Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Survey for Instructors of Chinese Philosophy

MOVING UP TO FRONT (fill out the survey if you have not yet):

Minh Nguyen, who is on the APA Committee on the Status of Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies, is working on a report for that committee on teaching Chinese philosophy. Minh would like to survey anyone who teaches the subject, and collect some data for the report. Here is his request and below it, the survey itself. The survey is being collected throughout the summer, via Minh’s email; I imagine the easiest thing to do would be to cut and paste the survey into an email or doc and answer each question therein. Send him your thoughts!

Minh Nguyen writes:

I am scheduled to write a report for the American Philosophical Association Committee on the Status of Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies. The subject is: the challenges and rewards of teaching Chinese philosophy.

Teaching Chinese philosophy to Western students can be very challenging. It would be fruitful to explore such challenges and discuss how they can be overcome. Any suggestions concerning teaching techniques, classroom strategies, and/or instructional materials would be helpful. Additionally, any information concerning the benefits of teaching and learning Chinese philosophy would be useful to members of our profession.

In order to collect the relevant data for the report, I’d like to conduct a survey on these matters. Below please find the survey. Would you kindly complete the survey and return it to me at

Thank you very much for your assistance. I look forward to hearing from you. Have a pleasant and productive summer.

Minh Nguyen
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Eastern Kentucky University
Member, APA Committee on the Status of Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies

Prepared for a Report for the American Philosophical Association Committee on the Status of Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies

Please send your responses to Minh Nguyen at

1. What are the challenges that you have faced in teaching Chinese philosophy to Western students? Please be specific and detailed.

2. With respect to the challenges that you have succeeded in overcoming, how did you do it? Please specify any teaching techniques (active learning, group work, role playing, etc.) and/or classroom strategies (problem solving, case studies, background reports, etc.) that worked for you.

3. With respect to the challenges that you have yet to overcome, why do they seem so intractable?

4. In “How to Add Chinese Philosophy to Your Introductory Course,” Bryan W. Van Norden writes:

But instead of either Confucius or Laozi [or Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) or Han Feizi (Han Fei Tzu)], I recommend five philosophers for your introductory classes: Mozi (Mo Tzu), an agent-neutral consequentialist, Yang Zhu (Yang Chu), an egoist, Mengzi (Mencius), a Confucian virtue ethician, Gongsun Longzi (Kung-sun Lung Tzu), the author of a sophistical dialogue, and Xunzi (Hsun Tzu), a Confucian virtue ethician who was a critic of Mengzi.

In the context of this essay, “introductory course” and “introductory class” refer to introductory course and introductory class in philosophy that do not focus on Chinese thought. Do you agree with Van Norden? Why or why not?

5. Assuming that Van Norden is right, what is it about the work of Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), or Han Feizi (Han Fei Tzu) that makes the task of teaching it to Western students so challenging?

6. If you are to teach an undergraduate course introducing Chinese philosophy to Western students, what will be the course objectives? What will be the student learning outcomes? (Course objectives correspond to what the instructor will do in the course. Student learning outcomes correspond to what successful students will learn in the course.)

7. Would you recommend any instructional materials (books, software, Web-based resources, etc.) for an undergraduate course introducing Chinese philosophy to Western students?

8. What are the rewards of teaching Chinese philosophy for you? And for your department?

9. What are the rewards of learning Chinese philosophy for you? And for your students?

10. Would you recommend any research (books, articles, reports, etc.) on any of the subjects that we have covered, especially research on the challenges of teaching Chinese philosophy to Western students?

June 5, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Pedagogy | Comments Off on Survey for Instructors of Chinese Philosophy

Daodejing Translations

I’ve been off the air for a bit, trying to catch up to a few things. One of them is ordering books for the Fall semester. I’m teaching a Daoism course and I’ve been pondering a change in the Daodejing translation that I use. I’ve used the Addiss and Lombardo recently–I’m kind of a sucker for their sparse style. I’ve used Lau in the past, and once tried using LaFargue. I’d like to do something different from any of those. I’ll take suggestions. As I implied, I like translations that are not as wordy as Lau and that have some poetry to them. I also like consistency–e.g. dao 道 translated with either the same or with a cognate form of the same word each time. A lot of translations flub that, as far as I’m concerned, in the very first lines of the traditional Chapter 1. Anyway, it’s a good way for me to get back into the flow of blogging. So tell me about a translation you like, and why you like it. Thanks!

April 20, 2009 Posted by | Daoism, Pedagogy, Taoism | 21 Comments

Book Review of Lai Textbook

I know that at least Chris was interested in Karyn Lai‘s Chinese philosophy textbook (2008). I thought I would share part of my review of it, written for NDPR, here with you. At the very least, you’ll have some sense of one of the things that kept me busy during the past week. Comments, of course — including your own impressions if you have looked at the book yourself — are welcome. I’ll post a link to the full review when it is posted on NDPR’s site.


Lai, Karyn L. An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2008, 307pp., $34.99 (bpk), ISBN 9780521608923.

by Manyul Im, Fairfield University

It is noteworthy that the two most recent textbooks that bear this title, the current one by Karyn Lai, and one by JeeLoo Liu (2006, Blackwell; also reviewed on NDPR)), limit themselves to introducing the reader to early Chinese philosophy (Warring States period through the Han—roughly 5th century BCE through 3rd century CE) and the early schools of Chinese Buddhism (from ca. 1st through 6th centuries CE). This means that the title is quite misleading for both volumes since there are also significant periods of Chinese philosophy in the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and up to the post-dynastic present; so, roughly 1400 years of the 2500-year tradition are not represented. The similarity and temporal proximity of the two textbooks invite comparison, but for the purposes of this review, I will leave that exercise to others.

Lai’s volume is interesting and bold, as introductory textbooks go. There are aspects to her approach that those who are concerned with issues of historiography will find controversial. Those who care more about comparative philosophy should be pleased to find that Lai’s presentation of Chinese philosophy provides a very useful update to the collection of textbooks that are available. Lai’s discussion provides an excellent sense of the most current interpretations and uses of early Chinese thought by philosophers working in the specialization of Chinese and comparative philosophy, among whom Lai herself numbers.

The penchant to treat early Chinese thought as of primary importance—and to some, the only really interesting philosophical material from the tradition—runs deep through the professional field of Chinese and comparative philosophy in the English speaking world. Some people still refer to Chinese philosophy and simply mean the early material, without apology. That is slowly changing. However, it may very well be that this predilection tracks an affinity, or at least the widespread perception of affinity, that the concerns of early Chinese thought have with those of contemporary ethical theorizing, as broadly construed in western philosophy. On the other hand, the more metaphysical, spiritual, and soteriological concerns of medieval Neo-Confucianism may suffer in comparison in the eyes of contemporary professional philosophers. Those are not Lai’s overt reasons, however, for omitting discussion of the entirety of medieval Neo-Confucian philosophy, not to mention the entirety of modern Chinese “New,” or “Third-Wave,” Confucianism. Rather, she offers this apology:

[I]n order to keep the volume to a manageable size, it has not been possible to include a discussion of Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism was a development of Confucian doctrines and was a prominent philosophical movement from the tenth century [and onward]…. Many of the discussions by Neo-Confucian thinkers focus on metaphysical and meta-philosophical issues and it is unfortunate that these cannot be included…. Hopefully, the discussions in this volume will provide readers with a good understanding of the fundamental conceptual frameworks and concerns of Chinese philosophy and thereby equip readers to understand later developments in Chinese philosophy. (p. 2)

I’m not sure I am convinced by this rationale for this particular editorial choice. Surely it would have been possible to include at least cursory discussion, in at least one chapter of an introductory text, of the main outlines of Neo-Confucianism. To complicate matters in a necessary way, it is worth pointing out that interpretations of early Chinese texts by the Neo-Confucian movement through its commentarial tradition were, and continue to be, very influential in shaping contemporary interpretations and translations of them. From an intellectual history perspective, it is slightly inadequate to think of the tradition as having established “fundamental conceptual frameworks and concerns” early on and then simply having been built upon those as time progressed. Instead, many of the “orthodox” scholarly options available for understanding the early frameworks and concerns have been the product of the ways they were constructed and then retroactively fitted onto the early period by later figures and movements. But a reader who is receiving an introduction to the tradition may not fully appreciate this without seeing at least portions of the larger picture. Some part of that picture, of course, is present in Lai’s inter-textual juxtapositions, according to theme, of Han and pre-Han early Chinese sources, among themselves. By means of that, she hopes “to capture a sense of intellectual debt and cross-influences between the traditions” (p. 2), by which she means, between what are more traditionally called the “schools” of pre-Qin and Han dynastic Chinese thought (Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, Legalism, School of Names, and Buddhism). Though she states this to be a “secondary objective” (ibid.) of the volume, in actuality it would be very difficult to do anything aside from this in order to understand what the individual, compiled sets of teachings were trying to convey, argue, or establish philosophically—at least with regard to the clearly contemporaneous schools.
Lai has a keen sense of the currents running through recent philosophical secondary literature that concerns itself largely with the early figures of Chinese philosophy. Much of it that is interesting to the western philosophical audience buoys, or at least attempts to buoy, the early texts to contemporary philosophical relevance through contemporary understandings or renderings of the issues, all the while maintaining a healthy concern for historical plausibility. Lai’s discussion of each prominent figure and school of thought is peppered throughout with her presentation and assessment of the views, which are sometimes in disagreement with each other, of major English-writing interpreters of the texts. As a textbook of Chinese philosophy, this is highly unusual but in a good way. Chapters 2-8 read in many respects like a literature survey of contemporary scholarship on early Chinese Confucianism, Daoism, and Mohism rather than the usual presentation of readings of the associated texts as if those readings were uncontestable. The effect, it seems to me, is exactly the sort of thing for which an introduction to this type of literature should aim. These chapters of Lai’s book, at least, give an appropriate sense of the differing interpretive possibilities for the ancient texts.

In particular, two chapters worth singling out for praise are the ones on early Mohism (ch. 4) and later Mohism (ch. 7). Neither of these movements is ordinarily treated with the level of scholarly evenhandedness and care that Lai provides. This reflects Lai’s awareness of the traditional, very strong bias against Mohism that has existed in Chinese philosophy because of the largely Confucian identity of the scholars who have created and transmitted orthodoxies about early Chinese figures.
Lai’s understanding of the later Mohists is filtered largely through A.C. Graham and Chad Hansen’s emendations and reconstructions of the “drastically compromised” (p. 124) bamboo strip copies that form the basis for the received text. There have been notable scholarly criticisms of those reconstructions. In that respect, Lai is perhaps treading on thin ice. Nonetheless, it is clear that the later Mohist writings, which seem to aim for a kind of near mathematical precision of definition and explanation, represent an important departure from the stylized, literary writing of much of the rest of early Chinese philosophy. Given the nature of the text, it may be risky to draw too many conclusions about what the later Mohists were “onto”—for example, with respect to their understanding of propositions—but it is the sort of risk that makes Lai’s volume not only bolder, but more thought provoking than the usual textbook.

By comparison, Lai’s discussion in chapters 9-11 of Legalism, Han dynasty Confucianism, and Chinese schools of Buddhism seemed somewhat rote to me. This perhaps reflects Lai’s own intellectual background and interests. Though rote, these chapters provide an adequate accounting of those movements. To point this out is less a criticism of their adequacy as it is a compliment to Lai’s much more interesting treatment in the former chapters.

March 9, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Pedagogy | 1 Comment

Introducing Chinese Philosophy in Phil 101

I want to take up an issue that Bill raised in the last thread (China’s First Philosophers?, comment #18): integrating Chinese philosophy into introductory courses in philosophy. Have folks taught or taken courses that try to do this? Or tried to imagine such a course? What works and what doesn’t? What challenges are there? Are they any different from the challenges involved in integrating a variety of western texts into a single introductory course?

The one such course I’m most familiar with is a comparative introduction to philosophy that Chad Hansen teaches at the University of Hong Kong. (I was a tutor on the course a few times when I was a grad student.) One thing that helps make this course work is that (as those who know Chad’s scholarship might expect) a significant theme of the course is the ways in which the two traditions differ—so some of the issues that might otherwise make it hard to treat Chinese and western texts side-by-side get dealt with front and center. (Of course you might not consider that an advantage if you think Chad’s all wrong about the ways in which the traditions differ.)

What other approaches might work? Bill’s suggestion was that the Mohists might fit well in a course that also touches on utilitarianism. And I know there are a few regulars here who’ve included Chinese texts in courses on virtue ethics (though mostly at a more advanced level, I think). So there are ways of linking up materials from the different traditions thematically.

I guess my own main worry (and now that I’m putting it in writing it seems like a pretty dumb one) has been that getting at some of the ideas I’d want to cover if I were teaching Chinese texts requires a degree of contextualisation and interpretive work that wouldn’t suit an introductory course that isn’t specifically devoted to Chinese thought. (One reason for thinking this is dumb: maybe this would be a good way to teach skills in close reading. And of course the interpretive issues I’m thinking of don’t arise only with ancient Chinese texts.)

Well, those are my (rather scattered) thoughts. What do you think an introductory course that incorporates both Chinese and western materials might look like? (Or does anyone think this would be a bad idea?)

March 4, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Pedagogy | 25 Comments