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  • A Critical History of Classical Chinese Philosophy
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
He Zhaowu and Peng Gang. A Critical History of Classical Chinese Philosophy. Translated by Ricky Jeffrey. Beijing: New World Press, 2009. 309 pp. Paperback rmb 38, isbn 978-7-5104-0537-2.

Beginning with antiquity in the pre-Qin period before the warring states were unified by Emperor Qin Shihuang (221–210 c.e.), this book gives an excellent historical overview of the different strands of contending Chinese thought of what is best for Chinese society from a Chinese perspective. The author is He Zhaowu (何兆武), professor emeritus in the Department of History at Tsinghua University, Beijing. He is assisted by Peng Gang (彭刚), an assistant professor in that same department. Ricky Jeffrey provides a reader-friendly translation in English.

The author's yardstick for measuring the different strands is modernization—driven by modern science, technology, critical thinking, and creativity. As an integral member of a Marxist tradition, the author is a firm believer in the myth of progress, as opposed to a predominant Chinese view of cyclical history supported by yin/yang dynamics. For him,

the long course of Chinese history did resemble a pendulum, swaying forever between peace and tumult, flourishing and decay, order and disorder, prosperity and decline, unlike the [nineteenth] century positivist historians' image of history as forever progressing headlong from worse to better. A genuine progressive outlook of history never found a proper place in the Chinese philosophy of history.

(p. 159)

In the intellectual history of China, He finds the beginnings of thinkers suitable for the modern age in people like Liang Qichao 梁启超 (1873–1929), whose thinking influenced nearly all scholars in China in the twentieth century; Hu Shih 胡适 (1891–1962), a leader of the new culture and May Fourth Movement; and Song Yingxing, 宋应星 (1587–1666), one of China's foremost technical experts in the seventeenth century. However, the dead weight of a history of entrenched pragmatism and preoccupation with the ethical-political-centric concerns of Confucianism, he claims, were so deeply rooted that China's progress into any new age, let alone entering the scientific revolution that occurred in Europe, could not happen.

It has been said that dialogue between Chinese and Western philosophy "has yet to begin" because the assumption held by many philosophers in the West (and also in China) is that philosophy is "exclusively an Anglo-European enterprise."1 He Zhaowu seems to share this assumption as shown in his statement in distinguishing "Chinese philosophy" from "Philosophy in China":

For the inquiry into its object, philosophy has to employ certain ways of thinking, i.e. its methodology. To meet such needs, people are in the habit of using some sort of manipulation, such as the metaphysical method, the dialectical method, the analytic method, the intuitive method and so on. So far as the object of [End Page 511] inquiry and their relevant method are by nature universal, the term "Chinese philosophy" can imply nothing more than "philosophy in China."

(p. 9, emphasis added)

However, in this work He Zhaowu does provide an important historical picture in the contours of Chinese thought and how they have contested, influenced, and been influenced by one another. His account is, therefore, a necessary and important prerequisite for (if only the beginning of) an East-West philosophical dialogue.

While not entirely sharing a Eurocentric bias on philosophy, He, nevertheless, holds a secular modern mindset that is grounded in modern science and critical thought that originated in the West and that has been the predominant mode of thinking in the world and its academies for centuries. While holding firmly on to the essentially Western paradigm of modernity and modern science, He does offer a cautionary though half-hearted critique of modern science. He mentions the

tendency in modern civilization that with the unprecedented success in reforming nature, people readily embraced a scientistic inclination and took science as the sole criterion of everything or reduced all values into the channel of science.

(p. 201)

He sees this absolutist tendency embodied in the Legalist school, undergirded by Xun Zi, who viewed human nature as basically self-seeking, and, therefore, essentially antisocial, if not, in fact, evil. Moreover...