Li Zehou’s “A History of Classical Chinese Thought”, translated by Andrew Lambert

(via Wikimedia Commons) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Bertrand Russell, a philosopher possessed of a razor-sharp analytical mind, once said that he didn’t want to write about Confucius because he found the Chinese philosopher “boring”. Russell had visited China in 1920 for an extended lecture tour and was greatly admired by Chinese intellectuals; his book The Problem of China (1922) became a minor classic of its kind as it was one of the earliest books written about the “new” post-imperial China. Russell’s stated antipathy towards Confucius, perhaps prompted by anti-Confucians whom he met in China, was partly based on the fact that his eminent predecessor, unlike himself, was not a systematic writer. Russell didn’t think much of Nietzsche, either, for much the same reason. He also found that the idea of filial piety, so important to Confucius and his successors, encouraged people to be unthinkingly loyal, especially when it came to revering authority figures such as the emperor. Russell did, however, believe that filial piety was less dangerous than patriotism! As Andrew Lambert writes in his useful and comprehensive introduction to his translation of Li Zehou’s A History of Classical Chinese Thought, when the imperial system finally collapsed, “some blamed the Confucian tradition for China’s woes, viewing it as unscientifically oppressive,” finding a solution lay in adopting “Western institutions and social ideas.” The invitation extended to Russell was, one may suppose, a small part of this solution.

Lord Russell’s attitude (which he later modified, it’s only fair to say) towards Chinese philosophy was fairly typical for western readers, whose conception of it was that it was simply a series of sayings and aphorisms delivered by “wise” men such as Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu and one or two others known to the West since the 17th century and the appearance in 1687 of a book called Confucius Sinarum philosophus, compiled by Philippe Couplet, a Jesuit who spent more than twenty years in China. It even included the Chinese text, a rather unusual practice at the time, as there would have been few people who could read it.

However, the East-West disconnect was as alive and well in philosophy as it was in art or literature. “Confucius say…” became a kind of joking tag on the same level as fortune cookies. In this comprehensive study of Chinese philosophy, which is actually a series of essays delivered at different times, Li Zehou, one of China’s foremost (and sometimes controversial) contemporary philosophers, succeeds admirably in correcting Western these and other misconceptions of Chinese thought, particularly when he shows us that Confucius is much more than the philosopher of filial piety, rites and rituals whose influence may be said to have slowed China’s cultural progress for centuries, and that Chinese philosophers, like their Western counterparts, have extended their enquiries into all areas of the human condition. Furthermore, they have not, especially since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, completely isolated themselves from Western thought.


A History of Classical Chinese Thought, Zehou Li, Andrew Lambert (trans) (Routledge, August 2019)
A History of Classical Chinese Thought, Zehou Li, Andrew Lambert (trans) (Routledge, August 2019)

Li’s purpose is to provide a way of preserving traditional Chinese thought such as that of Confucius, whilst at the same time allowing a significant contact with Western modes of thought, in other words, practicing what we might call “comparative philosophy”, and not throwing the baby out with the bath-water. Indeed, comparison is a good way (as it is in literature) to better understand one’s own traditions, getting them out of isolation and into a convergence with others.

Li is, it would seem, a proponent of a Confucian revival of sorts, but readers will soon realize that he is more than conversant with Western thought; we might expect his familiarity with Marx, but he has also written a book on Kant, A New Approach to Kant: A Confucian-Marxist Viewpoint (English version, 2018), an intriguing, perhaps even paradoxical title which reveals where Li is coming from intellectually, as he essentially takes the same three-cornered approach in the present text.

There is nothing of the dogmatic Marxist in Li’s writing—indeed Marx himself is infrequently mentioned except as one catalyst for the modern change in Chinese thinking, and Lambert does state that


as the zeitgeist in public debate and social theory move back toward a concern with social polarization, so some of Marx’s ideas once again provide a focal point for this discussion.


Li’s approach may perhaps be characterized as implicitly Marxist in some ways, what Tsuyoshi Ishii in a review calls “his idiosyncratic elucidation on Marxism and Kantian philosophy.”

However, to assume that as Li is a contemporary Chinese philosopher he will of course use an exclusively Marxist or materialist approach would be very short-sighted. On the other hand, readers should be aware of how Li’s own ideas or even biases may have some impact on what he says about other people’s philosophy, just as Bertrand Russell sometimes couldn’t help but insert himself into his own History of Western Philosophy (1945) when he felt strongly enough. Li is not so much interested in Marxian theories of class war or economics, but instead looks back to the earlier writings of Marx and his ideas about human nature and the environment.


Kant, on the other hand, is well-represented; Li finds, for example, a definite connection between Kant’s ethics and Zhang Zai (1020-1077) in the “idea of a human subjectivity constituted by a rational and ethical reality.” The “intellectual foundation for a Chinese modernity” is, for Li, to be found in the past. Hence, the first chapter of this book is “Re-evaluating Confucius,” and the second chapter has a section “Mohism has not disappeared,” referring here to the thought of Mozi (ca 470-391 BCE), who argued against Confucianism, fostered a more scientific approach, and advocated a kind of generalised “disinterested love” as opposed to filial piety. Li is suggesting that both Confucius and his opponents still have something to say to the modern world, although he realises, in what Lambert calls his “nuanced and even-handed reading of the early Confucians” that Confucianism has its faults. As Li puts it


the claim that Confucianism is the heart and representative of Chinese culture is not new; the challenge is to explain how this is so.


Li is suggesting, perhaps, that human nature, and human society as well, is determined by history; as time passes and events follow each other, human nature gradually subsumes history and its lessons in a series of layers.


Li presents a number of core ideas which make up his philosophical orientation, all of which are clearly explained by Lambert in his introduction. Very briefly (and I must profess to little expertise here), these include the humanisation of nature, the idea of “delight,” and the relationship between culture and psychology; in fact, Li quite frequently suggests that “human nature” and “psychology” are synonymous. Li states that


delight or pleasure (le) possesses a foundational significance; it is the fruit and the manifestation of ‘the unity of tian (ceaseless creation)’ and the human,” or what the Mencius calls ‘complete integration.’


As Mencius[1]Since there are doubts about authorship, A History of Classical Chinese Thought refers to the book rather than the person, hence the Mencius states, “there is no greater delight than to reflect and become conscious of one’s complete integration.”

Li’s method of enquiry is developmental and historically-informed, which means that these core ideas are examined over the whole course of Chinese philosophical history, and as therefore fundamental to his belief that philosophy should be primarily concerned with human nature rather than with such matters as economics, class, or the “deterministic” view of history associated with Marx. When Li uses Marx, Lambert explains, it’s more likely the early Marx than the writer of Das Kapital, the Marx who displayed an “interest in human nature and its shaping by social, political and economic forces.” Lambert characterizes Li’s approach as one which “conveys a faith in human freedom, and the possibility of transcending the more deterministic elements of his explanatory framework.” Marx, however, sees human nature as being more or less static, whilst Li proposes that the dialectic set up between human nature and the forces of history is more flexible. This is what should make Li’s book attractive for Western readers, who may have been expecting a dogmatic, deterministic approach to Chinese philosophy or even an “orthodox” Marxist sub-text.


In a book this comprehensive there are always some sections which pique the interest of readers (or reviewers) more than others. In my own case, given my limited knowledge of Chinese philosophy, it was what Li had to say in “Zhuangzi and Chan Buddhism”, “Some Thoughts on Neo-Confucianism” and the concluding essay “Some Thoughts on Chinese Wisdom”. Chan (or Zen) Buddhism, Li explains, was influenced by the work of Zhuangzi (369-298 BCE), who was a stern anti-Confucian and opponent of Mohism, rejecting “humaneness (ren) and rightness (yi)” and advocating “a return to the primitive” as well as being a man who dreamed he was a butterfly. What this meant, according to Zhuangzi, was that humanity spent its time meaninglessly rushing around, making war and living stressful lives, only to die. External things were paramount, and people would do anything for wealth, fame and profit, all of which damaged fundamental human nature. “I’ll rest half-way between being of use and being good for nothing,” Zhuangzi is supposed to have declared; “to do good without approaching fame, to do evil without approaching punishment … preserves the body and enables a full life.” Here we see Zhuangzi as


more of an observer of the world than a participant in what most people think is “real” life, which the observer transcends. Li believes that Chan Buddhism takes an aesthetic view of the world, a view of detachment, such as one might stand and look at a painting in a gallery.


The essay on Neo-Confucianism is interesting because it demonstrates how this ancient creed not only became established in China, but how it altered and reinvented itself over the centuries. Mao Zedong is cited as noting that “The doctrines of the Song [Neo-]Confucians are similar to those of Kant,” and Li agrees with this, stating that “it is characterised by its elevation of ethics to the status of ontology and final reality.” At the same time, Li argues that Neo-Confucianism did a great deal of harm, establishing a rigid code of conduct under which, in the words of Tan Sitong (1865-1898) “people keep quiet and dare not speak; their minds are fettered and they dare not begin to think.” Tan himself was executed for supporting radical reform in China.

Li’s concluding essay succinctly sums up the nature of Chinese philosophy; “all schools of Chinese philosophy,” he writes, “… highly value a sensuous consciousness and life as it naturally arises.” At the same time, “each offers a different way to affirm and express attachment to biological life, to social life, human existence, felt experience and the world.” Any transcendence, moreover, could be found in actual human life, rather than in some mystical or noumenal world. Chinese philosophy appears to seek a via media; we should not desire too much, nor should we try to completely negate desire, and transcendence does not come through suffering and strife, but through pleasure and delight. The latter is “the fruit and manifestation of the unity of tian [ceaseless creation] and the human.” Li clearly shows in this essay the fundamental differences between Chinese and Western thought; “the Chinese people are rarely thoroughgoing pessimists,” he tells us, “and are always ready to look optimistically to the future.”

Perhaps the old sage himself might be allowed to end this review:


To study and then apply it at the appropriate time, is this not a joy? To have a friend visit from afar, is it not delightful?

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Since there are doubts about authorship, A History of Classical Chinese Thought refers to the book rather than the person, hence the Mencius