Category Archives: Book Reviews

Reviews of recently published academic books in China
(edited by Guillaume Dutournier and Max J. Fölster)

[Review] 王锐:《革命儒生:章太炎传》 (Wang Rui: The Revolutionary Confucian Scholar. A Biography of Zhang Taiyan)

Wang Rui 王锐, Geming rusheng: Zhang Taiyan zhuan 革命儒生:章太炎传 (The Revolutionary Confucian Scholar. A Biography of Zhang Taiyan), Guangxi shifan daxue chubanshe, 2022. ISBN 9787559855367; 344 pages; 88 RMB.

Reviewed by Fabian Hiller (PhD candidate @ University of Tübingen)

Wang Rui’s new biography of Zhang Taiyan, entitled The Revolutionary Confucian Scholar, is part of a wave of new research on Zhang Taiyan in China sparked by the publication of the revised version of the Zhang Taiyan nianpu changbian  章太炎年谱长编 (Nianpu biography of Zhang Taiyan) and the new edition of Zhang Taiyan quanji 章太炎全集 (The complete works of Zhang Taiyan).[1] While the book is structured chronologically and written in the easy-to-follow style of a history textbook, the author supplements the biographical narrative with abundant information from different primary and secondary sources. Wang takes the approach of a historian when looking at Zhang Taiyan, differentiating this work from many recent more philosophical approaches, a trend that has been especially prominent among Western scholars.[2]

Zhang Taiyan has always been a highly controversial and complex figure within the tapestry of early modern Chinese history, his identity adorned with various attributions. In crafting this book, Wang strategically focuses on two seemingly contradictory yet interwoven dimensions of Zhang’s persona – that of a revolutionary and a Confucian scholar (hence the book’s title). This dual focus not only broadens the understanding of Zhang Taiyan but also underscores the intricate interplay between these seemingly divergent facets of his life. Wang’s narrative doesn’t limit itself to a detached exploration of Zhang’s individuality; instead, it serves as a captivating lens through which the author recounts the broader context of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China.

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[Review] 賈麗英:《出土簡牘與秦漢社會身份秩序研究》(Jia Liying: Unearthed Manuscripts and the Study of the Order of Social Identities during the Qin and Han Dynasties)

Jia Liying 賈麗英. Chutu jiandu yu Qin Han shehui shenfen zhixu yanjiu 出土簡牘與秦漢社會身份秩序研究 (Unearthed Manuscripts and the Study of the Order of Social Identities during the Qin and Han Dynasties). Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 2023. ISBN: 978-7-5227-1694-7, xiii+447 pages, 218 RMB.

Chun Fung Tong 唐俊峰 (Heidelberg University)

Since the seminal work by Nishijima Sadao 西嶋定生 in the early 1960s, the nature, institutional design, and social implications of rank (jue 爵) during the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE–220 CE) continue to attract scholarly attention. Using unearthed legal and administrative materials, recent research has substantially expanded, revisited, or even refuted Nishijima’s model. In light of the newest works of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean scholars, Jia Liying’s book offers a timely synthesis of this long-standing academic debate.

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[Review] 王永平:《信仰與習俗—社會文化史視野下的唐代道教》(Wang Yongping: Beliefs and Customs. Tang Dynasty Daoism from the Perspective of Socio-Cultural History)

Wang Yongping 王永平, Xinyang yu xisu: shehui wenhua shi shiye xia de Tang dai daojiao 信仰與習俗—社會文化史視野下的唐代道教 (Beliefs and Customs: Tang Dynasty Daoism from the Perspective of Socio-Cultural History), Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2023. ISBN 9787522811406, 725 pages, 128.80 RMB.

Reviewed by Franciscus Verellen (EFEO)

Wang Yongping is a Professor of History at the Capital Normal University in Beijing and a leading scholar of Daoism under the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Following in the wake of his earlier books on Tang entertainments (1995), the cultural history of the Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties period (2000), and Daoism in Tang society (2002), the present volume addresses four related subjects: (1) Daoism and the Tang social order, with special reference to the place of women; (2) the trajectories of selected Daoist priests and their networks of social relationships; (3) Daoism in daily life under the Tang, notably the Daoist imprint on seasonal festivals, folk customs, and popular practices; and (4) the interaction and different degrees of integration between the Three Teachings (Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism). In ten chapters, framed by an introduction and an afterword, Wang thus explores the broad impact of Daoism on the everyday life of Tang society.

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[Review] 张翔:《大同立教——康有为政教思想研究》(Zhang Xiang: Establishment of Confucianism on Datong: A Study of Kang Youwei’s Political and Religious Philosophy)

Zhang Xiang 张翔, Datong lijiao: Kang Youwei zhengzhi sixiang yanjiu 大同立教——康有为政教思想研究 (Establishment of Confucianism on Datong: A Study of Kang Youwei’s Political and Religious Philosophy), Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2023. ISBN 9787520185844, 356 pages, 128 RMB.

Reviewed by Federico Brusadelli (University of Naples “L’Orientale”)

Since the beginning of the 21st century, studies on Kang Youwei (1858–1927) have experienced a steady and consistent surge, especially in the context of reassessing the late Qing period beyond the traditional interpretation of the “Western shock” as the predominant (if not the only) impulse to the radical transformation of China at the dawn of the 20th century. Over the last decades, more careful observation of the developments from the Jiaqing 嘉庆 period (1796–1820) onward has demonstrated the multiplicity of “intellectual paths” that Chinese élites were exploring well before the acceleration imposed by the forced penetration of Euro-Atlantic concepts (and their Japanese re-elaborations). These observations align with a more nuanced and detailed approach to the evolution of Chinese concepts, as seen in the light of Begriffsgeschichte[1]. In this framework, Kang Youwei appears as a towering figure, not just for his leadership in the failed attempt at reforming the Empire in 1898, but more broadly as one of the most influential and stimulating interpreters of the conceptual restructuring of his time. Hailed as a bold and progressive reformer by his supporters, only to be labeled as a nostalgic conservative after the Xinhai revolution (1911) and the farce of the Zhang Xun 张勋 Restoration he supported in 1917, Kang remained after his death an ambiguous and contradictory figure, embodying all the ambiguities and tensions of the tumultuous transition between Empire and Nation. Although Mao Zedong 毛泽东 himself appreciated Kang’s utopian thrust and a young Li Zehou 李泽厚 tried to combine the materialist and progressive philosophical foundation of the philosopher’s “bourgeois reformism” with Marxism in the mid-1950s,[2] Communist scholarship on Kang remained for more than three decades anchored in an orthodox interpretation of the late Qing period as the “last stage of feudal capitalism,” which deprived Kang of any concrete viability.

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[Review] 张西平:《中国和欧洲早期思想交流史》(Zhang Xiping: History of the Intellectual Exchange between China and Europe in the Early Modern Period)

Zhang Xiping 张西平, Zhongguo he Ouzhou zaoqi sixiang jiaoliushi 中国和欧洲早期思想交流史 (History of the Intellectual Exchange between China and Europe in the Early Modern Period), Beijing: Beijing Daxue Chubanshe 北京大学出版社, 2021. ISBN: 978-7-301-32228-4, 531 pages, 138 RMB.

Reviewed by Zhou Yuping 周宇平 (Albert-Ludwig University of Freiburg)

This monograph by Zhang Xiping, distinguished professor at Beijing Language and Culture University (北京语言大学) and Beijing Foreign Studies University (北京外国语大学), focuses on the intellectual exchange in philosophical and religious fields between China and Europe. This includes classical and medieval philosophies and Christianity in Europe and Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism in China. First published in 2001 and republished in 2010 and 2021, the 2021 edition of the book belongs to the book series Ruxue yu Ouzhou wenming yanjiu 儒学与欧洲文明研究 (Studies on Confucianism and European Civilization). According to Zhang, the 2021 edition inherited the structure of the previous editions but with a few amendments to details, which readers can notice from his citation of more recent publications (p. 530).[1]

The book covers a period spanning 300 years from 1500 to 1800 and consists of a total of 16 chapters divided into two sections. The first section deals with the transfer of European ideas to China, and the second examines the dissemination of Chinese thought and culture in Europe. Zhang’s primary sources in his study are the writings of Catholic missionaries in China during the Ming- and Qing-period. Some of these writings are translations and annotations on the works of well-known European and Chinese thinkers. Among the missionaries, the Jesuits and their publications are the focus of this research.

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[Review] 魏善玲《國民政府對海外留學生的救助》(Wei Shanling: The Guomindang Government’s Aid to Overseas Chinese Students, 1937–1946)

Wei Shanling 魏善玲, Guomin zhengfu dui haiwai liuxuesheng de jiuzhu 國民政府對海外留學生的救助(1937—1946) [The Guomindang Government’s Aid to Overseas Chinese Students (1937–1946)], Nanjing: Nanjing daxue chubanshe 南京大學出版社, 2022. ISBN 9787305250149, 385 pages, 88 RMB.

Reviewed by Christina Philips

Wei Shanling’s book on the Guomindang Government’s Aid to Chinese Overseas Students is an in-depth analysis of the discourse between various government institutions on the disbursement of financial aid for living expenses and return tickets to struggling overseas Chinese students during the Second Sino-Japanese War and its aftermath until 1946. The study is a result of Wei’s doctoral research at Nanjing University and was published in the “Universities and Contemporary China” (Daxue yu xiandai Zhongguo 大學與現代中國) series, edited by her supervisor Zhu Qingbao 朱慶葆, who also contributed a preface on the role of universities in the making of modern China.

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[Review] 常建华《清前期国家治理与民生政策》(Chang Jianhua: Policies on Governance and People’s Livelihood in the Early Qing Period)

Chang Jianhua 常建华, Qing qianqi guojia zhili yu minsheng zhengce 清前期国家治理与民生政策 (Policies on Governance and People’s Livelihood in the Early Qing Period), Beijing: Zhonghua shuju 中华书局, 2021. ISBN 9787101153910, 535 pages, 88 RMB.

Reviewed by Royston Lin (Albert-Ludwig University of Freiburg)

Chang Jianhua’s Policies on Governance and People’s Livelihood in the Early Qing Period represents a growing interest and trend among Chinese scholars in revisiting Qing (1644–1911) history in recent years. It includes eighteen essays, all of which were previously published in various Chinese academic journals between 2008 and 2020, by the author on topics ranging from the political consolidation of the Qing to the dynasty’s economic policies. The compilation is one of eleven volumes from the fourth edition of the ‘Collected Papers of Nankai Historians’ (南开史学家论丛).

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[Review] 胡星亮《中国现代戏剧思潮 —— 戏剧现代化与社会现代化》(Hu Xingliang: Trends of Thought in Modern Chinese Theater – The Modernization of Theater and the Modernization of Society)

Hu Xingliang 胡星亮: Zhongguo xiandai xiju sichaoXiju xiandaihua yu shehui xiandaihua 中国现代戏剧思潮 —— 戏剧现代化与社会现代化 (Trends of Thought in Modern Chinese Theater – The Modernization of Theater and the Modernization of Society), Beijing shifan daxue chubanshe 北京师范大学出版社, 2022. ISBN 978-7-303-27803-9; 344 pages; 79 RMB.

Reviewed by Stefan Christ (FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg)

I am interested in the relationship between theater and society, and so I was excited to read the new book by Hu Xingliang, Trends of Thought in Modern Chinese Theater – The Modernization of Theater and the Modernization of Society (hereafter Trends of Thought). However, I soon realized that it is not a new book at all, but a slightly revised version of Ershi shiji Zhongguo xiju sichao 二十世纪中国戏剧思潮 (Trends of Thought in Chinese Theater in the Twentieth Century), published in 1995 by Jiangsu wenyi chubanshe. Nevertheless, Hu Xingliang is such an important figure in modern Chinese theater studies that his book still deserves a critical review. As a matter of fact, Trends of Thought has been republished along with three other books by Hu to celebrate his scholarly accomplishments and the results of various large research projects conducted over the last several decades.[1]

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[Review] 陳松長《馬王堆帛書研究》 (Chen Songchang: Studies on the Mawangdui Silk Manuscripts)

Chen Songchang 陳松長, Mawangdui boshu yanjiu 馬王堆帛書研究 (Studies on the Mawangdui Silk Manuscripts), Beijing 北京: Shangwu yinshuguan 商務印書館 2021. ISBN 9787100196345; 6, 440 pages; 198 RMB.

Reviewed by Michael Friedrich (Universität Hamburg)

Almost fifty years ago, tomb 3 of the early Han Mawangdui 馬王堆 site (hereafter MWD) in Changsha was excavated in December 1973 and could be dated to 168 BCE. The archaeologists unearthed a wealth of artefacts similar to those found in tomb MWD 1 which had already been excavated in 1972. However, a lacquered chest containing two bamboo manuscripts and more than two dozen silk manuscripts had a much longer-lasting impact on the study of ancient China than the mummy of the tomb owner found in MWD 1.[1]

Due to the political struggles of the time, so it is said, the excavation campaign and the treatment of the artefacts immediately following it were a far cry from international standards and caused, in addition to a lack of documentation, further damage.[2] All silk artefacts from the site, including the two paintings hanging on the eastern and western walls of the coffin chamber and the T-shaped banners from MWD 1 and MWD 3 were transferred to the Palace Museum in Beijing, because the Hunan Provincial Museum 湖南省博物館 (officially now Hunan Museum) did not have any previous experience with this type of artefacts. The Palace Museum treated the most spectacular ones first, among them the two scrolls containing the Laozi 老子 text. After conservation and mounting on paper, the fragments of the artefacts were taken back by conservators of the Hunan Provincial Museum.[3]

The history of research on the MWD written artefacts has yet to be written, a first and apparently incomplete overview is provided in the latest edition of the manuscripts’ contents from 2014.[4] According to this summary, three main stages may be discerned:

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[Review] 刘继刚《甲骨文所见殷商灾害研究》(Liu Jigang: A Study of Disasters during the Yin Shang Dynasty as seen in Oracle Bone Inscriptions)

Liu Jigang 刘继刚, Jiaguwen suo jian Yin Shang zaihai yanjiu 甲骨文所见殷商灾害研究 (A Study of Disasters during the Yin Shang Dynasty as seen in Oracle Bone Inscriptions), Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe 科学出版社, 2022. ISBN 9787030722331; X, 207 pages, 108 RMB.

Reviewed by Thomas Crone (FAU Erlangen-Nürnburg)

This book examines the representation of disasters in oracle bone inscriptions from the late Shang dynasty (ca. 13th century–11th century BCE). Disasters are a ubiquitous topic in oracle bone inscriptions, as almost every inscription is connected in one way or another with an attempt to prevent or investigate ominous and harmful events of various magnitudes. However, to date, no comparable monograph has attempted to explore the matter to its fullest extent or for its own sake.[1] Moreover, to broaden the horizon of the textual and material evidence under discussion, Liu Jigang supplements his analysis of the oracle bone inscriptions with excursions into traditional literature and published reports on archaeological excavations. This makes the monograph a welcome and much-needed piece of research, and the author has worked extensively on the subject of catastrophes in early Chinese literature.[2]

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[Review] 杨海英《从〈唐将书帖〉看明清时代的南兵北将》 (Yang Haiying: Southern Soldiers and Northern Generals during the Transitional Period of Ming & Qing. From the Perspective of Letters from Chinese Servicemen during Campaign in Korea)

Yang Haiying 杨海英, Cong “Tang jiang shu tie” kan Ming-Qing shidai de nanbing beijiang 从《唐将书帖》看明清时代的南兵北将 (Southern Soldiers and Northern Generals during the Transitional Period of Ming & Qing: From the Perspective of Letters from Chinese Servicemen during Campaign in Korea), Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe 中国社会科学出版社, 2022. ISBN 978-7-5203-8941-9, 512 pages, 189 RMB.

Reviewed by Barend Noordam (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

In 1592 the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598), who had only recently politically unified a Japan ravaged by more than a century of civil war, decided to invade Korea, which at that time was ruled by the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1897). The Koreans were not prepared to resist the Japanese onslaught, the largest amphibious landing in world history up to that point. Around 150,000 Japanese soldiers participated in the operation, with another 140,000 joining in a second landing in 1597.

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[Review] 翁有为《近代中国之变轴:军阀话语建构、省制变革与国家》(Weng Youwei: The Axis of Change in Modern China: The Construction of the Discourse on Warlordism, the Reform of the Provincial System, and the State)

Weng Youwei 翁有为, Jindai Zhongguo zhi bianzhou: Junfa huayu jiangou, shengzhi biange yu guojia 近代中国之变轴:军阀话语建构、省制变革与国家 (The Axis of Change in Modern China: The Construction of the Discourse on Warlordism, the Reform of the Provincial System, and the State). Beijing: Renmin chubanshe 人民出版社, 2021. ISBN 978-7-01-022952-2; 2, 19, 338 pages, 86.00 RMB.

Reviewed by Clemens Büttner (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt)

Weng Youwei’s The Axis of Change in Modern China is a perplexing book with an elusive message, although the book is not without merit. Its self-declared goal is to uncover the “inherent logic of historical development” (历史发展的自身逻辑, 〈代前言〉, p. 1) that supposedly informed China’s modern history from the second half of the 19th century to the (from the author’s perspective) inevitable victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949. Weng pursues this goal by analyzing “three central issues” (三大轴心问题) that he feels decisively shaped the course of China’s social transformation in the late Qing and early Republican eras: The “construction of the modern warlord discourse” (近代军阀话语之建构), the “reform of the provincial institutional [system] and the evolution of society” (省区制度之变革与社会之演进), and the “transformation of the contemporary state” (现代国家之转型). However, the reason why these three issues are especially suitable for uncovering said logic is not sufficiently made clear, and Weng’s overall argument only works if the reader shares the author’s – virtually axiomatic and never explicitly expressed – assumption that the rise and victory of the CCP were scientifically inevitable.

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[Review] 吕庙军《清华简与文武周公史事研究》(Lü Miaojun: Research on Tsinghua Bamboo-Slip Manuscripts and Historical Events of King Wen, King Wu, and the Duke of Zhou)

Lü Miaojun 吕庙军, Qinghua jian yu Wen Wu Zhou gong shishi yanjiu 清华简与文武周公史事研究 (Research on Tsinghua Bamboo-Slip Manuscripts and Historical Events of King Wen, King Wu, and the Duke of Zhou), Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe 上海古籍出版社, 2021.
ISBN 978–7–5732–0021–1, 329 pages, 88 RMB.

Reviewed by Felix Bohlen (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

The discovery of the oracle bones in the early 20th century marked a new era for modern historical research on early China. Ever since, excavated texts on bone, bronze, bamboo, silk, and wood regularly grab headlines and receive strong scholarly attention. The so-called Tsinghua manuscripts, a corpus of numerous manuscripts on bamboo slips, are the latest significant find of this sort. The collection was acquired in 2008 by Tsinghua University in Beijing, although the texts were probably illegally looted from an ancient tomb, and their exact provenance remains unknown. Despite these unfortunate circumstances, academia widely considers them authentic sources from the Warring States Period (ca. 480–221 BCE), primarily based on philological arguments. Since the discovery and subsequent successive publication, these manuscripts have been subject to intense debate and extensive research.[1] Lü Miaojun’s book, under review here, is another study in this field, written for specialists in Western Zhou history (1045–771 BCE) and the Tsinghua manuscript collection. As such, the book requires readers to have at least some basic knowledge of the history of the Western Zhou and the source texts.

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[Review] 李小尉《新中国初期的中国人民救济总会研究》(Li Xiaowei: Research on the People’s Relief Association of China in the Early Period of the PRC)

Li Xiaowei 李小尉, Xin Zhongguo chuqi de Zhongguo renmin jiuji zonghui yanjiu 新中国初期的中国人民救济总会研究 (Research on the People’s Relief Association of China in the Early Period of the PRC), Beijing: Renmin chubanshe 人民出版社, 2020. ISBN 9787010221021, 441 pages, 90 RMB.

Reviewed by Henrike Rudolph (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)

In the 1930s and 1940s, refugees flocked to the larger cities of war-ridden China in search of safety, a steady income, or at least something to eat. Many returned to their villages or found work in the expanding industrialization programs after 1949. Others, such as disabled veterans, orphans, and impoverished peasants, still roamed the streets when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power. In the existing scholarship, we find diverging assessments of the extent of the problem and the need for state relief programs. While some scholars claim that urban poverty was a problem quickly solved by expanding industrial employment,[1] others argue that it severely affected the consolidation of the new regime.[2] Officially, social relief (shehui jiuji) targeted only those who fell through the cracks of the proposed production unit and commune system because they could not work and had no family to support them. However, especially in the early 1950s, large parts of the population were still affected by devastations of war or natural disasters and looked to the government for assistance.

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[Review] 陳少明《夢覺之間:〈莊子〉思想錄》(Chen Shaoming: Between Waking and Dreaming. Reflections on the Zhuangzi)

Chen Shaoming 陳少明, Mengjue zhijian: ‘Zhuangzi’ sixiang lu 夢覺之間:《莊子》思想錄 (Between Waking and Dreaming: Reflections on the Zhuangzi). Beijing: Shenghuo Dushu Xinzhi Sanlian Shudian 生活・讀書・新知三聯書店, 2021. ISBN 978-7-10-807105-7, xvii, 219 pages, 52 RMB.

Reviewed by Dennis Schilling (Renmin University of China, School of Philosophy)

Qui sait si cette autre moitié de la vie où nous pensons veiller n’est pas un autre sommeil un peu différent du premier, dont nous nous éveillons quand nous pensons dormir ? (Blaise Pascal, Pensées, fragment 164)[1]

… who knows whether the other half of our life, in which we think we are awake, is not another sleep a little different from the former, from which we awake when we suppose ourselves asleep? (tr. W. F. Trotter)[2]

When giving his new essay collection the allusive title Sixiang lu, Chen Shaoming may have thought there exists a kind of intellectual affinity between two “classics,” the Pensées of Blaise Pascal and the Zhuangzi – in doubt and reflection, in the way of looking at things, or perhaps in literacy and style. And indeed, some passages in the Pensées look very Zhuangzian in some respects.

Chen Shaoming (born 1958), professor at the Department of Philosophy of Sun Yatsen-University in Canton, is widely known for his studies in intellectual history.[3] Together with Liu Xiaofeng (劉小楓, born 1956) and inspired by Leo Strauss’ (1899–1973) classicism, Chen edited the series Classics and Interpretations (經典與解釋) of European philosophical works.[4] His interest in the “classics” is further documented by methodological reflections on how contemporary philosophical analysis should conduct a dialogue with traditional thought, taking into account the different natures of philosophical expression in earlier times and traditions. Narratives are given particular attention in his methodological considerations. In the foreword of his essay collection Persons, Affairs and Things in the World of the Classics,[5] Chen portrays his approach as an “Imagining of Ideas” (觀念的想像): In order to understand traditional philosophy, we first have to understand its “setting,” i.e., how classical Chinese literature communicates ideas. When reading ancient Chinese philosophical literature, we are often not confronted with questions and concepts but stories reflecting the experiences and views of the ancients. When taking those narratives as a starting point for philosophical analysis, we first must complete our knowledge about content and context, and, having taken into account all the sources available to us, then imagine the world and experiences behind them. Having understood the stories and their thinking, we push our imagination a step further to more abstract ideas portrayed in these specific accounts of philosophical speculation.[6]

The new essay collection Between Waking and Dreaming continues Chen Shaoming’s approach to reading narratives philosophically or, to put it another way, doing philosophy narratively. Once more, we must use our imagination in order to enter the “world” of the Zhuangzi, “a reality free of assigned tasks” (無事實) expressed in “empty words” (空語) (p. 41).[7] Yet Chen’s collection also contains new aspects: Imagination is not merely a hermeneutical tool but a subject of investigation itself.

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