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).

Denecke’s position is nuanced, occupying space between a large group of comparativist philosophers who descend with perhaps too much utilitarian zeal on Chinese texts, picking and choosing concepts to add to their “toolbox,” and those postcolonial theorists who are horrified or bemused by what they regard as intellectual coarseness. A bit of context: there have been recent, notable criticisms from American, Chinese, and European scholars who question whether there is even such a thing to be referred to as “Chinese philosophy.”

. . .

Denecke focuses on the more germane categorization scheme for understanding the Warring States texts that have been dubbed “philosophical” since the Jesuits to the present, the indigenous genres into which Warring States texts were placed early on, in the Han dynasty. Denecke recounts:

The first label for texts by Early Chinese thinkers was simply zhuzi baijia 諸子百家 (“The Various Masters and Hundred Lineages/Schools”). This label was consolidated by Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) bibliographers who divided them into various schools such as Confucians (Rujia 儒家), Mohists (Mojia 墨家), Daoists (Daojia 道家), Yinyang specialists (Yinyangjia 陰陽家), Legalists (Fajia法家), and Logicians (or, “Names-School,” Mingjia 名家). The name “Masters Texts” became one of the four headings of traditional Chinese bibliography: “Classics” (jing 經), “Masters” (zi 子), “Histories” (shi 史), and “Literary Collections” (ji 集). (23)

As indicated by the title of the book, Denecke focuses on texts that these Han dynasty bibliographers tagged as “Masters” texts. Since Denecke engages contemporary study of Chinese philosophy, she coins the phrase “Masters Literature” to refer to the corpus of “zi” (子) texts that have come, by and large, to be regarded recently as “Early Chinese Philosophy” – Lunyu, Mozi, Mengzi, Xunzi, Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Han Feizi. Such texts are set apart according to Denecke by their self-conscious constructions of “scenes of instruction,” “scenes of persuasion,” and “styles of reasoning,” all of which contribute valuable hermeneutic scaffolds.

Denecke’s rationale for focusing on Masters Literature is to reconsider “Chinese philosophy” since the 16th century Jesuit mission, to “scrape away as much as possible of the disciplinary and conceptual baggage that has accrued on the surface of the Masters Texts” (29). Her blade for the task is a self-conscious adaptation of a much earlier anachronism than the one of the Jesuits, the anachronistic – by Denecke’s argument – construction of the Warring States texts by Wang Chong, the Eastern Han “polymath” (78). Wang produces an authorship categorization to distinguish the valuable literature that had largely been written prior to his own day from the debris that, in his opinion, littered the landscape of the Eastern Han. First, there were sages who wrote the classics and worthies who composed commentaries. Then, Wang distinguishes between “mundane scholars” (shi ru 世儒) who merely interpret rather than produce and “literary scholars” (wen ru 文儒) who write with substance and from a sense of vocation ( (81-3). Most notable in the latter group for Wang are the Duke of Zhou and Confucius. But Wang’s anachronism relies on at least two prior turns. As Denecke details, there were first, the introduction and discussion of the idea of “masters” as a category by Xunzi (in his chapter “Against the Twelve Masters” – fei shi er zi 非十二子) and later, the biographical treatment of the “master” as author by Sima Qian. So, taking all of these schemes into account, Denecke’s own avowed anachronism treats the personae of the “Masters” as resembling Wang Chong’s “literary scholars” but, following Qian somewhat, as represented by the Warring States texts that “…construct a common discursive space of contention through an intertextual chemistry that does not necessarily attack opponents directly, but inhabits, appropriates, and redefines their technical vocabulary” (89).

. . .

Part of Denecke’s thesis is that the portrayal of the “the masters” via their typical “scenes of instruction” is essential to understanding how each text responds to past and/or contemporary, competing models of wisdom. Such a portrayal in each text, she argues, is detected either through the type of rhetoric attributed to each master and through the identity of interlocutors, rulers, and disciples – or the implied audience – with whom the master may be paired as interlocutor. So, for example:

The palpable figure of the Master in the Analects – at times surprising and revelatory, at other times amiable or severe – disappears in Mozi into the master mind of the predictable discursive machine. That is the reason why we know so much less about Mozi than about Confucius. Mozi hardly ever appears or speaks in Mozi. His discursive machine speaks for him and he remains a shadowy entity. (135)

Noticing this difference – the marked movement away from the particularity and humanity of the master, as well as of other personae – sheds light on a shifting rhetorical strategy, which is the innovation and genius of the Mohists:

Like the other protagonists such as the master, his interlocutors, and the implied audience, the body of the superior person is subjected to a methodology of universal standards received from Mohist instruction. Universality is only guaranteed if the standards are not lodged in any one person’s body or that person’s bodily experiences, but if it is safely invested in extracorporeal values. (139)

In the case of Confucius and Mozi, Denecke takes care to attribute authorship of their portrayal to their respective followers who fashion the texts so that the master is constructed in a certain light. However, starting with the Mencius, Denecke either assumes, hypothesizes, or rhetorically affects a very strong narrative of self-conscious, single-author agency in texts, in some of which authorship issues are unresolved to say the least.

Perhaps most prominent in her fashioning of the textual auteur is the figure of Mencius. One of Denecke’s main premises about the text is that Mencius, as the author of the Mencius, consciously portrays himself in a certain light in order to coopt and adapt the typical scene of instruction in which Confucius is portrayed in the Analects: “…Mencius portrays himself as the first exegete of Confucius’s personal legacy” (156). Support for that premise is partly available, according to Denecke, from Mencius’s concerns with textual legacy through  zuo 作, “authoring” (158 fn), as he mentions in connection with Confucius, in Mencius 3B9. As Denecke reads this concern, “Confucius’s authoring of the Spring and Autumn Annals was an act of apprehensive fear (ju 懼), his way of coping with a declining age. Mencius emphasizes that the urgency of the tasks justified Confucius’s infringement on royal prerogatives when writing the Annals” (161).  But the primary reason to write this way about Mencius, for Denecke, seems more instrumental:

Sima Qian claimed that Mencius actually did write Mencius, and although there is no way to ascertain this, it fits nicely with the fact that Mencius seems to care a lot about authorship and is eager to portray Confucius not so much as a speaking but as a writing master. (158)

Taking in the forest, the instrumentally productive results of writing as if there were single, consciously rhetorical authorship of the Masters Texts may also be seen as underwriting the larger, self-professed “anachronism” of Denecke’s approach. So, the success of her intepretations depends on the results.

. . .

Finally, there is the question of the ultimate result in Denecke’s project, which has to do with “A Future for Masters Literature and Chinese Philosophy,” as the epilogue is ambitiously titled. Whether there are changes in that future is somewhat unclear attached to Denecke’s task, except that it should be one that takes the role of “Masters” in the Masters Texts, and the variety of pedagogical representations seriously. Given the current variety of approaches toward Masters Texts taken among disciplines Denecke avoids any hint of taking sides, but maneuvers to rise above some of the disagreements:

The current asymmetries…among comparative enterprises are their widely diverging methodological or institutional affiliations are just becoming clearer. One might even claim that the meta-comparison of divergent comparative approaches in various humanistic and social science disciplines will be one of the most important, if not the most important, fostering ground for the reshaping and transformation of the humanities in the twenty-first century. (344)

There is something inherently unsatisfying about such a conclusion if one is invested – personally, professionally, religiously, or philosophically – in one of the “divergent comparative approaches.” The same, however, may be said about Zhuangzi’s approach to the views of his day, so perhaps Denecke chooses good company in this.

2 replies on “Review of Denecke”

  1. Hi Manyul,

    I’ve been reading Denecke’s book off and on for the past month or so. So far, I quite like her approach. I welcome a variety of lenses to view these texts, and hers – viewing the texts as literature – is one I have seen very little of. On page 28 she writes, “This book propses a new disciplinary ‘translation’ for the texts that have come to be called “Early Chinese Philosophy.’ It coins the term ‘Masters Literature’ for this corpus, uncovers the distinctive features of this genre, and traces how arguments are shaped by narrative formates and rhetorical strategies developed in the early stages of its unfolding, from Confucius to Hanfeizi.”

    The beginning of the book was very informative regarding the history of “Chinese Philosophy.” She seems to be very well-read, especially in European authors. Page 18 (which I was going to quote, but am not), contains some good points regarding Western Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy and the neglected parts of the ancient masters’ texts.

    I’ve read the section on the Lunyu, which was good, skipped over the sections on Mengzi and Xunzi (for now) and on to that of Laozi, which I am really enjoying.

    You write, “There is something inherently unsatisfying about such a conclusion if one is invested – personally, professionally, religiously, or philosophically – in one of the “divergent comparative approaches.”
    — I suppose this could be true. I can only speak for myself, and I am not invested in any of the above professionally, but I see these different lenses as mutually-supporting. A philosopher’s understanding, for example, is enhanced by knowing more about the political history, the religious views, the rhetorical strategies used, etc.

    • Hello Scott. Yes, I should say that I really enjoyed reading the book, too — despite having to do it as a reviewer. Perhaps the end of my review doesn’t express that. What I meant by the “inherently unsatisfying” conclusion is that I half thought Denecke might come to less of a “meta” conclusion, and say something about what we might learn from continuing to regard the “Masters Literature” as philosophy. But she’s not a philosopher by training or scholarly temperament, so speaking for myself, I was slightly disappointed by her development, or meta-development, of her vision of “a future” for the field. I agree entirely that the more we understand the rhetorical strategies that might be present in the texts, the better our philosophical accounts are likely to be.

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