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The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition

Li Zehou and translated by Maija Bell Samei

Publication Year: 2010

Li Zehou (b. 1930) has been an influential thinker in China since the 1950s. Before moving to the U.S. in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Li published works on Kant and traditional and contemporary Chinese philosophy. The present volume, a translation of his Huaxia meixue (1989), is considered among Li’s most significant works. Apart from its value as an introduction to the philosophy of one of contemporary China’s foremost intellectuals, The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition fills an important gap in the literature of Chinese aesthetics in English. It presents Li’s synthesis of the entire trajectory of Chinese aesthetic thought, from ancient times to the early modern period, incorporating pre-Confucian and Confucian ideas, Daoism, Chan Buddhism, and the influence of Western philosophy during the late-imperial period. As one of China’s As one of China's major contemporary philosophers and preeminent authority on Kant, Li is uniquely positioned to observe this trajectory and make it intelligible to today’s readers.

The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition touches on all areas of artistic activity, including poetry, painting, calligraphy, architecture, and the "art of living." Right government, the ideal human being, and the path to spiritual transcendence all come under the provenance of aesthetic thought. According to Li this was the case from early Confucian explanations of poetry as that which gives expression to intent, through Zhuangzi’s artistic depictions of the ideal personality who discerns the natural way of things and lives according to it, to Chan Buddhist-inspired notions that nature and words can come together to yield insight and enlightenment. In this enduring and stimulating work, Li demonstrates conclusively the fundamental role of aesthetics in the development of the cultural and psychological structures in Chinese culture that define "humanity."

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Front Cover

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pp. 1-5


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pp. v-vi

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Preface to the First Edition

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pp. vii-viii

What I mean by “Chinese aesthetics” in this volume is Confucian-based traditional Chinese aesthetics. Because of the length and depth of its sociohistorical foundations, and due to its rich development through the continual absorption and assimilation of various other...

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Translator’s Introduction

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pp. ix-xix

Contemporary Chinese philosopher Li Zehou (b. 1930) has been an influential thinker in China since the 1950s, but became a particularly important figure on the cultural scene during the “culture fever” of the 1980s. A member of the Institute of Philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Li left China for the United States after his works were banned in China following the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, as authorities...

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Chapter 1 The Rites and Music Tradition

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pp. 1-38

The word “beautiful” (mei) is always appealing to the ear and without exception elicits a pleasurable response in those to whom it is applied. This is equally true of young ladies praised for their beauty as of artists or authors who gladly accept such praise for their works—to say nothing of its use for beautiful landscapes, residences, clothing...

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Chapter 2 Confucian Humanism

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pp. 39-75

Confucius said of himself, “I transmit, I do not create” (Analects 7.1).1 This statement is partly true, for Confucius’ ambitions, actions, and achievements all were directed toward the preservation and restoration of the rituals of the Zhou, the same tradition of rites and music discussed in the previous chapter. Legend has it that Confucius preserved, popularized, and gave legitimacy to the ancient classics, rites, and traditional...

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Chapter 3 The Daoist-Confucian Synthesis

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pp. 76-116

In The Path of Beauty, I put forward the concept of the mutual complementarity of Confucianism and Daoism. After coming under some degree of criticism, it seems this idea has become widely accepted. Actually, numerous commentators have recognized this fact over the years. It is possible for Confucianism and Daoism to be mutually complementary...

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Chapter 4 Beauty in Deep Emotion

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pp. 117-159

Unlike the North China plain, the site of most of the philosophical debates of pre-Qin China, the ancient state of Chu in South China was an area in which shamanism continued unabated for quite some time. Primitive culture and practices in general persisted longer in this region. The north-south cultural divide in China has deep historical roots, on...

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Chapter 5 Metaphysical Pursuits

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pp. 160-193

The arrival of Buddhism in China was an event of tremendous significance for the history of Chinese culture. How to receive the new religion became a crucial ideological question that would occupy the Confucian-centered Chinese cultural tradition for hundreds of years and evoke a brilliant array of responses. In every field, from literature and art to faith and philosophy, the question arose as to whether to reject or assimilate, convert...

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Chapter 6 Toward Modernity

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pp. 194-222

After a peak, a decline always begins. The decline will end either in a gradual disappearance or in change. This was the case for traditional Confucianism and also for the literary and aesthetic tradition that developed under the tutelage of Confucian thought. By “decline” here I refer to the fact that, having attained a summit of sorts in the work of Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming (1472–1529), and other Song and Ming thinkers, Confucian philosophy never again experienced the same level of development and innovation. Corresponding...

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pp. 223-224

Confucius said, “One who warms up the old in order to know the new can be a teacher” (Analects 2.11). The purpose of looking back is in order, through history, to discover oneself, grasp the present, and determine the future. It is the means of understanding one’s current situation and of looking ahead to one’s prospects for the future. All of...


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pp. 225-248


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pp. 249-257

E-ISBN-13: 9780824837624
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824833077

Publication Year: 2010