A recent article in T’oung Pao 97 (pp. 160-201) might be of interest to many readers of the blog. In “Recent Monographs on Confucius and Early Confucianism,” Oliver Weingarten of SOAS considers the following books:
- Il confucianesimo: i fondamenti e i testi. By Maurizio Scarpari. Turin: Einaudi, 2010. vi + 300 pp.
- Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics. By Annping Chin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. xiv + 268 pp.
- Confucius. By Rémi Mathieu. Sagesses éternelles. Paris: Entrelacs, 2006. 271 pp.
- Lives of Confucius. By Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson. New York: Doubleday, 2010. 304 pp.
- Sang jia gou: wo du Lunyu. By Li Ling. Revised edition. Two volumes. Taiyuan: Shanxi renmin chubanshe, 2007. 2 + 11 + 390 + 120 pp.
- Qu sheng nai de zhen Kongzi: Lunyu zongheng du. By Li Ling. Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 2008. 13 + 7 + 302 pp.
- Confucius. Spiritualités vivantes, vol. 198. By Jean Levi. Paris: Albin Michel, 2003. 322 pp.
The essay begins:
In recent years, Confucian teachings have been regaining ground in Mainland China both as the subject of academic discourse and as an expression of Chinese cultural identity. At the same time, manuscript finds have brought to light hitherto unknown source materials pertinent to the study of early Confucianism. These archaeological discoveries have also stimulated methodological reflections on the nature, composition, and transmission of ancient texts more generally. This in itself would provide sufficient reason to revisit the extant texts of early Confucianism with a view of approaching them from new perspectives. Additionally, about a decade ago E. Bruce and A. Taeko Brooks published a controversial monograph that offered a new historical and philological analysis of the Lunyu and proposed a rearrangement of the text according to a novel chronological stratification established by the authors. Several scholars have voiced scepticism about the Brookses’ claims. However, regardless of whether or not one agrees with their conclusions, their indefatigable insistence on close philological scrutiny has done students of the Lunyu an enormous service, and they have raised the stakes in the field. Whoever writes about the Lunyu or the historical Confucius (trad. 551-479 BCE) will be measured, if not against the results of their work, then at least against their critical spirit and insistence on methodological rigor.
Several recent publications on Confucius, the Lunyu, and early Confucianism now offer a welcome occasion to probe into the state of the field, contemplate its methodologies, and investigate whether the philological challenge laid down by the Brookses has been taken up. The issues discussed and illustrated by the publications under review also provide a useful basis for reflection on possible directions for future research. The focus of this review will mainly be on questions of textual interpretation, methodology, and the critical evaluation of sources rather than on philosophical matters….
About two-thirds of the essay consists in balanced assessments of each of the books—which range across an impressive spectrum—and then the final third suggests “fruitful areas for future research,” drawing both on issues raised in some of the books, and on “certain problems that have so far failed to attract attention” (p. 191). In keeping with his methodological, textualist emphasis, Weingarten discusses opportunities that may come from more thorough investigation of the intertextuality among Lunyu and other texts, more attention to issues of dating and their possible consequences, increased attention to commentarial traditions (and their implicit effect on contemporary interpreters), and so on. One of his conclusions concerns the comparative lack of “critical scholarship”:
One can only speculate why critical scholarship that calls fundamental assumptions into question remains scarce. The reluctance to engage in philological iconoclasm may well be due to cultural factors, institutional constraints, and academic fashions that fail to encourage the pursuit of detailed textual analysis to an exacting standard as a worthwhile intellectual endeavor. One may also wonder whether Confucius’s role as a uniquely insightful philosopher, or even a “sage,” stands in the way of more critical approaches. In this respect, Li Ling’s irreverent interventions could have a liberating effect on Mainland Chinese discourse, although it remains significant that he too engages in a quest to recover Confucius’s “true image” (zhenxiang). His portrayal may differ from the ones favored by his opponents in academia and the media, but like these he presents himself as a champion of the true Confucius and adversary of all those who peddle “fake” images of the Master. (pp. 199-200)
In addition, Weingarten reflects on the implications for philosophy of a Confucius subject to plualist, critical, “deflationist” scholarship:
A fundamental issue seldom raised in Confucius studies is why its object deserves the attention of intellectual historians and philosophers other than because of the historical influence of the Confucius figure. His significance as a thinker is often accepted as a given and rarely justified in explicit terms, but on reflection it appears far from evident. One may find inspiration for philosophical speculation in the Lunyu, though hardly any clear philosophical arguments based on a discernible system of thought. But if one cannot with any confidence attribute a specific corpus of ideas to Confucius, who is likely to forever remain an elusive figure, then why would he be considered significant at all except as an historically influential cultural symbol? This deflationist view of the historical Confucius need not undermine the meaningfulness of the Lunyu as a source of intellectual or spiritual inspiration. It may still serve as such, but it would then rather be for the intrinsic interest of its ideas and not because its contents are associated with one particular individual, or cultural icon.