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Reviewed by:
  • Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power
  • Sor-hoon Tan
Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power. By Yan Xuetong. Translated by Edmund Ryden. Edited by Daniel A. Bell and Sun Zhe. The Princeton-China Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. Pp. viii + 300. Hardcover $29.95, ISBN 978-0-691-14826-7.

Many readers of Philosophy East and West will find this collection of three essays by Chinese foreign policy analyst and international relations theorist Yan Xuetong 阎学通, accompanied by three corresponding commentaries by other Chinese scholars and followed by Yan's response, interesting for a number of reasons. Despite the different perspectives and norms of international relations (IR) theory, Yan is offering a reading of ancient Chinese texts most of which are read also by philosophers, and is specifically interested in their philosophical ideas. Philosophical Pragmatists would approve of Yan's objective of learning from ancient Chinese thought to "enrich contemporary international relations theory and present findings relevant to China's [End Page 105] foreign policy" (p. 21). Comparative philosophers might have something to learn from his carefully structured comparative method, or find something to criticize that would advance their own reflections on methodology.

The central themes running through Yan's three essays — "A Comparative Study of Pre-Qin Interstate Political Philosophy," "Xunzi's Interstate Political Philosophy and Its Message for Today," and "Hegemony in The Stratagems of the Warring States" (co-written with Huang Yuxing) — are hegemony and international order. Ancient Chinese thinkers have a concept easily equated with hegemony, ba 霸, which some of them contrast with wang 王, usually translated as "the true king" or "the sage-king." This book adopts the translation "humane authority" to capture the key difference in the nature of power and authority — clearly issues highly relevant to contemporary political philosophy — between wang and ba in Chinese thought, and to avoid any misunderstanding that Yan might be advocating some kind of outdated sagely monarchy. The significance of this distinction for Yan lies in the options it highlights for China's rise: to replace America as a hegemonic power with similar realpolitik considerations or to preside over a comparatively harmonious international order (p. 204). Some may have qualms about treating the feudal states of the Zhou dynasty as equivalents of modern nation-states in contemporary IR theories, and Yan acknowledges that there are significant differences (p. 25). However, insofar as one could identify polities with varying degrees of independent control over territories and population — even their own armies — contending with one another for dominance, the similarities are sufficient for contemporary IR theory to be interested in the ancient discourses generated by the interactions of these polities.1

Yan compares the interstate political philosophy of seven pre-Qin Masters: Laozi, Mozi, Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, Guanzi, and Hanfeizi. On the level of analysis, Yan interprets the three Ru Masters as analyzing states and interstate politics on the basis of the individual, the morality of the ruler in particular. Guanzi and Hanfeizi take the state (its relative power) as the determinant of interstate relations, while Laozi and Mozi approach these relations from the standpoint of the whole system of states. The distinctions along this axis are about relative emphases rather than mutually exclusive categories, as Yan later notes that "all of the thinkers ascribe the ultimate cause of shifts in interstate leadership to the ruler himself" (p. 57). Given the autocratic nature of these states compared with modern nation-states, the ruler understandably played a much more important role in the intra- and interstate politics of the time; however, Yan emphasizes throughout the three essays the importance of the ruler employing talented and worthy persons in the success of the state. He sees an important lesson in this for contemporary international relations: first, the importance of "the thought of the leaders" should not be neglected and exclusive attention paid to only material factors (p. 66), and second, competition for talent is not peculiar to the knowledge economy, and China needs to attract people of leadership quality (not "merely technicians") from all over the world.

The seven pre-Qin thinkers are also classified as "materialist determinist" (Hanfeizi), maintaining that material conditions determine the outcome of interstate competition and conflict...


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pp. 105-108
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