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Li Zehou Four Essays On Philosophy

This is a Chinese name; the family name is Li.

Li Zehou (Chinese: 李泽厚; born 13 June 1930)[1] is a Chinese scholar of philosophy and intellectual history. He was born in Changsha, China, but currently resides in the United States.[2] He is considered an important modern scholar of Chinese history and culture whose work was central to the period known as the Chinese Enlightenment in the 1980s.[3]

Role in Chinese Culture[edit]

On Li's role in Chinese culture, Professor Yu Ying-shih of Princeton University has written, "Through (his) books he emancipated a whole generation of young Chinese intellectuals from Communist ideology"[2] Li Zehou himself writes that "our younger generation longs to make a contribution to the fields of philosophy and that they are searching [for new avenues] to meet the nation's general goal of modernization as well as the challenge to answer the question about what direction the world is heading."[4]

Critic of Chinese Government Response to Tiananmen Square[edit]

As a result of his criticism of the Chinese government's response to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, he was labeled a "thought criminal" and confined to house arrest for three years. Following substantial U.S. official and academic pressure, the Chinese government granted Professor Li permission to visit the United States in 1991. Subsequently, the U.S. government granted him permanent resident status. Since 1992, Professor Li has held numerous academic positions, including appointments at Colorado College, the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, Swarthmore College and the University of Colorado Boulder.[5]

Philosophy of the Human Being[edit]

An overriding goal of Li Zehou’s work has been to promote a philosophy of the human being that was not only based on the materialistic and historical realities as analyzed and posited by Karl Marx, but which also supported the view of Immanuel Kant as to the individual's intellectual, moral and aesthetic capacities. As a core element in his analysis, he incorporates the thinking of the greats of Chinese philosophy as well. This blended and fundamentally optimistic view of humankind was a counterbalance to the views of humans during and after the Cultural Revolutions.

Li Zehou's analysis of Marxist philosophy and political theory developed the following philosophical concepts:

Practical Philosophy of Subjectivity[edit]

The “Practical Philosophy of Subjectivity” is the study of the human being on two levels, each level with its own internal additional two sub-levels of content: 1) that of humankind, with both a techno-social structure and a “cultural-psychological” formation; and, 2) that of the individual, at once a member of a society, a social class, an ethnicity, etc., and at the same time a distinct body and mind. These four dimensions interact and are interwoven.

With this construct of “Subjectivity,” the most fundamental dimension is the technosocial. “Human beings first need to ensure their bodily existence before they can occupy themselves with other matters.” But the cultural-psychological aspect, ritual, communal and linguistic dimension separates humans from animals.[6]

Motor Thinking[edit]

Motor Thinking is the conscious coordination of using a tool. To elaborate, the use of tools is not an instinctive biological activity, but rather one “attained and consolidated through a long period of posteriori learning from experience.” The Motor Thinking process creates self-consciousness arising from the attention paid to tool making. Transmission of tool based activities to others, using primitive language, results in semantic thinking: “The forms of motor thinking gradually made way for the forms of language-led thought.” Coupled with primitive language, motor thinking ultimately results in the creation of a “vague, common consciousness of being a community.” which develops into the “symbolic tools of shamanic rites and ceremonies resulting in the establishment of primitive human society… fundamentally different from that of the animals.” [7]

Chinese Aesthetics and the Relation to Freedom[edit]

Li identifies four features that sum up his views on Chinese aesthetics. The concept of Music/Joy (乐: Yue/Le) holds a central place in Chinese culture, “Music is joy.” Music has a civilizing effect and “prevents human emotions from developing in an animal-like fashion.” Music causes “people to be on good terms with each other, promoting harmony in society.” Music is linear, flows in time, and expresses emotion. From this linearity derives the second feature of Chinese aesthetics – the importance of the line in Chinese art. Li recalls that Immanuel Kant also felt was the superior aesthetic visual format. (Chinese art also emphasizes the expression of emotion and pays particular attention to rhythm, rhyme and flavor.) He then goes on to describe the third element which is the blending of feeling and reason: "imaginative reality is more significant than sensible reality." Finally, he lists the "union of heaven and humankind" and describes it as the "fundamental spirit of Chinese philosophy...the relation between human and human, and between humankind and nature." He then proclaims that "to roam with the arts" is essential to the attainment of freedom. Freedom is neither heaven-sent nor given at birth as Rousseau suggested. Freedom is established by humankind..." For Li, aesthetics are important![8]

Impact on Conventional Chinese Thought[edit]

Li also wrote critiques of contemporary Chinese thought in the second half of the 1980’s. Li Zehou’s 1987 essay “The Western is the Substance, and the Chinese is for Application,” turned conventional contemporary Chinese thought on its head. Li stated that Western Learning encompasses technology as well as conceptual systems and philosophies including Marxism and is the pluralistic and diverse technosocial basis of modern-day China’s reality. Li Zehou concluded that the Chinese application should adapt Western Learning with Chinese traditions, influencing but not dictating the results. To paraphrase, the goal of this examination synthesis should preserve in ethics the strength and splendor of giving precedence to others before oneself; should preserve the value of intuition within the process of reasoning, and should preserve the rich Chinese culture with regard to the handling of inter-human relationships.[9]

In "Dual Variation of Enlightenment and Nationalism", Li Zehou argues that all modern concepts such as freedom, independence human rights, which were discarded after 1919, and all Chinese traditions should be analyzed and investigated. He wrote that following a relatively long period of peace, developing prosperity and modernization, China would benefit from an examination of the West’s “centuries of experience in political-legal theory and practice such as the separations of the three powers.” He foresaw that the concept of freedom limited by law would protect the weak and prevent Party officials standing above the law.[10]


  • The Path of Beauty: A Study of Chinese Aesthetics, Oxford University Press, 1988
  • Four Essays on Aesthetics: Toward a Global Perspective, by Li Zehou and Jane Cauvel, Lexington Books, 2006
  • The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition, by Li Zehou and Maija Bell Samei, University of Hawai'i Press, 2010


External links[edit]

  1. ^Anthony Blencowe Li Zehou, Confucius and Continuity with the Past in Contemporary ChinaArchived 24 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine.. Centre for Asian Studies. University of Adelaide 1993
  2. ^ ab"Li Zehou, The Confucian World". Archived from the original on 30 May 2010. Retrieved 8 October 2010.  . coloradocollege.edu
  3. ^"The Transformative Power of Art: LI Zehou's Aesthetic Theory", Jane Cauvel; Philosophy East & West, Vol. 49, 1999
  4. ^From M.E Sharp,Inc., book publishers, "Contemporary Chinese Thought", Volume 31, Number 2 / Winter 1999–2000, Pages: 3 – 19
  5. ^A biographical introduction from a Source Cultures in the 21st Century:Conflicts &Convergences A Symposium Celebrating the 125th Anniversary of The Colorado College 4–6 February 1999
  6. ^"A Supplementary Explanation of Subjectivity" (originally published in 1987), M.E Sharp,Inc., from Summaries of Essays published in "Contemporary Chinese Thought", Volume 31, Number 2 / Winter 1999–2000, Pages 26–31,translated by Peter Wong Yih Jiun
  7. ^An Outline of the Origin of Humankind (Originally published in 1985), M.E Sharp,Inc., Summaries of Essays published in "Contemporary Chinese Thought", Volume 31, Number 2 / Winter 1999–2000 Pages 20 -26 translated by Peter Wong Yih Jiun.
  8. ^"A few Questions Concerning the History of Chinese Aesthetics" (originally published in 1985), M.E Sharp,Inc., Summaries of Essays published in "Contemporary Chinese Thought" Volume 31, Number 2 / Winter 1999–2000, pages 66–78 translated by Peter Wong Yih Jiun.
  9. ^"The Western is the Substance and the Chinese is for Application" (Originally published in 1987), M.E Sharp,Inc., Summaries of Essays published in "Contemporary Chinese Thought" Volume 31, Number 2 / Winter 1999–2000 Pages 32–39,
  10. ^"Dual Variation of Enlightenment and Nationalism" (Originally published in 1987), M.E Sharp,Inc., Summaries of Essays published in "Contemporary Chinese Thought" Volume 31, Number 2 / Winter 1999–2000 Pages 40 to 43

A classic in Chinese Philosophy of Aesthetics for the last twenty years, Li Zehou's Four Essays on Aesthetics (Meixue-sijiang) is finally translated in English to bring philosophical insight to Western readers. Li's seminal work focuses on the widely debated philosophies in China concerning the origins, manifestations, importance, and transformative power of beauty, art, and aesthetic experiences. Drawing upon the influences of both Eastern and Western philosophers and writers, Li discusses the origination of the practices of beauty and aesthetics, and the origins of art credited to Shamanistic rituals, while rejecting the concepts of Western aesthetics and embracing the traditional Chinese purpose for art: to mold human minds. He stresses the importance of the involvement of aesthetic philosophers to advocate technology and aspects of society that will contribute to the harmony among individuals, environments, and social relationships. Begun as a series of engaging conversations, Li Zehou and Jane Cauvel reveal their philosophical presuppositions and expose a deeper, cross-cultural understanding of the philosophy of aesthetics. Their ground breaking work creates a bridge between the traditional and the modern, the East and the West, and brings us one step closer to understanding the beauty in human nature.

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