notes how both systems include Aperceptions on the role of speech in changing attitudes and behaviors; [...] modes of epistemological and intellectual inquiry; and ideas regarding the impact of language on moral, political, and social issues"(Lu 92). Xing Lu defines the term ming bian as the conceptualization of Chinese rhetorical activities including A...theories of logic, argumentation, persuasive speech behavior, and artistic use of language"(93). Lu states that ming bian and rhLtorikL are not identical: A...the Greek sense of rhLtorikL is more concerned with the art of persuasion, while the Chinese sense of ming bian seems to be more concerned with social values and social order"(93). In addition, Lu makes it clear that ming bian is not a disciplinary term like rhLtorikL is. Although the ancient Chinese did not have a specific word dedicated to describing the art of persuasion and eloquent language like the Greeks, they did have a system of words whose overlapping meanings allowed them great versatility in describing different speech acts in politics and philosophy.
William Covino argues that there is an A...appeal of both magic and rhetoric, or of magic as rhetoric, at times when the influx of new knowledge and patterns of life puts us in search of a spell to control the demons of change"(20). Ancient cultures on both sides of the world sought to create order out of their chaotic environments. One of the ways in which they accomplished this was through the development of rhetoric. It is my contention that rhetoric=s predecessor, magic, influenced each culture=s conceptualizations of words, language, and power. Ancient Greek philosophical works illustrate an early connection between magic and the sophists. Whether cast in a negative or a positive light, the idea of using words in speech in order to influence people was seen as a kind of magic by the Greeks. The application of magic to rhetorical activity was slightly different for the ancient Chinese. From its earliest known form in oracle bone scripts, the ancient Chinese believed in the magical power of the written word. The power of the written character eventually became interconnected with the power of written and spoken discourse, and was often used as a weapon by both philosophers and government officials. The influence of magic on ancient Chinese rhetorical practices is not as readily apparent in written discourse as it is with the ancient Greeks; however, the belief in the power of ming bian continued to resonate in Chinese rhetorical discourse long after divination and oracle bone reading were banished into a more private and secretive world. I had stated previously that magic lies on the periphery of rhetoric, lurking in the shadows. Yet concept of using words to influence people, whether for persuasion, like the Greeks, or for justifying moral and social codes, like the Chinese, is a magical one; and it is this belief in words that is perhaps the most powerful magic of all.


Works Consulted

de Romilly, Jacqueline. Magic and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Covino, William A. Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Karlgren, Bernhard. Analytic Dictionary of Chinese and Sino-Japanese. Taipei: Ch=eng-Wen Publishing Co., 1966.

Kennedy, George A. Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lu, Xing. Rhetoric in Ancient China Fifth to Third Century BCE: A Comparison with
Classical Greek Rhetoric. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

AMagic."Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. Ed. Leslie Shepard. Detroit : Gale Research Co., 1978.

AMagic."Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication From Ancient Times to the Information Age. Ed. Theresa Enos. New York : Garland Pub., 1996

AMagic."The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Ed. 1989.

Mark, Lindy Li. AOrthography Riddles, Divination, and Word Magic: An Exploration in Folklore and Culture."Legend, Lore, and Religion in China: Essays in Honor of Wolfram Eberhard on His Seventieth Birthday. Eds. Sarah Allan and Alvin P. Cohen. San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center, 1979. 43-69.

O=Keefe, Daniel Lawrence, Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic, New York: The Continuum Publishing Co., 1982.



1 Enos, Theresa. Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition. (421)
2 See Edward Shiappa, Quarterly Journal of Speech. (1992), qtd. in Lu, Xing. Rhetoric in Ancient China Fifth to Third Century BCE.: A Comparison with Classical Greek Rhetoric. Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1998.


[Welcome | About Us | Search | Projects | Forums | Publications | Conferences | Archives | Talk to Us]

© 1997 Society for Critical Exchange. Site maintained by Brian Ballentine. Unauthorized use prohibited.