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  • "The Meandering Course of Chinese Political Thought"
  • Philip J. Ivanhoe (bio)
Youngmin Kim. A History of Chinese Political Thought. Cambridge, UK and Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2017. x, 288 pp. Paperback $24.25, isbn 978-0-7456-5247-4.

A History of Chinese Political Thought is a masterful and highly accessible account of the intersecting and often-competing expressions of political philosophy that have flowed through and shaped Chinese history, showing the complex interplay between changes in material conditions and conceptions of what such changes imply, aspire to, or might represent.1 Professor Kim weaves trenchant philosophical analysis together with careful historical detail, drawing upon a wide range of sources and making skillful use of secondary literature from Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Western sources. The book bristles with original insights, challenging many traditional ideas not only about Chinese political thinking but also and more basically about what China has been and what it has meant to be Chinese. This is far and away the most interesting and revealing study of the history of Chinese political thought available and is essential reading for anyone seeking to gain an understanding of one of the [End Page 186] world's great civilizations and fully appreciate its protean and ever-evolving character.

Kim describes one of his primary goals as providing "a theoretically informed long-term historical narrative" (p. viii) of Chinese political thought. This narrative is theoretically informed in at least the following two ways: (1) it takes seriously the ways in which Chinese intellectuals understood themselves and their political activity (i.e., their theories of self, value, governance, culture, etc.) and deploys these as part of the explanatory apparatus to describe, analyze, and explain what happened in the meandering course of history, and (2) it draws upon and applies a range of contemporary theories about the nature of social, political, and historical phenomena in order to further this goal. I will return to these two features of the work in the course of my comments, but first it is important to make clear some of the ways in which Kim's approach quite dramatically breaks with past attempts to provide a history of Chinese political thought and note some of the implications his approach has for scholarship in other areas of Chinese studies.

Kim provides a fair and balanced description of the best classic and contemporary studies of Chinese political history and argues that all of them are "dominated by ahistorical and nationalistic perspectives" (p. viii). While there is no conceptual reason to assume it to be true, it turns out there is a common flawed assumption underlying such work—work that spans a wide range of theoretical approaches and political sensibilities—which is that there is some single, enduring essence to Chinese political thought that establishes some eternal realm of China; constitutes the character of what it is to be Chinese; and unifies the history of Chinese society, culture, and politics. Kim's book is founded on the claim that no such essence exists, and he builds his account of the history of Chinese political thought on the rubble of this foundational claim. Aside from overthrowing widely held essentialist views about the nature of Chinese thought and culture, within both the academic world and the popular imagination, Kim's view poses profound challenges to a number of contemporary thinkers who propose that the world, and particularly the West, should study China in order to understand, appreciate, and learn from the wisdom of its purported enduring essence. An important assumption lying behind this advice is that China presents a system of political governance founded on some timeless political theory that has enabled it to endure intact throughout its long history and weather the kinds of trials and tribulations that have led to the collapse of other great civilizations. The problem is clear: if there is no enduring essence to Chinese political thought, there is no eternal realm of China; no shared sense of what it is to be Chinese; and no unified and homogenous society, culture, and politics. This does not in any way imply that the study of Chinese political thought is not valuable or that the world does not have...


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