An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy

Karyn L. Lai
Publish Place: 
New York
Cambridge University Press
Publish Year: 
E-book Tag: 

It is noteworthy that the two most recent textbooks that bear this title, the current one by Karyn Lai, and one by JeeLoo Liu (2006, Blackwell; also reviewed on NDPR), limit themselves to introducing the reader to early Chinese philosophy (Warring States period through the Han -- roughly 5th century BCE through 3rd century CE) and the early schools of Chinese Buddhism (from ca. 1st through 6th centuries CE). This means that the title is quite misleading for both volumes since there are also significant periods of Chinese philosophy in the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and up to the post-dynastic present; so, roughly 1400 years of the 2500-year tradition are not represented. The similarity and temporal proximity of the two textbooks invites comparison, but for the purposes of this review, I will leave that exercise to others.

Lai's volume is interesting and bold, as introductory textbooks go. There are aspects to her approach that those who are concerned with issues of historiography will find controversial. Those who care more about comparative philosophy should be pleased to find that Lai's presentation of Chinese philosophy provides a very useful update to the collection of textbooks that are available. Lai's discussion provides an excellent sense of the most current interpretations and uses of early Chinese thought by philosophers who, like Lai herself, work in Chinese and comparative philosophy.

The penchant to treat early Chinese thought as of primary importance -- and to some, the only really interesting philosophical material from the tradition -- runs deeply through the professional field of Chinese and comparative philosophy in the English speaking world. Some people still refer to Chinese philosophy and simply mean the early material, without apology. That is slowly changing. However, it may very well be that this predilection tracks an affinity, or at least the widespread perception of affinity, that the concerns of early Chinese thought have with those of contemporary ethical theorizing, as broadly construed in western philosophy. On the other hand, the more metaphysical, spiritual, and soteriological concerns of medieval Neo-Confucianism may suffer in comparison in the eyes of contemporary professional philosophers. Those are not Lai's overt reasons, however, for omitting discussion of the entirety of medieval Neo-Confucian philosophy, not to mention the entirety of modern Chinese "New," or "Third-Wave," Confucianism. Rather, she offers this apology:

in order to keep the volume to a manageable size, it has not been possible to include a discussion of Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism was a development of Confucian doctrines and was a prominent philosophical movement from the tenth century [and onward] … Many of the discussions by Neo-Confucian thinkers focus on metaphysical and meta-philosophical issues and it is unfortunate that these cannot be included … Hopefully, the discussions in this volume will provide readers with a good understanding of the fundamental conceptual frameworks and concerns of Chinese philosophy and thereby equip readers to understand later developments in Chinese philosophy. (p. 2)

I'm not sure I am convinced by this rationale for this particular editorial choice. Surely it would have been possible to include at least cursory discussion, in at least one chapter of an introductory text, of the main outlines of Neo-Confucianism. To complicate matters in a necessary way, it is worth pointing out that interpretations of early Chinese texts by the Neo-Confucian movement through its commentarial tradition were, and continue to be, very influential in shaping contemporary interpretations and translations of them. From an intellectual history perspective, it is slightly inadequate to think of the tradition as having established "fundamental conceptual frameworks and concerns" early on and then simply having been built upon those as time progressed. Instead, many of the "orthodox" scholarly options available for understanding the early frameworks and concerns have been the product of the ways they were constructed and then retroactively fitted onto the early period by later figures and movements. But a reader who is receiving an introduction to the tradition may not fully appreciate this without seeing at least portions of the larger picture. Some part of that picture, of course, is present in Lai's inter-textual juxtapositions, according to theme, of Han and pre-Han early Chinese sources, among themselves. By means of that, she hopes "to capture a sense of intellectual debt and cross-influences between the traditions" (p. 2), by which she means, between what are more traditionally called the "schools" of pre-Qin and Han dynastic Chinese thought (Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, Legalism, School of Names, and Buddhism). Though she states this to be a "secondary objective" (ibid.) of the volume, in actuality it would be very difficult to do anything aside from this in order to understand what the individual, compiled sets of teachings were trying to convey, argue, or establish philosophically -- at least with regard to the clearly contemporaneous schools.

As for the diachronic influences, say between the earlier pre-Qin teachings and the Han dynastic strains several hundred years later, things are less straightforward -- and bring into our discussion the influence of Neo-Confucian interpretation on Lai's account. References to issues of cosmology that are linked to the Yijing (the Book of Changes) are sparse and almost entirely absent in pre-Qin material; the Yijing seems only to have served a divinatory role in the Zhou dynasty (12th - 5th cent. BCE), without any apparent concern for cosmology, much less the systematic sort developed in the Han. Quite likely, it is because of the importance it held for deciding certain matters of state in the glory days of the Zhou that Confucius is reported to have held it in high regard. So, it is not at all clear, as Lai suggests (ch. 10, passim), that influence toward regarding the Yijing as an important text for Confucian concerns in the Han has its source in nascent cosmological ideas in the pre-Qin texts. That is certainly a way of understanding the prominent appearance of the Yijing in the Han and thereafter, both in Daoist and Confucian discussions. Indeed, a casual perusal of books and information sites on the Internet about the Yijing suggests that this is common wisdom about the historical rise of the text to prominence. To understand, however, how this became the common wisdom, or how it came to represent a significant portion of the scholarly thinking on the Yijing, it is necessary to understand how the supposed continuity of the text with the historical Confucius was valuable to the development of Neo-Confucianism in its eventual response to the perceived superiority of Buddhist cosmology and metaphysics. Connecting a clearly indigenous movement, early Confucianism, to the Yijing cosmology developed in the Han, of yin and yang interaction, qi transformation and flow, and their roles in achieving moral-spiritual enlightenment was a crucial part of the xenophobic philosophical response that gave rise to Neo-Confucianism.

Devoting an entire chapter (ch. 10) of this volume to the Yijing is clearly warranted because of its prominence in Chinese philosophy, but that prominence is really best understood in relation not only to the Han -- which constitutes the better part of the chapter's discussion -- but to Neo-Confucian concerns as well. In some respects, this is a chapter that could by itself have incorporated a brief introductory discussion of such Neo-Confucian concerns, because of the historical synergy between them and those of Han Confucianism.

There is another aim of the book that Lai reveals, however, which brings its best parts into clearer focus:

Some attempt is made to compare the features of Chinese philosophy with parallel aspects of western philosophy. However, the aim of such comparisons is to elucidate the characteristics of Chinese philosophy rather than to present and account for differences in the two fields as such. Attention is also given to contemporary debates in the field of Chinese philosophy by modern and contemporary scholars who work in China and beyond. Many of these scholars are enthused by insights in the different philosophies and committed to demonstrating their relevance to the contemporary world. Their interest in Chinese philosophy extends beyond the study of the texts themselves and toward issues of pragmatic import. These scholars are both inheritors of these traditions and contributors to them. (p. 2)

Despite the stated tertiary status of the aim, it is responsible for the aspects of the book that really shine throughout the chapters. Lai has a keen sense of the currents running through recent philosophical secondary literature that concerns itself largely with the early figures of Chinese philosophy. Much of it that is interesting to the western philosophical audience buoys, or at least attempts to buoy, the early texts to contemporary philosophical relevance through contemporary understandings or renderings of the issues, all the while maintaining a healthy concern for historical plausibility. Lai's discussion of each prominent figure and school of thought is peppered throughout with her presentation and assessment of the views, which are sometimes in disagreement with each other, of major English-writing interpreters of the texts. As a textbook of Chinese philosophy, this is highly unusual but in a good way. Chapters 2-8 read in many respects like a literature survey of contemporary scholarship on early Chinese Confucianism, Daoism, and Mohism rather than the usual presentation of readings of the associated texts as if those readings were uncontestable. The effect, it seems to me, is exactly the sort of thing for which an introduction to this type of literature should aim. These chapters of Lai's book, at least, give an appropriate sense of the differing interpretive possibilities for the ancient texts.

In particular, two chapters worth singling out for praise are the ones on early Mohism (ch. 4) and later Mohism (ch. 7). Neither of these movements is ordinarily treated with the level of scholarly evenhandedness and care that Lai provides. This reflects Lai's awareness of the traditional, very strong bias against Mohism that has existed in Chinese philosophy because of the largely Confucian identity of the scholars who have created and transmitted orthodoxies about early Chinese figures. As Lai notes, regarding early Mohism:

Up until relatively recently, scholarship in Mohist philosophy has been fairly disparaging of its ideas and influence. For instance, Wing-tsit Chan, an influential Chinese philosopher, noted that 'philosophically Mohism is shallow and unimportant'. The tendency was to interpret Mohism as a reaction against Confucianism, and a fairly weak attempt at that. But scholars including Schwartz, Graham, and Hansen have more comprehensively outlined the aspects of Mozi's philosophy that were influential in shaping the subsequent development of Chinese philosophy. (p. 55)

Likewise, Lai is to be commended on her treatment of the later Mohist work on techniques of argument, distinguishing names from propositions, and attempts to explain mirror-optics. Lai's understanding of the later Mohists is filtered largely through A.C. Graham and Chad Hansen's emendations and reconstructions of the "drastically compromised" (p. 124) bamboo strip copies that form the basis for the received text. There have been notable scholarly criticisms of those reconstructions. In that respect, Lai is perhaps treading on thin ice. Nonetheless, it is clear that the later Mohist writings, which seem to aim for a kind of near mathematical precision of definition and explanation, represent an important departure from the stylized, literary writing of much of the rest of early Chinese philosophy. Given the nature of the text, it may be risky to draw too many conclusions about what the later Mohists were "onto" -- for example, with respect to their understanding of propositions -- but it is the sort of risk that makes Lai's volume not only bolder, but more thought provoking than the usual textbook.

By comparison, Lai's discussion in chapters 9-11 of Legalism, Han dynasty Confucianism, and Chinese schools of Buddhism seemed somewhat rote to me. This perhaps reflects Lai's own intellectual background and interests. Though rote, these chapters provide an adequate accounting of those movements. To point this out is less a criticism of their adequacy than it is a compliment to Lai's much more interesting treatment in the former chapters.