A Ku Indeed!

Encountering Asian Philosophy

Posted in Analects, Buddhism, Chinese Philosophy, Mencius, Taoism, Xunzi by Chris on December 1, 2008

In the comments section of my previous post on Teaching Chinese Philosophy, Bill Haines mentioned that during his experience teaching at Beida in 1990, students seemed more to enjoy Zhuangzi than Xunzi. His point has made me think a bit about the reactions students have to different Asian philosophies, and about what motivates those different reactions.

Let’s take my current course, “Asian Ethics” as an example. In the class, students read (in entirety) the Analects, the Tao Te Ching, the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita. My impression here is that my students have a slight preference for Laozi over Confucius, with the Dhammapada and Gita coming in distant third and fourth place.

My guess — and that’s all it is — is that the Laozi/Kongzi split comes down on fairly intuitive lines. Those who favor the Analects have strong societal bonds, or at least feel that they are integral to a life well-spent; perhaps, in addition, they feel very close to family and so are attracted to what the text says on this. Those who prefer Laozi seem to appreciate the more lively sense of relativity found there, and perhaps are attracted to the focus on nature and on the emphasis on “letting go”. I’m not sure.

On the other hand, students tend to find the Dhammapada to be too austere and demanding, and they sense a kind of abdication of humanity (in their way of understanding what it means to be human, anyway). The Gita, surprisingly enough — especially for my students in the Bible Belt — seems just too fanatical. Perhaps it, unlike the other three, is too abstract and philosophical.

In the end, Analects and Tao Te Ching are closest to what my students seem to think life is like, or at least closest to what they think life should be like. Buddhism and Hinduism are furthest away.

I’m curious what the experiences of others reading this happen to be. Some reading are students (or lay readers) — what is your own impression? Who appeals to you the most? Who the least? Why? Others reading are teachers — what do you sense in your own classes? Of course, there are some I haven’t mentioned — Mencius, Xunzi, Han Fei, Zhuangzi — I’d be curious what the reaction to these thinkers is as well.

Part of my motivation for thinking about this question is simple curiosity — I find it interesting to see how students react to different thinkers, and why. Another reason is that I am curious whether the reactions of my American (Bible Belted) students will differ from the reactions of Tsinghua students. Is age a solid predictor of reactions to these thinkers across cultural lines? Or does cultural difference play a significant role? Even if Tsinghua students preferred Laozi to Kongzi, say, would it be for similar reasons? Or something different?

As an aside — and to Bill specifically — I am curious why you think Beida students in 1990 prefered Zhuangzi to Xunzi. I also wonder whether you think that the time you taught there — 1990 — played any role here, given that Tianammen Square was merely one year earlier. I’m just speculating here, of course, but it was a monumental event, and I wonder if it weighed on the minds of young Chinese, especially in the same city, no doubt knowing people involved, in a way that would affect how they read and reacted to these thinkers.

As is typical in one of my posts, a lot of questions, but without many answers. Anyone have any opinions?


17 Responses

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  1. Mark said, on December 1, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    I had a bunch of mixed reactions to the different philosophies when I read the texts. I HATED Confucianism for a long time. It took me a while to be able to appreciate concepts like Li and the constant relationships. All I heard was “follow these rules,” and that really bothered me. Confucian Virtue Ethics gave me a much deeper appreciation of the Analects though, and now I can’t really help but see life through that lens.

    I liked the Tao for its mysterious qualities and for it’s emphasis on just letting things happen the way they happen, but it bothered me in its density. I had to read and reread passages a thousand times before I was able to have any idea what they were talking about. Laziness tends to win out with students and I’m no exception.

    Buddhism was great, but I wonder if that’s because I had Esposito teach it to me. Something about being taught something by someone who is really passionate about it tends to sway people (which might be another reason why I appreciate Confucianism so much). From talking with students in your Asian Ethics course, they don’t like it because they feel like it requires you to remove yourself from what you love and live dispassionately, but I think that’s a misreading of the texts.

    The Gita was my favorite for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s easy, exciting, and accessible to read. It practically reads itself. Second, I love monism. The idea that we’re all just one thing has some really cool humanitarian purposes. Thirdly, I think the Atman is a very intuitive concept for Westerners (I don’t know how that will transfer to Asian students).

    Hope that helps at all. It wasn’t as focused as I’d hoped it would be!

  2. Bill Haines said, on December 2, 2008 at 12:38 am

    My Beida course was on Western phil. That was just a few months after the crackdown, which was very much on everyone’s mind. There was lots of talk about the heroism of hopeless causes; only the following year (after I left) did the general mood turn toward partying ’til it’s 1999. My sense was that Zhuangzi was simply an enduring favorite, something people loved. I find it hard to imagine feeling that way about Xunzi.

    I’ve done surveys of Asian or Chinese thought at various places, for Americans with no previous exposure. I’ve always stuck to primary texts. That’s what I’ve done teaching Mencius here at HKU, and I imagine it’s what I’d do at Tsinghua too. I think students need to learn to read things with their own eyes, and that the other lessons of a course are less important. I see that there are perfectly good arguments for other approaches though.

  3. Shellie said, on December 2, 2008 at 2:43 am

    I think it is “cultural difference play a significant role” and age is irrelevant.

    -Chinese culture-
    1. Most Chinese people believes in reincarnation. Thus, it makes sense if Tsinghua students prefers Laozi to Kongzi due to believes in reincarnation because of culture.
    2. A really popular pop song in China since 2002 ( do not quote me on date) is a love song titled, “下辈子如果我还记得你” = “if I still remember you in my next life” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOTf1D_3wB0).
    3. Chinese people uses the word “缘分” (yuan fen/fate) to describe his/her relationship with someone which they’ve encountered and had positive feelings towards.
    4. Much of Chinese language and Chinese proverbs also has Buddhist/taoist/confuses sayings inside of them. Eg. 十年修得同船渡,百年修得共枕眠 = 10 years of praying together, then one would be on the same boat with the person which they’ve prayed together with. 100 years of praying together, then one would be able to share the same bed with the one which they’ve prayed together with for 100 years.
    Eg. 2:君子坦荡荡,小人常戚戚 = respected feel safe and do not worry. the small minded worries and hides. (Song about a girl wanting respected in love: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kr4e4ktlDrc)
    5. Chinese media-Chinese drama: An perfect example of a drama regarding the teachings of Buddhism and life is in 再世情缘(reincarnated love). The monk says this famous quote “而爱情看破了,不过是聚散” = if one can openly look at love, it is nothing but leaving and coming back. So, the monk choices to not marry and preachy his believes to everyone, so they can look at life open intendedly. (This monk is like a Catholic priest). Another example is the Chinese classic story, “Journey to the West.”
    Another example is Martial Arts Of Shaolin with Jet Li and he plays a monk inside of it. So, monks are showed as normal people with great kongfu skills and is compassionate. And now days, if one wants to became a monk in China, one must have a college education to apply.
    6.Education: Chinese educational shows for children (under age 12) and school education includes memorizing the works of megzi, kongzi, and laozi and Chinese poetry (http://afpc.asso.fr/wengu/wg/wengu.php?l=intro). I think that many Chinese now days might became an atheists due to Prof. Yu Dan’s influence. She appeared on CCTV10( Chinese educational channel) and lectured on her insights into the Analects. (If you are interested, here is a link to watch her lecture: http://www.tudou.com/playlist/playindex.do?lid=270553&mode=0)
    Thus, respect is taught at an early age.
    7. Chinese Holidays are very national holidays.
    8.Buddhists writings states that “angry” and “resentment” and “hurtfulness” is created by his/her self’s thinking. But if one forgive and forget then one would be content because resentment would disappear. (best advice ever received from a prof. and best Buddhist advice).
    9. In China, when an elderly person goes on the bus, usually people would give up his/her seat to let the elder person sit.
    10. Vegetarian is based on Buddhism.
    11. There are Christians churches in China and people are very open about religion but most people seems to be more superstitious then pious.
    12. China hates Japan because of the genocide and wants Taiwan to return to China (anti-war). And China started building things in Africa. Eg. Algeria

    -American culture: –
    1. Most American people do not believe in reincarnation, so, I think that is makes sense that most Americans would find Buddhism and Hinduism strange. And they would laugh just to think a cow would be his/her past family member (Hinduism) because some of them eat animals and it is hard for them to see how a human can be turned into a cow in his/her next life.
    2.The word “god” is used often in the English. eg. “god bless you”, “god bless America”. “one nation under god”
    3. American history: “Land of the free”
    4. American dollars has religious quotes on it.
    5. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are the dominate religions in America.
    6. Many commercials on the TV in the U.S. has information regarding religious Charity.
    7. Some schools plays and holidays in the U.S. has religious meanings inside of it.
    8. Vegetarian is based on animal abuse and issues with eating meat.
    9. Bible teaches to forgive but not to forget.
    10. Many American teens loves Japanese cartoons and many people drives Japanese cars and use Japanese products. And American is supplying war weapons to Taiwan.
    11. American education: teaches works of Emerson (religious).
    12. Law: freedom of speech. Thus, many teenagers argues with his/her parents and voice his/her opinions instead respecting others. On the bus: only the “nice” people would give up his/her to an elderly.
    13. Ignorantly views “Budda” as a fat happy guy instead of a compassionate pious god and sees monks as kongfu masters as well.
    14. TV: news, reality tv shows, and one of the top songs right now is Britney Spears’ Womanizer. Moreover songs about “gays” and “lesbians” eg. Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl
    15. Iraq – War. Africa – AID and voluntary programs
    16. Grew up watching Barney and Sesame street and labeling them as “lame”. Thus, the Chinese classical story “Journey to the West” (with talking monkeys, and a pig) would be seemed as “lame” as well. So, this could be a reason why many Americans wold not feel Buddhist’s writing as strange.
    17. Kongzi’s writing and leozi’s writing is about personal morals and teaches a personal wise advices on how to live and social with others. Kongzi wrote that one should keep a distance with others with different morals and many people hang out with people with similar believes and values.

    (excuse my bad English and grammar)

  4. Chris said, on December 2, 2008 at 10:00 am


    I agree that it is also a factor who is teaching. Given my like of Confucius, it is no surprise that some are pulled towards it as opposed to other thinkers. Similarly, Dr. E, in Eastern Religions, probably ends up with a lot of people who really like Buddhism.

    As a matter of fact, next time I teach this course I’ve already secured Dr. E for a “guest lecture” on Buddhism. I’m also trying to get Dr. Meidlinger to do one on Taoism. I figure it’s a good idea to bring in “representatives” (so to speak) of each to “liven things up” in a way. I don’t know anyone who follows the Gita; I’ll have to look around the faculty.

    I also agree that some dislike (in that class) is due to the belief that Buddhism calls for you to remove yourself from what you love. That’s not entirely true, but I’ve had a hard time getting that across. When students read “detachment” they think “dispassionate” and they aren’t necessarily synonyms.

    I think you are onto something with respect to why some American students like Laozi and dislike Confucius. Confucius can feel like a continuation of a person’s family environment with all of its rules and regulations, and college is usually the time to break out of that. So one thinks, “more rules?” Laozi seems to avoid this, and so there’s a sense of freedom to “discover one’s path” that people get out of the text that seems to work well with the age.


    What a great reply! There’s so much here to think about. First — thank you so much for the links and for the pop-cultural references that I know so little about. These will come in very handy!

    I owe you a longer response, and I’ll come back later to do that. But for now, a fast point: some students have indeed expressed a dislike for Buddhism and Hinduism due to the reincarnation aspect. In fact, a few have said to me, “I’d really like what this book has to say BUT reincarnation is out of the question” and as a result, they toss the baby out with the bathwater. Moreover, the thought that one’s deceased grandparent could be in a cow (this is the Midwest, where cattle farming is a core industry) just strikes them as over the top ridiculous.

    Oh — I really wish that CCTV special was translated into English. I’d love to watch it, but I don’t know Mandarin.

    I’ll be back for more later.


    In your last paragraph, I’m confused: are there people who teach these thinkers without using the primary texts? Maybe I’m misunderstanding you here.

  5. Bill Haines said, on December 2, 2008 at 6:27 pm

    I meant I use little or no secondary material.

  6. Chris said, on December 2, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    That’s what I thought you meant, but I wasn’t sure. I’m guessing that you don’t like to use it because you want them to come to their own understanding of the text’s meaning. If so, I agree with this aim. In fact, this aim is one of the reasons why I really don’t care to use texts that are annotated (Derek Lin’s TTC for example, though I used it this semester), or that come with large chunks of commentary (Slingerland’s Analects, for example). In fact, in the case of the Analects, I happen to like Slingerland’s translation the best, but I just can’t use it in class because I’m strongly opposed to students reading the running commentary as they work their way through the text itself

    With respect to secondary material, though, I suspect that it has a lot to do with how it is employed in the class. I suppose it can be aggressively or passively used. I rarely use secondary material (especially in a course like this) aggressively. I departed from this in my recent Confucian Virtue Ethics class, where secondary material was a significant chunk of the course — but the next time I will likely change this.

    Instead, I like to have the secondary text operating “in the background” for students to use as a guide. My use of Kupperman’s “Classic Asian Philosophy” was passive — I would mention it here and there, but it was mostly there to give students a place to go in order to find a basic interpretative anchor. In the case of the Tsinghua course, I’d want the same thing, which was why I liked your SEP/IEP idea — these pieces can be argumentative, but many times they are just good explanation of “the basics”.

    I have no doubt that courses can be run well without secondary texts at all, by the way. It might just mean a bit more anxiety for the student, but that isn’t always a bad thing. 🙂

  7. Chris said, on December 2, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    Bill –

    By the way, Parker saw me typing, came over and pointed to your avatar on the screen and identified you as a crab.

    I didn’t realize until just now that you always (anyone who posts) have the same avatar. I thought it randomly selected and reselected them every time you posted. I never noticed that a person is always assigned the same cartoon avatar.

    Which means that you are always going to be a crab.

  8. Bill Haines said, on December 2, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    That is like so true.

  9. Bao Pu said, on December 3, 2008 at 5:55 am

    Hi Chris,

    Now you’ve done it. These are some great questions you’re asking and I feel compelled to answer. But my reply will have to wait at least 8 hours to when I have more time. Right now I’ll mention that on Slingerland’s website he has a number of his writings online, including his Analects. What you could do, if you were so inclined and had a half hour is to remove all the commentary and make copies, to hand out in class. The more I read of his Analects, the more I like it. Although, one of the reasons I like his book is because of the commentaries.

    There’s a book out there called Teaching the Daode Jing edited by by Gary Delaney DeAngelis and Warren G. Frisina (2008) that would probably be helpful. All I’ve read is LaFargue’s article, which is great. His answers to frequently asked questions (about Laozi and how he teaches it) are really good.

    Gotta go, but I’ll be back.

  10. Chris said, on December 3, 2008 at 6:21 am

    Bao Pu:

    Just a quick comment on Slingerland — I actually like his book a lot; it’s very useful to me, personally, and mostly because of the commentaries. I also like his translation (does he have a website, by the way? I didn’t realize he did). But I’ve been reading the book for years, and have come to a decision “on my own” regarding its general meaning. I’m not sure I would have done so, if I had read it in the beginning with commentaries underneath guiding my reading (I think I started with Lau). That said, I think some feel strongly that your start-up interpretation _should_ be heavily guided by commentary. This seems perfectly reasonable to me as a way to approach the text pedagogically — it’s just not my way.

    I’ll take a look at DeAngelis’ book. That’s for the reference!

    Edit: I found Slingerland’s UBC site.

  11. Bao Pu said, on December 3, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    Hi Chris

    First, there’s a link to Slingerland’s Analects on this page:

    Now, to your questions. Who appeals to me the most? Probably still Laozi. The Daodejing (trans. Ellen Chen) was my first experience with Chinese philosophy. Her book still has the most extensive running commentary out there I believe. After that I read the Zhuangzi. Why does Daoism appeal to me? It’s difficult to say, but the focus on nature you mention probably has something to do with it, and the freedom from rules of behaviour. (I was raised by a fairly strict mother ;-)) And, being more open to intuitive processes, inner calmness and harmony, being more flexible, impartial and non-interfering. These things were likely things I felt I needed to cultivate; I felt I was well-versed in rules and duties already and had had enough of them. So, Confucius and Xunzi weren’t my favourites. Zhuangzi’s message of freedom will probably always have appeal in today’s world, (even though it’s not really the Freedom we often hear about these days) It’s as you say: “Confucius can feel like a continuation of a person’s family environment with all of its rules and regulations, and college is usually the time to break out of that. So one thinks, “more rules?””

    Since much of what I read about Confucianism was in books on Daoism, written prior to the 90’s, the picture of Confucianism I received was not perfectly accurate. I was exposed to Buddhism and Zen Buddhism along the way, but it didn’t appeal to me very much. I didn’t like the denial of this world that I sensed in it, nor the lack of any connection to the natural world. Confucianism’s lack of a connection to the natural world also alienated me. As for Hanfeizi, again, my first impressions came from Daoist books, but I’m still not much of a fan. But of course, there’s useful and useless stuff in all of these classics, imo. Most people’s initial reactions are based on superficial understanding, so it’s probably a good thing to do to tell students right off the bat that there is great depths to all of these thinkers and to refrain from jumping to conclusions. Don’t know if they will listen though 😉

    I think both age and culture play a role, but I feel that each person’s temperament and disposition plays a significant role too. Laozi really appeals to some (like myself), but not to others. Angus Graham mentioned this in Disputers of the Tao. Lin Yutang, whose work I have read, claims that all Chinese have some Laozi in them, even though they might not know it. This is a cultural thing, obviously. Where one has grown up also plays a role, whether urban or rural. There’s so many things. I don’t know which is more significant.

    Regarding reincarnation, I have a slightly different opinion. I think alot of people are open to this, even here in North America. It might not be the Buddhist conception of reincarnation, however.

    Bao Pu

  12. Alan said, on December 8, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    Coming in a bit late, but my students always seem to prefer Zhuangzi to Confucius or Laozi, which may be in part because I do as well. They really like the Songs, however, (I teach history) I think because there is a more of a feeling that they can get in at the nuts and bolts and do something with it. Analects always turns them off because they seem to think that they are only getting part of a conversation and are not sure what to make of it. Since it is a history class I also can’t spend as much time on it as you would in a philosophy class. I have never done Xunzi as a whole, but chapters of him seem to go down well, in part I think because he reads more like a modern essayist and it is pretty easy to follow him. I think for a lot of them it is more the appeal of the book than the appeal of the philosophy.

  13. Chris said, on December 8, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    I just finished typing a very long reply to Bao Pu and Alan, and lost it in the internets. I’m sure you have all experienced this — I’m deflated. I’ll try a shortened version. Sigh.

    Bao Pu:

    I think my students like Taoism for very similar reasons. Some like it because they sense that it is non-judgmental. They don’t want to judge others, and they have no desire to judge themselves. For some, the life of the constantly self-critical Confucian is beyond the pale. Many just want to live their lives and be left alone. They sense that Taoism gets them that, and so calls upon them to make the least amount of adjustments to their life as it is already lived (they are wrong on this, but that’s their suspicion).

    My own attraction to Confucius and Xunzi (a little for Mencius, but he’s my least favorite of the three) is also tied to upbringing. I grew up in a very family rich environment, and also appreciated this. This drew me into the text. However, I am also deeply suspicious of authority, and have little respect for rituals (another element of my upbringing, which was rooted in a very chaotic and bleak New York environment). So the Analects attracted me because it at the same time spoke to what I found valuable, and at the same time seemed to reject other values I found important. So it intrigued me. In my study of these texts, I’ve come to a much deeper understanding of my own identity vis-a-vis my own family and anti-authoritarian intuitions. It has made me rethink why I think the way I do and forced me to strive to come to a greater understanding of those who follow paths different from what I have traditionally been comfortable with.


    I’ve had a different experience of students reacting to the styles of the texts, but this is due to the nature of the class and the student I think. First, the students in my ethics course are strongly attracted to the Analects and not so much Xunzi. Much of this, I think, is due to the fact that in the Analects (well, after some initial shock) they find that they have a great deal of freedom to interact with the text. It allows them to be creative. Moreover, the short sayings do not intimidate them or make them feel stupid. The Xunzi has the opposite effect. They feel oppressed, feel as if they are pushed into a passive mode of reading, and once again feel too intimidated to interact in a sophisticated way with the reading. Instead, they just wait for me to tell them what it all means. The situation is similar to having them read Kant, or Mill. It’s too dry, to philosophical, and too rigid.

    At the same time, my philosophy students don’t tend to favor the Analects, because it is _too_ thin. They want the essay style to tear apart. They don’t want to have to play around constructing a reading of the text by assembling sayings. Still further, I’ve found that religion students prefer the Analects, because it reminds them of another book they enjoy (the Bible), and the section that they like so much (Proverbs).

    Hopefully that made sense. In my frustration I typed that out very quickly.

  14. Bao Pu said, on December 9, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    Hi Chris,

    re: “They sense that Taoism gets them that, and so calls upon them to make the least amount of adjustments to their life as it is already lived (they are wrong on this, but that’s their suspicion).”

    — Yes, that’s a good point, and I agree that beyond the surface, Laozi-Zhuangzi do indeed call on us to make some major adjustments. With Zhuangzi, due to his humourous style (well, there are numerous styles in the text), many find it easy to take, whereas humour or light-heartedness is more difficult to find in the Laozi (or Analects, Mengzi or Xunzi). Zhuangzi often says that he might not know what he’s talking about, which makes it very easy to like him 😉

    Thanks for sharing your own account of your upbringing. It always interests me how this affects people, especially when the person, you, in this case, has engaged in some introspection and come to new insights.

    Question: is there a way you can set up a reply-notification here like on Manyul’s blog? It would save me (and others I presume) the time coming here daily to see if there has been any replies (or posts, for that matter).

    ~ Scott

  15. Chris said, on December 9, 2008 at 8:03 pm


    I’ll ask Manyul how he has that set up. I’m not aware of it being something I can turn on from my end, but I may have missed it.

  16. Manyul Im said, on December 9, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    Bao Pu,

    I’ve told Chris that the notifications work through feedburner subscription; I assume that’s how you get notified of modifications and, eo ipso, replies.

  17. Chris said, on December 9, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    Bao Pu,

    You should be all set — look to the right for the subscription link.

    Thanks, Manyul.

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