Asian Thought and Society, vol. 20, no. 58-59 (1995), pp. 148-150.
Hoyt Cleveland Tillman, Confucian Discourse and Chu Hsi's Ascendancy (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992). xv + 328 pp.
One of the signs that an academic field in the humanities or social sciences is coming of age is the capacity to consistently differentiate scholarly analysis from a tradition's self-understanding. The field of Neo-Confucian studies in the West has been slow to reach this level of maturity, for at least two reasons. First, the Neo-Confucian tradition itself has had a long history of intense concern with orthodoxy, which has had the effect of obscuring much of the richness of its own past. Second, Western scholars of Neo-Confucianism (a Western term, by the way) have for many years partly relied upon (and greatly benefitted from) the work of Asian scholars, some of whom have retained ties (of varying type and strength) to the tradition and have therefore been predisposed not to distance themselves from its received self-understanding.
Hoyt Tillman has succeeded brilliantly in restoring the obscured richness to the early history of the Tao-hsüeh (Learning of the Way) tradition of Confucianism, which was given Imperial sanction in 1241 and has dominated the intellectual history of China into the 20th century. His focus on Chu Hsi (1130-1200), the central figure in the tradition since the late 12th century, is of course not new. What is new is his rigorous attempt to contextualize the ascendancy of Chu Hsi's version of Tao-hsüeh, in terms of Chu's dialogues and relationships with contemporary Confucians, and in terms of the social and political history of the Tao-hsüeh "fellowship" during the Southern Sung Dynasty (1127-1279). He convincingly argues that until the compilation of the official Sung History in 1345 under the Mongol Yüan Dynasty, the general view of Tao-hsüeh was considerably broader than the view promoted by Chu Hsi after 1181. The narrower view -- of a single line of Sages who transmitted the true Confucian Tao, which had not been taught between the 4th century B.C.E. (Mencius) and the 11th century C.E. (Chou Tun-i and the Ch'eng brothers) -- was constructed by Chu Hsi and adopted by the compilers of the Sung History, and has largely defined modern scholarly views both in Asia and the West.
The notion of a fellowship, which Tillman defines as "a network of social relations and a sense of community with a shared tradition that distinguished them from other Confucians" (p. 3), is a breakthrough innovation that facilitates a "gestalt" understanding of Sung Confucianism. It suggests (among other things) the religious character of this tradition, for among its defining characteristics were an existential commitment to ethical-spiritual cultivation (or self-transformation), the regular practice of ritual (e.g. sacrificial offerings to the constructed lineage of teachers that was central to the group's self-definition), and the building of shrines to those former worthies.
Tillman divides the Southern Sung (after the capture of North China by the nomadic Jurchen) into four periods, under each of which he discusses two or more major Confucians and their relationships with Chu Hsi. The periods and the scholars discussed are: (1) 1127-1162: Chang Chiu-ch'eng and Hu Hung; (2) 1163-1181: Chang Shih and Lü Tsu-ch'ien; (3) 1182-1202: Ch'en Liang and Lu Chiu-yüan; and (4) 1202-1279: Chu's major disciples and other Tao-hsüeh Confucians. The dates are selected because they mark significant transitions in the history of the movement. The discussions of the individual scholars are exceedingly rich in social, historical, and philosophical insights. Tillman's historical research is exhaustive, relying on an enormous body of primary sources and making excellent use of recent Chinese and Japanese scholarship. The book thus could work well as a collection of focused pieces on these scholars, although to use it in this way would be to miss its point. His analysis in chapter 9 of the long exchange of letters between Chu Hsi and Lu Chiu-yüan (Lu Hsiang-shan) is the most cogent and complete in English.
In addition to his useful periodization, Tillman applies a three-level model to Confucian discourse (p. 9): (1) "speculative philosophy" (metaphysics and cosmology); (2) "cultural values" (ethics, culture, and self-cultivation); and (3) public policy. He argues that Chu Hsi had a strong preference for speculative philosophy, although after his death some of his followers broadened this focus by incorporating more discussion of statecraft (which had been associated largely with Ch'en Liang) and self-cultivation (Lu Chiu-yüan's emphasis).
This point marks my only disagreement with Tillman. It is true that metaphysics and cosmology constitute a large portion (whether the largest I don't know) of Chu Hsi's writings and recorded conversations, and it is also true that he sometimes responded in terms of metaphysics or cosmology to questions of cultural values or policy. Nevertheless, the point of "speculative philosophy" was always to clarify and facilitate the practice of self-cultivation -- and this is an important key to understanding Chu Hsi. Chu's difference with Lu Chiu-yüan, for example, was not that Chu was disinterested in self-cultivation, or even less interested than Lu. Rather, Chu felt that Lu's approach to self-cultivation naively ignored the existential difficulty of becoming a Sage; that "metaphysics" was necessary to understand that difficulty; that reliance on the extraordinary wisdom of past Sages (recorded in the Classics) was necessary to overcome it; and that this in turn required more emphasis on the interpretation of texts than Lu was willing to support.
Aside from this difference in interpretation, I found only one serious error in the book, surely an oversight that might have been caught by an editor: three times (pp. 139, 209, 210) Tillman refers to one of the writings of Chou Tun-i as the "Western Inscription," which was actually written by Chang Tsai. In the first and third instances he seems to be referring to Chang Tsai; in the second he apparently is referring to Chou's work, Penetrating the Book of Changes.
Confucian Discourse and Chu Hsi's Ascendancy is an extremely important book for anyone interested in Sung intellectual history or the Neo-Confucian tradition. I cannot recommend it too highly.