Great discussion! I completely concur with the choice of the word “distinguish” to translate “fen” in the taiji phrases, “fen xu shi,” and “xu shi yi fen qingqu.” Distinguish in fact is the word I use to translate it, and I can’t think of a better one. What I was reacting to in your posts was the explanatory spin you were putting on the word, and your use of language such as “separate,” “discrete, mutually exclusive categories,” and the notion that distinguishing necessarily implies “two opposites” that must be distinguished. One can distinguish opposites to be sure, but one can also distinguish things that are not exactly opposite, and perhaps similar, such as the taste of a pear from the taste of an apple. Indeed, as you yourself point out, the word “distinguish” is itself inherently ambiguous. In reading though the entries for “distinguish” (nine long ones) in my Oxford English Dictionary, I see that the word shares certain semantic features with the Chinese “fen”: those of dividing into parts, into categories, species and classes; and those that might be called cognitive meanings (you called it “essentially a mental activity”) implying recognition of, or perception of differences between or among things or categories. Perhaps the OED definition I prefer would be: “To perceive distinctly or clearly (by sight, hearing, or other bodily sense); to ‘make out’ by looking, listening, etc.; to recognize.”
I already reposted my translation above of the little passage in the taijiquan terms dictionary that cautions against interpreting the concept of distinguishing empty and full in terms of a cut and dried separation. Here’s another entry from the same source:
Fen Xu Shi:
A practice essential in taijiquan. In the “Taijiquan Lun,” it says, “Each point has its point of empty/full. Everywhere there is always this one empty/full.” Taijiquan movement, therefore, is a limitless transformation—an alternation and mutual production of empty and full. Each form, be it an ending posure or the dynamic state (of transition), has both empty and full. So there is both “differentiation of empty and full” (xu shi fenming) and “mutual affinity of empty and full” (xu shi xiang he—xiang he: coordinated or united one with the other, conjoined).
—Jingxuan Taijiquan Cidian, p. 53
If, when we distinguish empty and full, the matter we are distinguishing cannot be conceived of as mutually exclusive and separate categories, and if they are rather “conjoined” than “opposed,” then the act of making this distinction may not best be characterized as an act of separation of opposing forces.
Also, while I concur with the translation “distinguish,” I felt compelled to challenge the logic used in your defense of the term as you defined and explained it. You seemed to assert that the meaning would have to be “distinguish” because of the alleged use of the term “fenqing,” in taiji documents, which unambiguously means “to distinguish.” I am still not convinced that “fenqing” is not a fairly modern compound with unique connotations.
I see that Shen Jiazhen indeed uses the compound “fenqing” in the section of his book beginning under the heading “Xu Shi Bili” (the term bili itself implies ‘proportion, ratio and scale,’ does it not?). However, I think it’s important to note that Yang Chengfu’s wording in the Ten Essentials is simply “fen xushi,” and the wording in the Taijiquan Lun is “xu shi yi fen qingqu.” In neither case is the compound “fenqing” used, and I believe “qingqu” in the Lun is serving an adverbial role, rather than as part of a compound: “fenqingchu.” Your line of argument on this detail is what led me to my hypothesis about the Marxist Dialectics usage (the usage, if not the word itself) of the compound “fenqing.” I’m not trying to be flip or bizarre in this hypothesis, but merely trying to illustrate a “distinction.” Here are the usage examples for “fenqing” appearing in my mainland-based Han-Ying Cidian: “distinguish right and wrong on the question of line” (line: luxian, is a Chinese Marxist term indicating the political ideology one holds to); “draw a distinction between ourselves, our friends and the enemy” (unmistakable class struggle language); and “One cannot distinguish between genuine and sham Marxism without studying revolutionary theory.” These examples imply *demarcation* between mutually incompatible categories, but I would assert that making distinctions need not necessarily work this way, and may be off the mark of what is required in distinguishing the traditional notions of empty and full. Incidently, in his book, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, John DeFrancis writes at length about the degree to which modern mainland Mandarin was influenced by political language, and Maoist language in particular. No surprises there. It would of course take some detailed socio-historical linguistic analysis to prove or disprove my hypothesis, but the hypothesis having been made, I would say the burden lies in disproving it at this point.
Particularly telling, I think, was your statement, “If that sounds like marxist dialectics, so be it. Chinese thinking is rife with yin/yang type opppositions and they were there long before Marx.” This, I think, is a misunderstanding that is all too common—the notion that Chinese correlative thought was one of “oppositions.” I could quote a number of sources pointing out the qualitative distinction between what might be called the “dualism” of dialectical thinking and the “polarity” of traditional Chinese correlative thinking. They are really quite different. This is the point I was trying to touch upon in my mention of Mao’s famous “On Contradition” essay. He went to great lengths to appropriate native correlative language into the dialectical framework, and with great success. In so doing, he actually contributed to a change in the way that language came to be used. Dialectics requires what Mao called “antagonism” between opposing forces and factions. Social processes are explained in terms of the “struggle” of opposing classes and forces, and this struggle is viewed as an essential and necessary process of nature. Again, this is rather different than native yin/yang correlative thinking. I can’t think of a better illustration than Li Yiyu’s words, “within full there is empty”; “within empty there is full.”
My thoughts on all of this are purely for the enjoyment of pondering and discussing these ideas, and I hasten to add that much of what you’ve said makes a great deal of sense to me.