An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Chen Li 陳澧

Feb 20, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Chen Li 陳澧 (1810-1882), courtesy name Chen Lanfu 陳蘭甫, style Dongshu 東塾, was a philosopher and scholar of the late Qing period 清 (1644-1911). He hailed from Fanyu 番禺, Guangdong, and participated six times in the metropolitan state examination (huishi 會試), but failed each time. Unable to be appointed to a state office, he therefore lived as a teacher, first in Heyuan 河源, and was later senior teacher of the Xuehai School 學海堂 in Guangzhou 廣州. In his later years, he was a visiting teacher at the Jupi Jingshe Academy 菊坡精舍. For his high credits in education he was in 1881 awarded a brevet title (qing xian 卿銜) of the fifth official degree.

Chen's main proposition was that the true Confucian scholar would refrain from preferring either the Neo-Confucian tradition from the Song period 宋 (960-1279) or the early teachings of the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) masters. For him, both traditions strongly participated to Confucian life. They had both their strengths and shortcomings.

Chen Li ended the long-time exclusive tendency to the so-called "Han studies" (Hanxue 漢學) that had prevailed from the early 18th century on. His argument was that the scholars of the Qian-Jia school 乾嘉學派 (during the Qianlong 乾隆 and Jiaqing 嘉慶 reigns), in order to re-interprete Han period commentaries and writings, mostly engaged in philological studies and the analysis of Chinese characters and their meaning. This detailed analysis occupied Confucian scholars so much that they had lost sight on questions of daily matters and anatomized the ancient writings instead of presenting suggestions for a modern society.

Chen Li argued that it was important to study the Confucian Classics, but their moral and social intention was to be found out. The meaning of propriety (yi 義) and universal order (li 理) would critically supplement the findings of the Han studies. Chen Li also criticized the lopsided preference for the Gongyang Commentary 公羊傳 to the Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals" themselves. He found the Han period scholar He Xiu's 何休 exaggerated interpretation of each single word likewise inappropriate as Liu Fenglu's 劉逢祿 (around 1800) arbitrary disputes about the great meaning of this writing. Chen even called Liu's propositions as contrary to Confucian thought.

Chen Li concluded that the practical interpretations of the Confucian writings made by early Qing period scholars like Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲 (1610-1695), Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613-1682) or Yan Yuan 顔元 (1635-1704) were much more helpful than the philological studies of later times.

The main writings of Chen Li are Dongshu dushu ji 東塾讀書記, Hanru tongyi 漢儒通義 and Jingxun biyi 經馴比義.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 273.