On Research: How Chinese Should Chinese Philosophy Be?

I’d like to do a little informal poll on two questions relating to research and publication on Chinese philosophy. I welcome your responses.

First, what do you think of scholars who can’t read primary sources publishing on Chinese philosophy? Is being able to read original sources important? I should perhaps clarify that what I mean are not the “translations” one sometimes finds (e.g., of the Laozi) by people who don’t read classical Chinese, but scholarly articles or books.

The second question concerns use of secondary literature. My own observation is that Western scholars, even those who read Chinese, often don’t refer to Chinese secondary literature. By “secondary literature” I mean specifically 20th and 21st century academic work, not traditional commentaries. I’m curious why this is and what other people in the field think about it. Is it a problem? Or is it instead a sign of the development of the field, that we have our own English-language debates just as specialists in ethics might have debates about Kant that don’t refer to the German literature at all?

11 replies on “On Research: How Chinese Should Chinese Philosophy Be?”

  1. To your first question, regarding scholars who can’t really read Chinese philosophy in the original:

    In general I think papers should simply be evaluated on the merits. And while in one sense of the phrase it’s a deep field, in another not so much; so we need all the help we can get.

    True, any reader may be expected to reasonably assume that in writing such a piece one is claiming to have read the things one is writing about, and a fortiori to be able to read them. But I think an author isn’t doing anything censurable so long as she says up front in the paper that she can’t really read the texts.

    Another issue is whether such people, the ones famous for work on Chinese philosophy, ought to warn potential applicants to their graduate program who are very interested in Chinese philosophy. Choosing to apply to program X means not even applying to apply to program Y. Once you’ve enrolled you’re kind of stuck, and may end up “voluntarily” choosing to pursue Chinese philosophy with that professor. When should people be told?

    • I think there’s a difference between doing Chinese philosophy as a sidelight and a mainlight. If you’re, say, an ethicist, there’s nothing wrong with comparing Confucianism, Mohism, and Daoism without being able to read the original text. You might even advance a somewhat novel interpretation of one fine point or another as you do it. But that’s pretty different from it being your main research interest, putting “Chinese philosophy” as your AOS, and identifying yourself as a “Chinese philosopher.” I think the rules here aren’t necessarily that different from Kant or Plato. You can do a lot of great work on Kant and Plato without reading the German or Greek, but when it comes it write your business card, it would be odd to list those things if you can’t read it for yourself.

  2. I agree Carl. I think of Joel Kupperman, who I don’t believe can read Chinese but has done some good work in the field.
    As for secondary literature in Chinese, I do see reference to it, but perhaps not as much as one would think.

  3. These are very good questions.

    Regarding #1, of course, being able to read source material in the original language is important. I don’t imagine a graduate student being allowed to write a dissertation on Chinese philosophy without being able to read the texts in the original language. The same would go for any subspecialty in philosophy so far as I know. However, I don’t think this precludes other philosophers from dipping into the tradition, just as scholars often dip into the Greeks without reading Greek or Kant without reading German, or certain Modern philosophers without reading Latin.

    To take it a step further, as scholars who are in the best position to offer guidance, we should think about how to facilitate non-sinophone philosophers who wish to do more with the Chinese tradition.

    Regarding #2, there are many ways to approach this issue. One is that the issues we cover in English language scholarship are often quite different from those of our Chinese colleagues. From what I have seen (in my limited purview), and from speaking about just this topic with a Chinese colleague, it seems that English language philosophical scholarship is more interested in the pre-Qin period, whereas Chinese language philosophical scholarship is more interested in Song and later. What’s more, when it comes to exploiting Chinese language resources for philosophical work, I think the divide is even larger, with anglophone philosophers generally concerned with different issues than sinophone philosophers.

    Another way to approach it is methodological, namely that the Chinese scholars doing the really intense work on Chinese texts are often more interested in linguistic work than philosophical work. But this is actually an argument for reading more of the secondary work in Chinese. There is, for instance, a raft of recent literature on the Guodian and Shanghai Museum texts. Anyone doing ancient Chinese philosophy in English should be reading it.

    Another approach is cost-benefit analysis. Although I can read Chinese more or less fluently, it still takes more effort to skim or read an article or a book in Chinese than in English. Therefore, when doing secondary research, I have to consider how much time I have to spend perusing Chinese-language secondary literature. I think that this situation will improve only when we (anglophones) have more graduate programs training philosophers in Chinese philosophy. When the professor and the students both read fluently and are both able to easily access Chinese secondary literature, only then will it start to be more widely used.

    Another approach is access. It has become much easier to access articles in Chinese thanks to electronic databases. One problem, however, is that I wasn’t trained in a Philosophy Department in China, so I don’t have a great familiarity with the best journals or authors (although that situation is slowly improving), which can act as a (admittedly flawed) heuristic in locating high quality research. For books, although I live just a mile away from one of the best collections of Chinese language scholarship in the U.S., it is still very short on recent monographs in Chinese philosophy (I should, perhaps, look into this a little more closely, though).

    I would be interested to know how much Chinese-language secondary literature is used by folks coming out of English language Philosophy programs in the Far East, like NSU and HKU. I would also be interested in knowing what kind of cross-over there is in Chinese language philosophy programs at, for instance, NTU, Beida, and Qingda (both). From what I know, there is a split even in China among those who specialize in Western philosophy and those who specialize in Chinese, and that these two do not mix well. For those who work in or have trained in a Chinese-language Philosophy program and specialize in Chinese Philosophy, is there a similar issue–a lack of reference to English language secondary research?

    • Hi Brian,

      You bring up some good questions and I’ll address a few of them from my own experience, separated into distinct points for convenience. Bear in mind that these are anecdotal observations mainly based on my recent experience in Taiwan and may not be representative.

      1. Sinophone philosophy is more interested in Song and later. Not necessarily true, I don’t think. There are people doing all kinds and periods of Chinese philosophy. What I would say is that within Ruism, they see more continuity than Anglophone scholars usually do. For example, one piece I’ve been working with lately says Mengzi’s benxin 本心 is the same as Wang Yangming’s liangzhi 良知, where an Anglophone scholar would probably emphasize the differences more.

      2. Chinese scholars do more textual and linguistic work. They certainly do, but not necessarily in philosophy departments. The people I think of doing the real linguistic work, such as Li Ling and Qiu Xigui, are not in philosophy departments. There certainly are people doing textual studies, but I’m not sure if it’s that much different from what e.g., specialists in modern philosophy often do. I would agree that the philosophical issues Chinese scholars are interested in are often different than what Anglophone scholars are interested in.

      3. The issue of time. I’m with you there. It definitely takes more time to read and more time to find the material. It’s still possible to keep up with pretty much everything in English on, say, pre-Qin philosophy because there just aren’t that many journals. Typing “Kongzi” into a Chinese database is hopeless. Then identifying what is worthwhile is difficult, because much of what gets published in Chinese is very derivative. It’s a real problem.

      4. There is a definite split between Chinese and Western philosophy in Asian departments, but there are some indications it’s lessening. I know three philosophers in Taiwan who were all analytically trained in the US and work mainly on analytic philosophy who have recently written on Chinese philosophy (all on Zhuangzi–I’m not sure if that’s significant). I would say the people doing Chinese philosophy in Taiwan, at least at the top, refer to English-language scholarship quite a bit. Just a random sampling from a book at hand includes references to Rawls, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, Fingarette, de Bary, and MacIntyre. They do have a big advantage. There’s a market for Chinese translations of English academic books and so it’s fairly easy to get translations of significant books. Not just in Western philosophy, but English-language Chinese philosophy as well. Even when they cite the English version, it’s very likely that they read a Chinese translation first. Clearly, that is not the case for us.

    • As a non-expert in China studies (but voracious reader in Chinese history and thought), I appreciate the inclusive responses to David’s question. A more general formulation of the question is whether scholars who write on certain topics have the competence they need to write intelligently and informatively about them. In my reading, I have found that many scholars who write about Chinese philosophy also take themselves to be writing about political ethics. But sometimes it’s not clear they have sufficient background in fields essential for discussing political ethics, such as public management, political strategy, and institutional analysis. Of course, everything depends on the point of scholarly inquiry. If the aim is to analyze a specific ancient text and extract coherent meaning from it, reading the original text is probably crucial. If the aim is rather to understand how someone could live as a Confucian scholar-official and manage the exigencies of governance, the skill set one needs may be quite different. We all have strengths and deficiencies–which is a good reason for promoting collaborative work. — Ken Winston, Harvard Kennedy School

  4. Great questions David!

    Here’s another relevant consideration, given voice by Hans Van Ess: “The history of Chinese thought is more a history of ideologies–even in most recent times–than we might sometimes realize. This perception should lead us to a much more careful use of Chinese scientific secondary literature, even where authorities such as Feng Youlan or Tang Yong are involved. There is always a possibility that political arguments disguise themselves in scientific clothes” (“The Old Text/New Text Controversy”, p. 170).

    I think there’s something to this. Although less prevalent today than it was in Feng’s time, I still see this in some Chinese scholarship. Aims can sometimes be different, and some Chinese scholarship can be more concerned with advancing Chinese political positions which are of no concern whatsoever to western scholars like myself. Generally these days the positions are not internal, but rather international. That is, I see some Chinese scholarship very much aimed at using the classical sources to argue that Chinese intellectual culture stands up to or is superior to western intellectual culture. While such scholarship might be interesting in its own right, it is of limited use given the aims of most of us as western scholars. And as Van Ess claimed, it is not always easy to see (especially outside of the political and cultural context, being not privy to local political concerns) when a given argument is intended to advance a political position. This is the reason that I sometimes read, but am careful about relying on, Chinese secondary material. I find that our aims are often very different. For one, I NEVER have contemporary China, “Chinese culture” or the Chinese nation in mind when I work on ancient Chinese philosophy, any more than I have the nation of Greece in mind when I think about Aristotle. A non-negligible amount of Chinese scholarship I’ve read has national aims, whereas my own aims are purely philosophical. This is not to say that the national/political projects some Chinese scholars engage in is not interesting or useful, but it is not my project. If I were better able to discern the aims of any given Chinese secondary work (see the Van Ess quote above), I would feel much less hesitant to rely on Chinese secondary sources. But I think to have this ability, one would have to have much more local knowledge of the Chinese political and cultural situation(s) than most of us (western scholars of ancient Chinese thought) have. And absent inhabiting that culture, the only way to gain such knowledge is to engage in rigorous study of contemporary Chinese thought.

    • That’s a great point, Alexus. It’s certainly something to be cautious about, but I don’t think it’s as big a problem as you (and van Ess) suggest. For one thing, English scholarship is not immune from being ideologically driven, which maybe we’re better equipped to spot, but it’s not as if it’s an entirely new phenomenon one only has to deal with in Chinese scholarship. And maybe I’m missing the subtler manifestations, but I think it’s often quite obvious when something is motivated by nationalism or other ideology and thus easy to ignore. For example, connecting with the other ongoing thread on Jiang Qing, Jiang at one point claimed Kongzi composed the Gongyang zhuan. That strikes me as pretty obviously a dubious historical claim. But it could be that I miss some of the less egregious cases.

      Also, I think the problem can be mitigated by being careful about one’s sources. It seems to me less of a problem to me in HK and Taiwanese scholarship, and getting some familiarity with reputable publishers and journals in China can help, too. It takes some work, but so does getting familiar with reliable sources for English scholarship. I do agree that standards are generally higher for English journals, so one needs to be more critical with Chinese journals.

      Finally, one always has to assess the arguments and evidence carefully. That an interpretation is ideologically motivated doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Maybe the author has a good point anyway. I’ll admit that when I see references to “the 5000 years of Chinese history” my eyes glaze over, but not everyone’s like that.

  5. Hoyt Tillman (who you have mentioned recently here: http://warpweftandway.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/new-book-published/) was one of my undergraduate professors. He heavily stressed the importance of Chinese linguistic competence when discussing Chinese philosophers, and he did so by outlining a dispute between Herbert Fingarette and Benjamin Schwartz (one of Tillman’s professors at Harvard). The inside story to this dispute was that Schwartz was very much peeved by positions that Fingarette’s “The Secular as Sacred” presented, and he claimed that Fingarette’s errors came from his inability to read Chinese fluently and his lack of Sinological training, which distanced him from the source material. If you read “The World of Thought in Ancient China,” Schwartz is taking repeated shots at Fingarette’s misunderstanding of ancient Confucian texts, and he’s attributing a lot of those errors to very particular misunderstandings of the significance of terms and relationships among them as they were used in the literature of the age.

    A second defense that I would raise is a strictly practical one that concerns myself (an aspiring graduate researcher) and most professors of the topic whom I’ve met. The professors are all fluent in Chinese. They are all conversant in the source material. I don’t know whether they read contemporary commentaries, but I suspect that they know the newest stuff that is in their specialization. Also, their departments’ graduate admissions require fluency in Mandarin.

    I am working on my Mandarin here in Taipei to meet that language criterion, and I find that greater access to source material, even through ancient-to-modern Chinese translations (百話) allows me to understand the discourse among pre-Qin thinkers more clearly and more directly than being told by another expert in English does. The English-language views are helpful, but I feel that I won’t be maximally competent to judge their merits without directly citing the source material and more Chinese-language views of the material.

    • I found this thread really interesting and timely, but the general consensus that seems to have emerged basically says everything I would want to say. I totally agree: if you are going to “do” Chinese philosophy as a main thing, you darn well better to be able to read it in the original. In principle I have no problem with people dipping into it, but I don’t like it when they have read one scholar’s work from 20 years ago and then try to push their own perspective really hard without realizing what else is out there. Then I sometimes worry that this is what *we* look like to Chinese scholars when we don’t read enough Chinese secondary stuff. Truly truly it is impossible to read it all and still do one’s own writing. If anyone has good tips on sorting the wheat from the chaff I’m all ears. I go with reading state of the field type reviews first, and then dipping into anything that seems interesting… but even that is exhausting. Mainly though Josh: are you at Taida? or Shida? I am at ICLP now and would love to meet you and hear more about your interests (unless I have already and I am just not identifying you with your Chinese name–if so, sorry!). Let’s get coffee and talk philosophy (esther.s.klein@gmail.com) sometime?

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