Encountering Asian Philosophy
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?