Category Archives: Book Reviews

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

[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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[Review] 李尹蒂《晚清农学的兴起与困境》(Li Yindi: The Rise and Dilemma of Agricultural Science in Late Qing Dynasty)

Li Yindi 李尹蒂, Wan Qing nongxue de xingqi yu kunjing 晚清农学的兴起与困境 (The Rise and Dilemma of Agricultural Science in Late Qing Dynasty), Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe 科学出版社, 2021. ISBN 978-7-03-069998-5, 241 pages, 98 RMB.

Reviewed by Jörg H. Hüsemann (Universität Leipzig)

A series of crises made the 19th and early 20th centuries a turning point in Chinese history. Imperialist powers violently forced the empire to open its markets to the opium trade, the millenarian Taiping rebellion devastated large parts of southern and central China, millions died during the North China Famine of the 1870s, and the ruling house suffered humiliating military defeats in the Sino-Japanese War and the Boxer Rebellion, to name but the most infamous catastrophic events. While these crises challenged the Qing rulers’ claim to power and shook the political and social structures, they also created room for the development of new ideas. Scholars and state officials tried to promote “Self-Strengthening” to protect imperial rule from external attacks and internal strife. Against this historical background, the actors discussed in Li Yindi’s monograph introduced their approaches to modernizing Chinese agriculture.

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[Review] 张昌平《吉金类系:海外及港台地区收藏的中国青铜器研究》(Zhang Changping: Auspicious Metals’ Categories and System: A Study of Chinese Bronze Vessels Collected Overseas and in the Hong-Kong and Taiwan Region)

Zhang Changping 张昌平, Ji jin xi lei: Haiwai ji Gang Tai diqu shoucang de Zhongguo qingtong qi yanjiu 《吉金类系:海外及港台地区收藏的中国青铜器研究》(Auspicious Metals’ Categories and System: A Study of Chinese Bronze Vessels Collected Overseas and in the Hong-Kong and Taiwan Region). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe 科学出版社, 2020. ISBN: 978-7-030-67212-4, 305 pages, 128 RMB.

Reviewed by Maria Khayutina (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)

Complex polities, often called “early states,” began forming on the territory of the present-day People’s Republic of China during the third Millennium BCE. The introduction of bronze-casting technology during the early second Millennium BCE gave a significant impetus to the rise of new political elites, who now could equip their troops with more lethal and awe-inspiring weapons and – even more conspicuously – allowed those elites to display their power and prestige using metal ritual paraphernalia. Indeed, Neolithic elites already employed elaborated sets of ceramic vessels for sacrificial offerings to their ancestors and feasting with their allies and retinues. Magnificently shimmering metal vessels and, somewhat later, musical bells made by skilled craftsmen enabled the kings of the Shang (ca. 1600–1046/45 BCE) and Zhou (1046/45–256 BCE) dynasties to host impressive sacrificial feasts. Leaders of smaller polities and aristocratic families followed their example and similarly commissioned vessels and bells.

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[Review] 贾立元《“现代”与“未知”:晚清科幻小说研究》(Jia Liyuan: The “Modern” and the “Unknown”. A Study on Late Qing Science Fiction)

Jia Liyuan 贾立元, “Xiandai” yu “weizhi”: Wan Qing kehuan xiaoshuo yanjiu《“现代”与“未知”:晚清科幻小说研究》(The “Modern” and the “Unknown”: A Study on Late Qing Science Fiction). Beijing: Beijing Daxue Chubanshe 北京大学出版社, 2021. ISBN 978-7-301-32379-3, 316 pages, 59 RMB.

Reviewed by Sabine Weber (Universität Bonn)

Since the English translation and the subsequent international success of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (Santi 三体) in 2014, Chinese science fiction has experienced a “new wave” in production and consumption, causing an equivalent rise in scholarly attention. Previously, the genre had been marginalized ‒ disregarded as “juvenile” at best, forbidden as “counter-revolutionary” or “escapist” at worst.

Given the genre’s unsteady history, the rudimentary coverage in literary criticism and studies is to be expected. While this changed over the course of the 2010s, a scholarly backlog still haunts more specific branches of the field, including the genre’s early history. The first monographic study on early Chinese science fiction was defended as a PhD thesis in Comparative Poetics only in 2012.[1] Such was the state of the field when Jia Liyuan (贾立元, *1983), himself an acclaimed author of science fiction under the pseudonym Fei Dao 飞氘, wrote his thesis about the beginnings of science fiction literature in China. This thesis, defended successfully in 2015, is the basis for the book under review here and is one of the first monographs specifically on early modern Chinese science fiction.

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[Review] 聂溦萌《中古官修史体制的运作与演进》(Nie Weimeng: On the Operations and Development of the System of Compiling Official Historiography During the Middle Ages)

Nie Weimeng 聂溦萌, Zhonggu guanxiushi tizhi de yunzuo yu yanjin 中古官修史体制的运作与演进 (On the Operations and Development of the System of Compiling Official Historiography During the Middle Ages), Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe 上海古籍出版社, 2021. ISBN 978–7–5325–9887–8, 388 pages, 108 RMB.

Reviewed by Paul Fahr (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

The study of medieval Chinese historiography seems to be a lively field of research in present-day Mainland China. In 2012, Xu Chong 徐冲 published his On the Writing of History and the Sources of Imperial Power During the Middle Ages, to name but one title.[1] With the publication under review, we are presented with another study on medieval historiography, which, like the study by Xu, is part of the monograph series from the “Joint Study Group on Medieval China” (中古中国共同研究班) edited by Professor Yu Xin 余欣 at Fudan University 复旦大学.

Nie Weimeng 聂溦萌, presently employed at the Capital Normal University 首都师范大学 in Beijing, has a strong interest in the textual history of early medieval Chinese historiography, in the editorial revision of which she actively participates. Nie is one of the scholars, in other words, who decide on the standard text in the editions with which other historians work. This alone makes her views on historiography noteworthy.

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[Review] 程浩《有为言之:先秦“书”类文献的源与流》(Cheng Hao: Speaking of their Actions. The Origin and Spread of pre-Qin Documentary-type Texts)

Cheng Hao 程浩, You wei yan zhi: xian Qin “shu” lei wenxian de yuan yu liu 有为言之:先秦“书”类文献的源与流 (Speaking of their Actions: The Origin and Spread of pre-Qin Documentary-type Texts), Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 中华书局, 2021. ISBN: 978 7 101 15301 9, 381 pages, 76 RMB.

Reviewed by Rens Krijgsman (Research and Conservation Center for Unearthed Texts, Tsinghua University)

This stimulating book originated as a Ph.D. thesis written under the supervision of the late professor Li Xueqin 李学勤 (1933–2019). My colleague Cheng Hao’s work shows a breadth of scholarship and attention to detail fitting a student of this titan of early Chinese history. In the delineation of sources, the attention to theoretical and methodological nuance, and the taking of recent developments in the field into account, a development of thought is apparent that goes beyond simply following in the master’s footsteps and indeed delivers an up to date, cogent, and clearly argued narrative.

The introduction to the study clarifies the use of the term shu 書 (“Documentary”) as a particular genre of writing: “shu-type texts” 書類文獻. It discusses why the author does not simply rely on bibliographical categories informed by the Shujing 書經 (Book of Documents) or the Yi Zhoushu 逸周書 (Leftover Zhou Documents) and gives reasons for including certain unearthed manuscripts over others in the discussion. The understanding of shu-type texts in this book combines the literary form of the materials and the historical context in which these texts were produced.

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[Review] 劉尊志《漢代墓外設施研究:以王侯墓葬与中小型墓葬為参考》(Liu Zunzhi: Auxiliary Surrounding Structures of Han Dynasty Tombs. Case Studies on Tombs of the Nobility and Small- and Medium-Sized Tombs)

Liu Zunzhi 劉尊志, Handai mu wai sheshi yanjiu: Yi wanghou muzang yu zhong-xiaoxing muzang wei cankao 漢代墓外設施研究:以王侯墓葬与中小型墓葬為参考 (Auxiliary Surrounding Structures of Han Dynasty Tombs. Case Studies on Tombs of the Nobility and Small- and Medium-Sized Tombs), Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe 科學出版社, 2021. ISBN 978-7-03-068149-2, 718 pages, 278 RMB.

Reviewed by Eric Bouteiller (PhD candidate EPHE-PSL, CRCAO)

This timely book shines a new light on archaeology of the Han period (206 BCE–220 CE), collecting almost all the recently published data concerning above-ground funerary features of tombs left by Han era social elites. It includes numerous high-quality maps, drawings, and photographs from published excavation reports. The focus of the book is an area often neglected by archeologists in China, who are usually fixated on underground architecture – and the “treasures” therein – in isolation from above-ground facilities, thus de-contextualizing the tombs. Han period graves are very complex structures with often lavishly decorated underground chambers, and features above ground that include all sorts of funerary monuments, such as memorial halls and offering shrines, but also a wider range of facilities built within extensive cemetery gardens.

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[Review] 刘瑾玉《翻译、概念与经济:严复译〈国富论〉研究》(Liu Jinyu: Translation, Concepts and Economy: A Study on Yan Fu Translating ‘The Wealth of Nations’)

Liu Jinyu 刘瑾玉, Fanyi, gainian yu jingji: Yan Fu yi ‘Guofu lun’ yanjiu 翻译、概念与经济:严复译《国富论》研究 (Translation, Concepts and Economy: A Study on Yan Fu Translating The Wealth of Nations). Beijing: Shehui Kexue Wenxian Chubanshe 社会科学文献出版社, 2021. ISBN: 978-7-5201-7846-4, 634 pages, 198 RMB.

Reviewed by Stefan Christ (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg)

Yan Fu (1854–1921) has long been seen as a pivotal figure in the transitional period of late Qing and early Republican China. His translations of important Western works like Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, among others, have received considerable attention from scholars inside and outside of China. There are comprehensive monographs on all his major translations and many books and articles representing a wide range of perspectives on Yan Fu’s thoughts and ideas. More often than not, questions concerning intellectual history are discussed in connection with Yan Fu’s translation practice.[1] Liu Jinyu, a well-established scholar from the Foreign Languages College of Inner Mongolia University (内蒙古大学外国语学院), nonetheless promises new insights and understandings can be gained from Yan Fu’s translation of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in the book under review here (the somewhat inept English title on the cover is: Translation, Concepts and Economy: Yan Fu’s Translating The Wealth of Nations in China).

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[Review] 张佳《图像、观念与仪俗:元明时代的族群文化变迁》(Zhang Jia: Images, Concepts, and Rituality. The Transformation of Ethnic Culture in the Yuan-Ming Period)

Zhang Jia 张佳, Tuxiang, guannian yu yisu: Yuan Ming shidai de zuqun wenhua bianqian 图像、观念与仪俗:元明时代的族群文化变迁 (Images, Concepts, and Rituality: The Transformation of Ethnic Culture in the Yuan-Ming Period), Beijing: Shangwu Yinshuguan 商务印书馆, 2021. ISBN: 978-7-100-19549-2, 302 pages, 88 RMB.

Reviewed by Lin Hang 林航 (Hangzhou Normal University 杭州师范大学)

The second half of the fourteenth century witnessed the transition from the Mongol Yuan (1271–1368) to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) in China and marked a significant turning point in the history of East Asia and the world. In China, the shift of rulership from Mongolian to Han-Chinese brought about great changes in politics, ideology, and culture. Such changes were profound and extensive in north China, a region ruled consecutively by the Khitan, Jurchen and Mongol for over two centuries. One might intuit the considerable turbulence during the Yuan-Ming transition, but what changes took place exactly? How did these changes influence China regarding ethnicity, culture and identity? In Tuxiang, guannian yu yisu, Zhang Jia weaves together historical documents and visual materials to depict the prominence and transformation of the “Sino-Barbarian” dichotomy (the notion of Yi-Xia 夷夏 opposing the sophisticated culture of the Chinese to their supposedly uncultured neighbours) as reflected in painting and art aesthetics, culturalization of Nestorian families, the change of costumes, the exchanges of diplomatic envoys between Korea and Japan, as well as changes in the tomb rituals.

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[Review] 李楠《汉代西域行政制度与屯戍体制研究》(Li Nan: Research on the Military Colonies Settlements and General Frontier Administration of the Western Regions under the Han Dynasty)

Li Nan 李楠, Handai Xiyu xingzheng zhidu yu tunshu tizhi yanjiu 汉代西域行政制度与屯戍体制研究 (Research on the Military Colonies Settlements and General Frontier Administration of the Western Regions under the Han Dynasty), Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe 中国社会科学出版社, 2020. ISBN 978-7-520-3692-37, 226 pages, 88 RMB.

Reviewed by Arnaud Bertrand (ARscAN – Central Asia, UMR 7041; Catholic Institute of Paris)

Between the end of the second century and the early years of the first century BCE, the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE) expanded to the west and developed a complex administration to control the conquered territories. Prior to this expansion, the Korean peninsula, the Mongolian steppe, northern Vietnam, and the Western Regions were peripheral to what was “China” at that time. During Emperor Wu’s reign (141–87 BCE), these remote areas were no longer buffer zones with other Asian powers but became partly, or totally, integrated into this growing empire.

Li Nan’s work focuses on the administrative practices deployed by the Western Han, Xin (9–23 CE), and Eastern Han dynasties (25–220) in connection with the occupation of the northwest. More precisely, he focuses on the strategies used by the central administration to rule over the city-states of the Tarim Basin. The study deals with the Western Regions (Xiyu 西域) roughly corresponding to modern Xinjiang. Since the high Neolithic age, this region has constituted a space of constant interactions between the “Chinese” and the “Central Asian” worlds. It stretches from Loulan in the east to Kashgar in the west, though the latter never became an imperial commandery (jun 郡). During the period dealt with in this book, the region was governed by a General Protectorate (Xiyu duhufu 西域都護府), with the aim to control the local economy of the city-states in the form of an imperial colony. The book examines how the Chinese practically managed this Protectorate.

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[Review] Chen Zhenghong’s book series about the “Records of the Chroniclers”

Chen Zhenghong 陈正宏, Shikong: Shiji’ de benji, biao yu shu 时空:《史记》的本纪,表与书 (Time and Space: The Basic Annals, Tables and Treatises of the Records of the Chroniclers), Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 中华书局 2020. ISBN 978-7-1011-3965-5, 297 pages, 45 RMB.

Chen Zhenghong 陈正宏, Xueyuan: Shiji‘ de shijia 血缘:《史记》的世家 (Blood Lines: The Hereditary Houses of the Records of the Chroniclers), Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 2021. ISBN 978-7-1011-5143-5, 278 pages, 42 RMB.

reviewed by Hans van Ess (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)

There is no scarcity of scholarly books on the Records of the Chroniclers, the famous Shiji by Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145? BCE–87? BCE), the first comprehensive history of ancient China. Chen Zhenghong (b. 1962), who modestly says of himself that he is not a specialist of the Shiji but just a professor of wenxianxue 文獻學 (at Fudan University), meaning philology or – maybe better – textual research, has published the two books under review as the first in a series of four planned volumes in which he intends to describe the relevant information contained in all chapters of the Shiji for a non-specialist general readership. Chen’s book is the companion to a podcast series for the commercial Chinese “Himalaya” (喜马拉雅FM) company. This has to be considered when reading these books. Chen reassures his reader that a lack of knowledge of Classical Chinese will not be an impediment to understanding.

Chen’s book is also written in a very colloquial and easy-going style. The first volume is devoted to the annals’, tables, and treatises, the second to the hereditary houses. We have to wait for his treatment of the biographical section, which with seventy chapters makes up a little bit more than half of the Shiji, and will be the subject of the final two volumes in Chen’s proposed series.

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[Review] 赵冬梅《法度与人心:帝制时期人与制度的互动》 (Zhao Dongmei: Norms and Agency. Interactions between Institutions and Actors in Imperial China)

Zhao Dongmei 赵冬梅, Fadu yu renxin: dizhi shiqi ren yu zhidu de hudong 法度与人心:帝制时期人与制度的互动 (Norms and Agency: Interactions between Institutions and Actors in Imperial China), Zhongxin Chuban Jituan 中信出版集团, 2021. ISBN 978-7-5217-2398-4, 460 pages, 128 RMB.

reviewed by Rong Hengying 戎恒颖 (Fudan University)

Author Zhao Dongmei, born in 1971, is currently a professor of history at Peking University. A specialist in Song institutional history, she has largely focused her research on the military selection system under the Song dynasty (Wudao panghuang: Zhongguo gudai de wuju yu wuxue 武道彷徨:中国古代的武举与武学, The Irresolute Military Way: Competitive Examinations and Military Teachings in Ancient China, 2000; Wenwu zhijian: Bei Song wuxuanguan yanjiu 文武之间:北宋武选官研究, The Civilian and the Military: A Study of the Military under the Northern Song, 2010). She has also worked in depth on Sima Guang and analysed Wang Anshi’s New Policies in her latest work (Da Song zhi bian 大宋之变1063–1086, The Great Political Change under the Song 10631086, 2020).

This latest book – a rare general history publication penned by a prominent Chinese scholar – puts forward a course of imperial trajectory, spanning two thousand years from the Qin Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (221 B.C.–1912 A.D.). This work serves as a companion to another recently published volume, Renjian yanhuo: yanmaizai lishi li de richang yu rensheng 人间烟火:掩埋在历史里的日常与人生 (Ordinary Life: The Everyday Buried in History), which is devoted to the social and material history of ancient China. The two books can be said to form a diptych, delving respectively into history written by and for the elite, and into “everyday” history kept on the margins of classical historiography. Continue reading

[Review] 施展《破茧:隔离,信任与未来》(Shi Zhan: Breaking out of the Cocoon. Isolation, Trust, and the Future)

Shi Zhan 施展, Pojian: Geli, Xinren yu Weilai 破茧:隔离,信任与未来 (Breaking out of the Cocoon: Isolation, Trust, and the Future). Changsha: Hunan Wenyi Chubanshe 湖南文艺出版社, 2021. ISBN 978-7-5404-7973-2, 275 pages, 58RMB.

by David Ownby (Université de Montréal)

Shi Zhan (b. 1977) is a professor of political science at the China Foreign Affairs University 外交学院 in Beijing, and director of the Research Center on World Politics at the same university. In 2009, one year after completing his Ph.D. in history at Peking University, Shi joined a group of liberal scholars that called themselves Daguan 大观, which might be translated as “The Big Picture,” or “The Grand Vision;” they ultimately launched a journal that bears the same name (and which is quite difficult to find, at least in North America).

In Shi’s telling, the Daguan group was inspired by Alexandre Kojève’s New Latin Empire, the rudiments of which Kojève composed at the end of World War II as part of a memo addressed to Charles de Gaulle, and which was published in Chinese translation in 2008. To oversimplify, Kojève proposed that the “Latin” countries of Europe bind together in a pact that would ward off American pressure from the West and Soviet pressure from the East. Although a philosopher by training—he did his Ph.D. under Karl Jaspers and influenced much of the French postwar intellectual elite through his lectures on Hegel—Kojève ultimately worked in the French Ministry of Foreign Relations throughout much of the post-war period, and helped to create the European Union and the European Common Market.

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