Yang Lihua 杨立华
Beijing: Peking University Press, 2015
Reviewed by Li Zhen (Peking University; 2015-2016 HYI Visiting Fellow)
As a major topic of research in Chinese philosophy, studies on Neo-Confucianism have witnessed great development in the past thirty years. Not only has the range of studies on Neo-Confucianism been extended, but more and more diverse approaches have been introduced into this field, including intellectual history, social history, and local history. These new methods have generated a wider horizon of inquiry and a more vivid description of historic details. However, beyond the focus on historical analysis, there is still much work to do in the analysis of philosophical concepts. In fact, conducting intellectual analyses of representative philosophers and their theories endows philosophical studies with its identity – in name and in fact. In this sense, Fifteen Chapters on Neo-Confucianism sets an excellent example.
The book discusses eleven (groups of) philosophers from the Tang Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty (8-16th century). First, it focuses on the Five Masters of the Early Song Period北宋五子 and Zhu Xi朱熹. These six philosophers comprise two-thirds of the book. Why are they so important? Originating in the mid-Tang Dynasty, Neo-Confucianism did not achieve maturity until the Five Masters. That is to say, the Five Masters – Zhou Dunyi周敦颐, Shao Yong邵雍, Cheng Hao程颢, Zhang Zai张载 and Cheng Yi程颐, built up Neo-Confucianism as a mature school of thought. Afterwards, decades later, Zhu Xi combined their thought into a more comprehensive system. Overall, the Five Masters and Zhu Xi’s contributions to Neo-Confucianism can be understood in two aspects: distinguishing Confucianism from Buddhism; and initiating key topics and concepts for Neo-Confucianism for centuries to come. On account of their achievements in philosophy, these six philosophers are undoubtedly more essential to Neo-Confucianism than were other contemporary scholars in the Song Dynasty or their successors. That is the rationale for the author of this book to devote great attention to these philosophers and their theory.
Second, the book focuses more on the School of Principles理学 than the School of Mind心学. Concentrating on issues of morality, the School of Mind contains narrower fields of studies than the other. Moreover, as morality and spiritual states are subjective and differ from one person to another, it is hard to translate these experiences into universal precepts. In other words, the School of Mind needs to develop a more appropriate style to show its relevance in philosophical thinking. In contrast, the School of Principles is more systematic, concrete in elaboration and wider in its research range. Thus, the author’s inclination toward the School of Principles reflects the necessity of expressing philosophy explicitly and accurately.
The methodology of Fifteen Chapters on Neo-Confucianism is also inspiring. The author’s profound understanding and his adept, engaging analysis of concepts allows him to successfully depict Neo-Confucian philosophy in a deep and accurate way. For example, by noticing the nuanced connection between image象 and form形, as introduced in Xi Ci《系辞传》, the author convincingly presents the distinct structure of Zhang Zai’s philosophy. When talking about the cause of phenomenal movements, the book is concerned about the relationship between Two两 and One一. Probing the reasoning in Zheng Meng《正蒙》, the book arrives at the conclusion that as the efficient cause, spirit神 lies in material气 rather than above it or behind it. Thus, the farfetched comparison between material in Chinese philosophy and in Western philosophy, especially in Aristotelian meanings, should be revised. Another example is the explanation of Zhu Xi’s philosophy. While previous studies recognized inevitability必然 and rationality应然 as the two connotations of Zhu Xi’s concept of principle理, the book shows that the meaning of inevitability is subsumed under rationality. As a result, principles in Zhu Xi’s philosophy should be understood as the concretization of rationality. Furthermore, the relationship between principles and material leads to the new understanding of principles: principles are not static forms in Plato’s philosophy, but are actually the unity of original mobility and moral inclination as embodied in every concrete being. From the minute difference between these key concepts, one can see the author’s achievement in illustrating Chinese philosophy through a more analytical and structured approach.
Apart from the analysis of concepts, the introduction of ‘spiritual history’ also adds beauty to this book. Spiritual history helps portray philosophers’ theory within a larger, macroscopic perspective of the spirit and ideas of a specific period, which makes it an indispensable and intriguing method to understand the history of philosophy. For instance, the discourse of intellectual elites in the early Song period and the connection among Cheng Yi程颐, Sima Guang司马光 and the political situation in the Yuanyou元祐 period, prove to be a useful means to reveal the complicated historical background of Neo-Confucianism.
Fifteen Chapters on Neo-Confucianism is written not in a vacuum, but in meaningful, interactive dialogue with former research on these philosophers. Besides the themes and methodology mentioned above, there are many unique opinions worthy of readers’ attention, as well. First, several neglected but important philosophers get particular emphasis, such as Shao Yong and Luo Qinshun罗钦顺. By pointing out the essential concepts of substance and function体用 in Shao Yong’s philosophy, the book gives an accurate presentation of Shao Yong’s theory; and putting Luo Qinshun in conversation with former thinkers including Zhang Zai and Zhu Xi, the author has grasped the essentials of Luo’s philosophy. Second, the explanation of Neo-Confucian philosophy is pretty well combined with the discussion of the studies of Zhou Yi《周易》, which stands as the most important intellectual background of Neo-Confucianism in the Song Dynasty. Third, the influence from Neo-Taoism in the Wei-Jin Period 魏晋玄学 is revealed and elaborated clearly. For instance, from the critical analysis in the book, one can see that Zhang Zai’s refutation of non-being is similar to Guo Xiang’s郭象 theory, and Zhang Zai’s discussion of heaven天 and Tao道 is probably inherited from Wang Bi’s王弼 language style. Being an expert both in Neo-Taoism and Neo-Confucianism, the author manages to outline the relationship between the two eras.
Professor Yang Lihua is a renowned scholar at Peking University. Fifteen Chapters on Neo-Confucianism is the culmination of his studies of Neo-Confucianism over the past twenty years. For further understanding of his research, readers may refer to other works by the author, such as Qiben & Shenhua: Commentary on Zhang Zai’s Philosophy《气本与神化：张载哲学述论》(2008) and On Guo Xiang’s Commentary of Zhuang Zi《郭象<庄子注>研究》(2010).