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A Reader’s Companion to the Confucian Analects

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By Henry Rosemont Jr.
Basingtoke: Palgrave Pivot, 2012
88 pages, ISBN: 978-1137303387, Hardback
Reviewed by Charles B. Jones

This brief book is part of the Palgrave Pivot imprint, whose purpose is to provide a venue for scholars to print works of a length between the article and the monograph. Accordingly, this work is very concise at eighty-eight pages, and it is clear the author intended it to be something that one keeps by one’s side while reading the Analects of Confucius. The idea of a reader’s companion is a good one; the Analects can be very confusing for the student or novice. Containing a miscellany of sayings by the master and his students as well as other interpolated material with only a minimal imposition of topical order, this classic text does not move in a linear manner or give its themes a systematic treatment. The focus of Rosemont’s book is, accordingly, on those issues that make the book thorny: the unfamiliar world of thought out of which it came, its social setting, its cast of characters, its sometimes-contradictory judgments, the semantic range of its recurring terms, and even the structure of archaic Chinese itself.

The brevity of the work is inviting; a student assigned this to read in conjunction with the Analects in translation will not feel overburdened, and many of the suggestions for reading and digesting the text are very apt. This reviewer found only two real impediments to adopting it as a course text. First, the style alternates between the very colloquial and the very scholarly, and the teacher might have to spend some time explaining to students what some of the author’s ideas mean, in essence necessitating a reader’s companion to the reader’s companion. Second, the price of the hardcover book seems out of proportion to its size (the list price is, US $45, though the Kindle edition can be had for only US $16).

Those quibbles aside, upper-level college students could certainly benefit from consulting this guide while reading the Analects, and teachers of broad survey courses (e.g., world religions) who must find ways to make the text accessible, even though it is not in their own area of expertise, will find good ideas and approaches to inform their own presentation of the work. The thirteen short chapters (most between two and four pages in length) begin with the concrete and move toward the abstract. After asking what it means to be a Confucian (which is to say, what it means to be part of the community for whom this text is a classic), Rosemont moves on to consider in what manner the Analects is a “book,” how the structure of Chinese writing and grammar affect its ideas, and how the use of concepts and “concept-clusters” might help the reader deal with its sometimes unsystematic structure and frequent aphorisms.

In the latter chapters, Rosemont proceeds thematically, using one chapter to introduce the students, another to limn the master’s life and milieu, and then some time to discuss ancient Chinese devotees’ modes of knowing and the question of the “truth” of the text. The last few chapters take on particularly salient themes: social roles; family and society; ancestors; the whole range of rituals that appear in ancient China, as well as the relative semantic breadth of the term li, (ritual propriety), when compared to Western ideas of rituals and rites. A concluding chapter of summation and suggestions wraps up the book. At the end, there are some good resources that even a seasoned scholar will find useful: a concordance of key terms, a list of the students who appear by name, and an annotated bibliography for further reading.

As stated above, this is a useful book for novices, students, and teachers who feel out of their element in ancient Chinese thought. The professor whose own specialty is Chinese religions will note that Rosemont has his own perspective within the Sinological community; in fact, he comes clean about his own alignment with the Hall and Ames approach (to which he has been an active contributor) upfront. One will also see traces of Fingarette herein (the example of the handshake as an instance of a “little ritual” appears in chapter twelve). Assuming this approach presents no significant conflict with the professor’s own, pointing out these things to a class may have the effect of evoking a discussion on Western (and even later Chinese) approaches to the classics.

In sum, I find this book a positive contribution to the pedagogy of ancient Chinese religion. I would recommend that teachers peruse a copy first in order to judge whether the academic tone and the price of the book are suitable for a particular class, but at the very least I think those that teach the Analects should own a copy and draw inspiration from it for their own teaching.