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  • Cheng-Zhu Confucianism in the Early Qing: Li Guangdi (1642-1718) and Qing Learning
  • John Berthrong
Cheng-Zhu Confucianism in the Early Qing: Li Guangdi (1642-1718) and Qing Learning. By On-cho Ng. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Pp. ix + 258.

Li Guangdi's reputation suffers from two major problems. The first is that Li represents a Zhu Xi daoxue scholar in an age, the early Qing, that was allergic, or so the traditional wisdom says, to such grand philosophic systems. Second, Li was also attacked personally for an alleged lapse in the virtue of friendship. In the highly ethicized world of Qing Ruist thought, these are daunting challenges for any thinker to face.

In Cheng-Zhu Confucianism in the Early Qing: Li Guangdi (1642-1718) and Qing Learning, On-cho Ng has gone a long way toward answering both sets of charges against Li. The second charge has to do with the relations between Li and a good friend caught up in the battles, plots, and rebellions that marked the Ming-Qing transition. The essence of the charge against Li is that he protected his own reputation during a rebellion against the Kangxi emperor but failed to defend a friend who was also swept up in the rebellion and its aftermath. Ng carefully reviews the historical data and defends Li against the strongest charges, namely that he thoughtlessly abandoned a friend to the vicissitudes of conflict when he should have done more to rehabilitate his friend's reputation. While Ng notes that we will probably never know precisely what happened between Li and his friend, the case itself smacks of political manipulation on the part of Li's enemies.

Ng demonstrates his full command of the historical setting and details of the life and political struggles of Li Guangdi. In order to showw hy Li is an important philosophic figure, Ng provides the reader with a short outline of the relevant philosophic history of late Ming and early Qing Ruist thought. Ng gives us background both to the general development of Confucian thought and to the specifics of how Cheng-Zhu scholars responded to changing historical circumstances and philosophic opinion. Ng shows that there was a vital Cheng-Zhu school in the early Qing.

Along with the general historical background, Ng explains how Li Guangdi situated his philosophic vision within the basic outlines of Zhu Xi's metasystem. Ng shows that Li was a creative thinker. As is well known, one of the main problems for any daoxue thinker is how to coordinate principle/li and vital force/qi. It is precisely with this question in mind that Ng demonstrates Li's creative role in the development of daoxue in the early Qing.

The key term in Li's creative advance is neither principle nor vital force, but xing/human nature. Of course, xing is as venerable a concept as principle or vital force in the lexicon of Ruist philosophy. Ng makes a strong case for his argument that Li Guangdi provides us with an ontology of human nature. Li is driven to do so because of the inherited problem of how to understand human nature in daoxue [End Page 256] thought. As Ng chronicles the story, Li makes human nature the center of gravity for his philosophy. Li does this in order to escape any hint of ontological dualism engendered by previous Cheng-Zhu discussions about whether or not human nature is fundamentally good or evil. Ng's conclusion is that Li "refuses to bifurcate human nature to allow for the presence of evil in human nature itself " (p. 128).

Although Ng admits that Li's philosophic definition of human nature is not without its own ambiguities, the evidence shows that Li was willing to dispute with his Song Cheng-Zhu masters. Li makes a definite contribution to the growth of Cheng-Zhu thought both in terms of metaphysics and metapraxis. One of the ways that Li achieves his goals is through the art of Ruist hermeneutics. For anyone interested in the interaction of the Confucian tradition with modern hermeneutic theory, Ng's chapter 5 is highly suggestive. One of the most...


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