Examining the Classical Tradition in China

At a Humanities Center lecture, Chinese professor David Honey discussed his contributions to sinology and his four-volume book project, History of Chinese Classical Scholarship.

IMG_3565PROVO, Utah (Apr. 2, 2015)—China embraces one of the richest literary histories in the world, yet how aware are we of classical Chinese scholarship compared to Western thought? At a Humanities Center lecture, Chinese professor David Honey discussed his ongoing book project on classical scholarship in China and his efforts to make the history of the Chinese classical tradition more accessible to the Western world.

Honey began with an experience he had in China while reading a paper that compared Western and Chinese sinology (Chinese classical scholarship). Honey explained the Chinese responded to his paper with surprise—was there really classical scholarship in the West and a literary tradition outside of Jane Austen, they asked.

Though such a remark seems almost unbelievable to Westerners who take pride in their classical tradition, lack of awareness of China’s own vast history of classical scholarship would come across as equally surprising to Chinese scholars.

“Classical scholarship in China is a big thing because there are so many grave goods being excavated, and among them are manuscripts, sacred texts designed to protect the soul and the wanderer,” Honey said.

Honey explained that all of his conceptual models for writing the history of classical scholarship have been taken from the West, mainly because it has not yet been done in Chinese.

His examination of the evolution of Chinese classical scholarship will be structured around about a chapter per dynasty, each chapter devoting 10 to 15 pages to various “great men,” or major Chinese figures from the dynasties he will be examining.

“Some criticisms have been leveled at the ‘great man approach’ because there are so many literary reigns that aren’t connected with any great figure,” said Honey. “Well, in China we don’t have that problem. The basic outline is there in the Twenty-Four Histories.”

The Twenty-Four Histories are 24 history books that span 4,000 years of Chinese history and are traditionally accepted as right and true.

To decide which major figures to evoke in his examination of Chinese classical scholarship, however, Honey explained his incorporation of N.G. Wilson’s five-part schema and how he used it to determine a figure’s legitimacy in each dynasty. Honey said that questions from Wilson’s schema include: what does this figure preserve of ancient literature that would otherwise be lost, does he amend the text, in what respects is his literary criticism notable, and, finally, does he exploit the classical heritage in other ways?

Honey added one more of his own, asking what methodologies each figure developed or refined.

“My approach of necessity is to encapsulate the major trends of each age by focusing on leading figures, revealing important predecessors and tracing networks of posthumous influence in order to narrate at least a useful introduction to historical scholarship over the ages,” Honey said.

Honey added of all the dynasties he is exploring, he hopes to arrive at the Qing dynasty as soon as possible. “The reason why is because the Qing dynasty brought the three grand techniques: lexicography, bibliography, and textual criticism and commentary to the apex of development,” Honey said.

Based on his current pace, Honey predicts he will have completed his series in the next 16 to 17 years. He has already completed one volume dealing largely with Confucius and is well underway with volume two.

“If I do make it through this endeavor to the end, I believe this work will fill an important void in current Western sinology, and will be the capstone of my career,” Honey said.

He concluded, “This is my interest and my motivation; it keeps me young.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)