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  • The Dynamics of Anachronism: Denecke on Masters Literature
  • Manyul Im (bio)
Wiebke Denecke. The Dynamics of Masters Literature: Early Chinese Thought from Confucius to Han FeiziHarvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011. xii, 370pp. Hardcover $39.95, ISBN 978-0-674-05609-1.

Some academic philosophers and historians claim to study or doChinese philosophy. 1Denecke takes aim in this book at understanding “first what modern proponents of a ‘Chinese philosophy’ have gained from creating a Chinese equivalent of philosophy for their time and concerns, and second what we may gain from framing our inquiry into this text corpus through the lens of other disciplines, questions, and concerns for our time” (p. 3). Thus, the project is constructive and invites readers to seek gains from the inquiry. Ultimately, Denecke conceives of her project as friendly to the task of including Chinese thought in contemporary philosophical conversation, so long as the project of understanding those texts is itself seen as an important part of the learning process: “ ‘Chinese philosophy’ should not be a toolbox of concepts and values that could give Western philosophy a fix. Instead, it is the translation process . . . both on the level of words and on the level of disciplines, that has the greatest potential to become productive in the future” (pp. 344–345).

Denecke’s position is nuanced, occupying space between a large group of comparativist philosophers who descend with perhaps too much utilitarian zeal on Chinese texts, picking and choosing concepts to add to their “toolbox ,” and those [End Page 22]postcolonial theorists who are horrified or perhaps bemused by what they regard as intellectual coarseness. A bit of context: there have been recent, notable criticisms from American, Chinese, and European scholars who question whether there is even such a thing to be referred to as “Chinese philosophy.” Some take the pairing of “Chinese” and “philosophy” to be problematic, arguing either that it is misleading to think “philosophy” applies easily or at all to Chinese intellectual and religious traditions, or that it is misleading to suggest adding “Chinese” before “philosophy” could mark off anything but the usual stuff of philosophy, as carried on in Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas, except done in the Chinese language or by Chinese figures. 2But as Denecke reminds everyone early in this book, genre categorization of the Chinese ur-texts — that is, those of the Warring States period — and the subsequent scholarly conversations, for the purposes of understanding their import, comprise a set of attempts dating back to the Han dynasty. The question of whether they are texts of philosophy is a relatively recent one, gaining development gradually after initial christening of Kongzi as Confucius, Sinarum Philosophusby Jesuits missionaries in the sixteenth century. That question also has different incarnations based on different sets of urgency. As Denecke puts it:

The concept of a “Chinese philosophy” was attractive in Enlightenment Europe because it could help resolve religious disputes over the accommodation of foreign beliefs and customs and help reflect on pressing concerns of the day related to revelation and reason, ideal government and civil institutions, and education and moral self-cultivation. In contrast, in East Asia the idea of a “Chinese philosophy” became urgent only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the context of debates about modernization and reform triggered by European military intrusions and the faltering of the Qing state.

(pp. 11–12)

In addition to genre questions, a more obvious variety of canon lists developed in China of classic or essential texts, culminating in the twelfth century with Zhu Xi’s influential Four Books categorization. Zhu’s construction of the Lunyu, Mengzi, Daxue,and Zhongyongas essential texts to master for learning “the Way” factored eventually into the Jesuits’ appraisal — perhaps, invention — of those texts, as well as ones that seemed similar, as Chinese philosophy. In addition to the Four Books, other canon lists dotted the landscape: the Five Classics, Thirteen Classics, Twelve Classics, and the Three Commentaries. However, such canon construction may be viewed as surface layering. Denecke focuses on the more germane categorization for understanding the Warring States texts that have been dubbed...