Mind and Body in Early China: Beyond Orientalism and the Myth of Holism
by Edward Slingerland.
Oxford University Press, 2019.
Cloth, xi + 385 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Jason Morgan

When Scottish missionary James Legge (1815–1897) translated, partly under the auspices of towering Orientalist Friedrich Max Müller (1823–1900), the Confucian classics, including the Analects, beginning in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, he was immediately confronted with a dilemma that has bedeviled translators of Chinese long before and long after Legge’s career. How does one translate the Chinese terms for deities and supernatural forces?

There are a great number of these terms, which makes it especially difficult to parse them all consistently into a foreign language. Tian, for example, often translated as “heaven” in English, is an open equivocation in Chinese: it means both the heavens, as in the firmament or the sky, and also heaven, the place, or idea, or even person who created and possibly controls the universe, including the world of men. Such a person, of course, is God to most Westerners, or at the very least a god for those who do not cotton to Hebraic sensibilities. But it will not do to render tian as an impersonal, merely ethical force field, a kind of Grand Suggestion for Good Behavior emanating somehow from above. The ancient Chinese texts are clear: sometimes, tian is God, with a capital “G.” A fortiori for even more explicitly personal terms like shang di, which Legge was wont to render as God, much to the consternation of his contemporaries.

Legge’s insistence on respecting the religious sensibilities of the Chinese authors was contentious, but such contention was nothing new. During the Chinese Rites Controversy of the seventeenth century, most famously, Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) and his fellow Jesuit missionaries in the Middle Kingdom had tussled with Franciscans and Dominicans over the Jesuits’ predilection for seeing Confucianism (itself a body of teachings that the Jesuits are sometimes accused of inventing for their own purposes) as a veil for the Gospels, a kind of Chinese version of the Woman at the Well, asking to be instructed in the One True Faith. In 1704 Clement XI put the kibosh, pontifically, on the wanton equivocation of tian, shang di, and other divinity-words with Deus, but the issue continued to flare up over the ensuing centuries.

Legge stood at the tail end, or so it seemed until recently, of a long battle between the Deus-ists and deists, on the one hand, and the secularists, on the other, the former arguing that the Chinese people are no different from anyone else and so of course turn their hearts to their Creator in supplication, the latter arguing that the Creator is a Western creation, and hearts are also suspect as relics of a Cartesian revolution in Western thought. By the time late twentieth-century scholars, including the world-bestriding Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, revisited the Confucian texts, they found in them a refutation of the bugbear of Occidental communitarians, the Cartesian “unencumbered self.” It seemed as though the Chinese Rites Controversy had finally been decided in favor of the Dominicans and Franciscans, some 380 years after the initial irruption of hostilities.

The Deweyism and Pragmatism that was the jumping-off point for Confucianism in the United States in the early twentieth century shaped Americans’ understanding of Confucius as an affable agnostic, preaching a gospel of unobtrusive moral uprightness as a way to regain political stability and ensure order. This secular fascination with the sage of the Far East drew heavily on Max Weber, too, who in turn got his Confucianism from Leibniz and Voltaire. To be fair, this picture of the Garrison Keillor Confucius, who has no need of the hypothesis of any god, is also a legacy of neo-Confucianism, when a Buddhist metaphysics was overlaid on the decrepit moralizing of the Confucianists to produce a towering, esoteric, strange quasi-religion that eschewed transcendence even as it was suffused by it. However one slices the layer-cake, though, the end result, in the United States and most of the West in the rapidly secularizing twentieth century, was a cultural template of Confucianism as Other, a religion-not-religion of this-worldly ethics that had no truck with Legge’s God and concerned itself instead with cultivating virtue and keeping the peace in the realm.

But what if all of these visions of Confucianism—that is to say, what if all these Confucianisms—are wrong? What if Confucius was not a no-religion-thanks-we’re-Chinese musing on propriety, but instead a religious believer in a deeply religious milieu? That, and more, is the thesis of Edward Slingerland’s swashbuckling new book, Mind and Body in Early China. Slingerland, a Distinguished University Scholar and a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, Errol Flynns his way into the Chinese Studies club and busts up the joint in this thrilling display of scholarly hand-to-hand combat, going right for the heart of the old guard by claiming that not only are their theories wrong, but that the entire edifice of Chinese Studies as we know has got to go. Confucius, and all of his friends, too, are pulled off the shelves of the past and held up to new light in Mind and Body in Early China, and the result is an invigorating, if at times a bit uneven, foray into uncharted scholarly territory. What Slingerland is attempting here is no less than a revolution. In my view, he mostly succeeds.

Slingerland’s main targets are the notions, advanced by some of the biggest names in the field, that the ancient Chinese were simply different kinds of people than we moderns are today. Singed and blinded by the Cartesian revolution, it has often been argued by Confucius’ interpreters this past half-century or so, we are so trammeled by mind-body dualism, so transfixed by the Cartesian self, that we cannot understand that the Chinese of two dozen centuries ago had no such hang-ups about who they were or how they were supposed to behave.

The xin (心) is one of the terminological keeps around which the big battle rages. How to translate this vexing word? It is, as Slingerland points out, clearly a portrayal, especially in the earlier oracle bone texts, of the bodily organ, the heart. But it can also mean “mind,” too, as in the field where thoughts take place and emotions cast their colored shadows. Which is it, then? Is the Chinese “heart” a muscle-sac filled with blood, or is it the inner self, the internal theater of the human person looking out on the world? Roger Ames, one of the doyens of Chinese Studies in the West, says it’s both, that the ancient Chinese had a holistic view of the person, and so Ames prefers to translate xin, sometimes, as “bodyheartminding.” Other scholars, such as French Sinologist François Jullien, have argued similarly.

Nonsense, Slingerland rejoins. The Chinese knew perfectly well the difference between the heart, as we know it, and the mind, as we know it, and did not conflate their body with their thoughts, or vice versa. To be clear, Slingerland is not striking a blow here for Cartesianism. Far from it. He also rejects the Cartesian (and Kantian) “myth of disembodiedness,” as Slingerland puts it in a hit TEDx Talk based on one of his prior books, Trying Not To Try (2014), which is in turn based on the wu-wei (“do nothing”) concept rife in Zhuangzian thought.

What Slingerland is saying is that all-or-nothing embodiedness, “mind-body holism,” is just as mistaken as the Cartesian bifurcation of the self. Pioneering a digital-humanities approach to the corpus (no pun intended) of the Chinese classics, Slingerland demonstrates, devastatingly, that the holistic argument is but baldly attested to in the literature of the time. Some may contest Slingerland’s methodology, in part because he uses a technique of gauging context by counting characters removed from the central search term, but to my mind, and relying on Slingerland’s thorough explanations of his work in the second and third parts of his three-part opus, Slingerland has demonstrated beyond a doubt that the ancient Chinese, as a whole, did not think holistically as has often been argued. There was no undue confusion about the human person in the Chinese past, because we are all human beings, and because the Cartesian divide has been overdetermined into orthodoxy beyond its meager powers of explanation, Slingerland asserts. I largely concur.

Slingerland’s arguments have profound ramifications for how we understand Chinese philosophy, of course. Slingerland takes the bold step here of arguing that we should stop speaking of “Chinese” philosophy in the first place, as the Chinese of the distant past were grappling with the same philosophical problems that face us today, that have faced thinking man in any place and at any time. If the Chinese “mind” really is accessible to the modern Westerner (and the modern denatured Easterner, also discombobulated, it has been asserted, by Descartes-itis), then we are free to approach the ancient texts with confidence, as the Jesuits once did, free to believe that what we find there we can know, and that what the Chinese once thought, we, too, can take in and understand. Slingerland’s felicitous translations of hard classical Chinese make this project seem easier than it really is, and yet even beginning students of the Chinese classics will surely rejoice to find that they don’t have to fret so much about not translating tian as Heaven, or, tian forfend, as God. The Chinese probably thought God-wise, too, mutatis mutandis for a pre-Torah society far removed from the Jerusalem-Athens religio-intellectual corridor and the Western European Special Epistemological Zone. So there’s that.

Even more important, I think, are the implications for how we understand Chinese religion. This passage from the Slingerland book is long, but worth quoting, because it is a full-bore manifesto of the revolution that Slingerland means to effect in his field.

One aspect of the holistic myth with regard to early China is the claim that the Chinese universe is somehow distinct in being blessedly free of gods or other supernatural agents. Supposedly, the early Chinese (or the “Confucians,” who typically stand in for Chinese culture as a whole) navigated their political and moral worlds guided—like good Enlightenment thinkers—only by the demands of this-worldly ecological, familial, and social factors. For example, Henry Rosemont, Jr. has declared that “Confucianism has never had recourse to supernatural support. It is entirely a secular philosophy, grounded in this life, making no appeal to divinity or divinities.” Roger Ames and Rosemont similarly argue that “classical Confucianism is at once a-theistic and profoundly religious. It is a religiousness without God; a human-centered religiousness that affirms the cumulative human experience itself as sacred.” Even forces such as tian, typically translated as “Heaven” and interpreted as an anthropomorphic supernatural agent by most scholars, is portrayed by Ames and Rosemont as representing merely a this-worldly “ancestral legacy.” This view, of course, grows out of earlier Orientalist writings. Max Weber, for instance, famously claimed that “in China, the Confucian ethic completely rejected all ties to metaphysical dogma,” and [French scholar] Jacques Gernet similarly contrasted the anthropomorphic, personalized Christian God with “the Chinese idea of an impersonal Heaven.” As C. K. Yang has noted, these Orientalist claims were then picked up by Chinese scholars in the twentieth century who wished to demonstrate that China was way ahead of the West in terms of jettisoning superstition and embracing a secular, rationalist worldview.

… [However,] early archaeological evidence of cultures such as the Yangshao in the Yellow River Valley suggests that they were ruled by social elites whose “shamanistic” powers—control of animals or ability to communicate or travel to the spirit world—allowed them to combine political and religious power. Extremely costly ritual cults, featuring human and material sacrifice on a large scale, characterized Neolithic and Bronze Age China in the Yellow and Yangzi River valleys, culminating in the impressive tombs of the Shang kings. Similarly elaborate ritual culture, centered on shamanistic themes and supernatural agents, characterize other major cultural centers in the region we now think of as China, such as the bronze age civilization in present-day Sichuan revealed by finds such as Sanxingdui.

Once we enter the historical period, both shangdi (the Lord on High) and tian appear to serve as anthropomorphic high gods for the Shang and Western Zhou, and we see them portrayed in anthropomorphic terms well into the Warring States in texts such as the Mozi or the Analects. Shang oracle bone records make it clear that ritual life centered on the need to communicate with, and placate through ritual sacrifice, a large pantheon of supernatural beings, including royal ancestors, various nature deities, and the high god Di. The early Zhou appear to have adopted these beliefs and practices, or they had similar ones of their own, although they made even more explicit the connection between divine power and their own political legitimacy. As Robert Eno has observed of the early Zhou realm, “There can be no doubt state religion is organized around a clear, central concept: the Mandate of Tian (tianming),” or sign of divine approbation for the Zhou rule. This sense of divine purpose is still clearly present in the Analects, where Confucius is portrayed to be on a mission from Heaven and therefore under its physical protection. Mozi similarly grounded his entire ethical system in the discerned will of Heaven.

Slingerland, in this passage, charts an entirely new course for the study of Chinese religion, and in the rest of Mind and Body in Early China he ranges the field of Chinese Studies and similarly tears down the long-revered fixtures of the discipline in the West.

While Mind and Body in Early China is a must-read for anyone interested in Chinese Studies, Chinese philosophy (sorry, Edward—what else shall I call it?), or the humanities in general, there are a few hurdles that a potential reader must overcome. The first is that Slingerland sometimes lapses very nearly into stridency when dismantling the claims of his sempai. Ames, for example, may be right or wrong, but he is nevertheless unarguably a great man, whose scholarship set the tone for an entire generation of Sinologists and whose beautifully written, thoughtfully argued, exceptionally well-crafted books and essays deserve a full brace of collegial respect. I wish I could be even half as eloquently mistaken as Ames on his worst day.

(Full disclosure: I once had the privilege of working for Ames, indirectly at least, at China Review International, a splendid little journal at the University of Hawai’i that Ames oversees. Ames is now at Peking University, but he will forever be remembered as the eminence grise of the philosophy department in Mānoa and one of the driving forces behind East-West comparative philosophy in the modern age—cf. especially Philosophy East & West, which Ames also once helmed.)

The other hurdle is, paradoxically, the figurative xin of the Slingerland book, the two sections on digital humanities, and the long explication of Slingerland’s methodology in his computerized corpus-analysis. It was fascinating to see what Slingerland and his little team of coders was up to in their research, and it is surely necessary to lay all the cards on the table here, as Slingerland must have known that his claims would be controversial, but all the same it was a little tough working through the set lists of terms and concordances. Readers don’t need to be present on every page to get the gist, though, so this is more of a peril for a book reviewer than for a casual reader.

All in all, Mind and Body in Early China is a powerful work of original thought and scholarly prowess, and will undoubtedly take its place among the (modern) classics in the field. The debate between the Jesuits and the Legge-ists, on the one side, and the Dominicans, Franciscans, and secularists, on the other, over the nature of Chinese philosophy and religious understanding may not be finished just yet, but it would seem, judging by Slingerland’s impressive body of work, that Waterloo is behind us, and that all is over now except the mopping up. The Chinese were grand philosophers. They were also religious, at least many of them were. Tian is God, I think. Xin is either mind or heart, depending. Where things go from this point, from Slingerland’s tide-turning intervention, is sure to be the subject of another big controversy in the centuries to come.  

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.