Origins of Moral-Political Philosophy in Early China

Origins of Moral-Political Philosophy in Early China

Oxford University Press

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This book, Origins of Moral-Political Philosophy in Early China: Contestation of Humaneness, Justice, and Personal Freedom, is a systematic presentation of the intellectual projects at the origins of moral-political philosophy in early China. The foundational period in Chinese philosophy, from the time of Confucius (551-479 BCE) to the establishment of the first unified imperial dynasty in 221 BCE, has always been considered the single most creative and vibrant chapter in Chinese intellectual history. Works attributed to Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Laozi, Shang Yang, Shen Dao, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, Han Feizi and many others represent the origins of moral and political thought in China. As testimony to their enduring lure, in recent decades many Chinese intellectuals, and even leading politicians, have turned to those classics, especially Confucian texts, for alternative or complementary sources of moral authority and political legitimacy.

I make three key points in retelling this founding narrative of Chinese moral-political philosophy. First, the central intellectual challenge during the Chinese classical period was how to negotiate the relationships between the personal, the familial, and the political domains (sometimes also characterized as the relationship between the private and the public) when philosophers were reimagining and reconceptualizing a new sociopolitical order, due to the collapse of the old order. Consequently, philosophers offered a dazzling array of competing visions for that newly imagined order. Second, the competing visions can be characterized as a contestation between impartialist justice and partialist humaneness as the guiding norms of the newly imagined moral-political order, with the Confucians, the Mohists, the Laoists, and the so-called fajia (Legalist) thinkers being the major participants, constituting the mainstream intellectual project during this foundational period of Chinese philosophy. Third, Zhuangzi and the Zhuangists were the outliers of the mainstream moral-political debate during this period who rejected the very parameter of humaneness versus justice in the mainstream debate. Zhuangzi and the Zhuangists were a lone voice advocating personal freedom. For the Zhuangists, the mainstream debate was intellectually banal, morally misguided, and politically dangerous. All such efforts took place within the context of an evolving understanding of Heaven and its relationship with the humans.

This new narrative aims at offering an alternative paradigm to interpret the unique configuration of classical Chinese philosophical landscape and helping to chart a new course in understanding the central motivating issues underlying the Chinese moral-political debate at its very inception. The book has incorporated scholarship on classical Chinese philosophy of the last several decades, providing a new overarching framework to recast the narrative of this formative period of Chinese philosophy. It is philosophically schematic and historically informed.


  • Roger T. Ames, Peking University

    “Tao JIANG in this hugely intelligent monograph provides his readers with an interpretive context twice. First, his project of rehearsing the story of the origins of Chinese moral-political philosophy is located within a state-of-the-art account of the politics of the Western academy and the best efforts of its Sinologists and philosophers to make sense of the complex textual narrative of pre-Qin China in all of its parts. Again, appealing to a cluster of seminal themes—humaneness, justice, and personal freedom—he recounts the way in which different philosophical voices advocated for their own disparate and competing models of structuring and construing personal, familial, and political relations within the overarching context of what are fundamentally different valorizations of the notion of Heaven.”

  • “Jiang ranges over the entire foundational period of Chinese philosophy with effortless erudition, unfailing intellectual sympathy, and, above all, a brilliantly economical conception that shines a uniquely revealing and integrating light on all the major figures and schools of thought. The result is that rare kind of book which has the potential to change the way Chinese philosophy is viewed and practiced, and has all the scholarly and philosophical attributes that should make it a classic in due course.”

  • David Wong, Duke University

    “Tao Jiang has provided a coherent and sweeping narrative of the development of moral and political philosophy in the classical period of Chinese philosophy. He integrates many plausible insights gleaned from sinology and philosophy to argue provocatively that the classical period can be understood in terms of a struggle to deal with conflicts between the values of humaneness (pertaining to the personal and familial realms) and of justice (pertaining to the political realm). This book is highly recommended both to specialists and to those with a more general interest in Chinese moral and political philosophy.”

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