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Research and Reflections on Zhang Taiyan

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image of Frontiers of Literary Studies in China

Historians generally describe Zhang Taiyan 章太炎 (Binglin 炳麟, 1869–1936) as an anti-Manchu revolutionary and treat his Buddhism as subordinate to this larger political project. Far less commonly understood is Zhang’s role in preparing the groundwork for the establishment of Chinese philosophy as an academic discipline. Against the backdrop of an intellectual climate in Japan and China during the decades either side of 1900, in which a premium had come to be placed on logic as a precondition for the development of philosophy, Zhang was one of the first Chinese intellectuals to follow the lead of Japanese scholars in maintaining that classical Chinese philosophers had developed indigenous forms of logic. Significantly, he further argued that Chinese versions of Yogācāra texts on Buddhist logic and epistemology (yinming 因明; Skt. hetu-vidyā) made it possible once again to gain a proper understanding of China’s earliest writings on logic. In this paper I argue that Zhang sought to establish that early Chinese texts “bear witness” to insights into realities that transcend individual cultures but are most fully and systematically articulated in Yogācāra systems of learning; and that classical Chinese philosopher-sages had attained an awareness of the highest truths, evidence of which can be found in their writings. In short, I will show that Zhang used Yogācāra to affirm the value of “Chinese philosophy” and, in doing so, helped shape its early definition.


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