Category Archives: History

Body and Cosmos in China: An Interdisciplinary Symposium in Honor of Nathan Sivin

The Department of East Asian Languages & Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania is delighted to announce an interdisciplinary symposium in honor of Nathan Sivin at Perry World House, 3803 Locust Walk, Philadelphia, PA 19104, on Oct. 14-15, 2017.

The symposium is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is required.  Just click here if you’d like to attend:

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New Book: Between History and Philosophy

Paul van Els and Sarah A. Queen, eds., Between History and Philosophy: Anecdotes in Early China (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2017). ISBN: 978-1-4384-6611-8.

The hardcover version will be out very soon; the Kindle and other eBook versions are already available. For more information, see the SUNY website:

Information about the book and its cover (including a sharper image) is also available at Paul’s website: 

Summary and Table of Contents follows.

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Rewriting the story of philosophy

Via Feminist Philosophers, I learned of this paper by Don Howard, entitled “The History That We Are: Philosophy as Discipline and the Multiculturalism Debate.” A couple of excerpts:

The hypothesis that I want to put forward here is that the conception of the “philosophical” underlying this state of affairs does not correspond to a timeless Platonic form, but that it is instead a construction undertaken in a specific cultural context, at a specific historical moment, for some very specific reasons, not all of which have to do with the love of wisdom. The time is the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. The place is northern Europe, chiefly, though not exclusively, Prussia and Hanover.
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CHE Article: “The Toxic History of Philosophy’s Racism”

I thought this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education may be of interest to readers of the blog (even while I am in no position to evaluate the historical claims made). Some highlights:

A particular weakness of many humanities canons remains their scant or nonexistent attention to material outside of Europe and North America, their historical dismissal of South Asian, East Asian, and African achievement due to ignorance and condescending Orientalism. Although philosophy is probably the worst among humanities disciplines in this respect, it’s hardly alone..

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Review of Denecke

Here are a few excerpts from a short book review (about 2000 words) I just wrote for China Review International, of Wiebke Denecke‘s The Dynamics of Masters Literature: Early Chinese Thought from Confucius to Han Feizi. My review mostly touches on method, not so much on substance, of her analysis. However, if you thought you might be interested in reading the book, here is some indication of its contents.


Wiebke Denecke. The Dynamics of Masters Literature: Early Chinese Thought from Confucius to Han Feizi. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011. xii, 370 pp. Hardcover $39.95, ISBN 978-0-674-05609-1.

Some academic philosophers and historians claim to study or “do” Chinese philosophy. Denecke takes aim in this book at understanding “first what modern proponents of a ‘Chinese philosophy’ have gained from creating a Chinese equivalent of philosophy for their time and concerns, and second what we may gain from framing our inquiry into this text corpus through the lens of other disciplines, questions, and concerns for our time” (3). So, the project is constructive and invites readers to seek gains from the inquiry. Ultimately, Denecke conceives of her project as friendly to the task of including Chinese thought in contemporary philosophical conversation, so long as the project of understanding those texts is itself seen as an important part of the learning process: “’Chinese philosophy’ should not be a toolbox of concepts and values that could give Western philosophy a fix. Instead, it is the translation process … both on the level of words and on the level of disciplines, that has the greatest potential to become productive in the future” (344-5). Continue reading →

Confucianism as a Cult of "Mamas' Boys"

Guest post by Brian Griffith.

Brian Griffith is an independent historian, whose previous books are The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History, and Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story. The Fall and Rise of Chinese Goddesses is due to be published in early 2012; the following is an excerpt from it. Brian Griffith lives in Toronto; his email is

Comments and questions are welcome! Brian will reply to them himself.


Confucianism is generally seen as China’s bastion of patriarchal tradition, with a virtually Arabian array of sanctified controls on women. But before it was a state-backed cult of obedience to superiors, Confucianism was a protest movement against warlords, and a defense of ancient village values. In a sense, the first Confucian teachers were men standing up for their mothers’ values. They were mamas’ boys—and I mean this in a good sense.

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Chinese History Positions at ANU

For historians who patiently abide our company, I relay this announcement from John Makeham:

The Australian National University (ANU) is currently advertising two new positions in Chinese History:

These are both research-intensive positions. One position is a Senior Fellow specializing in the late imperial and contemporary periods (the Republic and People’s Republic, and Taiwan). The other position is for a Fellow specializing in the pre-modern period.

I would be most grateful if you could bring the following link–which provides details of the positions–to the attention of interested parties:

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On de 德 and se 色

I’m going to piggyback on some discussion to which I was party at Peony’s and Sam’s because I wanted to see what might come up further from this blog’s clientale (patrons? target audience?). My apologies to both of the other bloggers for cloning their concerns over here, but I offer them admiration as propitiation.

The issue concerns how to understand Analects 9.18 and 15.13. In both places Confucius is quoted saying: “吾未見好德如好色者也,” widely translated as something like “I have never met one who likes virtue as much as he likes sex.” A slight variation in that is to translate se 色 as “beauty” or “the beauty of women.” I’ve never really liked this way of understanding Confucius’s point. So, here is a proposal for how to understand the sentiment in 9.18 and 15.13. (Some of this is cut and pasted from various comments I made on the other blogs):

I think se 色 really can’t mean something as narrow as sex or lust; its meaning is much broader, expressing a broader more central concern in the Analects. The “sex” translation seems flat out wrong for the following reasons. There really isn’t any independent evidence that sexual license was a temptation Confucius worried over. Nor does it seem that concubinage was an option for anyone other than the emperor or possibly a very powerful warlord (any ancient Chinese concubinage experts should correct or corroborate me on this). This line of translating seems to be a projection of much later genres of moralizing texts onto the Analects. But those issues about sexual desire and practice don’t really determine the issue as much as consideration of a more central concern for Confucius. In Analects 2.8 Confucius uses se in a context that I think is much more helpful in setting our understanding of se in the right direction:


“Zixia asked about filial piety. The Master said: ‘[Mere] appearances (se) are the difficulty. With matters to be tended, younger brothers or sons offer their service; with drink and food one partakes in order of birth. Can this really be filial piety?'”

I think this is representative of a concern that Confucius has throughout the Analects with contrasting mere, or rote, behavior that mimics real filial piety (or righteousness, benevolence, ritual, etc) and genuine possession of those characteristics. It’s his concern that the “form” of such activity be filled out with deeper content or correct context. I think that transfers also to distractions that form a category of “surface” pleasure. Appreciation of beauty, in particular, is not a mere surface pleasure for Confucius. So translation of se as ‘love of beauty’ also makes a mistake–the real trouble for Confucius is not appreciating beauty; instead it is enjoying “cheap” delights that merely mimic appreciation of beauty.

The sensibility that Confucius expresses does not concern one arena or type of activity as opposed to a wholly other type–for example, in antiquity, between ritualized life and licentious free-for-all, or something of the sort. I think the sensibility tracks the difference between more closely related activities, namely the “real” or “deep” enjoyment/practice/performance of ritual, filial piety, music, beauty of women, and so forth, and the disingenuous or shallow enjoyment/practice/performance of that same range of things. Confucius’s concerns are focused on a declining empire, but not like the Roman decline as represented in “Caligula.” The decline lies in the loss or threatened loss of coherence, or perhaps integrity, of what he considered to be high culture (in the moral/social/aesthetic mashed-up sense). In effect, it is a type of snobbery but perhaps with less pejorative connotation. It’s like bemoaning the loss of integrity that, say, the ascendence of Kenny G represented for the true jazz aficionado. Kenny G’s performances lack “soul” or something like that, so they are se.

So, if I had to give a translation of the quote from Confucius, it would be something like: “I have never met one who prefers the deeply powerful activity as much as the easy semblance of it.”

As always, comments welcome.