Review of Bol: Neo-Confucianism in History
Peter Bol’s first book, This Culture of Ours (Stanford, 1992), changed the way we understand the crucial intellectual and social changes from the Tang to the Song. That book ended with Cheng Yi and the rise of Daoxue (or Neo-Confucianism). One purpose of his new book is to pick up the story where This Culture of Ours left off, now explaining the intellectual and social factors that led Neo-Confucianism to become a successful movement — a movement that ultimately played a major role in shaping late imperial Chinese history. This is already an ambitious goal, and one the Bol fulfills in impressive fashion. But he is also stalking a more elusive target, namely the significance of Neo-Confucianism. Bol wants us to see that it is not an ideological justification for a stagnating and ever-more autocratic state, but rather a constructive, even radical response to dramatically changing times. More than this, he concludes the book by saying, “I am convinced that Confucianism is much more than a historical subject; it remains a resource for thinking about the present” . Bol therefore aims to balance a discussion of philosophical ideas with social and political context in order to present what he calls “an inquiry into the Neo-Confucians’ engagement with the world” . As the author of the recent Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy (Oxford, 2009), I was immediately intrigued by Bol’s approach. Bol is neither apologist for Neo- Confucianism nor naïve consumer of their “internal” justifications and histories. He is a critical scholar using the full range of contemporary historiography, but he is also committed to the notion that to understand the place of Neo-Confucianism in history, we must do our best to understand how their ideas made sense and were attractive to people of their time — and even, perhaps, to people today.