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Reviewed by:
  • Transformations of the Confucian Way, and: Histoire de la pensáe chinoise
  • Michael Nylan
Transformations of the Confucian Way. By John H. Berthrong. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998. Pp. xiv + 250.
Histoire de la pensáe chinoise. By Anne Cheng. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1997. Pp. 650.

Reviewing bad books, W. H. Auden once observed, is bad for the character. On the assumption that the reverse must also be true, I am delighted to review not one, but two good books: John H. Berthrong's Transformations of the Confucian Way and Anne Cheng's Histoire de la pensáe chinoise. Each contributes significantly—though differently—to our appreciation of the long history of classical learning in China. [End Page 632]

Berthrong, in seven chapters and 250 pages, neatly summarizes the main developments of what he calls the "Confucian Way." As a teaching tool for undergraduates and nonspecialists, the book's strong appeal is based on three factors: (1) the coherence of its narrative (no mean feat for a book covering over 2,500 years of the Way); (2) the respectful approach that it brings to intellectual traditions and the controversies they have engendered over time; and (3) the case that it urges for the relevance of the Confucian Way today to life outside the classroom and outside China. To achieve such coherence, Berthrong divides his story into seven manageable units spanned by "six paradigmatic historical transformations of the Confucian Tradition" (p. 6): (1) the rise of the Confucian tradition in Zhou China; (2) the canonization of the Confucian Classics in Han times; (3) "the defense of the [Confucian] faith" during the third through the tenth centuries; (4) the Neo-Confucian Revival in the Song; (5) reactions to Song Neo-Confucianism in "the turn toward the mind," epitomized by Wang Yangming (1472-1529); (6) the late empires of Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, and Yi/Chosŏn Korea; and (7) Confucianism in the modern world.

Berthrong has chosen a sensible approach to his sprawling history, whose scope would leave most scholars cowering. He judiciously draws upon the best scholarship available on each of the transformations (giving full credit where it is due), with the result that even beginning students can quickly gain a sense not only of the important debates in the long history of classical learning but also of prominent scholars working in the field today. As a master of the declarative sentence, Berthrong has no trouble writing the bridging paragraphs required to situate his thinkers neatly within the broader historical trends that Confucian morality has shaped, reflected, or been changed by. His afterword devoted to "Further Readings and Contentious Issues" then leads readers responsibly outside the book to larger worlds, broaching difficult topics with sensibility and grace. Without hesitation, then, I would recommend that this book be assigned in all manner of undergraduate courses, in "rice paddies" as well as in courses on comparative thought and Chinese history— though I would have my own students think of it as an intellectual history of East Asia, not as a history of the Confucian Way (a point to which I return below).

To communicate his respect, Berthrong seeks to illustrate "the complexity of the vision, life, conduct, meditation, conflict, compromise, and creativity that is hidden by the generalization of the word 'Confucianism'" (p. 7). To Berthrong's way of thinking, the death of "scriptural Confucianism" (Mark Elvin's phrase) notwithstanding, a tradition so protean in its transformations and so compelling in its advocacy of full humanity (ren) should find a way to renew itself in the near future—especially when his set of thinkers have at least as much light to shed on the philosophical problems encountered by humans as their counterparts among the philosophical masters of Europe and America. Berthrong is therefore at his very best when discussing xing (human nature), li (principle), and xin (heart/mind), comparing and contrasting the epistemology of Shao Yong (1011-1077), the cosmological speculations of Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073), the Cheng brothers on mind and principle (li), or the ruminations on sagehood by Wang Yangming (1472-1529).

While such discussions richly convey to even the beginning student of Chinese [End Page 633] thought...


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