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Liu Tsung-yuan and Intellectual Change in T'ang China: 773-819.

by Jo-shui Chen. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1992. xii, 221 pp. $54.95 U.S.

Liu Tsung-yuan was an outstanding poet, prose stylist, and thinker in mid-T'ang China, a period increasingly weakened by regionalism and factionalism but intellectually characterized by a revival of Confucianism in the midst of Taoist and Buddhist influences. Jo-shui Chen's ambitious study combines a comprehensive biography of Liu Tsung-yuan with a history of mid-T'ang intellectual life -- all in about two hundred pages.

The civil service examination system socially and politically changed the T'ang ruling elite from an aristocracy to a meritocracy, but the elite retained its monopoly on culture and education. Liu Tsung-yuan, from a prestigious but not the top aristocratic clan, passed the highest degree (chin-shih) at the relatively young age of twenty. Obtaining his first post five years later, in the next seven years he progressed rapidly to higher ranks until in 805, when his involvement in the short-lived reformist administration of Wang Shu-wen destroyed his political career. Liu Tsung-yuan ended up spending ten years of exile in Yung-chou, south China, during which his writing and intellectual career established his legacy as an important literary and intellectual figure. As the prefect of Liu-chou in farther south China during the remaining five years of his life, Liu Tsung-yuan realized an aspiration to be in a position to improve government for the benefit of the common people. Nevertheless the long exile and early death at the age of forty-six marked an unfulfilled political life.

Jo-shui Chen asserts that both Liu Tsung-yuan's life and writings were critical in formulating the components of the Confucian revival and revitalization in the early ninth century. Liu Tsung-yun passionately believed in the social role of library compositions: the rhetoric, style, and content are equally significant in "illuminating" moral principles. Chen argues that Liu Tsung-yuan's conceptualization of the tao (the way) as benevolent government was anchored by an egalitarian concern for the common populace and affected by Ch'an Buddhism. Liu Tsung-yun also rejected portent theories and correlative cosmology in favour of a naturalistic view of Heaven and the human world, where institutions such as feudalism reflected social evolution rather than the will of Heaven or the design of the sages. In Chen's interpretation of the mid-T'ang intellectual movement, Liu Tsung-yun's Confucianism retained its essence and is best described as revival and revitalization. Chen argues that this resurgence of Confucian values constituted not a precursor, but a crucial process, in the Neo-confucianism movement that dominated mainstream intellectual history from the eleventh century up to late imperial China.

Chen's study is comprehensive in the sense that it brings together all aspects of Liu Tsung-yun's public and private life, in the backdrop of the political, social, and intellectual background of the mid-T'ang. As an intellectual history of this period, something is unconvincing in the discussion of Han Yu, whose literary and intellectual fame stands equal with, if not surpasses, that of Liu Tsung-yun. Chen contends that Liu Tsung-yijan demonstrated originality in thought and was more typical and representative of mid-T'ang intellectuals than Han Yu, his close friend and a key intellectual figure. In the classification of Liu Tsung-yuan's intellectual circles into nonintellectuals and intellectuals, Han Yu is surprisingly considered a nonintellectual while Liu Tsung-yuan and several others in the intellectual group are put together simultaneously with the nonintellectuals. One wishes that the points of comparison and contrast in the Confucianism of Liu Tsunge:oyun Han Yu were clarified. Without walking us through the sources and providing an analysis of Han Yu's concepts, Chen states that Liu Tsung-yuan's Confucian revival contrasts with Han Yu's embrace of innovations, visions, and redirections that led to the radical transformation of Confucianism into Neo-Confucianism.

Chen's copious documentation is impressive on the whole, but there is one unexplained omission. The most primary source of the study is Liu Tsungyuan's writings, and yet the notes contain neither the chapter reference nor the title of the particular piece. Unless one has the 1979 Peking edition of Liu Tsung-yun's writings handy, it is difficult to locate the piece and read it in entirety, beyond the excerpts Chen cites.

Despite the above concerns, Chen's book is a strong and solid contribution to T'ang intellectual history, going beyond two previous studies in western languages - Jennings Gentzler's "A Literary Biography of Liu Tsung-yuan" (Columbia University, 1966) and William Nienhauser's collaborative volume, Liu Tsung-yuan (New York, 1973).
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Author:Jay, Jennifer W.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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