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  • A Critical Reflection on the Systematics of Traditional Chinese Learning
  • Zhao-hui Fang and David R. Schiller


Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese scholars have tended to take traditional Chinese learning and split it apart and then rearrange it according to the systematics of the modern Western academic disciplines. The purpose of this essay is to examine this tendency from a new standpoint, based on the history of modern Chinese scholarship rather than on what is happening elsewhere in the world. It neither aims at disclosing the problem of the conventional academic disciplinary boundaries of Western learning1 nor merely insists on the importance of classical Chinese learning and its own inner logic independent of that of Western learning.

The main points of this essay are as follows. First, while it is true that in some areas Chinese learning and Western learning contain similar subject matter, modern Chinese scholars are often unaware of the essential differences between Chinese and Western learning with regard to their respective inner logics. This has resulted in the great historical error of conferring the various titles of Western academic disciplines upon certain categories of classical Chinese learning. To subsume the latter under Western disciplines often means that the inner logic of Chinese learning is obscured and its independent existence exploited.

Second, classical Chinese learning has always had its own systematics (see the section on this below), one that is extremely complex and that has endured within a long tradition and undergone continual improvement over time. For this reason, Chinese learning is well beyond any criticism that may be leveled at it from the standpoint of Western systematics. Even so, modern Chinese intellectuals have become accustomed to understanding classical Chinese learning through the prism of Western learning. One of the sad consequences of this tendency is that the identity of Chinese learning has been distorted almost beyond recognition.

To my mind, the process of cutting apart and rearranging classical Chinese learning according to Western systematics is one of the oddest features of Chinese academics in the twentieth century. In the introduction to his Zhongguo lunlixue shi (A history of Chinese ethics), published in 1910, Cai Yuanpei stated that this attempt to "rearrange classical Chinese theories of morals with the principles of Western ethics" had been initiated by two Japanese scholars, Kimura and Kubotoku, and that it was on the basis of their efforts that Cai had written his History.2 Later, this process was continued by Hu Shi , whose book Zhongguo zhexue shi dagang (An outline of the history of Chinese philosophy) (1918) was based on his teachings [End Page 36] at Beijing University.3 Then, volume 1 of Fung Yu-lan's famous Zhongguo zhexue shi (A history of Chinese philosophy) was published in 1930, and this work immediately became influential.4

At most Chinese universities during this time, Western models were being used to establish both academic departments and teaching and research sections. The classical Chinese systems of learning were thus divided up into a series of new sections upon which were imposed titles such as "philosophy," "ethics," "economics," "politics," and "sociology," all according to the systematics of the West. Since then, a movement that favors this rearrangement of Chinese learning has arisen in modern China, and it has still not run its course. This has resulted in a series of books with titles like A History of Chinese Philosophy, A History of Chinese Ethics, A History of Chinese Politics, A History of Chinese Economics, and A History of Chinese Historical Science. In this way, nearly every branch of learning in the modern Western humanities and social sciences has found some kind of "corresponding discipline" within the classical Chinese systems of learning, the only difference between the two, in the modern Chinese academic view, being that the corresponding disciplines in China appear to lack the maturity achieved in the West. Not surprisingly, however, the contents of these "corresponding disciplines" differ considerably.

Thus, the typical view held by modern Chinese scholars is that classical Chinese learning has fallen far behind its Western counterpart. This is thought to have occurred because, in the context of Western academic disciplines, traditional Chinese subjects are seen...