Thursday, March 29, 2018


Curie Virág, The Emotions in Early Chinese Philosophy. Emotions of the past. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xiii, 219. ISBN 9780190498818. $90.00.

Reviewed by Ed Sanders, University of Roehampton (

Version at BMCR home site

[Chapter titles are listed below.]

Early Chinese philosophy is outside the usual range of BMCR's interests, but this review considers the book from a Classicist's perspective. The period covered by the volume is the early-5th to the late-3rd centuries BCE, the 'Warring States' period in China, when political disunity created the situations in which a number of philosophers and their schools could flourish. These schools were characterized inter alia by a wide range of views on emotion, and this volume examines the place of emotions within their various natural, psychological, ethical and political philosophies. The exact mix of these varies quite considerably between schools.

The introduction notes that the primary term for 'emotions' (qing) developed early in this period out of its earlier meaning of 'how things are', and includes both objective and subjective aspects. Lists of 'basic feelings' comprised some or all of "joy (xi), anger (nu), sadness (ai), delight/pleasure (le), fear (ju), love (ai), dislike (wu), and desire (yu)" (p. 6, Chinese characters removed). This suggests that other emotions might involve more complex mixtures of these – though the point is not developed.

Though the period coincides with the principal floruit of Greek philosophy, and Classicists will feel occasional flashes of recognition at the way Chinese philosophers express a point, such similarities are probably coincidental. Virág frequently argues that Chinese philosophy does not share Western philosophy's approach in a range of ways, including such dichotomies as reason and emotion, thinking and feeling, objective reality and subjective experience, etc. In particular, the self and the external natural world (which includes humans) are much more closely entwined than in Greek thought. While some Chinese philosophers believed emotions were a passive response to the natural world, others believed they actively shaped it. Though there were arguments about the appropriateness of (some) emotions, Virág argues for a common "orientation … that despite their tendency to go awry, emotions and desires functioned according to the patterns and workings of the natural world, and that their fulfillment was a necessary feature of the fully realized human existence" (p. 1).

The substantive chapters cover six philosophers or traditions of thought, of which Virág describes five (Confucius, Laozi/the Daodejing, Mencius, the Zhuangzi, and Xunzi) as 'mainstream'. These unite in holding a 'naturalistic' view of emotions, by which the author means that they "make sense of the natural world – humans included – in terms of intelligible processes" (p. 16) – though the ways in which humans and their experiences interact with the natural world is very much up for debate. The sixth philosopher discussed (Mozi) is commonly thought not to share this interest in a naturalistic psychology of emotions, but rather to approach them normatively; however, Virág argues against this received view. Though some arguments between individual philosophers are noted in passing, the volume does not concentrate on inter-school debates.

Chapter 1 considers Confucius (551-479 BCE) and the Confucian tradition, as propounded in the Analects. Confucius sees the self as integrated with (or attuned to) the wider human world around us. Emotions and desires determine how we interact with that world with agency. One must cultivate the self by performing ceremonial rituals in the right frame of mind – correct actions being pointless without appropriate emotional feelings – until one learns to act with 'humaneness' (ren), the supreme moral virtue. At that point, one's emotions and desires will be in tune with the correct way to act, and one achieves fulfillment. Deep emotion truly felt will last a long time, and affect one's actions during that period.

Mozi (c.480-390 BCE) disagreed with Confucius's conclusions, believing that people should, through reasoning, pursue objective knowledge as to how society should be ordered. Problems in the world stem from partiality: people care most about themselves, then their family and friends, and little about others. Instead they should learn to desire what is best for the community as a whole. Emotions lead to wrong actions (including by rulers), so should generally be expunged. However, it is natural and right to desire such things as "peace and comfort, … food, clothing, and shelter" (p. 56), so one should aim at a society where such things are universally achieved, by cultivating 'impartial caring' (jian ai).

The early Daoist text, the Daodejing, attributed to Laozi (4th century BCE), is often taken as showing a similar dislike for emotions, as it occasionally speaks negatively about specific emotions such as anger, and senses-based desires (yu) in particular. However, in other passages, it advocates desires, including natural desires for "food, drink, shelter, and sex" (p. 77). Virág sees yu as having an ambivalent meaning: these desires are healthy, insofar as they are biologically driven; however, desires for unrestrained pleasures are unhealthy, and should be avoided. The sage knows that eliminating these allows one to fulfil one's desires for necessities. This links emotional fulfillment to harmony with nature.

Mencius (372-289 BCE) did not use the word qing for emotions, but expounded the most developed emotion theory yet. He believed humans had biologically innate dispositions, centered in the xin (heart/mind), towards "pity and compassion" (ce yin), "shame and aversion" (xiu wu), "courtesy and respect" (gong jing), and a "sense of right and wrong" (shi fei)", and that if those potentials were fulfilled they would achieve "the basic human virtues of humaneness (ren), rightness (yi), ritual propriety (li), and wisdom (zhi)" (p. 101, Chinese characters removed). The process of fulfillment comes about through understanding one's nature and Heaven. Mencius believed (like Confucius) in performing rituals, but because doing or not doing so aroused satisfaction or horror. He also saw the political art of ruling as being about pleasing the ruled "to the depths of their hearts" (p. 121). He believed the good ruler should share with his subjects the things that delight him. In many ways, then, emotions are bound up with moral behavior in Mencius's thought.

The Zhuangzi (late-4th century BCE), a composite text of multiple voices, appears both to see value in emotions and advocate transcending them – which Virág describes as a "doubleness … [of] detachment and engagement" (pp. 134- 5). Emotions stem from our human nature, so cannot be avoided. Painful emotions such as "fear, anxiety, or anger" (p. 135) result from not being in harmony with the world, and the Zhuangzi seems to suggest we should aspire to free ourselves from them, but that feeling pleasant emotions such as affection and joy/happiness (le) is in line with attaining full human potential. Rather than this being an ascetic message, Virág argues that the Zhuangzi sees emotions as neither moral nor immoral in themselves: what matters is whether they are fitting to a situation. When deciding whether to engage or detach, one should employ a method of 'wandering' (you), which through testing ways of responding to the world will lead us to true knowledge.

The final sage, Xunzi (c. 310-210 BCE), sees human nature as bad because inclined to gratify urgent sensual desires. Innate dispositions are 'unlovely' (bu mei), creating emotions and desires that seek selfish ends. Through deliberate effort, thought and reflection, we can overcome these base natures. These are pursued via a twofold process of detachment from (but not transcending) one's current situation and accumulating experiences through sensory engagement, and are aided by ritual and music. This helps us feel fulfillment, and aligns us with the cosmic process. Like other thinkers in this book, Xunzi believes that true knowledge will lead us to respond to situations with the right – and right amount of – emotions.

This is a somewhat unusual book, compared with what we would expect from a volume on emotions in Greek or Roman philosophy. We learn little about what Chinese philosophers thought emotions were, what caused them, from which part of the body/soul they emanated, or how they felt. We learn less about how specific emotions mediated human interactions or engagement with literature or the arts. The term 'emotion' is, in fact, never defined, but rather the English word is generally used in the book explicitly to avoid having to pin down an amorphous category of loosely related phenomena (pp. 7-8). While a number of specific emotions are mentioned in passing, these are rarely examined in detail, except for central terms such as 'impartial caring' (jian ai). Most emotions that are specifically named (e.g. in the list in paragraph 2 above) are given simple English translations, that assume without discussion a one-to-one equivalence with English language emotions.

These quibbles aside, this is in many ways an excellent and enlightening book. The level of argument is uniformly high: Virág both engages with previous scholarship, and is not afraid to move beyond it, giving her own (often radically) new interpretations of texts, and in the process rehabilitating at least one philosopher into the 'mainstream'. On first reading, these Chinese philosophies seem so alien to the Greek and Roman worlds that one wonders what use a Classicist might make of them. However, repeated re-reading raises questions about our own (Western) tendency to unconsciously adopt Greek thought patterns. Looking through the eyes of these highly intelligent and subtle, but very different thinkers, one wonders how much further we might question our own assumptions in reading Classical texts.

The book is well produced, but a small number of typographical errors were noted, such as a wrongly italicized title (p. 119), and a hyphen missing between dates (p. 163).

Chapter titles

1. Emotions and the Integrated Self in the Analects of Confucius
2. Reasons to Care: Redefining the Human Community in Mozi
3. Cosmic Desire and Human Agency in the Daodejing
4. Human Nature and the Pattern of Moral Life in Mencius
5. The Multiple Valences of Emotions in the Zhuangzi
6. The Composite Self and the Fulfillment of Human Nature in Xunzi

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