AsiaNow Speaks with Tao Jiang

Tao Jiang is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, and the author of Origins of Moral-Political Philosophy in Early China, published by Oxford University Press, which received Honorable Mention of the 2023 Joseph Levenson Prize for distinguished scholarship on pre-1900 China.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

Origins of Moral-Political Philosophy in Early China retells the founding story of Chinese moral-political philosophy. It makes three key points. First, the central intellectual challenge during the pre-Qin period (5th-3rd centuries BCE) was how to negotiate the relationships between the personal, the familial, and the political domains when philosophers were reimagining and reconceptualizing a new sociopolitical order, due to the collapse of the old order. They offered a dazzling array of competing visions for that newly imagined order. Second, the competing visions were 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 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 who rejected the very parameter of humaneness versus justice. The Zhuangists were a lone voice advocating personal freedom. For them, the mainstream debate was intellectually banal, morally misguided, and politically dangerous. Importantly, all those philosophical efforts took place within the context of an evolving understanding of Heaven and its relationship with the humans.

What inspired you to research this topic?

I was unsatisfied with the existing narratives about early Chinese philosophy that separate philosophical analyses from historical inquiries. My goal was to find a way to integrate historical scholarship in retelling the story about the development of early Chinese philosophy on the one hand while explore the inner logic and philosophical dialectic of moral-political projects embedded in the early texts on the other hand. I am interested in delving into granular details of the texts and figuring out how they reshape the larger picture. My aspiration is to lose sight of neither the trees nor the forest.

Moreover, so much has changed in the study of early China over the last thirty years, especially due to the availability of excavated texts and the explosion of new translations and creative scholarship. This means that existing narratives, based on dated scholarship, need updating and rethinking.

All these factors motivated me to craft a new narrative that can incorporate recent materials and tell a new and more nuanced story about early Chinese philosophy that is historically sensitive and philosophically compelling.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

The biggest challenge is its scale. There is just so much ground to cover and so much secondary literature to consult. The overall framework needs to be organically built from the ground up and cannot come across as something forced. I was also worried that anybody who is a specialist in a particular figure or school (and there are many) can pick on it. However, without presenting the whole picture with all the intricate and often surprising connections among its various parts, I would not have been able to tell a new story with necessary nuance. The reception, at least so far, seems to have vindicated my approach.

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Some years ago, a colleague, when he learned about my project, asked me whether there was anything in those early texts that hadn’t already been studied. Indeed, the materials appear to be well-trodden and familiar to specialists in the field. Interestingly, another colleague, after reading my book, told me that he was surprised by how many materials in it that he had never noticed. What I have found out is that there are still a lot of materials that are understudied or simply ignored, even on Confucius and the Analects. For example, many people are familiar with Confucius’ short autobiography, but I was really surprised that there is virtually no discussion about the bizarre nature of his famous claim that he learned about the heavenly mandate at the age of fifty. Confucius was in no position to claim any relationship with Heaven, the divine legitimizer of a political regime. His daring claim points to a subversive streak that has not been properly appreciated in Chinese intellectual history.

Another quick example. Although many scholars have written about the (negative) Golden Rule in the Analects, often in comparison with the biblical tradition, few people seem interested in finding out what happened to the Golden Rule after the Analects. This means that there is a lack of systematic treatment of the trajectory of core concepts like the Golden Rule (shu) and its role in moral reasoning among the early Chinese texts. What I have found is that it was actually the Mohists, the famous critics of the Confucian project, who pushed the Golden Rule in the Analects to its logical conclusion, leading to the first articulate concept of universal justice in Chinese intellectual history. On the other hand, the self-professed followers of Confucius, e.g., Mencius, basically dropped the Golden Rule altogether. There are huge implications in understanding the different nature of various early Chinese moral-political projects due to their different treatment of the Golden Rule and I explore them in great details in the book.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

One pleasant surprise in the early reception of my book is that many historians of early China (what I call Sinologists in the book) appear to be receptive to it. It is gratifying to see my effort to bridge historical and philosophical approaches to the study of early Chinese texts bearing some fruit. If this is indeed the case, some credit should go to Michael Nylan, one of the most prominent historians of early China whom I did not know in person when writing the book. What makes Nylan rare among the early China historians is that she does not ignore works of Chinese philosophy. In her engagements with philosophical scholarship on the early Chinese texts, Nylan implores philosophers to take more seriously historical scholarship that can better inform our works. I took such a critique to heart and tried to incorporate as much historical scholarship as possible. At the same time, I have developed a methodology for the philosophical approach to the early texts so that the scholarly objects of philosophical inquiries can be preserved instead of being explained away by historians.

Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, scholar, professor, or person living in the world?

One thing I realized after spending fifteen years on this book is that I don’t have an infinite amount of time to do big projects like this. It is a rude awakening for me that my professional life has an expiration date! This means that I should be careful in picking my next big project. Even though I have several big projects already going on while writing the Origins (several are on Buddhist thought which is my other area of specialization) which partially explains why it took me fifteen years to finish it, my book talks and the many book reviews (there are ten already, plus a book symposium in Philosophy East and West with me engaging six critics) have generated a lot of fascinating questions I hope to explore further.

I want to pick up where I left off in the conclusion of my book that is a musing about an untraveled path in Chinese history, i.e., the synthesis of the fajia/Legalist thought and ideas from the Zhuangzi. I have started to sketch out some basic ideas for a political philosophy, drawing inspirations from the Zhuangzi which has usually been read as spiritually rich but politically irrelevant, both in Chinese history and in contemporary scholarship. I am excited about this project even though it is not entirely clear to me yet where that might lead me or how long it might take me, similar to the Origins which started out as a book on the Zhuangzi only!