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Reviewed by:
  • Feng Youlan and Twentieth Century China. An Intellectual Biography by Xiaoqing Diana Lin
  • Carine Defoort (bio)
Xiaoqing Diana Lin. Feng Youlan and Twentieth Century China. An Intellectual Biography. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2016. xii, 244 pp. Hardcover $135.00, isbn 978-90-04-30129-0.

This monograph is a detailed intellectual biography of Feng Youlan (Fung Yu-lan) 冯友兰 (1895-1990), whom Diana Lin rightly identifies as "one of the preeminent Chinese philosophers of the 20th century" (p. 1). As Lin points out, his academic influence was not limited to China: his "early two-volume History of Chinese Philosophy was translated into English in 1948 by the eminent Sinologist Derk Bodde; its influence on the study of Chinese thought in the West was unmatched for decades" (p. 1).1 Indeed, when I started studying Chinese philosophy in the 1980s this was one of the few and almost omnipresent books on Chinese philosophy, not only in Sinology, but also at [End Page 72] Philosophy departments. Despite its enormous contribution in making Chinese thought known in the West, its success also had a serious drawback: it was soon taken as the uninspiring, established account of Chinese philosophy, one that was moreover strikingly un-Chinese. During the second part of the twentieth century, scholars were often disappointed in their search for an "authentic" understanding of Chinese philosophy in Feng's work. As Bryan Van Norden points out, "[I]n reality, Fung is one of the most Western-centric readers of Chinese thought."2 I also belonged to the generation of scholars who either neglected Feng Youlan's interpretations or chided him for presenting an uninspiring variant of unquestioned Western philosophy.

In a switch from philosophy to intellectual history, this monograph shows how scholars have outgrown this critical stage and have cultivated a mature interest in the complexities of Feng's views. Due to the political turbulences since the Republican era, the psychological traumas of its intellectuals, and Feng's own choices during a near century-long life, this biography captures well the vicissitudes of twentieth-century Chinese politics. Many academic studies have been dedicated to both Feng Youlan and China's recent intellectual history,3 but this monograph is particular in its combined analysis of changing philosophical stances, political waves, and concrete events in Feng's life.

Lin concludes by distinguishing two major philosophical frameworks in Feng's reflections on Chinese philosophy: in the 1930s he created a "philosophy in China," using Western notions such as intuition and logic to construe a cosmology-ontology for a world in flux; in the 1980s he attempted a restoration of "Chinese philosophy" in terms of correlative thinking to explain the interactions among humans and with nature (pp. 183-184). Her monograph, however, distinguishes between five periods corresponding with the five chapters that constitute its backbone. The first chapter shows how the young Feng (roughly from 1920s till 1934) is initially inspired by philosophers such as William James (1842-1910) and Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941) to make Chinese thought well structured and compatible with Western metaphysics. The second chapter mostly treats the six major works (written from 1938 to 1946) in which Feng builds his own metaphysical system influenced by New Realism and mathematical logic. In chapter 3, Feng turns toward Dialectical and Historical Materialism (roughly between the 1930s and the 1950s) and strengthens his focus on experience, social formation, and universal truth rooted in reality while sustaining mental space to reflect on China's "abstract inheritance." This intellectual luxury is threatened in the fourth period when social contextualization and class provenance dominates all philosophical analyses (roughly in the 1960s and 1970s). The fifth and final chapter introduces Feng's second major philosophical framework, namely that of "Chinese philosophy," when he rewrites his overview into a seven-volume New [End Page 73] History (1980-1990) combining materialism with humanism, historicism, and a stress on the Confucian notion of sincerity. The materialist inspiration lingers in Feng's attention for the political context of Chinese masters. A similar attention inspired Lin's own understanding of Feng Youlan explaining his meandering thoughts throughout the turbulent twentieth century.

What makes this biography fascinating is that it describes many more...


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