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.