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  • Philosophy and Religion in Early Medieval China ed. by Alan K. L. Chan and Yuet-Keung Lo
  • James D. Sellmann
Philosophy and Religion in Early Medieval China. Edited by Alan K. L. Chan and Yuet-Keung Lo. SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010. Pp. 375. Paper $26.95, ISBN 9781438431888.

The Early Han enjoyed some prosperity while it struggled with centralization and political control of the kingdom. The Later Han was plagued by the court intrigue, corrupt eunuchs, and massive flooding of the Yellow River that eventually culminated in popular uprisings that led to the demise of the dynasty. The period that followed was a renewed warring states period that likewise stimulated a rebirth of philosophical and religious debate, growth, and innovations. Alan K. L. Chan and Yuet-Keung Lo's Philosophy and Religion in Early Medieval China is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature on medieval China. It is a companion volume to their coauthored work, Interpretation and Literature in Early Medieval China (SUNY Press, 2010). This new book contains a twenty-one page introduction, eleven chapters, and a useful index. Chinese characters are provided for translated text and place and personal names. The first five chapters discuss topics in xuanxue philosophy. The remaining six chapters discuss various topics in religion, Daoism, Buddhism, and ideas that cross over the various teachings.

In the Introduction, Chan briefly explains the origin of xuanxue philosophy and its historical context. He goes on to give an account of the chapters in the book, drawing connections between them when he can. Chan concludes that xuanxue shares certain family resemblances related to the moral and political issues and terminology of the day, but, he argues, it is not a uniform or "homogeneous school of thought" (p. 9). In concluding the introduction, Chan celebrates the diversity and wealth offered by medieval China as a field of study. He notes that the various philosophies and the religions of that period were focused on "practical concerns" (p. 14); even the abstruse xuanxue, he argues, was rooted in moral and political concerns.

In the first chapter, "Sage Nature and the Logic of Namelessness: Reconstructing He Yan's Explication of Dao," Chan explains He Yan's "understanding of Dao as wu" (p. 24) and "the nameless as harmony, which applies equally to the Dao and the sage" (p. 25). Chan argues that He Yan, like Xi Kang, held that the sage is born with a unique inner nature that sets the sage apart from the common people. In this, He is unlike Wang Bi, who held that common people can attain sagehood. Ethical and political implications follow quickly. For He Yan, the sage is not affected by changing circumstances; the sage is always impartial and calm due to his inner nature. However, He Yan maintained that it was unlikely that a sage would ever be on the throne in the present day. The next best situation was to ensure that worthy officials, who are sage-like, follow sagely examples, or set their minds on Dao, are selected for office. Given the basic limitations of the common people, Chan argues that He Yan appeared to be more inclined toward keeping them in check with legal rewards and punishments rather than through ritual propriety alone. [End Page 451]

In "Tracing the Dao: Wang Bi's Theory of Names," Jude Chua argues that when Wang Bi's correlative semiotics is metaphorically integrated into his philosophy, Wang Bi finds a way to infer forms or to trace actualities from their source in the Dao. When Wang Bi shifts the intellectual focus from names and principles to profound discourse, he is still very much concerned about the "that-by-which" things are accomplished. Speculations about the Dao are tied to moral and political concerns such that the nameless and the formless are metaphors for political noninterference. The way the Dao operates and the way the sage-ruler governs are intimately tied together.

In "Hexagrams and Politics: Wang Bi's Political Philosophy," Tze-Ki Hon artfully extracts from Wang Bi's commentary on the Zhouyi a political philosophy that advocates a non...