Incense at the Altar

Book Review
Incense at the Altar: Pioneering Sinologists and the Development of Classical Chinese Philology by David B. Honey

David B. Honey wrote this book for me. Not that I know him personally. What I mean is, as a first-year graduate student in Chinese literature at a major university (Princeton), I am his ideal reader. I am young, impressionable, with a keen interest in sinological issues. I got my M.A. under the tutelage of one of the people acknowledged in the “Acknowledgements” section (Paul Kroll). If anyone should benefit from an overview of the history of Chinese philology in the West, I should.

And indeed, Incense at the Altar provides much useful information: brief intellectual biographies of many major figures, from Matteo Ricci and his Jesuit missionary compadres down to a whole host of twentieth century professors. Furthermore, in grouping his survey by nation, one sees how sinology developed linearly within each country (if at the cost of a clear overall picture).

However, Honey’s book is a history only in appearance. In fact, it’s a polemic against the growth of “Area Studies,” seen here as the social sciences’ infringement upon the pure field of classic philology (i.e., study through extremely close reading of specific texts, with due attention to linguistic concerns). The evil turn toward the social sciences began after World War II created a sense of urgency, a need to study the present, amongst Orient-oriented scholars. Therefore, people focused more and more on recent times (19th century and later) and employed the methodologies of the soft sciences – all to the detriment of close investigation of the classics.

Honey sees it as his task to praise the scholars of old as the standard by which we latecomers should judge ourselves. He becomes particularly eulogistic when discussing his own teachers, those Berkeley powerhouses Peter Boodberg and Edward Schafer. These men (and they are always men) adhered to higher principles, and today’s decadent China scholars (who are more specialized, well-versed in methods of history, sociology, anthropology, religious studies, or comparative literature, rather than philology) ought to know that their forefathers are frowning on them.

All this is, of course, nonsense, and has been pointed out as such by other reviewers (e.g., Edwin Pulleyblank in Journal of the American Oriental Society 122.3, David Ownby in T’oung Pao 90.4/5). Personally, I have great admiration for my philologist forebears, with their precision and humanist spirit, and sympathy for Honey’s admonition to listen to the past masters. However, the dichotomy between “philology” and “social sciences” is a false one. Moreover, it is a tired one. As Charles Hartman writes in his review in Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews 23, “Honey jousts with windmills so old they have ceased even to turn.” Having been born around the time this debate concluded, I can only agree with Hartman.

Yet, as Honey himself recognizes, his task is merely a preliminary one, notes toward a history of the field, not intended to be comprehensive. Keeping this in mind (and lacking other places to turn), Incense at the Altar is a success, a place to begin one’s exploration of the field, a reminder to us upcoming sinologists to remember the labors of our fathers. However, our journey cannot end there; we must keep in mind both parts of Confucius’ dictum from Analects 2.11: 溫故而知新。”Keep warm the old while knowing the new.”

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