Is Han Dynasty Philosophy Important?

This, from Michael Nylan’s book “The Five ‘Confucian’ Classics” (p. 5): “Early classicism has received surprisingly little intellectual attention, and Han studies–the Chinese counterpart to Roman history–continue to languish in relative obscurity.” This is sadly true. Part of the reason it is so is summed up in this bit of thinking, by Chad Hansen: “the onset of the philosophical dark age [Qin and Han], brought on by Qin Dynasty repression followed by Han dynasty policies resulted in a bureaucratic, obscurant, Confucian orthodoxy.”

I very much enjoy Chad Hansen’s work, and think he is in general an excellent philosopher, but he could not be more wrong here. The Han was as far from a philosophical dark age as any, as Nylan argues convincingly in her work. Part of what is disturbing here is that most philosophers seem to assume there is nothing very interesting going on in the Han. Historians, as Nylan points out, are not all that interested in it either, but philosophers tend to hardly even know that the 400 year span of Chinese history that was the Han even happened. Nearly all of the scholars who are doing or have done work on Han philosophers are historians. We philosophers tend to stick to Pre-Qin, or jump much later in time to the Neo-Confucians. More study of the Han is surely necessary. Dong Zhongshu, Yang Xiong, Wang Chong, and Wang Fu alone justify the efforts of many more scholars.

Perhaps some of the work currently underway by the few of us who work on Han philosophy will help things. I’m not too optimistic, though…

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