New Works, the Importance of Neo-Confucianism, and Han Philosophy

I’ve been reading some new works in Chinese philosophy this summer, and I’ve noticed that a number of books on Neo-Confucian thinkers and topics have recently been published.  This strikes me as a relatively new development in the field, and one that is far overdue.  This is not to say that there have never before been major works on the Neo-Confucians, but there has not before now been very much philosophical interest in the Neo-Confucians in the west.  I have argued before, of course, that it is essential to understand the Neo-Confucians (or at least Zhu Xi) if one is working on Pre-Qin Confucianism.  The main reason for this is that we read texts such as the Analects and Mencius through the lenses of past interpretations, and most of these (so far as I’ve seen) have been enormously influenced by Zhu Xi’s readings.  This is why I am particularly happy to see the publication of books like Daniel Gardner’s The Four Books and Bryan Van Norden’s new translation of Mencius, which contain selections from Zhu Xi’s commentaries.

At the same time, even while we should understand and recognize the importance of Zhu Xi’s understanding of classical texts (and that of other Neo-Confucians), we should be careful not to make the mistake of taking Zhu Xi as authoritative, assuming that his readings of the texts in question are accurate.  Zhu’s readings can often be problematic.  I think, and have argued in a conference paper from a few years back I’m currently revising, that Zhu Xi disastrously misunderstands the Analects.  His reading of the Mencius, on the other hand, strikes me as much more plausible (even if problematic at points).  Although the new books I mention above (along with Edward Slingerland’s translation of the Analects) are certainly useful in their inclusion of Zhu Xi commentary, I would like to see editions of the major Pre-Qin works in English that contain multiple commentaries and textual argument.  Of course, this would require perhaps multiple volumes for each text, but it would be well worth it, and invaluable to scholars for years to come.  There already exist similar things in Chinese–one example is Cheng Shude’s 論語集釋 (Lunyu Jishu), which contains a number of different commentaries on the Analects.  I envision similar works in English, on the major Pre-Qin texts (perhaps with less extensive commentary than Cheng), including recent western interpretations and commentary.  I’ve thought about translating the Lunyu Jishu, and have translated certain parts of it that I will use in my seminar on early Confucianism in the fall, but the entire work is too large a project for a single scholar.  Perhaps the collaborative method used in the new Columbia University Press translation of the Huainanzi is the way to go here.  It looks like translators will have to move in this direction to produce useful versions of larger works and commentaries.  This is something I’d love to see in the future.

Translations and secondary work on Neo-Confucianism is also on the rise, it seems.  P.J. Ivanhoe’s Readings from the Lu Wang School of Neo-Confucianism and Steve Angle’s Sagehood are both excellent works in these areas.  From the quality of these works, I can only think that the importance of Neo-Confucianism in the field will continue to rise, as scholars like Angle and Ivanhoe show that Neo-Confucian philosophy has an enormous amount to contribute to contemporary ethical and political philosophy (and perhaps metaphysics).  I would like to see, of course, more translation of Zhu Xi’s work (for reasons mentioned above), but still, the situation seems positive in general.

It is good to see that Neo-Confucianism is on the rise.  It’s a philosophical gold mine.  However, as I’ve said before (on this blog and elsewhere), there are some other gold mines that have yet to be tapped, including Han dynasty philosophy in general.  There is a great deal of excellent work by sinologists on Han philosophers, but there has not been (in the west, at least) the kind of philosophical attention paid to the Han philosophers as there has been to Pre-Qin philosophers, or even Neo-Confucians.  This is a problem I am trying my best to solve, of course (I’m currently working on a number of projects surrounding Eastern Han philosophers, specifically Wang Chong), but it is difficult because there are so few western philosophers working on the Han period.

I suppose more good, philosophical translations of Han works are needed, to raise the profile of Han philosophy in the west.  “Translate it, and they will come”…?

4 responses to “New Works, the Importance of Neo-Confucianism, and Han Philosophy

  1. You should edit a collection of Han philosophy translations. You could do the Wang Chong selections; if you do it through Columbia, they might let you include portions of the new John Major et al Hanfeizi. I know I’d use it in my classes.

  2. There’s a book soon to come out called Zhu Xi Now, with articles by Steven Angle and Joseph Adler. (Speaking of Adler, he has some online writings:
    Also coming out is the Dao Companion to Neo-Confucianism.

  3. Scott: awesome! Thanks for the heads up-these will definitely go on my reading list.

    Manyul: that’s a good idea! I was thinking of something along those lines with secondary material too–a collection of articles covering major philosophical issues in the important philosophers of the Han; something like the new Bo Mou “History of Chinese Philosophy”, except for the Han specifically. Finding philosophers for the latter project might be a bit tricky, but it shouldn’t be as hard to find good translators for the key Han material.

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