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  • Imagining Harmony: Poetry, Empathy, and Community in Mid-Tokugawa Confucianism and Nativism
  • Roger K. Thomas (bio)
Imagining Harmony: Poetry, Empathy, and Community in Mid-Tokugawa Confucianism and Nativism. By Peter Flueckiger. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2011. x, 291 pages. $60.00; E-book, $60.00.

The period known as the “eighteenth century” is very nearly coextensive with important intellectual movements in Japan, a coincidence reflected in both the titles and scope of much modern scholarship. Peter Flueckiger’s excellent study is a welcome addition to this corpus, offering both correction and complementarity to the work of his predecessors. While there has been no dearth either of scholarly analysis of the radical reorientation of Confucian literary theory under Ogyū Sorai (1666–1728) or hypotheses about Sorai’s influence on later currents in kokugaku, Flueckiger deftly addresses a number of alleged inconsistencies of thought imputed to Sinologists and nativists alike. In terms of form and usage, many have lauded the authentic emotions championed by these eighteenth-century writers but lamented their demands that those emotions “conform to a narrow set of classical poetic models.” In terms of the social meaning of poetry, the extolling of “authentic emotions” by many early modern theoreticians is often regarded as inconsistent with the tendency to tie poetry to “a normative Way meant to give order to society” (p. 2).

Flueckiger takes issue with those who “have viewed these juxtapositions of ideals as contradictions that arose from the incipient but incomplete modernity of eighteenth-century literary thought” (pp. 2–3), offering arguments that diminish the seeming discrepancy between high valuation of sincere emotions and an emphasis on the Way seen in writers ranging from Sorai to Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801). Rather than being mutually irreconcilable opposites, these ostensible incongruities are “a product of a specific type of discourse in eighteenth-century Japan on the role of culture as a unifying force” (p. 3). These “proponents of a cultural conception of the Way,” be [End Page 416] they Confucianists or nativists, all had in common a rejection of an inherent, morally perfect human nature posited by Zhu Xi (1130–1200), whose theories characterize what has come to be known as Neo- Confucianism, and instead defined that nature in terms of emotionality. Theirs was not, however, an antinomian ideal of the realm of sentiments; they viewed “emotions as in need of regulation and socialization.” To achieve this modulation, they turned “to cultural norms external to human nature” (pp. 4–5). It is here that these apparent contradictions are resolved; indeed, the pride of place accorded to poetry and poetics in much eighteenth-century thought is indebted “to how it was viewed as capable of simultaneously embodying an emotional human nature and culturally defined social norms” (p. 6).

This study begins with a description of Zhu Xi’s theory of poetry as grounded in his reading of the Book of Odes (Shi jing), which in turn was based on the Mao school of commentary dating from the Western Han. The moral function of the Neo-Confucian approach to those ancient verses lay primarily in readers’ responses and not in the poems themselves. In other words, poetry serves to bring out the goodness which Zhu Xi and others of his school posited as inhering in human nature. Itō Jinsai (1627–1705), in contrast to Zhu Xi, was unwilling to subjugate the emotions to moral principles, insisting that virtues proceed from rather than precede social interactions. In Jinsai’s “ancient studies,” then, the link between politics and the realm of the emotions appears less direct than would be the case with the eighteenth-century writers who are the focus of this study.

In his rejection of Zhu Xi’s idea of a universal human nature, Sorai’s view of culture likewise differed radically from that of Neo-Confucianism. And although he was like Jinsai in his high valuation of emotionality, he differed in his demand that feelings be socialized. At its most fundamental level, Sorai’s theory of literature is seen in his view of emotionality instead of principle as the value of the Odes, and by extension, of all poetry. How all this relates to the “culture” which he...


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