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Scholars not specialized in Neo-Confucianism as well as interested laypersons if at all primarily know the Southern Song Confucian Lü Zuqian 呂祖謙 as Zhu Xi's 朱熹 (1130–1200) collaborator in the famous anthology Jinsi lu 《近思錄》.1 Lü, it seems, has largely been by-passed by history or overshadowed by the towering figure that Zhu Xi has come to be. And this is also more or less the state of affairs today. In the Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy, Lü is merely mentioned in the entry on Zhu Xi, and in the Glossary is listed as the “compiler, with Zhu Xi,” of the Jinsi lu as well as author of the Song wenjian 《宋文鑒》 (Mirror to Song Prose).2 In our seemingly all-inclusive digital age, Lü continues to lead a marginal existence, as evidenced by the oddity that only the Chinese, Japanese, and Russian sites of Wikipedia boast entries on him. All of this stands in stark contrast to the importance that specialists more recently attach to Lü's role in the ascendancy of Neo-Confucianism in twelfth century Song China—perhaps culminating in Hoyt C. Tillman's capsizing claim that Lü in fact had been the main protagonist in that movement.3 Hence, the publication of an entire monograph on Lü doubtlessly is a most welcome event, and the book is already for this reason alone—for the staring gap that it sets out to fill—to be highly recommended.

Yet, its author Kai Marchal (based at Soochow University in Taipei) is not simply out to fill this specific research gap. Marchal, at first glance, seeks to do much more than that, as is reflected in the structure of the book, carefully composed around three different layers of discourse: of the five chapters, the first and last predominantly revolve around the problem of interculturality, China and contemporary Confucianism, and the enduring relevance of Neo-Confucian political philosophy—with little mention of Lü Zuqian. A second layer (particularly chapter two, but also parts of chapters three and four) is concerned with the historical reconstruction of Lü's context, that is, with his biography amidst the changing fate of Confucians at the imperial court, with fellow Confucians, with the controversial earlier reformer Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021–1086) and also with influential ideas such as that of the well-field (jingtian 井田) system. A third layer, finally, is devoted exclusively to Lü's political philosophy, particularly inasmuch as it differs from most other Neo-Confucians at the time (parts of chapters three and four). The book hence does not follow a strict chronological or systematic order, but proceeds by offering interlacing narratives and arguments that often speak simultaneously to all three layers of discourse. The appealing but complex structure of the book naturally raises concerns whether Marchal might not want to achieve too much at the same time. And indeed, that Marchal's study is not collapsing under the weight of its own seeming ambition is probably due to the author's refined hermeneutical sensibility and awareness of his own limits, the careful balancing of existing scholarship in terms of pro and contra (notably of scholarship in Chinese, Japanese, German, English, and French!), and generally a pleasant style of argumentation devoid of rash judgment. In fact, the study—somewhat paradoxically—proves successful precisely because the author is not delivering all that he suggests delivering.

This is particularly true of the tension between historical contextualization on the one side and the ambition to demonstrate today's relevance of Neo-Confucian political philosophy on the other. Any such demonstration, as the author is aware of (p. 2), would require most careful and detailed analysis of mainstream political philosophy and its deficiencies—which could only be achieved at the expense of historical contextualization. Marchal hence leaves it largely to the reader to envision the contemporary relevance of Lü Zuqian's political philosophy and seems content with making suggestions that guide the reader into this direction. Thus he conjectures in a central passage in the introduction that “the idiosyncratic Neo-Confucian worldview might give cause in the world of today and particularly in the perspective of intercultural dialogue to rethink a key problem in political philosophy, that of the antagonism between autonomy and order, [] to which Neo-Confucianism has given an incisive articulation” (p. 43). Marchal ends his book on a similar note, when in the midst of some skeptical remarks about the prospects of Confucianism in contemporary China he turns around to insinuate the possibility of a revival of Neo-Confucian teachings on the basis of their “theoretical appeal” (p. 244).

That twelfth century Song China is best understood in terms of culturally framed and eventually impenetrable otherness (p. 2 and p. 14) which necessarily cannot but be distorted by the use of European conceptual frameworks (p. 240), and that we today witness an accentuation of an East-West opposition in terms of values and interests (p. 11), are both presuppositions on the part of the author, which sustain the study and are made explicit in the book. It is perhaps entirely a matter of conjecture whether and to what degree these two presuppositions might motivate the optimistic belief in a theoretical contribution to be gained from the study of Neo-Confucianism. In the end, the decision to focus on the historical side of things and to remain vague as to the contemporary philosophical significance certainly proves right—not because it would be necessarily impossible to make that case, but because that case is not made in this book (the remarks on the final pages about ideas in the work of Mou Zongsan and Tu Wei-ming indebted to Song Confucianism are exploratory at best)—and a fortiori it is not made in view of Lü's contribution.

For there is a second tension which it seems difficult to dissolve in one and the same book and which Marchal in my view partly fails to dissolve with regard to the second and third layers of discourse mentioned above. The tension is between Lü Zuqian as a Neo-Confucian thinker (second layer) and as an original thinker himself (third layer). In the last, much shorter fifth chapter, in which the author provides some more detailed ideas about contemporary philosophical relevance, the discussion is almost exclusively about Neo-Confucians generally and their eventual “suspension of the political” (i.e., the title of Marchal's study, gleaned from Mou Zongsan's reading of Neo-Confucianism, cf. p. 31). The political, by which here is meant an awareness of the irreducible plurality of human existence, finds itself suspended in favor of a “trans-political moral consciousness” (p. 236) radically rooted in the inner realm of the sagely self, which thus stands secluded from its environment and from which alone all matters political are presumed to be derivable. This implies that the “criteria for conduct” (zhi xing 制行) ultimately rest in the sage's (shengren 聖人) own “moral subjectivity” independent of exterior social or other more worldly factors (p. 148). Marchal points out the ambivalence of such an “unbound inner realm” (entfesselte Innenwelt): “Moral perfection can only be achieved by a spontaneous and voluntary affirmation of the individual, which simultaneously is the necessary condition for the coming into effect of the Neo-Confucian program in the political sphere. But for that reason precisely, each attempt at forcing political actors (especially the emperor) into cooperation by means of exterior restrictions (say, a system of ‘checks and balances’), strictly speaking, cannot but seem illegitimate—for it would undermine the very possibility of a spontaneous and voluntary affirmation of the neo-Confucian ideal” (p. 148). In the conclusions, Marchal takes up these issues again in a discussion about the notions of neisheng waiwang 内聖外王 and the opening passages of the Daxue 《大學》. Yet, across the entire concluding chapter, Lü finds mention in two passages only. In one passage, Marchal highlights the finding that Lü's peculiar relationship with Zhu Xi and the rise of Neo-Confucianism are explained by his “ambivalent attitude” (p. 236) over and against the suspension of the political. In the other passage, Marchal concludes that Lü has not developed “a really innovative standpoint” on the notion of neisheng waiwang and that circumstantial evidence would rather suggest skepticism about the idea of a “single continuum” between inner self and outer political world (p. 238).

Indeed, in the central chapters of the book, Lü Zuqian and his political thought are described in a fashion that puts a question mark over the title of the study as well as over the decision to insinuate contemporary relevance on the basis of Neo-Confucians more generally instead of Lü's more realist take on politics more specifically. In Marchal's study, Lü emerges as a fascinating and multi-faceted independent thinker and also as a thinker who invests much thought in the question of political institutions and entertains an idea of the political as a largely separate sphere (based on an idiosyncratic interpretation of Lunyu 《論語》, 13:14, cf. p. 192ff.). Notwithstanding some statements to the contrary, the gist of Lü's political thinking and with it much of what Marchal's study so convincingly demonstrates seem far from being at all about the “suspension of the political”; in fact, Marchal himself concludes at one point that Lü's delineation of a “sphere of the political” can be thought of as him “calling for a genuine supplement to the Neo-Confucian project” (p. 203). Indeed, Lü's specifically “political” thinking finds adequate and detailed expression in Marchal's discussion of notions such as “the [ideal] structure of political order” (zhiti 治體), “the great guidelines for administrating the state” (wei guo zhi dagang 為國之大綱), and “the study of the structure of the state” (guoti zhi xue 國體之學). Repeatedly, as in his exegesis of the Zuozhuan 《左傳》, Lü is shown to embrace politics as being about preserving the state, which is “a goal to which other goals are to be subjected (like the integrity of the individual)” (p. 207). Unlike others who at the time championed Yan Hui 顏回 (praised for his focus on the “inner realm, the spiritual self”), Lü is said to have favored the practitioner–political heroes Zi Chan 子產 and Duke Huan of Qi 齊桓公 (p. 207). Hence, in many ways, Lü seems to have been all about opposing the “Neo-Confucian” suspension of the political—and this might be partly why he has come to be forgotten and is also not particularly highlighted in the works of later Confucian scholars.

Among the many contributions of Marchal's book to our understanding of Lü Zuqian's political thought, two shall be mentioned: while earlier research claimed that Lü true to his being a Southern Song Confucian advocate of Daoxue 道學 had turned his attention away from central to local institutions such as granaries and academies (p. 168), Marchal asserts that, although these local projects of course mattered to Lü, it was court politics that remained much at the center of his interests (p. 203). Marchal also identifies a different development occurring in Lü's later life, one manifested in the vocabulary of his last writings in which there is an unequivocal turning away from central Neo-Confucian vocabulary (e.g., xin 心, yu 欲, ren 仁) “toward a more pragmatic and probably a more matter-of-fact evaluation of past institutions” (p. 189).

In summary, Marchal's study corrects the image of Lü as “a forgotten thinker” (p. 43) by showcasing his political thought that is markedly unlike the political idealism that we usually associate with the Neo-Confucians of the Southern Song. The arguments and judgments in the book are based on a wealth of sources, drawing on Lü's writings, lecture notes, letters, diaries, and his memorials to the emperor. The book boasts many highly informative footnotes, a splendid and very helpful bibliography, and (it must be said) a very unhelpful one-page index. There is much in the book to be of interest for the most diverse of readerships, as the study should equally appeal to the more historically or philologically inclined as well as to those interested in systematic philosophic argument. Given that many arguments in the book are formulated in the context of American and Chinese scholarship (e.g., Yu Yingshi, Wang Hui, Hoyt C. Tillman, etc.), it remains to be hoped that the study will be made available in English and Chinese translations. For English readers, it might be useful to know that Marchal has a short article on Lü in the Dao Companion to Neo-Confucian Philosophy, in which he gives a tasty amuse bouche of what is the real treat that his study offers.4

Endnotes
  1. 1

    For translations, see Olaf Graf, trans., Dshu Hsi. Djin-Si Lu. Die sungkonfuzianische Summa. 4 vols. (Tokyo, 1953); Wing-tsit Chan, trans., Reflections on Things at Hand (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967); and Wolfgang Ommerborn, trans., Jinsilu—Aufzeichnungen des Nachdenkens über Naheliegendes (Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig: Verlag der Weltreligionen, 2008).

  2. 2

    See Liu Shu-hsien, “Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi),” in Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy, ed. Antonio S. Cua (New York: Routledge, 2002), 895909 and 945.

  3. 3

    See Hoyt C. Tillman, Confucian Discourse and Chu Hsi's Ascendancy (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1992), 83103.

  4. 4

    Kai Marchal, “Lü Zuqian's Political Philosophy,” in Dao Companion to Neo-Confucian Philosophy, ed. John Makeham (Dordrecht: Springer, 2010), 197222.