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The past is never past: making sense of Chinese time

Original Title in English
by Author: Gregory Bracken, Architecture Theory Department, Technical University of Delft, The Netherlands,
Source: New Asia Books
Book review on
Is there a characteristic Chinese conception of historical time? This book attempts to answer this question by comparing notions of time in Chinese and Western historical thinking. And while the nine essays (not including preface and introduction) are divided into four sections - an introductory 'Setting the Stage' and three parts dealing with time as perceived in ancient, traditional and modern China - they can be seen as progressing from the universal to the particular, as well as from the classical to the modern in their attempt to cover everything from macrocosmic characterisations on the level of civilisational discourse to microcosmic comparisons between particular Chinese and Western thinkers.
As Chuh-chieh Huang states in his Introduction, 'such Sino-Western cultural comparisons are common currency in a number of fields, they are particularly appropriate in historiography, given the unsurpassed richness of both the Chinese and Western historiographical traditions, as well as their relative independence and isolation from one another before modern times'. Huang also suggests that while other civilisations 'might reasonably claim to have produced the "first" or "greatest'" academic-style historians, that a good case can be made for Chinese historiography's having developed the most profound sense of time'.
About the book
This book is regarded as a follow-on to Time and Space in Chinese Culture (Chun-chieh Huang and Erik Zurcher, eds. 1995. Leiden: E. J. Brill), and the essays in it were first presented at a conference in Taiwan in May 2000. One of its main arguments is that Chinese notions of time are peculiarly concrete; that they developed not so much from 'processes of theoretical abstraction or philosophical reflection as from the lived experience of people in history', which is all part of China's rich sense of historical connectedness with its past. The Chinese approach to history is to see it as a normative pattern and not a series of discrete and disconnected events; the past and present engage in a complex dialogue where the past is never static but is part of a living tradition that continues into the present.

Temporal perspectives
'Time, History, and Dao' by Q. Edward Wang is perhaps the most stimulating essay in the whole book. It compares the work of Zhang Xuecheng (a late-Qing historian) with Martin Heidegger, who, despite the dissimilarity in their backgrounds, both emphasised the everydayness of Dao or being. By reintroducing the notion of time into ontology, Heidegger, according to Wang, adopted a spatio-temporal approach similar to Zhang Xuecheng's, namely, the ultimate relation between cosmos and man, but in challenging the entrenched idea of the mind/matter split in modern Western philosophy, Heidegger also had to overcome more hurdles than Zhang. Wang reinforces his argument by citing the excellent Heidegger and Asian Thought, (Graham Parkes, ed. 1987. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press), where Heidegger's relationship with Eastern philosophy is examined in detail.
John B. Henderson's essay deals with the history of astronomy, and it is where we come across the distinctive terminology of French sinologist Henri Maspero (Ma Bole), who is cited as differentiating 'sidereal' and 'tropical' time which 'separated two things that the Chinese had always believed to be two faces of the same reality, the calendar and astronomy'. In pre-modern China astronomy was the science of time par excellence. The heavenly bodies were conceived primarily as visible markers of the invisible order of time, and not so much as objects in three-dimensional space. To accurately regulate the calendrical system (shoushi) was one of the top priorities of the ruler, who was, after all, known as the Son of Heaven; and remember, if his calculations did not reflect the celestial patterns he could even lose the Mandate of Heaven.
Chun-chieh Huang's essay posits that time in Chinese historical thinking consisted of two elements: the temporal and the supratemporal. He takes a reconstructive approach which contrasts ancient Greek and Chinese conceptions of historical time and states that 'the concrete and particular events that constitute the temporal aspect of the Chinese notion of time are distinguishable yet inseparable from the abstract and universal principle that is what we call in this paper Supertime'. This 'supertime' can be discerned only in history, and is best exemplified in the works of the historical sages. Unlike the ancient Greeks, who regarded history as something 'against Time', time in China is not clock time (chronos) but humanly lived time. The Chinese believed that time helped shape history; it was humanly lived, shaped and achieved by individuals, sometimes disastrously, sometimes admirably. Chinese people, especially their historians, capitalise on this latter conception of time, calling it 'sagely', and worthy of being re-enacted and re-lived today.
Time is a basic dimension of human life, but, as Jorn Rusen points out in 'Making Sense of Time', it is difficult to compare treatments of the past without thinking through an intercultural perspective, a perspective that has been distorted because such work as has been done has tended to take the Western form of historical thinking as a parameter, and then looked at other cultures in terms of their similarities or differences from it.

The future
This collection of essays makes good use of the ancient Chinese classics, notably the Lunyu (The Analects), the Yiching and Sima Qian's Shiji (Records of the Great Historian), as well as interesting though lesser-known scholars such as Zhang Xuecheng. But there is copious use of Western sources as well, from Herodotus to Heidegger; Husserl, Nietzsche and Benjamin; not to mention the more esoteric choices of Herbert Spencer, Paul Ricoeur and Stephen Hawking. Heidegger, in particular, is a useful and fruitful link, particularly given Wang's citing of the excellent Heidegger and Asian Thought. This reliance on Western scholarship probably stems from the fact that every one of these academics has received their training in the West, but, as highlighted by Rusen, one has to question the efficacy of examining Chinese notions of time using so many (and varied) Western examples.
Part of a long-standing academic debate, the investigation of Chinese concepts through the lens of Western scholarship highlights other problems, notably the difficulty of translation (for example, in Chen Chi-yun's essay where sui and nian seem to be problematic), but even the notion of time itself is left hanging in this book, as seen by the difficulties with terminology such as sidereal, calendar and almanac time, particularly in some of the later essays which only deal with time in the most oblique way. Note also that the word 'time' itself is always in quotation marks in the different section headings, almost as a sort of warning to treat it as a notion very carefully indeed. Another issue is that of religion, which remains an often hidden element in these historical investigations; not enough was done to differentiate Chinese philosophy from religion, nor indeed to illustrate the unique blurring that occurs between the two in the Chinese tradition. While this book is undoubtedly a useful exercise, even an important one, its overly Western bias has to be considered somewhat misleading. Some stand-alone Chinese examples might perhaps have been beneficial, that is if there are any; but even if there aren't, this is something that will no doubt come about over time.

French translation by Anh Tho Andres
Vietnamese translation by Cuong Phan, Kim Hoang, Bich Hong, Bao Han
German translation by Han Dang-Klein
Italian translation by Phan Cong Danh
Japanese translation by Hong Anh About the Author(s)

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