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  • Reconsidering the Correlative Cosmology of Early China
  • Thomas Michael (bio)
Magnus Fiskejö , editor. "Reconsidering the Correlative Cosmology of Early China." Special issue, Bulletin [of] The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities Östasiatiska Museet, Stockholm (Värnamo, Sweden: Fälth and Hässler), no. 72 (2000). 196 pp. Paperback, SEK 400 (approx. $55.00), ISSN 0081-5691.

Although the characterizations of early Chinese correlative cosmology differ in each of the six articles presented here, these characterizations generally refer to the view of the world in which existence and change are understood in terms of yin-yang and the Five Phases (earth, air, water, wood, and fire) and in which things of the same category are believed to be mutually responsive. Of these six articles, four are directly concerned with analyzing issues specific to this cosmology (those by Haun Saussy; Steve Farmer, John Henderson, and Michael Witzel [hereafter Farmer et al.]; Aihe Wang; and Jessica Rawson), and two are not (those by Michael Puett and Hans-Georg Moeller). I will discuss these two groups separately.

Two features typical of modern works dealing with Chinese correlative cosmology are (1) diagrams created by the author to illustrate visually the structural or typological systems of a temporal relations among yin-yang and the Five Phases and (2) the claim that these relations represent central aspects of a uniquely Chinese way of thought. Each of these four articles, to varying degrees, confronts and criticizes the essentializing consequences of this practice, in one of two ways. The first, pursued by Farmer et al. and Rawson, is to demonstrate that Chinese correlative cosmology is the product of historical processes of change and gradual development. The second, pursued by Saussy and Wang, is to demonstrate that the common understanding of this cosmology as uniquely Chinese is largely the product of the breakdown of dialogue between sinology and the other human [End Page 72] sciences. These articles show, with a great degree of success, that systems of correlative thought are universal features of premodern civilization that are overshadowed, or erased, by the establishment of modern scientific thought.

In "Correlative Cosmology and Its Histories," Haun Saussy discusses the tendency, first seen among late nineteenth-century missionary writers but adopted also by later Western and Chinese reformers, to depict Chinese correlative thought in opposition to modern scientific rationality. For them, Chinese cosmological categories became "a specifically Chinese problem" (p. 16). At the same time, Saussy shows, French sociologists, led by Emile Durkheim, "were writing the same system [of correlative or categorical thinking] into the general history of human thought as . . . what was true of all peoples in all ages" (p. 16). Saussy traces the general outlines of the original, however partial, engagement of the French sociological movement with Chinese materials (despite the fact that sinologists had already construed correlative thought as a specifically Chinese issue) and their subsequent divergence over the next several decades. He devotes the greater part of the rest of his article to a study of the lines of development from Durkheim to Marcel Granet and, with less emphasis, to Leon Vandermeersch and François Jullien. Without rehearsing the details of the work of these scholars, analyzed in some detail by Saussy, let it suffice to say that this article is important because it demonstrates the debt of modern sinology to the school of French sociology. While Saussy does not directly point out the importance of this scholarship as the basis of virtually all modern sinological study of Chinese correlativity, he underscores the fact that, since the time of Durkheim and despite the fact that Granet clearly was pursuing a project of universal humanism, later sinologists have misinterpreted Granet as describing a uniquely Chinese pattern of thinking and reinforce that bias in their writings.

In "Neurobiology, Layered Texts, and Correlative Cosmologies: A Cross-Cultural Framework for Premodern History," Farmer et al. adopt a modified structuralist model to analyze correlative thought. The model is fairly simple, at least in general terms, and it argues that correlative thought is a primary component of traditional civilization:

Correlative structures show up world wide in premodern magical, astrological, and divinational systems; in the designs of villages, cities, temples and court complexes; in abstract...


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