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  • The Study of Chinese Philosophy in the West:A Bibliographic Introduction
  • Dr. Karel L. van der Leeuw (bio)


This article is intended to provide an annotated survey of predominantly recent literature in Western languages on Chinese philosophy. It is meant as a guide to the study of Chinese philosophy for those who have not mastered the Chinese language. Attention has gone primarily to book publications and, moreover, to publications in English, French, and German. The important Russian contributions to the historiography of Chinese philosophy had to be left out—not to mention the massive literature on Chinese philosophy in Japanese and Chinese.

This survey is dressed up as a short narrative about the history of Chinese philosophy, but it is not representative of Chinese philosophy as a whole, if only for the reason that publications about Chinese philosophy—secondary literature as well as translations—are not equally spread over the different periods, thinkers, and schools. Neither does it aim at completeness. The survey is ordered according [End Page 332] to periods and topics, and attention goes mainly to recent debates and interpretations. A certain measure of arbitrariness in the selection was unavoidable. Many titles are mentioned in the text. The bibliographic details of these publications and references to others on the same topic can be found in the footnotes. Names and Chinese terms in the text are in pinyin transcription; at first mention the Wade-Giles transcription—which is still widely used in English-language literature on China—is added in brackets.

The study of Chinese philosophy has become popular in the past few decades. The number of publications—books as well as articles—has increased tremendously during the last twenty years. Commercial editions of monographs are being published that would have been unthinkable some decades ago. Among other reasons this is due to the fact that veterans in the field, like Angus Graham and Wing-tsit Chan, have introduced a whole generation of historians of Chinese philosophy to the field. A survey like this one will therefore soon be outdated.1

The Study of Chinese Philosophy

Sinology or the scientific study of China is a curious field. It began as the study of Chinese language and literature and has extended to everything concerning China: the physical geography of the country, the economy, the history, the political structure, the philosophy, the science, the literature, and so on. Although sinologists do, of course, specialize, the consequence of this background is that most aspects of China—including the philosophy—have been studied by people who were trained primarily in Chinese language and history.

Since sinology became a serious academic field of study in the nineteenth century, Chinese philosophy has seldom been studied by people with a training in philosophy. Even a superficial knowledge of Western philosophy could not be counted on, because philosophy has vanished from or been marginalized in secondary education. As a consequence, historiographers of Chinese philosophy have often had no eye for the originality and peculiarity of Chinese thinking. Sometimes this has lead to serious mistakes or lack of clarity in translations, because philologically trained translators have simply misunderstood the clue of a particular view or argumentation.

Two other factors have for a long time contributed to a one-sided view of Chinese philosophy. In the first place, a disproportional amount of attention has gone to the ancient period. Chinese themselves have largely identified their philosophical thought with that of antiquity, out of which, moreover, they have made a particular selection. Thinkers of later periods based themselves on the thinkers of antiquity, and important philosophical works of the later periods are in the form of commentaries on ancient works. The superficial spectator would have gotten the impression that the development of thinking had stopped after antiquity. Consequently, the thought of antiquity received all the attention and later [End Page 333] periods were neglected. Several decades ago there barely existed any translation of philosophical works from the later periods, and even now they are a minority. The situation is comparable to that in the historiography of European philo-sophy: probably more translations exist of the works of Plato or Aristotle than of all the medieval philosophers put together.



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