How to teach classical Chinese thought?

This is more ruminations than anything important, but it is a topic I have been thinking about lately. I usually have to teach Waring States Chinese philosophy in two classes, HIST 206 History of East Asia and HIST 332 History of Early China. Obviously in one I spend more time on it than in the other. In both I usually start with Sima Qian’s story of Sunzi and the concubines, in part because it is a good story, and in part because it is a good way to introduce a lot of themes, like reducing being an aristocrat to a text that can be studied, the shi as wondering consultants, and the idea that with study and mentor-ship anyone can become anything. Even concubines can become warriors. I think I will keep this as the beginning. (Plus, I need Sunzi in there somewhere. Lot of them have heard of him. )

I have usually gone from there to the Confucians, then to the Daoists. In Early China I do more with Mo-zi, the context of all this and the nature of the Classics and the nature of texts and schools etc. etc.. Then I go on to the Legalists, who of course lead into Qin pretty well.

What I have started to wonder is if maybe I would be better off going from Sunzi right to the Legalists. This semester, and many semesters in the past, I find students grasping things better when I talk about ideas that make more sense in a modern context, and the Legalists definitely fit there. Han Fei is easier to grasp for someone from a Hobbseian tradition than the School of the Tillers. To the extent they do “naturally” grasp Confucius or Zhuangzi it is as wisdom literature that they can apply to their own life. That’s fine of course, but I am starting to think that if I want them to approach these texts in historical context (and they are history classes) the Legalists are the best school to start with after Sunzi. The political philosophy makes more sense, Han Fei writes in a less cryptic way that Confucius. (In Early China I can spend more time on the development of rhetoric, naturally.) What to you think? Ignore chronology and go from Sunzi to Han Fei? Or learn how to teach Analects better? I find Analects really hard to do with them, since they can’t do it on their own. Selections from Han Fei they can read outside class and come in with…something at least. Analects not so much.

P.S. I have had luck in the past using Sarah Allen’s The Way of Water and Sprouts of Virtue to get them into early philosophy. The problem I have with this is that it obviously would not work in History of East Asia and that tends to pull me into more philosophy than I might want in History of Early China.


  1. I have to admit, I’ve stuck to the chronological approach because it works for me: when I’m teaching the texts, I point out how they are arguing with each other, and the accumulation of refutations adds up over time.

    Han Feizi feels like starting at the wrong end, to me, but I suppose you could do it as a kind of intellectual archeaology. He introduces a lot of the other major strains, by way of attacking them… I could see it.

    Not sure I can suggest anything on Analects that’s more productive than what you do. One exercise I’ve used a fair bit, which forces them back through it in a reasonably productive way, is to have them try to answer the question of whether Mengzi or Xunzi represents a more authentic transmission of Confucius’ thought.

  2. It’s hardly possible and not that necessary to grasp these philosophers as excatly what they were, especially in a class of early history. To my opinion, it is crucial to get the audience envolved in the first place even in a contemporary, not-so-authentic way.

  3. It’s hardly possible and not that necessary to grasp these philosophers as excatly what they were, especially in a class of early history. To my individual opinion, it is crucial to get the audience envolved in the first place even in a contemporary, not-so-authentic way.

  4. Why not take some ideas of contemperary confucians fro a start and explain how they relate to the old master and from there explain Mozu’s critique? While comparing present ideas with older ones you could explain the historical differences. This would lead you to the huanglao school, legalists, Laozi and Zhuangzi, which could finally serve as a summary.

  5. Thanks to everyone who sent me suggestions, both in comments and via-email. I plan to do a follow-up post once I am less busy/lazy which will not be for a few weeks yet.

    One thing that has sort of struck me is the idea that the more I think of how I do this the less I think it matters how I do it. I seem to usually get a lot of confusion at the beginning, with some lightbulbs going on at the end. I keep looking for the one reading or approach that would get be the lightbulbs right at the beginning, but so far no luck.

  6. The eternal struggle. You make me consider reviving an approach I tried three or four years ago, a simulation in which I was “Duke Bu” and my students played roles of the different schools contending as they competed to persuade me to adopt their policy recommendations.

    I took excerpts on governance and military issues from Laozi, Kongzi, Mozi, and Han Feizi, and students assigned one school also had to argue against the arguments of their rivals using textual references, historical context of Warring States China, and critical reasoning for their own, and against the other, schools.

    Nothing I’ve tried since–seminars, presentations, straight lecture, discussion boards–seems to have been as engaging, in retrospect. So maybe it’s back to that drawing board for next semester.

    I appreciate your think-alouds for getting me to re-think too.

  7. Thanks for all the tips I have received, both here and via e-mail. Right now I am thinking of aiming the class at Huainanzi. The students really liked the chapter on rulership I gave them (“It’s Emperor for Dummies!”) So now I just need to figure out how to build towards that. I assume I will use the short version.

  8. Dr. Baumler, in my opinion to start with Han Fei right after Sunzi is a good idea, because it is the most important thing to “kindle” students’ interest in the material, and to explain Han Fei’s very articulate and logical arguments is a very good way of kindling their interest. Once you have kindled their interest, they will be much more engaged with the material, and they can get a lot more from the class. BTW I am Chinese myself, and I very much appreciate your work.

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