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  • The Dynamics of Masters Literature: Early Chinese Thought from Confucius to Han Fei Zi by Wiebke Denecke
  • Guo Jue
The Dynamics of Masters Literature: Early Chinese Thought from Confucius to Han Fei Zi. By Wiebke Denecke. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph 74. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010. Pp. viii + 370. Hardcover $39.95, isbn 978-0-674-05609-1.

The Dynamics of Masters Literature (hereafter Dynamics) by Wiebke Denecke is an ambitious undertaking, revisiting seven early Chinese texts—the Analects, Mozi, [End Page 240] Mencius, Xunzi, Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Han Fei zi—all of which have come down to us known as zhuzishu 諸子書 (writings of the masters), as they were first catalogued in the Han bibliographies. Instead of adding to the many “survey histories of early Chinese philosophy” or providing an “integral treatment of the development of early Chinese thought” (p. 28), Denecke is attempting here to experiment with a hermeneutical reading of this corpus as “Masters Literature,” construed as “discursive space,” in which the texts are considered in a dynamic dialogue with one another through their narrative formats and rhetorical strategies.

Denecke begins with a simple but fundamental question that any work aiming at understanding, interpreting, or translating these pre-Qin texts must answer: what are they? Recognizing that the answer ultimately depends on when and to whom the question is addressed, Denecke approaches the question from the perspective of classification, with a sober awareness of anachronism. There are three contenders to be examined: “Chinese Philosophy,” “Chinese belles-lettres,” and “Masters Literature.” All three have been used to characterize pre-Qin Chinese texts, albeit all anachronistically. Nonetheless Denecke’s preference for “Masters Literature” is clear:

[D]escribing the corpus of pre-Qin Masters Texts as ‘Masters Literature’ is anachronistic, but the category has many advantages over one like ‘Chinese philosophy’ that is imposed from outside the Chinese tradition … because it was coined relatively soon after the preQin period in the Han and because it was an indigenous label rather than one developed in comparison to and competition with the vastly different Greco-Roman heritage in its modern European and American inflections.

(p. 32)

As Denecke convincingly demonstrates in the Introduction, “Chinese Philosophy” and, in the same vein, “Chinese belles-lettres” rely heavily on later constructions, particularly those of modern disciplinary identities being projected onto the early texts.

Denecke starts by deconstructing the most problematic one, “Chinese Philosophy,” charting its relatively recent birth in Europe and its subsequent development in China. Although now a familiar concept and a well-established academic discipline in China, she points out that “Chinese philosophy” was an invention of the Jesuits in the sixteenth century that strategically validated and facilitated their missions in China. The category not only received unquestioned acceptance in Enlightenment Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but also gained currency among many Chinese intellectuals, who eagerly embraced and further developed it in an almost desperate effort to modernize China under the dire conditions at the turn of the twentieth century. At both stages, the desire and enthusiasm informing the creation of a “Chinese Philosophy” was not simply anachronistic, but had more severe consequences. One, Denecke argues, was to have enforced the hegemonic notion “philosophy,” which had deep Western roots but was taken as a universal category. The recent “world philosophy” approach that “gives equal access to the accomplishment of philosophy for all peoples and histories” can be seen as the consequence of such a hegemony. As Denecke rightly warns, the “reductive comparability of Eastern and Western philosophies might ironically achieve the opposite effect and bolster [End Page 241] Eurocentric claims in the guise of establishing ‘universal parameters’” and create “a fictive pantheon of ‘Universal Philosophy’” (pp. 19–20).

Denecke has a more charitable criticism of reading the corpus as a “literary genre” in the discipline of belles-lettres. Acknowledging the strength of studies in this vein that pay attention to “internal progressive dialogue” among the texts, Denecke identifies two shortcomings. First, like philosophy, belles-lettres is also a well-institutionalized academic discipline in China “under Western influence” that renders scholarly efforts a “paradoxical attempt at liberation from Western paradigms” (p. 21). Second, such studies “do not go...