Three Streams

Confucian Reflections on Learning and the Moral Heart-Mind in China, Korea, and Japan

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Philip J. Ivanhoe
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Three Streams: Confucian Reflections on Learning and the Moral Heart-Mind in China, Korea, and Japan, by Philip J. Ivanhoe, evenly splits its time between the three countries, with an almost identical page count for each. However, the same cannot be said for schools of thought within the countries, as one of them is mostly ignored in the Korean context. This is a symptom of Korea’s history with Confucianism, rather than Ivanhoe ignoring the subject.

Alongside the divide of China, Korea, and Japan, there is a further separation between Cheng-Zhu, Lu-Wang, and what Ivanhoe calls “textual-critical” Confucian schools of thought. The first two are primarily differentiated by metaphysical considerations, while the third is considered to be going back to the basics of Confucianism and is primarily concerned with the works of Kongzi and Mengzi. Both China and Japan are represented by one scholar from each of these. Korea, on the other hand, did not have a strong Lu-Wang school presence. Therefore, the part on Korea contains a chapter for a textual-critical scholar and two chapters on historical debates, each featuring two scholars from the Cheng-Zhu school.

By no means is this book intended as an introduction to Confucianism or even to the scholars and schools presented. While each is given a short biographical introduction, their general views outside of morality and methods of learning are not presented. Similarly, the classics of Confucianism are only explained insofar as they pertain to the book’s subject matter. There is a strong reliance on the reader’s foreknowledge, which helps to keep Three Streams at a manageably short length. While it does provide helpful resources in the endnotes for further exploring ideas not elaborated upon, a newcomer to Confucianism would likely have difficulty.

Similarly, Ivanhoe references many Western philosophers and systems of thought throughout the book with an expectation of familiarity. Readers without experience reading Immanuel Kant, the Sentimentalist school of thought, and other philosophers and schools would likewise find parts of the book somewhat challenging, but they would be left with a list of further reading in case they wanted to fully understand the allusions given.

Overall, Three Streams does contain a great deal of variety within its narrow subject matter. While there are many interesting topics brought up in the book, one of the standouts is the firmly theological framework, within which some of the scholars worked. While not unheard of in Confucianism, theology is rarely discussed in scholarship. It is a refreshing change to read about Jeong Yakyong (Dasan) and Nakae Tōju, with their ideas of Heaven or The Lord on High being an object of reverence as a creator of humanity, and therefore something akin to a parent. Another chapter includes what could be looked at as a Confucian argument for veganism.

Throughout the book, when there are terms with no English equivalent, Ivanhoe uses the language of the chapter’s country, rather than Chinese for all of them. This is excellent, considering that the context behind language usage was different in the three countries. The Chinese reading is periodically used in the Korean and Japanese chapters, but as it was the scholarly source language for the writers Ivanhoe discusses, that is entirely reasonable. Readers familiar only with one of the languages, or who only know English, should take special care when a new term is used in another language. Seeing a Korean term for a concept will do little for readers who do not know Korean and forget a term just a few pages after it is defined.

For readers with an exclusive interest in Korean or Japanese Confucianism, the book may also be somewhat frustrating. The method of writing does not allow for skipping chapters or only reading the entry for one country, scholar, or school of thought. Instead, each chapter builds upon the previous ones, which would leave gaps in information. At its most extreme, Itō Jinasi, the final textual-critical scholar, is never specifically mentioned to be such in his own chapter. While it is mentioned there that he was interested in the Cheng-Zhu school of thought in his youth, it is in the chapters on Chinese and Korean textual-critical scholars that Jinsai is called “textual-critical.” One could infer his alignment from the title of the school he founded, “The Hall of Ancient Meaning,” but such an inference is reliant on prior knowledge.

The editing in the book is well done, with very few mistakes throughout. Ivanhoe’s writing style is somewhat difficult, with extremely long sentences—sentences which occupy eight lines of text are by no means uncommon. But this can be managed with careful reading. Likewise, there are many sentences where an additional comma or two could improve ease of understanding for the reader. Such sentences are grammatical, but would be more easily understood if broken up more.

There are occasional loose threads or unusually phrased bits of information in the book. In chapter 9, Ivanhoe writes, “In1666, Jinsai married Ogata Kana, who would prove to be the love of his life . . .” (157). This is never elaborated upon. She dies in the next sentence and Jinsai remarries three years later, after the prescribed Confucian mourning period. While this may or may not play out in Jinsai’s own writings, it does not do so here. Inclusion of such sentences does not detract from the overall work, but they do occasionally come off as strange.

Who is the intended audience for Three Streams? Most likely, the target is not someone new to Confucianism in general. However, people with at least a medium level of experience with the tradition would benefit a great deal from reading. Moreover, instructors who teach introductory classes dealing with Confucianism would find much interesting material for sparking debate within the book. Ivanhoe’s work can be an excellent addition to one’s library, if used correctly.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kenneth J. Valencich is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
June 10, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip J. Ivanhoe (Ph.D. Stanford University) is Chair Professor of East Asian and Comparative Philosophy and Religion at City University of Hong Kong, where he also serves as director of the Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy (CEACOP), the Laboratory on Korean Philosophy in Comparative Perspectives, and the project Eastern and Western Conceptions of Oneness, Virtue, and Human Happiness. He specializes in the history of East Asian philosophy and religion and its potential for contemporary ethics.



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