Reimagining Li Zehou’s A History of Chinese Classical Thought, Part 1, Michael Nylan

When I reread Li Zehou’s A History of Chinese Classical Thought (published in Chinese in 1980), I am struck by three things: (1) How much more we know about early China now, in 2020, than we knew forty years ago, when this book was written; (2) Li Zehou’s distinctive (and still immensely useful) methodology for assessing the impact of culture on the sedimented histories of the individuals and of nation-states; and (3) Li Zehou’s abiding interest in such Marxist-inflected concepts as rendao zhuyi 人道主義 (conventionally translated as “humanism”), ge de qi suo 各得其所 (“to each, the proper place”), and ping 平 (“peace,” “balance,” “equanimity,” and “stable orders”) … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Editor’s Note:

Michael Nylan’s essay review will be presented in three parts. This post serves as Part 1. Please refer to Part 2 and Part 3 of the essay review.

Article citation: Nylan, Michael. 2020. “Reimagining Li Zehou’s A History of Chinese Classical Thought.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (2): 40-54.

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When I reread Li Zehou’s A History of Chinese Classical Thought (published in Chinese in 1980), I am struck by three things:

(1) How much more we know about early China now, in 2020, than we knew forty years ago, when this book was written;

(2) Li Zehou’s distinctive (and still immensely useful) methodology for assessing the impact of culture on the sedimented histories of the individuals and of nation-states; and

(3) Li Zehou’s abiding interest in such Marxist-inflected concepts as rendao zhuyi 人道主義 (conventionally translated as “humanism”), ge de qi suo 各得其所 (“to each, the proper place”), and ping 平 (“peace,” “balance,” “equanimity,” and “stable orders”).

Li, in the Afterword to this book, mentions that he doesn’t “write books that could have been written fifty years ago, or in fifty years’ time.” He is happy enough if he manages to prop up the forest for the health of the trees within it; he deplores wholesale destruction of the Chinese world he inhabits and loves best, threatened by its embrace of neoliberal presumptions and practices.

My initial reflections on this 1980 survey of Chinese thinking will therefore come in three parts, which hopefully will add up to more than their sum of their parts. Li Zehou’s writings deserve to elicit greater interest outside the China field. Carefully reading Li Zehou over the last decade or so has proven to be one of the more rewarding intellectual projects that I have taken on. And with political and economic crises arriving at our doors on a daily basis, certain of Li’s arguments are worth sustained analysis and consideration in today’s unstable environment. To these reflections on Li’s earlier writings, I will append my own musings on global threats to the survival of Li’s humanism.

What has Changed in Forty Years?

My first observation inevitably concerns timing: the book that is translated (copyright 2020 by Lambert) is now some forty years out of date, in terms of its scholarship on early China. Those forty years have led historians, not to mention historically-minded sociologists and philosophers, to a host of new insights, spurred by the discovery of many scientifically excavated texts and artifacts, as well as the unprovenanced. These finds have prompted multiple salutary revisions to our accounts of the early empires, and, to a lesser extent, that of late imperial China.

Let me supply a handful of examples for those new to early China studies.

First, in EuroAmerica a growing consensus now holds that there were no clearly defined “schools” of thought in the pre-unification period, only rival thinkers who borrowed freely from one another as they sought to advise the courts of their day; explications in terms of “eclecticism” or “syncretism” are no longer the default positions adopted by historians or philosophers. Even forty years ago, Li was no respecter of labels: in one chapter he puts Han Feizi, Sunzi, and Laozi together (by the old views, a Legalist, a military expert, and a Daoist); in another, he dwells upon the connections between Zhuangzi to Chan Buddhism. Mencius and Xunzi are similar in Li’s telling, which is undoubtedly true but quite a startling observation in 1980; crucial to his story is Li’s deft displacement of the “too parochial” Kong-Meng-Cheng-Zhu or Kong-Meng-Lu-Wang lines beloved of the so-called New Neo-Confucians (311).[1]

Li’s propensity to stir the pot when it comes to his chosen thinkers was far ahead of his time, certainly, for some of today’s intellectual historians still hesitate to push for what they continue to regard as unlikely pairings. (The prestigious Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, to take one example, continues to prefer the old commonplace of separate “schools” as “neater,” insistent as its editor is to find a counterpart, no matter how untenable, to the “more philosophical” Mediterranean constructs.) Li resorts to the language of eclecticism or syncretism only when trying to account for the changing fashions in elite intellectual life, changing fashions that he equally attributes to changes in socioeconomic and political structures.

Second, experts no longer reflexively read Wuxing/ Five Phases theory into passages describing the Five Materials (wu cai) or Five Planets. Li nonetheless thinks the “Five Phases” chapters of the Chunqiu fanlu ascribed to Dong Zhongshu (d. ca. 93 BC) the starting point for his discussion of Western Han (206 BC-AD 9) thought. Unfortunately for Li, the chief source he uses for Dong Zhongshu is a work that most experts today would date to a time more than three centuries after Dong.

Third, we have no evidence that early China was ever a “slave-owning” society, although Marxist historical schemas call it this. The centuries immediately preceding unification in 221 BC of most of the territory we today call “China” saw the rise in alienable landholdings liable to purchase and sale; the terms “slave society” or “feudalism” fits the Chinese case so poorly that outside the PRC you cannot find experts still struggling to apply such inappropriate ideological terms. (Marx made enough contributions to social theory without us cleaving to that!)

Fourth, a great deal of recent research has gone into specifying the precise institutions that fostered classical learning, approximating literacy rates, parsing fragments of library catalogues, and so on. Li Zehou’s history predates this body of research, and at key points his analyses would have benefitted from it, since Li is a voracious reader.

Sometimes it seems important to register such correctives and sometimes not. Let me give those new to the early China field one or two instances when they do, frankly speaking, matter a great deal. When speaking obliquely of the Han palace examinations for some entry-level offices, given the implications for the overblown claims to age-old “meritocracy” in China, it is important to state that so few people commanded the requisite high cultural literacy for drafting memorials and edicts that 60-70% of bureaucratic postings had to be filled by the sons and nephews of the highly literate households whose male members already held high-ranking posts. It matters, too, that the two Han dynasties had ambitions to “civilize” local populations, which ambitions far outstripped those of the Roman empire at the same time.[2] Hence the number of their officials (130,000 of them on the imperial payroll in Western Han, and probably ten times more on the staff of the imperial officials), also the propensity of those officials to think long and hard about which policy measures could reasonably pushed on the “uncivilized” locals and which not.

By way of contrast, Augustus had no paid administrators on his payroll whatsoever, though the later Roman empire would eventually see the need to acquire them. Such basic socioeconomic facts help to explain many aspects of thinking in early and middle-period China; absent their provision, the unwary reader may consider certain conditions the products of either individual or group “choice” or even “cost-benefit analysis,” rather than longstanding policies favoring “nudges” of the sort detailed by Richard H. Thaler. Instead, informed readers should be thinking of the peculiarities of manuscript culture, in the centuries before print culture made good use of good paper, relatively inexpensive printing techniques, and the “blind” civil service examinations.

Then, too, it often dramatically alters our views of the distant past if we alter our notions when certain currents of thought began to command greater attention in elite circles. To cite one example, Li does not give a serious look at Yang Xiong (d. AD 18), the foremost classical master in Western Han and Xin dynasties. In this, Li’s history is similar to other histories of philosophy written forty years ago. (The reasons for omitting Yang from the roster of revered classical masters goes back to Song times, but they are too complicated to detail here.)

What matters is this: in one of his three masterworks, Exemplary Figures (Fayan), Yang admitted to drawing as heavily from the Zhuangzi as from the writings ascribed to Confucius (the Analects and the Annals or Chunqiu classic), and in a second masterwork, the Canon of Supreme Mystery (Taixuan), Yang devised a systematic cosmology that skillfully incorporated the latest scientific advances of his time. Therefore the origins of Mystery Learning (xuanxue) by rights should be traced back to Yang, and to the Eastern Han private academy of Jingzhou whose curriculum focused on Yang’s writings. Well before the Wei-Jin period, in other words, Yang’s influence made itself felt and a straight line of transmission can be drawn from Wang Can to Wang Bi, who inherited Can’s fabulous library. Looking back at the two Han dynasties with this in mind, it was indisputably Yang, not Dong Zhongshu, who made the most impressive contributions to historiography and to cosmology, although Dong Zhongshu was a highly respected legal consultant for the court.

Philosophers tend to ignore such specifics, enamored as they are with universal truths, but Li Zehou is one of a handful of first-rate philosophers to have taken what might be called a “diagnostic turn” intent upon exploring precise cases in history (e.g. Raymond Geuss, in Cambridge; Herbert Fingarette, Hans Sluga, and Kwong-loi Shun in Berkeley, Tan Sor-hoon, in Singapore; Eric Hutton in Utah). Others may claim to be arguing from history; few do in actuality. Su Li, the legal scholar, is a case in point, for Su’s main arguments rest upon false claims to historicity. (I do not imagine that Su Li is dishonest, just that he thinks he knows Chinese history better than he does; a recent translation of Su Li’s writings and responses to it shows the group of thinkers still circling around outdated concepts, despite claims to represent “a historical point of view.”)[3]  That means, the more nimble Li would doubtless have benefitted hugely from the later developments in the field of early China, unlike many senior theorists in China who do not trouble to keep up with the latest developments. At the same time, the central insights in Li Zehou’s general history of Chinese philosophy do not suffer substantially. Indeed, looking backwards from today’s vantage point allows us to appreciate how fresh and exciting Li’s views have been, propelling young intellectuals in China to undertake the serious study of pre-imperial and imperial history, in the very decades when the Communist Party has been determinedly looking to the future.

So what makes Li Zehou’s work a compelling read, even forty years after publication, in a good, if rather bloodless translation? Clearly, it is Li’s ability to strike at the heart of vital matters that have often eluded the less erudite, the less passionate, and the less agile. At numerous points, I would probably push Li further than he was prepared to go forty years ago. For example, Xunzi and Zhuangzi constitute a natural pairing, as both begin with a strikingly similar picture of the human condition, and the Zhuangzi, pace the common wisdom, never prefers escapism and eremitism to frank talk about the irresistible demands of “Being in the World of Men” (the title of Chapter 4).

But Li’s history offers plenty of intriguing contrasts and comparisons already. For instance, Li couples the sophisticated Xunzi, which dismisses the claims of the Changes classic to be the work of sage-kings, with Han commentaries to the Changes divination classic (Yizhuan). Such a link is bound to take informed readers aback initially, but Li’s chapter is fundamentally correct, I believe. For Xunzi doesn’t have to believe in divination as communication-with-the-unseen to deploy divination as ritual communication-with-the-living. Moreover, the Xunzi is as preoccupied as the Changes’ Ten Wings with the operations of time, chance, and timely opportunity. And Li is undoubtedly right when he insists upon the signal lack of metaphysical yearnings in pre-Buddhist Chinese thinking.

In the pre-Buddhist eras, people conceived the world as composed entirely of qi, configured or self-organizing energies, replete with their own moral potentials. As Heaven, like the ancestors and gods who reside in heaven, are no more than collocations of refined qi, they do not constitute another type of being. (Marshall Sahlin’s The Western Illusion of Human Nature and Bruno Latour’s We Have Never been Modern remind us how different “the West” has been in this.) And unlike many cultural conservatives, such as Yü Ying-shih, Li does not particularly celebrate the educated Chinese male. Li may celebrate classical culture, which he thinks uniquely alive to pleasure (“sensitive to delight” in Lambert’s rendering, and “optimistic” in others translations), but on the whole he is blessedly gender-blind (which Yü emphatically is not).

Contact details: Michael Nylan, University of California at Berkeley,

[1] I would push Li here, as these are not merely too parochial; they have no basis in fact, as Thomas Wilson’s Geneaology of the Way (Stanford University Press, 1995) showed plainly enough.

[2] The two empires of Han and Rome were roughly the same size in territory, and they had roughly the same number of inhabitants, some 60 million.

[3] Su Li, The Constitution of Ancient China, edited by Zhang Yongde and Daniel A. Bell, translated by Edmund Ryden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018). One doesn’t have to be interested in Confucianism’s “self-promotion,” as “Su Li’s Responses to Commentators” protests, to discern that Su Li’s hard dichotomy between “abstract culture” and “concrete problems,” not to mention his last resort to “cost-benefit analysis,” represents a crude apology for China’s neoliberalism “with Chinese characteristics,” nor to see how flawed Su Li’s understanding of history is. Indeed, Su seems to be is a presentist through and through.

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