A Ku Indeed!

Teaching Chinese Philosophy

Posted in Chinese Philosophy, Course Material, Pedagogy by Chris on November 29, 2008

In the last few days I’ve learned that Tsinghua may not want me to teach the culture class I was scheduled for next semester — instead they want me to teach Chinese Philosophy. This is fine with me, and would likely be a lot of fun, but I’ve never taught this as a standalone course. Instead, I’ve taught courses that deal with a focused area within Chinese philosophy (such as my “Confucian Virtue Ethics” course) or that deal with a wider Asian theme (such as my “Asian Ethics” course that also covers Indian thinkers). So if I do wind up teaching this course, I’ll have to build it quickly, which means selecting the right books and figuring out which thinkers to cover.

1. Who?

I would certainly stick with pre-Qin, as I don’t feel confident with the neo-Confucians at this point (maybe after sabbatical). So this leaves the big seven: Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, Mozi, Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Han Feizi. Given the total hours of the course over the semester (2 credit hours a week), I don’t think I could cover all seven without being overly superficial. Five seems more reasonable. I certainly would cover Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi and Laozi. Which one of the remaining three? Mozi?

Of course, if anyone has a different set of five that they would cover, I’d be interested in seeing which five of the seven you’d pick, and why.

2. Primary Texts

I’m pretty sure that — although I am not a fan of reading “selections” from works — I would use Ivanhoe’s and Van Norden’s Classics of Chinese Philosophy. Unless there are some better ones out there? I’d prefer to have an anthology, just to make things easier given the situation.

3. Secondary Texts

I’ve used Joel’s (Kupperman) book before, Classic Asian Philosophy, and found it helpful (in “Asian Ethics”), but I need something more in-depth for a course like this (also, Joel’s book doesn’t cover all the authors I would teach). Looking around, I’ve come across three, but I’m not familiar with any of them. They are:

1. Fung Yu-Lan’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (1948, reprinted 1997). I know many people like the book, but it seems more theme based and covers lots of topics I would likely skip over. So is it a good book to use as a secondary text if you just want to move from author to author?

2. JeeLoo Liu’s An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy (2006). Shirong Luo seems to like the book as a whole, even if he has some quibbles with the particular arguments or interpretations Liu advances. Luo dislikes the fact that the book fails to cover neo-Confucianism, but I only intend on covering pre-Qin, so that’s fine by me.

3. Karen Lai’s An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy (2008). Couldn’t uncover any thing about this one – it might be too new.

If anyone has any ideas on any of these different questions, I’d be grateful!


16 Responses

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  1. Bill Haines said, on November 29, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    I think Fung Yu-lan (shorter) is too simple on the ancients for your purposes. I haven’t seen the Liu. I’ve leafed through the Lai, and it seems very nicely balanced, clear, accessible, and well-considered But someone recalled it to the library so I can’t look closer. I wonder how much the Tsinghua students can afford to pay for books.

  2. Chris said, on November 29, 2008 at 7:01 pm


    I had a similar concern about book prices and the Tsinghua students. I’ve asked the folks there about this a few times, but I’ve never really gotten a clear answer that addresses the worry head on, so I am unsure how to proceed. I’d ask what the situation seems to be there in Hong Kong, but I’m guessing the situation just isn’t analogous. You did teach for a semester at Beida though, no? What was your experience with this?

  3. Bill Haines said, on November 29, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    That was in 1990, so it’s not comparable. I just gave out xeroxes. Don’t tell the fuzz.

    You might want your secondary reading to be bits of Western philosophical background. Eg: Since we’re going to talk about whether Mencius is a virtue theorist, what’s virtue theory?

    Ivanhoe’s quick survey of Confucianism is very nice, though it too may be too quick pre-Qin, and philosophically less stark than one might want. The SEP has some very good stuff on Chinese philosophy, and it’s all free.

  4. Manyul Im said, on November 29, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    I’m working on a review of Lai’s textbook–as in I need to do it soon for NDPR. I’ve only looked quickly through it so far. It really only covers the pre-Qin material; to that extent, it might work better for you than Liu’s (which attempts to cover the whole history, including Chinese Buddhism).

    I’ll let you know when the NDPR review is available. Basically I need to get it done in the next two weeks or so.

  5. Alexus McLeod said, on November 29, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    I’ll second Bill on the shorter Fung book being too simple. Probably my favorite secondary overview is A.C. Graham’s “Disputers of the Tao”. It’s not the best on everything (pretty weak on the Confucians and much better on the Mohists and Daoists, IMO), but as a whole I think it’s great. I’ve heard mixed reviews of Liu’s book, but I’ve only glanced at it briefly myself. I have some issues with some of what I read, but I don’t want to pass judgment on the book as a whole.

  6. Alexus McLeod said, on November 29, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    Oh–and also, to your “of the remaining three” question in part one–I’d suggest Mozi. It’s dry and repetitive and boring as hell, but it’s the missing link in the four you’re definitely including. Han Fei can probably be collapsed into discussion of issues in Xunzi, and Zhuangzi into Laozi (even though I may get in trouble with some for saying that!), but including Mozi along with some daoist stuff (though maybe Zhuangzi would even be better than Laozi for this) will help to situate what’s going on in Mencius and Xunzi.

  7. Bill Haines said, on November 29, 2008 at 11:46 pm

    I agree about Mozi.

  8. Steve Angle said, on November 30, 2008 at 7:12 am

    Hi Chris — Gotta go with Mozi, for Alexus’s reasons. As for aditional readings, I’m not sure a full book makes sense, if it’s not going to be closely integrated into the approach you take to the class. Instead, you might choose a series of short readings that you feel are exemplary of either your own approach, and/or of significant US or European approaches to the text in question. One of the things that should be interesting to students about your teaching a class on Chinese philosophy in Beijing is what these texts look like to a US philosopher.

    If you like this idea, maybe you could poll your audience for suggested essays or book chapters to assign? (I imagine the NEH bibliography has some good ideas, too.)

    One more thing: in terms of general questions about how much and what kind of readings to assign (how many books, etc.), best to go to the source. Why not ask Daniel (soon to be colleague) what he thinks?

  9. Chris said, on November 30, 2008 at 7:24 am


    On Mozi – that was my thinking too, which was why I suggested him as the #5. I figured that if I wanted, I could spend a day covering a short section of Zhuangzi while doing the TTJ.


    First — is there a Chinese fuzz for copyright violations? I thought that instead they had government offices dedicated to facilitating such actions!

    Second — I think your internet idea is great — I hadn’t thought of that. I looked briefly over the SEP and IEP pieces on the relevant figures, and I think there’s enough there to just have them use these sources. A few of these pieces are excellently detailed — such as Chris Fraser’s SEP article on Mohism. Some of the SEP pieces, though, are a little bare (it would be nice if the authors revisited them), but where they are, the IEP pieces usually help to complete the picture. An exception is Confucius — in both places the pieces are too short, I think. When this happens, though, I can always make copies of a chapter from one of the above secondary texts.


    That’s great! I’ll likely pick up all the texts above in any case and read them through. It will be helpful to have your review on hand when I read Lai’s.

  10. Chris said, on November 30, 2008 at 7:46 am


    Nice to hear from you! I missed your post — I think we cross-posted at the same time.

    I agree about the concerns of using a full secondary book that doesn’t match exactly my own approach. I think Bill’s internet suggestion works well to allow students to read something to get “the basics”. Beyond that, I think some xeroxed short pieces that seem more tailored to my own approach would be a good idea.

    I couldn’t agree more on your point about the cultural interaction. I was thinking about this the other day — I figured one of the most interesting things about such a course (in this context) would be for the Tsinghua students to see how a US philosopher reads and thinks about these texts, but also it would be very intriguing for me to see how _they_ read them as Chinese students, no doubt providing opportunities for me to rethink some of my own assumptions about the texts.

    Speaking of this, by the way, I recall once talking to Henry (Rosemont) about his own experiences teaching and presenting his own work in China. He said that he always feels a bit odd, perhaps a bit like an interloper, as in “here comes that American again looking to tell us what our texts mean.” I have no doubt that I’ll experience a bit of that as well.

    Great idea about contacting Daniel. I was dealing with the “regular channels” over there by email, but it would be so much easier to just ask him. I’ll do that.

  11. Bao Pu said, on December 1, 2008 at 6:25 am

    Hi Chris,

    You know, I think you should cover Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Laozi and Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi has been of real interest to philosophers in the past 20 years, with lots of papers and several books (full of papers) in them. Someone who asked “What way do I have of knowing that if I say I know something I don’t really not know it? Or what way do I have of knowing that if I say I don’t know something I don’t really in fact know it? (Watson) should be talked about, imo. I quite like Xunzi, but if you can only have five, then …

    Or maybe, give short treatments of him and Laozi, and “full” treatments of the others?

    I think using Ivanhoe’s and Van Norden’s Classics of Chinese Philosophy is a good idea.
    Fung Yu-Lan’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy is not bad, but a bit outdated I think.
    If I recall correctly, I didn’t like the interpretation of Laozi in JeeLoo Liu’s An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy. Or was it Zhuangzi? I can’t remember.

    Bob Eno has a bunch of “free stuff” on his website that he uses for teaching. I don’t know if that would be inappropriate for you to use. http://www.indiana.edu/~ealc/people/faculty/individual/eno.html
    The Stanford articles are quite well-written imo.

    I’ll second Alexus’ recommendation of A.C. Graham’s Disputers of the Tao. Another book I think has some important stuff in it is Donald Munro’s The Concept of Man in Early China (1969). And if you’re going to talk about Mencius on Human Nature, I’ve just read Michael LaFargue’s review of Alan Kam-leung Chan’s Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations and, for what it’s worth, I think it’s a must-read. It was published in China Review International, Vol. 10, 2003 and is available online:

    Health, Happiness, and Harmony,

  12. Bill Haines said, on December 1, 2008 at 6:47 am

    When I was at Beida, Zhuangzi was popular among students, and I don’t think Xunzi was.

  13. Chris said, on December 1, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    Bao Pu,

    I must confess that my inclusion of Xunzi is partly (not solely) due to the fact that I like him quite a bit. So some personal bias is seeping in.

    I’ll rethink Zhuangzi. It should be easy enough to shorten Laozi to include Zhuangzi in an overall unit on Taoism. In fact, I have a friend who is on the faculty at Tsinghua (not in philosophy) who is a Taoist and quite a fan of Zhuangzi; he might be willing to come in and visit with the class to talk about his own take on his thought.

    I’ll certainly pick up the Yu-lan for myself, at least. I realize it is old, but I’ve heard many say good things about it, so I’ll keep it for private reading.

    Thanks for the link to Eno’s website! He has some great teaching aids there (the subject explanations seem excellent, and I especially like the questions at the end). Are those Eno’s writings, or did he PDF someone else’s work? In any event, I’ll scan through this over the break. If some things seem to work with what I’ll teach, I’ll send him an email and see if he minds me directing students there to read what he has up on PDF. Thanks for the heads up!

    I’ve bookmarked the review too, to check out after finals week.

    Thanks again!

  14. Bao Pu said, on December 2, 2008 at 9:59 pm

    Hi Chris,

    I understand about Xunzi. Alot can definitely be talked about in his philosophy. I’ll confess I’m biased towards Daoism and felt your choices were too heavy on the Confucianism. 😉

    Those are Eno’s writings. He says they were rushed in order to put together something quick for his classes. Pretty darn good for rushed work.


  15. Chris said, on December 3, 2008 at 6:33 am

    Rushed? “Something quick”? I wish my slow and patiently written material came out as good. 🙂

  16. Alan said, on December 9, 2008 at 6:11 am

    For a secondary thing have you looked at Allen’s Way of Water and Sprouts of Virtue? My students liked it a lot in part because it is short and in part because it focuses on similarities, making it easier to tie things together. It might be o.k. to just give them a few chapters.

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