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Reviewed by:
  • China in the German Enlightenment ed. by Bettina Brandt and Daniel Leonhard Purdy
  • Nicolas A. Germana (bio)
Bettina Brandt and Daniel Leonhard Purdy, eds. China in the German Enlightenment. University of Toronto Press. viii, 210. $55.00

Bettina Brandt and Daniel Leonhard Purdy have pulled together this collection of eight essays into a volume that seeks to "trace the shifting and multilayered views of China as constructed by European enlightened readers of Asian travel accounts." As readers familiar with European thinking about China in the early modern and modern periods will know, attitudes towards Chinese thought and culture shifted dramatically from awe and admiration to a narrative of "Oriental despotism" and "Yellow Peril." This history, they caution us, cannot be reduced to a narrative of "simple linear development."

This volume contains essays by several scholars, whose work figures predominantly in the field of Asian German studies today, including Robert Bernasconi, Jeffrey A. Librett, and Franklin Perkins. Bernasconi contributes an essay on Georg Hegel's use – and misuse – of European travel accounts in the narrative of his philosophy of history. Librett's essay, which concludes the volume, provides an engaging examination of Martin Buber's interpretation of Taoism and "Chinese parabolic structures as disruptions of hermeneutics" connected to Buber's efforts to undercut both the Enlightenment orientalism and anti-Semitism that persisted into the twentieth century. Perkins's has contributed an excellent essay that traces the troubling career of orientalist prejudice in academic philosophy, by urgently demanding that the present needs tending to as well. Like the subject of his essay – Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz – Librett emphasizes the need to fully acknowledge and appreciate the reality of Chinese philosophy and its place in the canon that we read and teach.

The editors do a great service by commencing with an older contribution, Walter Demel's 1992 essay on "How the Chinese Became Yellow" (translated into English for the first time by the editors themselves). Demel painstakingly demonstrates how "[t]he yellow race did not originate in the wide spaces of Asia, but was invented in narrow rooms, or to be more precise, in the brains of European scholars." He shows how one such scholar in particular, Immanuel Kant, was pivotal in using nascent European race theory to categorize and calcify Chinese culture in relation to Europe.

Birgit Tautz contributes a fresh examination of the proliferation of German texts on China from a wide variety of genres and a compelling argument about how fragmented "Western knowledge production" was in practice. Using Johann Heinrich Zedler's Universal-Lexikon (1732–52) as a prime example, Tautz shows how the multitude of German texts on China present a picture that appears "complex and fizzled, at times even contradictory, as writers and compilers attempt to pack more layers – knowledge – into the description of the country." She thus provides us with a striking demonstration of the editors' central contention that developments in European thought regarding China followed anything but a simple linear path. [End Page 217]

Carl Niekerk delves deeply into the role of the emerging science of anthropology, especially in the works of Thomas Raynal, Cornelis de Pauw, and Johann Gottfried Herder, to delineate a new "problem of China" in the eighteenth century. This problem, especially for Herder, consisted of the fact that China "does not want to follow the developmental pattern for which it is destined" – either to progress along a given "natural path of development" or to be consumed by, and integrated into, another culture. This "problem" leaves even Herder "anchored in theories of biology and geography and their power to shape human activity."

Michael C. Carhart and John K. Noyes round out the volume with essays that reflect on China's place in the Aufklärung through Leibniz's historical and linguistic studies and Goethe's poetic chinoiserie respectively. These thinkers sought to challenge the philosophical and literary status quo by incorporating China into a broader understanding of human thought and culture, which remained incomplete as long as the contributions of Europeans alone defined what it meant to be "human."

This collection of essays by both older and newer voices in Asian-German studies does an excellent job of illuminating both "the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 217-218
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-21
Open Access
No
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