Written by by Jana S. Rošker
Chun-chieh Huang: Konfuzianismus: Kontinuität und Entwicklung – Studien zur chinesischen Geistesgeschichte (Confucianism: Continuity and Development – Studies in Chinese Intellectual History) (edited and translated by Stephan Schmidt) transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2009
(EUR 24,80, ISBN-13: 978-3837610482)
Even though this volume was published almost five years ago, it remains extremely actual for two reasons. The first is related to the fact that, in recent years, scholars and students in the field of Chinese studies have increasingly come to deal with the question of whether and to what extent the cultural identity of China is still influenced by its Confucian imprint. It is therefore not surprising that, in the last few decades, there has been a revival of interest in Confucianism, both in China and in Western sinology. The main aim of so-called Modern Confucianism, to which the author of this book belongs, is the revival of this ancient tradition in order to preserve its millennial cultural, political and philosophical discourses in a period of sweeping social transformation, which also has been greatly influenced by many foreign elements. This provides the sole basis for re-interpreting (and thus creatively transforming) the Confucian theoretical framework in a way that corresponds to the conditions of a modern, dynamic world.
The second reason for the continuing relevance of this book can be found in the considerable disparity in knowledge transfer between China and Europe, a factor which Stephan Schmidt, the editor and translator of the present volume, quite rightly underscores in his introduction. In fact, while each year a flood of translations of more or less important Euro-American studies is published in China, there is nothing even remotely comparable taking place in Western countries, even though the interest in Chinese culture – in the broadest sense – continues to increase.
It is thus even more gratifying that this collection of “autochthonous” Chinese contributions, which provides access to important, previously unknown aspects of the complex intellectual history of China, is made available in a major European language like German.
Chun-chieh Huang, the author of this volume, is the Dean of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Studies at the National Taiwan University, and teaches history at the same university. He is also a research fellow at the Academia Sinica in Taipei. He writes primarily on various aspects of Confucian intellectual history and on higher education reform in the age of globalization, and is considered a leading international expert in these fields. In the area of Confucian intellectual history, he is best known for his studies on the history of the reception of Mengzi.
Stephan Schmidt, the translator and editor of the present book, is a sinologist and writer. His lengthy introduction and the commentaries on the individual contributions will be quite useful for Western readers. He has also included a short “Glossary of Key Terms,” which provides a useful aid for understanding the entire collection.
The book is the result of an intensive yearlong collaboration between the two scholars at the National Taiwan University in Taipei.
The main body of work is dedicated to analyses and explications of the socio-political influence of the most important Chinese classical texts. The history of their reception has been reconstructed through a series of studies dealing with the diverse impacts and interpretations of these works,from ancient times to the present. The chief intent of these studies is to elucidate and clarify the theoretical contents of these classical works, thereby giving the reader a deeper insight into their topical vitality and current social relevance.
Chun-chieh Huang considers himself primarily to be a historian, and consequently avoids addressing the philosophical contents of the works in question. Instead, he provides a precise and detailed account of the history of their reception, which has transformed an originally broad cultural understanding into a concrete, historical record. By eschewing the teleological and ontological elements, this essentially historiographical approach is thus able to identify and reveal the significance of the processes that have been taking place within the developmental guidelines of Confucian teachings.
In this regard, the author is especially concerned with the embedding of the Confucian textual tradition in the broader East Asian context, especially in Japan and Korea. Avoiding the still widely held prejudice of an a historical, monolithic framework of Confucian teachings, he instead adopts a pluralistic approach, and speaks of “Confucianisms” as opposed to a unique or univocal form of “Confucianism”. By so doing, he moves beyond the Sinocentrism which has determined most of the previous research in this area.
The book opens with an analysis of the relationship between the interpretation of the classics and philosophical construction in the context of Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucian theories. The author shows very clearly how this scholar succeeded in incorporating certain concepts and categories that were originally “foreign” to ancient Confucianism into his Neo-Confucian system, thereby proposing a new understanding of the Four Classics. The chapter offers significant insights into specific methodological features of the Chinese intellectual tradition, including the tensions between the canonical texts and their transformation by various exegetes who were active in different historical periods and conditions. He argues that these tensions provided the primary impulse for the dynamics of Chinese intellectual history.
These methodological peculiarities, which are linked to the problems of hermeneutic interpretation, are examined more fully in the second chapter, which deals with the problem of the history of the exegesis of the Confucian classics, as viewed through the lens of their “practical” objectives. Indeed, over the course of the history of their reception, these utilitarian goals have shown themselves to be much more important than any aspirations for an abstract “truth recognition”. For Huang, these classical works are of a “time and space transcending rank” (p. 87). This conclusion might lead the reader to question whether the interpretations of the classics (given the millennial stretch of time that separates the modern reader from their origins) are primarily based upon subjective evaluations. For his part, Huang retains that it is possible to arrive at an objective comprehension of the texts, but that such an understanding must be based on gaining insight into the living “culture” of these classical works. This means neither embalming them in old, superseded discourses, nor relegating them to some virtual, ideal space beyond time and history.
In the following chapter, entitled On the Relation between the Interpretation of Canonic Writings and Political Power in Eastern Asia, Chun-chieh Huang focuses on those portions of the classical (predominantly Mencian) canon which can be seen as formulating a critique of political power. He points out that, thanks to these passages, Confucianism was often perceived as radical or even “shocking” (p.109) in later historical periods and this frequently led to reinterpreting the existing glosses on power relations. This “revisionism” occurred not only in China, but also in Korea and Japan, where the politically problematic passages of the classics were marked by the annotation “not to be read by the emperor” (p. 98).
Chapter 4 deals with the concept of body in East Asian Confucianism, which is at the heart of the Confucian worldview in China, Japan and Korea. Huang argues that this worldview is holistic, given that the “human organism was seen as an integral part of the cosmic organism” (p. 137). Both entities represent a physical-spiritual unity, which is embedded in an all-comprehensive, dynamic cosmological structure and imbued with the vital substance Qi. Huang’s analyses seek to provide insights into the unity of the cognitive, ethical, and social functions of the human heart-mind (xin), which is one of the most characteristic concepts of the entire East Asian Confucian tradition.
The fifth chapter deals with Modern Confucian Interpretations of the Book of Mengzi in the 20th Century,and focuses on the thought of three leading Taiwanese Modern Confucians, Xu Fuguan, Tang Junyi and Mou Zongsan. Although these three thinkers were united in their search for “new perspectives for the revival of Chinese culture, which was faced with a profound crisis” (p. 153), Huang also stresses their differences in terms of the methodologies applied and their cognitive orientations. While Tang and Mou sought to “move beyond” history in order to reach the realm of “pure” philosophy, Xu’s work is much more ‘down to earth’ and focuses on intellectual history as such. However, here Huang seems to overlook Tang Junyi’s and Mou Zongsan’s contributions to the question of institutions. Huang manifests a clear preference for Xu Fuguan’s work, and admires especially his ability to understand and explicate the historical unfolding of ideas in the context of their concrete developmental processes. In Huang’s view, it was precisely this ability, which “enabled Xu Fuguan to elucidate and modernize the ancient Mencian idea of the political primacy of the people” (p. 174).
The final chapter, An Attempt at Topology: Confucian Hermeneutics as Policy, Pilgrimage and Apologetics, provides a detailed summary of all the essays in the book, while uniting them with a common conceptual thread. It is important to stress how, ultimately, hermeneutics is always closely linked to moral and ethical issues. For many Western readers, the fact that hermeneutics provides “a guide to a proper way of life” and that “their privileged textual medium is the commentary” (p. 51) might appear as unusual. In order to explain this specific feature of the Chinese hermeneutic tradition, the author stresses that Confucian hermeneutics is not merely a form of intellectual curiosity which aims at arriving at an abstract “truth”, but is both a specific kind of social actuality and an individual practice for the cultivation of one’s personality.
This eminently practical dimension of interpretation, which always links the individual striving for perfection with shared and universally binding social issues (p. 70), provides both the specialist and the general reader with a series of specific perspectives on the Confucian tradition. These perspectives show how this important world cultural heritage can be understood not only in terms of its philosophical contents and values, or its internal consistency and validity, but also its political and social contexts.