Review by
Whalen Lai
Asian Philosophy v9 #3 (1999)

The text of this review is taken from Thomas Carlson's web site, where it was originally included with the permission of the author.

This is a path-breaking book, the results of three-decade-long, diligent, and very independent research on the part of the Brooks. The title suggests the direction of the enterprise, a retrieval of the Ur-Analects, the sayings of Confucius as they were remembered and recalled by his disciples and their circles. It seeks, not so much at finding the original voice of Confucius for that is deemed near impossible but, to retrieve the successive layers of recollection and accretion, all the while placing them in the wider context of the fermenting ideas current among other circles of thinkers. Towards that end, the chapters of the Analects have been reorganized according to a new chronology. Thus chapter four (titled 'The Master himself' and dated sharply 479 BC) now heads the list: it contains the terse, least embellished, wisdom sayings or recollected formula committed to memory. The rest in sequence with partitions goes as follows, chapters 5, 6/7, 8, 9/10, 11, 3/12, 13, 2/14, 15/1, 16/17, 18/19, 20. Not that the traditional chapters are such discrete wholes. The Brooks have throughout worked out how the various 'misplaced' subsections should be moved forward or backward. They re-weave the text accordingly. The introduction explains in general the methodology employed, but there are critical comments to each chapter and section, extensive notes and reflections. The appendixes then give more detailed, topical accounting.

To say the least, all this is a daunting task and the fact that except for some prior leads - mere speculations and outlines compared to the finished product - the Brooks did all this on their own only makes it even more phenomenal. This is the kind of 'higher criticism' that in the West has been applied to the New Testament - of which Bruce is critically informed. To that approach is added an attention to changes in linguistic patterns which is a field itself. The amount of comparative social and cultural, economic and political knowledge needed for the undertaking may not be obvious in the book but it spills over into the continual communications in the WSW (Warring States Workshop) web site set up by the authors on the Internet. In the field of Early China study, this is equivalent to packing a century in the kind of investigation by the Bultmannian school into the New Testament into the devotion to a task on the part of two persons in thirty years. This is the kind of work that ideally should have a 'school' of its own i.e. young graduate students following in the pioneers' footsteps testing and extending the new investigative tools. Although a number of conventional readings of the Analects is confirmed -including the intuition of Fingarette- the Brooks offer overall such a revisionist view of this text that if their higher criticism is widely accepted, it will be very difficult to approach this text again with the traditional faith and naivete. Not that faith and naivete - or sheer good intuition (well reasoned leap in inference from an outsider like Fingarette's) - have no place, given what we see in New Testament scholarship. But it does befall scholars in the field to answer the challenge of the Brooks' 'Original Analects', take seriously the Sitz-im-Leben unfolding of the ideas as they are situated in the life of the times and within the history of the Confucian school or schools. Or at least, since we cannot all be well trained enough to handle all the twists and turns in the politics and ideas during the Warring States period, be aware of the problems of historiography and well qualify any conclusions drawn from a general reading of this text. Since the Brooks work not just on this text, but on the whole spectrum of materials from this axial age in China, keeping up with them and their latest readings on the internet is itself a daunting task. Although there are now scholars in the WSW network taking up the challenge of this solidly historical and critical method, it is hoped that somehow it can be disseminated more widely and made more accessible to more.

All this makes this book a 'must read' for anyone interested in the Analects. The new, rearranged translation, with the authors' comments attached, should alone intrigue and provoke thought. Beyond the primary goal of restoring the 'original' Analects, the book contains other engaging material more relevant to the area specialist. Most readers would have to adjust to the romanization of Chinese words in Common Alphabetic instead of Wade-Giles or Pinyin. There is a conversion table at the back. The book also comes with a card to coordinate the new chapter arrangement with the traditional one. The beginner can and should enjoy reading the new translation with relative ease. It is at the higher level of the book's critical scholarship that the reading would not be that easy, not even for specialists. Yet unease is perhaps the real bonus. The Brooks lay down a whole new way of assessing the writings of this critical period that this first book (there are more in the making) is meant to unsettle. And it does.

Whalen Lai
Davis, California

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20 March 2006 / Contact The Project / Exit to Publications Page