Viewed from the outside, intellectual life in China today can seem threadbare. On one side, a brutish government demands credence but offers little in the way of serious content; on the other, sarcasm and double entendre on the internet suggest that deeper thinking is going on somewhere but is hidden from view. Academic journals are filled with mediocre work done for promotions and CV-burnishing. So is Chinese thinking dead? No, actually. Quite a few historians, literary scholars, and others, away from the spotlights, are doing serious thinking and writing—more than one might imagine. Xu Jilin, an intellectual historian at East China Normal University, is one, and the Western world owes a tremendous debt to David Ownby for translating and publishing Xu and others like him.

Chapter 7 of the present book, on “two kinds of enlightenment,” is a mini-masterpiece, both edifying and...

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