Sincerity or Social Harmony? A Problem of Peer Disagreement in Ming Dynasty China



Dr Esther Klein


Seminar Room 1.04, Coombs Extension Building (8), Fellows Road, ANU


Thursday, 23 May, 2019 - 15:30 to 16:30

Sincere individual self-expression is often in tension with social harmony. A famous Ming dynasty exchange between Li Zhi (1527–1602) and his former friend Geng Dingxiang brings this tension into sharp relief. Li Zhi’s perspective in these letters, elaborated in his deliberately provocative A Book To Burn (1590) feels surprisingly modern; it is rare to find a premodern Chinese thinker who argues for gender equality and political liberalism. Geng’s side of the argument is harder to recover, partly because he left much of it implicit. I will argue that Geng endorses a species of perfectionism, albeit one that is more sensitive to individualist concerns than the standard Confucian story. Geng's perfectionism, while less fashionable these days, has underappreciated resources with which to answer and critique Li Zhi. I will conclude by arguing that some of these resources can fruitfully be brought to bear on troubling contemporary versions of this debate, such as attacks on ‘political correctness’.

Preceded by a pre-talk for graduate students, from 1:30-3PM in the Benjamin Library, and followed by drinks and then dinner. Please sign up for dinner on the Thursday Seminar Dinner signup sheet, which can be found here:

About the speaker

Esther Klein received her BA in Literature from Harvard University in 1997, an MA in East Asian Languages and Literatures from the University of Oregon to 2002, and a PhD from Princeton University in 2010. Her supervisor was Martin Kern, and her dissertation research was on early Chinese historical narrative with particular focus on Sima Qian and the Shiji. Her research interests are early Chinese historiography and historical narrative, the Warring States, Qin, and Han intellectual history, and early Chinese textual history and commentarial practices

She is a lecturer at the University of Sydney but she is currently a visiting academic at the Australian Centre on China in the World and the School of Philosophy, ANU.

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