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  • Material Virtue: Ethics and the Body in Early China
  • Edward Slingerland
Material Virtue: Ethics and the Body in Early China. By Mark Csikszentmihalyi. Leiden: Brill, 2005. Pp. vi + 402. Hardcover $180.00.

Material Virtue: Ethics and the Body in Early China by Mark Csikszentmihalyi is a fascinating and meticulously researched study of early Chinese discussions of virtue and moral education in the period following what we might call the "physiological turn," marked by a growing interest in the body and the embodiment of social ideals that begins sometime in the fourth century B.C.E. In Csikszentmihalyi's usage, the phrase "material virtue" refers "narrowly to descriptions of the virtues in terms of their quasi-material properties. More generally, such descriptions are characteristic of the view that, once cultivated, the virtues manifest themselves through physiological changes in the body that can be observed by others" (p. 5). This early Chinese development of this sort of nondualistic model of the self is a topic of growing interest to scholars of early China, with relevance to many contemporary debates about ethics and the mind-body relationship. This study's focus on a recently discovered archeological find, the text of the Wuxing 五行 (datable to sometime before 300 B.C.E.), also places it at the center of one of the most exciting recent developments in the field: the trove of newly discovered and, in many cases, previously unknown texts that are in the process of enriching and transforming our understanding of early Chinese thought. The two versions of the Wuxing that Csikszentmihalyi discusses come from Guodian (tomb closed ca. 300 B.C.E.) and Mawangdui (tomb closed 168 B.C.E.; this version also includes what seems to be a later commentary), two of the richest finds from the perspective of early Chinese philosophical and religious thought. Two substantial appendixes contain critical annotated editions of both texts, which summarize the state of the field with regard to their textual scholarship—an invaluable resource in itself.

As Csikszentmihalyi notes, one important aspect of these finds is how they "have augmented the [received textual] record with different kinds of texts, challenging received notions of school and genre" (p. 1). This is one of the more interesting contributions of Csikszentmihalyi's study, part of a recent trend among scholars of early China to move beyond traditional "school" labels. Csikszentmihalyi presents the Wuxing, which modern scholars attribute to the disciple Zisi 子思,1 as a hitherto unheard voice in "an important conversation about the nature of the virtues in early China from the fourth through the second centuries B.C.E." (p. 2), and by doing so significantly increases the subtlety of our picture of the early Chinese philosophical [End Page 694] landscape. For instance, in place of a more-or-less linear picture of the development of "Confucian" thought, originating with Kongzi and then diverging with the two followers Mengzi and Xunzi, Csikszentmihalyi argues for a view of the ru 儒 tradition that sees it as consisting of many competing disciple lineages, united by a shared technical vocabulary and the acknowledgment of Kongzi as an authority, but much more internally diverse than traditionally thought.

Csikszentmihalyi contextualizes his discussion of the Wuxing by placing it firmly in the Mengzi-Zisi lineage that appears as one of Xunzi's targets in his famous "Against Twelve Masters" chapter. He makes a strong case for doing so: besides Xunzi's comment that the misguided followers of Mengzi and Zisi "created a theory, and called it 'Five Kinds of Action' (wuxing)" (p. 60), there are many textual and conceptual parallels between the Wuxing and the Mengzi. Csikszentmihalyi also makes a strong case that both the Mengzi and the Wuxing can be seen as springing from a similar motivation: defending Confucianism from Primitivist charges of moral hypocrisy by arguing for a more internalist conception of virtue, grounded in the physical body and its animating qi. As he notes, "The 'psychologizing' or 'embodiment' of moral self cultivation implies that genuine virtue cannot be simulated because it is an observable physical process" (p. 86). For instance, in his interesting discussion of the Mencian concept of haoranzhiqi 浩然之氣 (usually translated as "flood-like" qi), Csikszentmihalyi follows...


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