Review of Xinzhong Yao's Book Introduction to Confucianism

Topics: Confucianism, Confucius, Chinese philosophy Pages: 6 (1835 words) Published: July 7, 2010
In Introduction to Confucianism, Xinzhong Yao strives to convey a balanced understanding of the Chinese / East Asian tradition of Confucius as it has evolved over the last 2500 years from ancient times to contemporary relevance, from the classics into practice and all within a single book.  Yao aims to distinguish his presentation of the subject matter from previous introductions that have taken a more historical approach.  He writes for a western audience and for students who are assumed new to Confucianism while also appearing to address his peers and anticipated critics.  He draws from his experience of teaching Confucianism in a university setting and includes excerpts of academic articles that he has previously published.  His arrangement is primarily thematic, with aspects of the religious and philosophical nature of Confucianism and the intellectual creativity of prominent Confucian scholars sprinkled throughout. 

Yao's methodology is to conduct a 'double investigation', acting both from the inside as a 'bearer of the values examined' and from the outside as a 'critic of the doctrine presented'.  By continually revisiting the underlying question, over what Confucianism was and is from different angles, Yao intends to lead the reader into greater depth and complexity.  The effort Yao puts forth is truly admirable, yet he tries to accomplish too much in a single book.  In large part, he succeeds at presenting a balanced, academic understanding of Confucianism in light of his five stages or dimensions.  In my experience however, many aspects of Yao's organization and methodology interfered with my sincere effort to gain an 'inside' understanding of and appreciation for the spiritual / religious nature of Confucianism, even though this appears to be his ultimate goal.

In the introduction, Yao states his five stages or dimensions of the subject matter.  For the remainder of the book, I could sense these dimensions as an undercurrent that remained present and relevant to the material presented, although Yao never addresses them again formally.  Chapter 1 begins with the conditions giving rise to the inception of Confucianism and discusses its fundamental themes in broad strokes.  Readers acquire a basic sense of who Confucius was and what motivated him within the context of a turbulent period in China.  Then, instead of narrowing in on a definition of Confucianism, Yao pushes the parameters of any definition further and further out by exploring its different themes.  Before delving into the Confucian classics and their significance, Yao prematurely begins to jump between various names, schools and debates that helped to shape Confucianism and propel it forward.  I would have preferred Yao to introduce the many new names and titles in order and in context before switching between different interpretations.

By the time I reached the second chapter, which lays out a historical evolution / transformation of Confucianism, I felt determined to get a handle on this new terminology.  By presenting snapshots, including significant names, concepts and titles, and placing these in the order of how events transpired, Yao effectively constructs a skeleton of Confucianism as it has taken shape over time.  I referred back to this skeletal formation of parts when reading about a name, date or title later in the book, and this proved to be essential in aiding my understanding.  Not only could I recall information, I was also able to see how things fit together and in relationship to one another within a continuum of Confucian interpretation and application.

In the third chapter, Yao focuses on the three main elements, which he designates as Heaven, humans and harmony of the Confucian Way.  In The Way of Heaven, Yao attempts to explain some very abstract concepts concerning various interpretations of the meaning and function of Heaven.  I found the section concerning humans particularly useful in addressing some lingering...
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