Toward a Theoretical Foundation for the History of Chinese Political Philosophy beyond Cultural Essentialism and Its Critique

By Kim, Youngmin | Philosophy Today, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Toward a Theoretical Foundation for the History of Chinese Political Philosophy beyond Cultural Essentialism and Its Critique


Kim, Youngmin, Philosophy Today


This essay seeks to theoretically defend a certain type of narratable history of Chinese political philosophy against the challenge of both cultural essential ism and its critique.1 I will begin with an examination of cultural essentialism in existing works on the history of Chinese political philosophy, which shall serve as a foundation for the alternative approach I will then develop. It is my contention that it is possible to formulate a non-essentialist notion of Chinese political philosophy that may facilitate the writing of an integrated, chronological history of Chinese political philosophy. 21 conclude by considering its broader implications in relation to the notion of East Asian civilization.

I believe that we no longer have to defend the necessity of studying the Chinese tradition of political philosophy perse, for much ink has been devoted to the critique of various versions of Eurocentrism. Since Europe's "discovery" of competing civilizations around the world, even Europeans themselves have gradually accepted an irremediable human pluralism, perhaps with the exception of some narrow-minded and recalcitrant intellectuals. It became possible to think of Europe as only one of many civilizations, and not necessarily the best one. I presume that many view Chinese or East Asian civilizations to be on an equal ontological footing with the European one. At the very least, they are, in principle, equally worthy of scholarly attention.

Having said this, what I want to discuss in this essay is the question of whether a specific form of exploration-i.e., an integrated, chronological history of Chinese political philosophy-is theoretically defensible. Before proceeding to explore its theoretical justification, a few comments on the state of the art seem to be in order, although I will make no effort to state the long pedigrees of relevant works on Chinese political philosophy or thought.

Hsiao Kung-chuan's A History of Chinese Political Thought is practically the only book-length study available in Western languages that introduces students to Chinese political thought from antiquity to the present.3 In fact, Hsiao's work is part of the 1930-40's scholarly trend that produced quite a few histories of Chinese political thought including those of Tao Xisheng, Lii Zhenyu, Liang Qichao and Lü Simian.4

Until the 1980s, very few scholarly efforts were made to write a chronological narrative of Chinese political thought in mainland China since then. As many scholars acknowledge, such a void in mainland Chinese scholarship was caused largely by political turmoil during that period.5 Meanwhile, Taiwanese scholars, who were relatively free from political uncertainty, 6 produced a series of histories of Chinese political thought or philosophy, including those of SaMengwu, Xie Fuya, Ye Zuhao, and Yang Youjiong to name but a few.7 Over the last few decades, however, as the political landscape changed, mainland Chinese scholars have increasingly produced histories of Chinese political thought or philosophy." The growing number of volumes entitled "The History of Chinese Political Thought" indicates the fact that chronological narrative is a popular genre in mainland Chinese scholarly writing on Chinese political thought or philosophy, while there appears to be no corresponding tendency outside China.

Cultural Essentialism in the Histories of Chinese Political Philosophy

This is not the place to attempt a review of all recent works on Chinese political philosophy in mainland China. Suffice it to say, significant portions of existing histories of Chinese political philosophy are still founded on an "essentialist" picture of Chinese political philosophy as somewhat determinate, bounded, and homogeneous. One indication is that many relevant studies are based on the dichotomy between the Chinese tradition of political philosophy and Western political philosophy. In my view, it is this essentialist approach that leads scholars to consider the otherwise unfeasible chronological narrative to be constructive and even desirable. …

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