Book Review: Readings in Han Chinese Thought- Csikszentmihalyi

I thought it might be useful to start posting here at UPJ short reviews of the books in the field I’ve been reading, just as a way to give other scholars heads up about some things to check out, and also as a way for me to keep tabs on what I’ve read.  I’ll kick this series off with a collection of readings I read some time ago, but have found continuously useful–Readings in Han Chinese Thought, edited and translated by Mark Csikszentmihalyi.

First, I should say that this is a collection that has been needed for a long time, and I hope it can help to spur more interest in Han dynasty thought and lead to more publication of critical source translations of Han material, which is sorely lacking.

Readings in Han Chinese Thought is a short collection (around 200 pages) of readings from Han thinkers, from throughout the two halves of the dynasty, but focusing mainly on Western Han material (including the Huainanzi, Jia Yi, Lu Jia, Dong Zhongshu, and Yang Xiong).

Csikszentmihalyi has organized the readings by theme, collecting them under three main headings: “Ethics and Statecraft”, “Knowledge”, and “The Natural World”.  Each section contains subsections which include short passages from one or another Han thinker on the topic in question.  For example, passages from Dong Zhongshu and Jia Yi are contained in a subsection on self-cultivation within the larger section on “Ethics and Statecraft”.  I think this choice of organization was the right one, given the room Csikszentmihalyi had to work with.  It gives us a sense, in a fairly short work, of the main themes Han thinkers were concerned with.  The only concern I have is with a few of the themes Csikzentmihalyi did not touch on–most importantly language and truth.  Of course, this becomes (I think) a bigger issue in the Eastern Han than it was in the Western Han, and given that the focus in this collection on Western Han sources, this is an omission that can be overlooked.

The translations of the material in the collection are excellent–careful and philosophically sensitive.  The only problem I have here is that there is not enough of the material of any given philosopher translated to give the reader a sense of the main contours of his thought.  Generally, each passage within a subsection from a particular work is about 2-5 pages.  Although this gives us a general sense of how Han thinkers approached certain themes, it does not give us a very clear picture of the thought of particular Han thinkers, and might lead readers to confuse the thought of, say, Dong Zhongshu with that of Jia Yi.

This is my main problem with the work.  Although it contains excellent and much needed translations, it does not contain enough of the material.  Although I understand the need to pick and choose what one thinks is most important in such a short work, I would have liked to see the inclusion of some passages from Eastern Han thinkers such as Xun Yue, Xu Gan, and Wang Fu.  I realize that there is a mountain of important work done in the Han dynasty, and that in a short work like the Readings only a tiny amount of it can be covered, but this shows us, I think, the need for more in depth studies and translations of Han thinkers.

Csikszentmihalyi’s book is in all an excellent introduction to basic themes and thinkers in the Han dynasty.  We now need more robust translations of particular thinkers, perhaps broken into Western and Eastern Han collections.  A 200 page work is simply too short to do more than give the briefest of glimpses of the Han, unless one restricts the work to translation of no more than a few thinkers.

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