- Li Zhi, Confucianism and the Virtue of Desire by Pauline C. Lee
Although widely known among intellectual and literary historians as one of the most iconoclastic Chinese authors of the sixteenth century, Li Zhi 李贄 (1527–1602) had never been the object of a dedicated monograph in English until the publication of Pauline C. Lee’s Li Zhi, Confucianism and the Virtue of Desire. In this elegantly written book Lee focuses on the philosophical contributions of Li Zhi. In four chapters she reconstructs his philosophy of desire, spontaneity, and authenticity through an in-depth reading of select autobiographical, literary, and philosophical texts. This methodology has resulted in an important contribution to Chinese intellectual history.
In the first core chapter, “Life Stories,” we are introduced to a commentary Li Zhi wrote on his own life, “A Sketch of Zhuowu: Written in Yunnan.” (The appendix conveniently includes a full translation of this and the other two texts at the core of Lee’s analysis.) [End Page 1108] The text is emphatically not read as a foundation for a conventional biographical sketch—one would be mistaken to read this as intellectual biography. Instead the author analyzes the text as a creative adaptation of the traditional genre of the commentary and related biographical genres, and argues that in it we can detect “an ethics of genuine expression” (p. 22). Genuine expression is the result not so much of the rejection but rather of the subversion of traditional frameworks, references, and techniques including naming and the representation of childhood, career, marriage, and death. Given the large and growing literature on Ming autobiographical writing, one wonders how Li Zhi compares to contemporaries in this respect. Was this ethic of genuine expression widely shared and articulated in exemplary fashion in Li’s work or was his a radical departure from a different kind of ethics of self-expression? Did it become a reference point for late Ming practitioners of autobiographical writing, or was this ethics problematic in retrospect?
The next two chapters discuss core concepts in Li’s work in the context of sixteenth-century intellectual debates. The first such concept, the heart-mind (xin 心), was central in Neo-Confucian understandings of moral action. The author takes Li Zhi’s near-canonical essay “On the Child-like Heart-Mind” as his most representative statement on the matter and provides a detailed exegesis of it. Most revealing here is the comparison of Li Zhi’s original coinage, “the child-like mind” (tongxin 童心), to the alternatives proposed by some of his interlocutors, especially Wang Yangming’s 王陽明 “innate knowing” (liangzhi 良知) and Luo Rufang’s 羅汝芳 “infant heart-mind” (chizi zhi xin 赤子之心). The author concludes that, in contrast to these inter-locutors, Li Zhi forgoes metaphysical schemes in the articulation of a theory of moral action. He roots his ethics directly in human nature and the human satisfaction of individual desires; the child-like mind helps underscore that the pursuit of “genuine” desires is natural and therefore good. More abstractly this means that Li Zhi developed an alternative model of human morality, one based on the preservation of human nature and the desires given at birth. This model diverges from both the Mencian developmental model, in which a priori moral endowments need to be developed through human effort, and the Neo-Confucian discovery model, in which an a priori fully formed moral faculty needs to be uncovered.
The question of how humans can determine which feelings and desires are genuine is taken up in the following chapter, “Virtue 德.” This chapter differs methodologically from the previous one in that it is not an exploration of the meaning of the concept of virtue as articulated in any of Li Zhi’s work; rather, it explores the conditions under which genuine feelings can emerge and be expressed. This is a challenge. Li Zhi’s work does not yield a set of...