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  • An Introduction to Chinese Culture through the Family
  • Stevan Harrell (bio)
Howard Giskin and Bettye S. Walsh, editors. An Introduction to Chinese Culture through the Family. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. xii, 238 pp. Hardcover $71.50, ISBN 0-7914-5047-3. Paperback $23.95, ISBN 0-7914-5048-1.

In 1996, Roger Ames of the University of Hawai'i and Henry Rosemont, Jr., of St. Mary's College, both respected scholars of Confucian philosophy, organized an NEH summer institute that brought together mostly literary scholars and philosophers, with one anthropologist, to learn about Chinese culture. Unlike most symposia of this sort, the enthusiastic program produced a book of essays, edited by Howard Giskin and Bettye S. Walsh, two professors of English with only moderate background in the study of China, containing chapters by people with similar backgrounds, on topics ranging from language and literature to architecture.

It is hard to know what to think of such a book, or who would read it or find it useful, or why. The title seems to indicate that the authors were attempting to write either a textbook suitable for college or advanced secondary classes, or perhaps a book for the general reader. The title and the content of at least some of the essays also seem to indicate that the book intends to be held together by the theme of the family, examined across disciplines and across topics. Not a bad or illegitimate idea (a forthcoming volume from Princeton University Press looks at the arts in China through the lens of the family, for example), but a real question arises when one looks at the authorship, and such a question persists when one reads the essays: why commission people with only a moderate background to write such essays, when scholars who are experts or specialists in the field might just as easily have been enlisted?

One can think of several possible answers to such a question. Established people in a narrow field tend to absorb and re-emit orthodoxy, and perhaps intelligent and enthusiastic outsiders could bring new and stimulating perspectives to bear. Or perhaps scholarly insiders would present material in esoteric, technical, or otherwise boring ways, whereas outsiders could liven it up with new images or fresh metaphors. Or perhaps people coming from basically Europe-based fields such as English, German, or philosophy could bring new perspectives or insights unavailable to insiders mired in the minutiae of sinological scholarship. But on the whole, the book disappoints. The quantity of fresh insights or new perspectives is modest and is far outweighed by two shortcomings: an almost Orientalist essentializing about "Chinese Culture," or even "The Chinese," and outright factual and textual mistakes. And although there is interesting material in just about every chapter, it mostly derives from a reliance on the work of specialist authors, rather than on any original insight. This again raises the question: why not just [End Page 112] read the specialists, instead of a group of essays that read more like fairly good student term papers than original research?

A few examples drawn from a detailed reading of some of the chapters will illustrate this point. The first chapter, by Linda S. Pickle, "Written and Spoken Chinese: Expression of Culture and Heritage," exhibits both the shortcomings of essentialism and factual inaccuracy. Essentialism is displayed in the mystification of the Chinese Character (the written word, not the personality type) as somehow fundamentally different from other writing systems. The author states that Chinese writing is "said to be derived from" the trigrams of Fu Xi as explicated in the Yi Jing. Now there are undoubtedly systematizers and romanticizers within the Chinese cultural tradition who believe and expound this view, and it would be interesting to analyze exactly why they do this, given that there is no sound historical or epigraphic reason to think that the writing system was so derived, nor any conceivable process by which one could derive as multifarious and varied a series of written symbols as Chinese characters from such a simple mathematical system of correspondences as the trigrams and hexagrams. But instead, the author participates in the mystification of the script, rather...


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