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Reviewed by:
  • The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition
  • Marthe Chandler
The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition. By Li Zehou. Translated by Maija Bell Samei. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2010. Pp. xii + 257.

Li Zehou is one of the most important Chinese philosophers in the post-Mao era. Although his work on Kant has had an enormous influence on contemporary Chinese philosophy, Li’s writings on Kant have been largely unavailable in English. The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition begins to remedy this. Maija Bell Samei’s translation of Li’s Huaxia meixue (Beijing: Zhongwai Chubangongsi, 1989) presents an account of the development of Chinese aesthetics that covers much the same ground as Li’s popular The Path of Beauty (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1994) but with more philosophical depth and attention to Li’s interpretation of Kant.

The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition begins by describing how thousands of years of living in Stone Age communities produced a uniquely human cultural-psychological structure. Li argues that a distinctively Confucian aesthetic tradition emerged from the shamanistic rituals of Neolithic China, a tradition that deepened and strengthened over its long history, but continued to be fundamentally Confucian.

Drawing on such diverse sources as Karl Marx, Clifford Geertz, Susan Langer, prehistoric cave paintings, taotie, the Zhouli, the Shujing, and the etymology of mei 美 (beauty), Li explains how a process of “sedimentation” resulted in “the humanization of nature.” Millennia of using tools and participating in communal activities changed human senses and emotions. The order and pattern required by cooperative behavior were internalized as logic and concepts; the demands of social cohesion became taboos and morality. The pleasure experienced in emotionally intense shamanistic rituals created the sense of unity with humanity, the natural world, and heaven characteristic of religious ecstasy and aesthetic experience—the self-forgetting, emotionally satisfying experience of beauty.

In China, as the process of sedimentation continued it developed into the rites and music tradition that became the foundation of Confucian thought. The tradition established the importance of harmony between feeling and reason, society and individuals, making the tone of Confucian aesthetics deeply emotional but never so wildly passionate that it threatened the social bonds. Each of the middle chapters of The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition describes how a particular philosopher or poet (Confucius, Zhuangzi, Qu Yuan, and Su Shi) contributed a layer of feeling and meaning to this tradition, usually by finding new ways for personal feelings and creative imagination to overcome the restrictions of Confucian morality. Each new layer extended, transcended and absorbed the previous ones, but the tradition remained recognizably Confucian.

The last chapter traces the beginning of Chinese modernity to the prosperity of the Ming dynasty and an increasing interest in individual sensual pleasure. Pornography and romantic love stories became popular, threatening traditional social stability. The process was accelerated by the influence of the West—science, philosophical aesthetics, and bourgeois individualism—all of which threatened traditional Confucian harmony. Having argued, however, that the Confucian tradition had overcome [End Page 147] threats to its hegemony for thousands of years, Li suggests that it may assimilate Western philosophy, creating new ways to be human. In his epilogue Li suggests that as sedimentation continues to destroy and recreate the Confucian tradition, we all may learn novel ways to experience art and nature and find new meaning in human life.

Despite his reputation as a Kant scholar, Li’s philosophical style is radically unlike Kant’s. Instead of Kant’s abstract conceptual analysis, Li provides a historical narrative focusing on the work of significant philosophers and poets and quoting poetry to advance his argument. Although The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition seldom actually mentions Kant, it regularly uses the Kantian language of “noumenon,” “transcendence,” and “purposeless purpose.” This language creates difficulties.1 In Western philosophy the terms “transcendence” and “noumenon” immediately evoke their opposites—immanence and phenomenon. What is transcendent is typically defined as what is not immanent, as radically and wholly not of this world; noumena are not only what cannot be perceived by any human senses, they are entirely unmediated by human sensory and cognitive faculties, and hence knowable only by God. While Kant’s language carries with it the entire tradition of Western philosophical dualism, Li’s thought...


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