Huainanzi and teaching Early China

I really liked using Huainanzi in my upper-division Early China class this semester.  I have a habit of switching books a lot in all my classes, in part because I just like to and in part because I am always fiddling with stuff. Early China is always hard, since there are not that many undergrad accessible books out in paperback.1

I kept Lewis Sanctioned Violence in Early China as our first book, since it is a good read (Early China books can get pretty technical) and runs them through a lot of stuff. The big question has always been how to deal with all the philosophy stuff in Warring States. You need to do it, but Mote’s Intellectual Foundations of China is both out of date and out of print. Van Norden Introduction To Classical Chinese Philosophy might work, but it strikes me as being more geared to a philosophy class. Plus, this is your best place to get a primary source in there. The Essential Huainanzi fits perfectly. For those of you who don’t know the text, it is sort of Chinese thought for dummies (well, emperors) compiled in the Han. For those of you who don’t know the edition, they did a full translation and also this shorter version. Students like it, since there is something in here for everyone. The text goes through all of the political philosophy, cosmology, ethics etc. an emperor needs to know, but illustrates a lot of it with fun anecdotes from the histories and classics.  The text is a bit emperor centered (which makes sense) but it does give a synthesis of a lot of different traditions, so you can sprinkle chapters in the Warring States to cover Confucianism or whatever and use the rest of the text when you get to the Han. Since there is a full edition you can seem wise in class by knowing more about the topic than students would expect. Since we have the e-version of the full text you can also get a good assignment out of having them compare one of the full chapters to one of the essential ones. Two thumbs up.

  1. I usually don’t use a textbook, since our students overwhelmingly won’t read a book that “is not required” meaning there is no specific graded assignment attached to it. You can get them to read a textbook by making theme do specific chapter summaries or quizzes or something like that, but if I am going to put that much of the class into forcing them to read a book I prefer it to be a real book. This semester (Fall 2018) I did have them read the Early China bits of Ebrey’s textbook (about 100 pages) and do an assignment on that in the first week. This seems to have helped a bit. 


  1. Huh, I have access to the Lewis as an ebook, which moves it way up my possible text list.
    I like Hansen’s Open Empire as a textbook; I agree with you about textbooks being bad reading most of the time, but she’s got enough primary source material in there that’s worth actually talking about, and some good possibilities for exam questions about change over time.

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