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  • Confucianism in Context: Classic Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, East Asia and Beyond by Wonsuk Chang and Leah Kalmanson
  • Wu Yun (bio)
Wonsuk Chang and Leah Kalmanson. Confucianism in Context: Classic Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, East Asia and Beyond. SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010. xi, 243 pp. Hardcover $75.00. isbn 978-1-4384-3191-8.

This edited book has as its ambition to represent Confucianism as a world philosophy and a living tradition that is engaging and should significantly influence people’s lives and important contemporary issues.

An important merit of this book is, as its title entails, to look at Confucianism in context instead of regarding it as a system of abstract ideas. The context in this book is both in terms of concrete intellectual history context that helps readers to better understand what Confucianism as a distinctive way of thinking is, and in terms of different societal backgrounds in which people lived, are living, or will possibly live a Confucian way of life.

Roger Ames’s article “What Is Confucianism” presents a very clear picture of the concrete intellectual context in which Confucianism was born and developed. It informs us that Confucianism is not a philosophy made out of nothing, but has its “ancient roots” — a kind of “correlative thinking” — that was already distinctive in the Shang dynasty and had been the “cultural common sense” (p. 70). It continues to illustrate the concrete ways that Confucianism inherits and branches out this distinctive way of thinking. In this interpretative context, Ames provides his distinctive translation of many key Confucian terms with a Confucian vocabulary, instead of taking Western philosophical categories as direct counterparts for granted. For example, he proposes to translate 仁 (ren) as “consummate person/conduct,” 礼 (li) as “propriety in one’s roles and relations,” and 孝 (xiao) as “family reverence” (p. 68). I understand and agree about his idea to translate and interpret these key terms in a more authentic Confucian way, but I also notice that some translations are substantially different from his former translations in other books,1 and I wonder whether the current translations are more appropriate. Ren (仁) was formerly translated as “authoritative person/conduct,”2 and in my opinion, it better conveys the “relational” (p. 74) meaning. Also, “consummate person/conduct” makes ren (仁) harder to distinguish from sheng (圣) — the “sage/sagely conduct.” As the Analects says, the latter is even far beyond ren (仁) (Analects 6: 30). So, if ren is already consummate, then it may be difficult to express sheng’s superiority.

Moreover, I think when 孝 (xiao) was formerly translated as “filial piety” or “filial responsibility,”3 its attribute “filial” more precisely captures the character of xiao (孝), which is specifically about the feeling/responsibility/virtue from children toward parents, instead of a general “family feeling” or “family reverence.” The current translation, “family feeling,” is a general term that can refer to different kinds of family feelings, such as ci (慈) — “the parental love,” or ti (悌) — “the love toward older brothers.” In the same way, “family reverence” does not distinguish [End Page 469] children’s love and reverence toward parents from the love and deference toward one’s older brothers.

This ambiguous interpretation of xiao (孝) is not uncommon in this book. For example, when John Berthrong tries to argue that Confucian xiao is not a blind reverence, he uses Confucius’s mockery and criticism of an old man as an example (p. 14). He might have ignored the background that that old man — Yuan Rang — was actually not an elder to Confucius, but a childhood friend. But even if Yuan Rang were an elder to Confucius, this example is not appropriate for xiao, because obviously he is not Confucius’s father.

Furthermore, interpreting xiao (孝) as a more generalized family feeling or virtue, Lisa Rosenlee holds, “The virtue of filial piety … emphasizes the reciprocal care between parent and child” (p. 181). There might be arguments about reciprocal care between parent and child in Confucian thought, but this reciprocity consists of both parental love (ci 慈) (Analects 2: 20) and filial love (xiao 孝). Xiao (孝) itself is just one aspect. It is also worth noting that Rosenlee’s use...