Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung Paperback – 15 Jan 1971
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As to the later ideas, notably Mao, you might expect much from a book that says "In the hundred years from mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century China has changed more profoundly than in the previous two thousand years" (p. 235). But this part is just 20 pages long. It is much better than the earlier parts. It is more vigorous and more informative. I do not know any single short source that is better. But of course there are many much better longer intellectual and political histories of twentieth century China.
Creel shows a serious misunderstanding when he says "to most Western readers a page that is sprinkled with Chinese names becomes rather forbidding," and his back cover promises "the text is not cluttered with Chinese names." First, the problem is not only with Chinese names. It is wearing to read any book that introduces four or five new names on each page and gives each one a brief paragraph before moving on. And, second, Creel often does this himself, despite his promise, often citing the historian Yulan Feng as source. Feng is often transcribed as Fung. He wrote a two volume History of Chinese Philosophy in the 1930s, in Chinese, still widely used, and he wrote a one volume SHORT HISTORY OF CHINESE PHILOSOPHY largely aimed at westerners but still much longer than this book by Creel. Both available from Amazon, they are more demanding than this by Creel or the book by Waley mentioned above.
Creel was a great expert, at the University of Chicago, and it was no easy thing in terms of the political situation to write a book like this in the US in 1953. But the result is not a very good book.
This book is very smoothly and carefully written. Creel explains the beliefs and history of different schools of Chinese thought. This book is a model for condensing a scholarly topic or field into a book that can be understood and enjoyed by non-specialists. I had initially tried reading Fairbank's history of China, which has a much broader focus, but I did not enjoy reading that. It was more consciously scholarly, which I don't like for an introduction to a subject. I would rather get some evaluations by someone who is qualified to give those evaluations, and then in my further reading I can develop my own opinions. Creel makes short and cogent comments on the thinkers whom he discusses and the historical periods he discusses.
The book is a history of Chinese thought, but reading it gave me some notion of the political history of China. Either before or after reading this book it would be useful to one who wants to learn about China to read a book on the social and political history of the country. And for one who wants to study Chinese philosophy in greater detail, this book at least gives outlines that can be filled in later. In reading it, I feel that I got a fixed idea of who the main players in Chinese philosophy are, and what the main characteristics of Chinese thought are. In particular, that metaphysics was much less important than in Western thought also, not much talk about what happens after death.
"To escape from the world becomes more and more difficult. Most of the Chinese have never tried to. Instead, they have looked for ways in which it is possible to dwell with other people without being irritated by them, and to live in the world without being oppressed by it." (p. 8) The biggest use of a knowledge of China is to see how people living in another civilization independent of European civilization behaved and thought. "We are too close to ourselves; we cannot get outside our own skins and our own civilization.... One way to get some light on this question is to see how other peoples, who have different social habits and live under different circumstances, have solved the same problems." (p. 8)
There are English translations in the series Everyman's Library, Penguin Classics and Oxford World's Classics of many of the authors discussed in Creel's book, like Arthur Wayley, The Analects of Confucius, D. C. Lau, Mencius (Penguin Classics), Martin Palmer, The Book of Chuang Tzu (Penguin Classics), etc.
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