- Expressing the Heart's Intent: Explorations in Chinese Aesthetics by Marthe Atwater Chandler
Upon completing Marthe Atwater Chandler's Expressing the Heart's Intent: Explorations in Chinese Aesthetics I am struck by how much can be gleaned retroactively from the title. At the outset the title indeed made me somewhat wary, having seen how on many occasions Chinese philosophical terms become mangled in English-language translation in ways that unnecessarily import, either implicitly or explicitly, misleading conceptual frameworks. Words like "expressing," "heart," and "intent" all triggered various suspicions on my part. Fortunately, these suspicions were quickly addressed, as Chandler advances an adept reading of the shi yan zhi 詩言志 conceit so central to Chinese aesthetics since its introduction in the Shujing 書 經, anticipating and defusing objections like mine. However, as the book continued I found that my early delight waned a bit as her strong insights and analysis continued to unfold within a loose, meandering presentation. Looking back, "Explorations" seems to be the most crucial word from the title.
This is not to say that there is no serious consideration of the terms in the main title Expressing the Heart's Intent, since Chandler clearly is quick to distance this translation of shi yan zhi 詩 言 志 from the connotations of Euro-American vocabulary. She writes, "At first glance, shi yan zhi seems to echo the familiar (modern Western) Expressive Theory that art expresses the personal feelings or emotions of the artist" (p. 3), and continues "[I]t is a very poor candidate for understanding shi yan zhi. If poetry simply expresses the poet's inner, personal feelings, it is hard to see how it could be as important as Shun, and later Confucius, took it to be in the education of the leaders of China" (p. 4). After exploring the difficulties in rendering shi yan zhi in English, Chandler looks at its history through Liu Xie's 劉勰 fifth-century Wenxin Diaolong 文心雕龍 (curiously rendered in Chandler's book with diacritics, unlike most other terms), where zhi 志, or intent, is recast such that "by the sixth century the shi yan zhi tradition had evolved into a sophisticated theory about the use of reason or reflection (si 思) and imagination that could be extended to all arts" (p. 14).
After this strong start, which signals an expansive book covering the development of Chinese aesthetics writ large, things go in a somewhat different [End Page 1] direction. After a brief tangent into contradistinguishing the shi yan zhi tradition from 18th & 19th-century European romanticism, Chandler casts a somewhat more narrow, if not modest, scope for the book. Taking the influential and nearly inescapable work of Li Zehou 李澤厚 as a basis, Chandler develops her "explorations" in subsequent chapters in a way that "attempts to fill in some of the details suggested in Li's account" (in The Path of Beauty 美的历程), but which eschews "a straightforward historical narrative" (p. 20).
As a result, what emerges is more like a series of sketches (i.e. "explorations") rather than a single, united composition. The explorations each show strong historical sense and interpretative ability, with the result being that experts in the field are likely to find something informative in Chandler's truncated inquiries. However, the book's design limits its potential audience, as everyone besides experts and the most advanced of graduate students would likely find it difficult to navigate. Chapter 2, "The Aesthetic Theory of Li Zehou" somewhat abruptly transitions to modern China amid the vicissitudes of capitalism. Chandler starts by engaging and defending Li Zehou's appropriation of Kant, where some of the statements on Kant's influence on Gestalt theory, Wittgenstein, and Carnap may be true, but more context is needed. The defense of Li's unorthodox Kantianism is welcome, but it feels incomplete. It is not clear from this why he would align himself with Kant, given Li's several criticisms of and alterations of Kant's thinking. It seems though like more should be said about Li's The...