Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 164-165
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Michael J. Puett, The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 299 pp.
As soon as one becomes aware of what this important book is not about, one can begin to appreciate the significance of the issues that it does set before us. The subtitle of the volume makes it clear enough that its subject is a topic of ancient Chinese disputation much narrower than the great paradox of the First Cause—but who pays much attention to subtitles nowadays? Puett's choice of his provocative title is probably disingenuous but it is still entirely apt, as the implications of the idea of cosmic "creation" are never far from the debates over the autochthonous emergence or the deliberate contrivance of human culture and its institutions of social and political control—even if this subject is rarely broached head-on in Confucian discourse. This well-argued review of the various positions on such questions across the spectrum of early Chinese thought not only sheds much light on the terms and scope of the debates on origination that revolved [End Page 164] around the Chinese hub of the Axial Age; it also reminds us of the transfer of the rhetoric of universal beginnings in more recent centuries to the doctrine of revolution—even in the ostensibly antiscriptural intellectual movements of modern Western political thought.
Andrew Plaks, professor of Chinese, comparative literature, and East Asian studies at Princeton University, is the author of Archetype and Allegory in the "Dream of the Red Chamber" and The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel.