Michael Puett

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “When students arrive at college these days, they hear a familiar mantra about the purpose of higher education: Find yourself. Use these four years to discover who you are. Learn flamenco dancing or ceramics, start a composting project, write for the student newspaper or delve into 19th-century English poetry. Self-discovery, they are told, is the road to adulthood. So why is it that so many students feel such anxiety? On campus, we hear the same complaint again and again: “I’ve done lots of extracurriculars. I’ve taken a variety of courses. Why can’t I figure out who I am and what I want to do?” [Source: Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh, Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2016; Dr. Puett is a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University. Dr. Gross-Loh is the author of “Parenting Without Borders.” This essay is adapted from their new book, “The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life,” Simon & Schuster, 2016 ^]

“Our answer: Read Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi and other Chinese thinkers who lived more than 2,000 years ago. Recognize that the contemporary Western emphasis on self-discovery and self-acceptance has led you astray. According to Confucius and other Chinese philosophers, we shouldn’t be looking for our essential self, let alone seeking to embrace it, because there is no true, unified self to begin with. As Confucius understood, human beings are messy, multidimensional creatures, a jumble of conflicting emotions and capabilities living in a messy, ever-changing world. We are who we are by constantly reacting to one another. Looking within is dangerous. ^

“Instead of struggling to be authentic, Confucius proposed another approach: “as if” rituals, that is, rituals meant to break us out of our own reality for a moment. These rituals are the very opposite of authenticity—and that’s what makes them work. We break from who we are when we note the unproductive patterns we’ve fallen into and actively work to shift them—“as if” we were different people in that moment. ^

“When you hear your girlfriend at the door and make yourself go to greet her instead of sitting there absorbed in your iPhone, you are creating a break. When you make a point of ignoring your mother’s harping and solicit her guidance, you are recognizing that both of you are constantly shifting and changing and capable of bringing out other parts of each other. Instead of being stuck in the roles of nagging mother and put-upon child, you have behaved “as if” you were someone else. It turns out that being insincere, being untrue to ourselves, helps us to grow.

“But if there’s no true self and I’m always changing,” more than one student has asked, “how can I decide on the career that’s right for me?” Today’s students want a plan for their future, which makes sense. Their high-school activities—AP classes, varsity soccer, the service trip to Haiti—were aimed at the goal of college admission, and they believe that a clear road map will help them to take the next step toward a fulfilling and profitable career. Here again Chinese philosophy offers an alternative, rooted in the idea that the world is a glorious mess.” ^

Good Websites and Sources on Classical Chinese Thought: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Religion Facts Religion Facts ; Classical Chinese Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Wikipedia article on Chinese Philosophy religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de lots of dead links, but maybe helpful

Revival of the Classics in China

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: ““The wandering soul, in one form or another, has been stirring.As China undergoes an economic transformation ten times the speed of the first industrial revolution, people are turning to ancient ideas for a connection to the past. The classics have become such reliable best-sellers that, in 2009, the company behind National Studies Web, a site that sells digitized Confucian texts, went public on the Shenzhen stock exchange. To appeal to entrepreneurs, Peking University and other respected schools created mid-career courses that promised to reveal “commercial wisdom” in the classics. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, January 13, 2014]

The well-known Chinese author Wang Meng has been pouring a lot of his energy into generating interest in the Chinese classics. Li Yingxue wrote in the China Daily, “Born in 1934, Wang is a former culture minister who also worked as editor-in-chief of People's Literature and as vice-executive-chairman of the Chinese Writers' Association. He is also a prolific author of literary works, including novels, essays and poems. “Wang's book Zhongguo Tianji (God Knows China) was published five years ago. The work demonstrated his profound understanding of Chinese history. Now Wang is bringing his audience a companion piece - Zhonghua Xuanji ("Chinese recondite principle") - which provides a deeper insight into Chinese philosophy and traditional culture. [Source: Li Yingxue, China Daily, December 15, 2017]

“"Six years ago, I wrote about the role of predictability and unpredictability in modern and contemporary Chinese history, where tianji referred to the rule of inevitability," says Wang. "But this time, xuanji can have many different meanings." The Chinese character xuan can mean black or mysterious. "Tao Te Ching, or Dao De Jing, a text written by Chinese sage Laozi around the sixth century BC, only has 6,000 characters, but it's one of the most influential philosophy books in the world," Wang says. With a limited number of words, the principles set out are open to a variety of interpretations, and researchers can always find ways to dig deeper. "So, it could take you more than a lifetime to finish studying Chinese culture," says Wang.

“"Unlike more straightforward foreign tracts, Chinese philosophy tends to view things dialectically. "We have a Chinese saying - One step back today for two steps forward tomorrow - which doesn't mean we will always have to take a step back, but rather that we are seeking a way to zigzag forward."Taoism, Confucianism and Mencius' thought are not the only representations of Chinese culture. Chinese poetry from the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties are just as valid.

“Wang likens Chinese culture to a huge tree. "For example, Chinese poetry is like a tree with thick branches, full of flowers and fruit that attracts birds and cicadas," Wang says. "When I read one poem, there are hundreds of poems singing together in my mind."Wu Shulin, executive vice-president of the Publishers Association of China, says he is pleasantly surprised to see that Wang has written several books exploring traditional Chinese culture in recent years."He has precise understanding of Chinese culture, and all his books about this topic are based on his knowledge reserves built up over all these years," says Wu.

Harvard Class on Ancient Chinese Philosophy Attracts Hundreds

Michael Puett is a tall, middle-aged professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, who class attracts “more than 700 rapt undergraduates. Christine Gross-Loh wrote in The Atlantic, “Puett's course “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory” has become the third most popular course at the university. The only classes with higher enrollment are Intro to Economics and Intro to Computer Science. The second time Puett offered it, in 2007, so many students crowded into the assigned room that they were sitting on the stairs and stage and spilling out into the hallway. Harvard moved the class to Sanders Theater, the biggest venue on campus. [Source: Christine Gross-Loh, The Atlantic, October 8, 2013 /*]

“Why are so many undergraduates spending a semester poring over abstruse Chinese philosophy by scholars who lived thousands of years ago? For one thing, the class fulfills one of Harvard's more challenging core requirements, Ethical Reasoning. It's clear, though, that students are also lured in by Puett's bold promise: “This course will change your life." His students tell me it is true: that Puett uses Chinese philosophy as a way to give undergraduates concrete, counter-intuitive, and even revolutionary ideas, which teach them how to live a better life. Elizabeth Malkin, a student in the course last year, says, “The class absolutely changed my perspective of myself, my peers, and of the way I view the world." Puett puts a fresh spin on the questions that Chinese scholars grappled with centuries ago. He requires his students to closely read original texts (in translation) such as Confucius's Analects, the Mencius, and the Daodejing and then actively put the teachings into practice in their daily lives. His lectures use Chinese thought in the context of contemporary American life to help 18- and 19-year-olds who are struggling to find their place in the world figure out how to be good human beings; how to create a good society; how to have a flourishing life. /*\

“Puett began offering his course to introduce his students not just to a completely different cultural worldview but also to a different set of tools. He told me he is seeing more students who are “feeling pushed onto a very specific path towards very concrete career goals” than he did when he began teaching nearly 20 years ago. A recent report shows a steep decline over the last decade in the number of Harvard students who are choosing to major in the humanities, a trend roughly seen across the nation's liberal arts schools. Finance remains the most popular career for Harvard graduates. Puett sees students who orient all their courses and even their extracurricular activities towards practical, predetermined career goals and plans. /*\

“Puett tells his students that being calculating and rationally deciding on plans is precisely the wrong way to make any sort of important life decision. The Chinese philosophers they are reading would say that this strategy makes it harder to remain open to other possibilities that don't fit into that plan. Students who do this “are not paying enough attention to the daily things that actually invigorate and inspire them, out of which could come a really fulfilling, exciting life," he explains. If what excites a student is not the same as what he has decided is best for him, he becomes trapped on a misguided path, slated to begin an unfulfilling career. Puett aims to open his students’ eyes to a different way to approach everything from relationships to career decisions. /*\

Michael Puett: Is He Really Harvard’s Most Popular Professor

Michael Puett is a tall, middle-aged professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, who class teaches a popular class on Chinese classical philosophy. “The back cover of his book “The Path” describes Puett as “Harvard’s most popular professor”. It is unclear how this distinction is awarded because his class is third most popular class at Harvard. “That’s still the case,” Puett told The Guardian in 2017. “No 1 and No 2 are the introduction to economics class and the introduction to computer science class.” Third biggest means his lectures are delivered to around 750 students. [Source: Tim Dowling, The Guardian, March 26, 2017]

Tim Dowling wrote in The Guardian: “Puett exposes them to the writings of Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi and Xunzi, among others, but he also promises that the course will do more than just fulfil Harvard’s required ethical reasoning module. “I do give them a guarantee,” he says. “The guarantee I make is if they take these ideas seriously, by the end of the course, these ideas will have changed their lives.” “Once they get over the shock, however, his students are immensely receptive to Chinese philosophy’s counterintuitive model. “Because they’ve spent 20 years looking for this true self and not finding it.”

Puett studied western thought almost exclusively at university. He had been reading eastern philosophers on the side since high school, but it wasn’t until he began a master’s degree that he decided to learn Chinese in order to pursue it exclusively. Did it change his life the way he promises his students it will? “I’m sure I have a long way to go, to put it mildly,” he says. “But yes, I would say I am a radically different person.”

“I can testify that Puett is one of the nicest people – if not the nicest person – I have ever interviewed: attentive, generous and patient. He seems unutterably pleased to be where he is – drinking coffee with a journalist in the noisy atrium of a building in King’s Cross – and he is a font of positive reinforcement. All my questions are great, and my every summary, surmise and speculation meets his approval: “Exactly!” “Precisely!” “A perfect example!” By the end I feel hugely intelligent, which is weird, because when I later listen to the recording of our conversation, I sound far from it.

“Confucius developed his ideas against a backdrop of political upheaval – the last great bronze-age dynasty, the Zhou, was in decline, and old certainties had dissolved. Confucius decided to concentrate on teaching the next generation, in the hope that they could make a better world. I ask Puett if he believes we have reached a comparable cultural crossroads. “I’m sure that every generation feels that way,” he says. “That being said, with this generation, it really is the case.” He and I, he points out, come from a generation that “thought the big wars over isms – socialism, communism, liberalism – were over, and a vision had won that was kind of right.” The generation below – his students – feels betrayed by us, and quite rightly. “Suddenly, they’re realising that we were horribly wrong.” So, what are we supposed to be doing now? Straightening our mats? “In a weird way the answer is kind of yes,” says Puett. “What you’re trying to do is train yourself to become incredibly good at dealing with this capricious world.”

Impact of Ancient Chinese Philosophy on Harvard Students

Christine Gross-Loh wrote in The Atlantic, “At the end of each class, Puett challenges his students to put the Chinese philosophy they have been learning into tangible practice in their everyday lives. “The Chinese philosophers we read taught that the way to really change lives for the better is from a very mundane level, changing the way people experience and respond to the world, so what I try to do is to hit them at that level. I'm not trying to give my students really big advice about what to do with their lives. I just want to give them a sense of what they can do daily to transform how they live." Their assignments are small ones: to first observe how they feel when they smile at a stranger, hold open a door for someone, engage in a hobby. He asks them to take note of what happens next: how every action, gesture, or word dramatically affects how others respond to them. Then Puett asks them to pursue more of the activities that they notice arouse positive, excited feelings. In their papers and discussion sections students discuss what it means to live life according to the teachings of these philosophers. [Source: Christine Gross-Loh, The Atlantic, October 8, 2013 /*]

“Once they've understood themselves better and discovered what they love to do they can then work to become adept at those activities through ample practice and self-cultivation. Self-cultivation is related to another classical Chinese concept: that effort is what counts the most, more than talent or aptitude. We aren't limited to our innate talents; we all have enormous potential to expand our abilities if we cultivate them. You don't have to be stuck doing what you happen to be good at; merely pay attention to what you love and proceed from there. Chinese philosophers taught that paying attention to small clues “can literally change everything that we can become as human beings," says Puett. /*\

“To be interconnected, focus on mundane, everyday practices, and understand that great things begin with the very smallest of acts are radical ideas for young people living in a society that pressures them to think big and achieve individual excellence. This might be one reason why, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education , interest in Chinese philosophy is taking off around the nation—not just at Harvard. And it's a message that's especially resonating with those yearning for an alternative to the fast track they have been on all their lives." /*\

“One of Puett's former students, Adam Mitchell, was a math and science whiz who went to Harvard intending to major in economics. At Harvard specifically and in society in general, he told me, “we're expected to think of our future in this rational way: to add up the pros and cons and then make a decision. That leads you down the road of ‘Stick with what you're good at’”—a road with little risk but little reward. But after his introduction to Chinese philosophy during his sophomore year, he realized this wasn't the only way to think about the future. Instead, he tried courses he was drawn to but wasn't naturally adroit at because he had learned how much value lies in working hard to become better at what you love. He became more aware of the way he was affected by those around him, and how they were affected by his own actions in turn. Mitchell threw himself into foreign language learning, feels his relationships have deepened, and is today working towards a master's degree in regional studies. He told me, “I can happily say that Professor Puett lived up to his promise, that the course did in fact change my life." /*\

The Path and Michael Puett’s View of Classical Chinese Philosophy

“The Path” by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh grew out of a 2013 magazine article written by Gross-Loh, about Puett’s undergraduate course “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political theory. Tim Dowling wrote in The Guardian: “The Path is in part a pleasing debunking of fashionable self-help disciplines – there are no quick fixes; improvement is incremental at best, and a lifetime of work. “I think of it as sort of anti-self-help,” says Puett. “Self-help tends to be about learning to love yourself and embrace yourself for who you are. A lot of these ideas are saying precisely the opposite – no, you overcome the self, you break the self. You should not be happy with who you are.” [Source: Tim Dowling, The Guardian, March 26, 2017]

“While Puett’s students are obliged to get to grips with the primary sources, The Path was written for people mostly unfamiliar with the history of eastern thought. It is no simple matter to create a modern-day guide to living – boiled down to 200 pages – from writings that are often ambiguous, if not downright gnomic. In The Analects, a collection of the teachings and thoughts of Confucius compiled by his followers after his death, one typical passage reads: “He would not sit until he had straightened his mat.” You could draw a lot of contradictory conclusions from that.

“Puett is also aware that there is some risk in extracting an overarching message from a number of different philosophers who often disagreed with one another. “They do share a generally common vision of human psychology,” he says. “That we have a tendency to fall into patterns and ruts in our existences.” The Confucian strategy for disrupting these patterns was the judicious observance of ritual – coded behaviours that force people to operate outside their normal roles. This has often been misunderstood as a call for conformity and a slavish adherence to tradition, but, according to Puett, Confucius meant no such thing. “For Confucius,” he writes, “the ritual was essential because of what it did for the people performing it.”

“Clearly there is a limit to the benefit a 21st-century human can derive from a ritual such as, say, ancestor worship. To apply the idea to one’s own life, Puett suggests “slightly altering how you interact with people” – saying something different to the bus driver or the man at the shop’s till every morning, thereby disrupting the patterns that comprise your daily life. I put to him the possibility that you might merely freak out the bus driver. “Part of what [the philosophers] are getting at is that it’s the break that really matters,” Puett says. “You may say it in a way that’s actually very offputting to the driver, but you’ll be better at sensing that, and therefore altering it, if it isn’t just a rote way of talking.” By gauging the change you effect, you can teach yourself to become more emotionally intelligent about your dealings with other humans. If this technique doesn’t sound wholly alien, it is probably because modern psychology shares some of its strategies. The therapist’s room, Puett argues, is a kind of ritual space, where you shed your normal self for a while, and talk about things from a different perspective.

Michael Puett Lecture

Describing a Michael Puett lecture at The School of Life’s Sunday sermons at Mary Ward House in London, Tim Dowling wrote in The Guardian: “I forewarn you,” Puett tells the congregation: “At first it’s gonna sound really bleak.” [Source: Tim Dowling, The Guardian, March 26, 2017]

“When he speaks publicly, Puett’s voice ranges between a low rumble and an enthusiastic squeak. At first it sounds almost muppet-like, but after a while it becomes a little incantatory – you can see why he is a popular lecturer. He doesn’t refer to notes, and he has no visual aids. His sermon, like his course, begins by shattering some commonly held preconceptions about the self: there is no self, he says. The idea that we should look within, discover our true nature and act accordingly is, according to Confucius, nonsense. What we really are, Puett says, is “a messy and potentially ugly bunch of stuff”, a collection of emotions and conditioned responses, with no guiding inner core. We think we are self-determined, but in reality we are so set in our patterns that Google exploits our predictability to sell us stuff without us noticing.

“Puett’s School of Life audience is very open to this notion – I think most of us already figured as much – but apparently when he tells this to his students, it blows their minds. Is this, I wonder, a generational thing? “Yes, I think it is very generational,” he says. “This is a generation that was raised being told: ‘Your goal is to look within. Find your true self, especially during these four years of college.’ And furthermore the argument is, once you do find yourself, try and be sincere and authentic to who you really are, and then decide your career according to who you are.”

“At the end of his Sunday sermon, Puett takes questions from the congregation. At one point, a man in my row raises his hand. “If people are just an assembly of patterns,” he asks, “what does it mean to love someone?” In a way, it seems the bleakest moment of the hour, but Puett is beaming. ““Great question!” he says.

Mencius’s Relevance to the Modern World


Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh wrote in the Wall Street Journal:Consider Mencius, a Confucian philosopher who saw the world as anything but stable. Hard work does not necessarily lead to prosperity. Bad deeds will not necessarily be punished. There are no guarantees. Mencius advocated thinking not in terms of making decisions but of setting trajectories in motion. [Source: Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh, Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2016 ^]

“Imagine a student who has decided he wants to become a diplomat. He’s always been great at mediating conflicts among his peers. He was involved in Model U.N. in high school, the international section is his favorite part of the newspaper, and he’s become pretty fluent in Spanish. He knows that majoring in international relations and taking his junior year abroad in Spain will give him the experiences that will propel him toward that career in diplomacy. ^

“So he goes off to Spain, but after a month falls ill with a severe respiratory virus that lands him in the hospital. It is his first experience of hospitalization, and it plants a seed: He becomes curious about how and why doctors and hospitals do what they do. Things can now go one of two ways. He can remain wedded to his long-term plan and let that interest in health care die out. The hospital experience will make for a few good stories for his friends, but it won’t interfere with his plan to take the diplomatic world by storm. Or he can keep diving into his new obsession, reading everything he can, maybe making friends with some of the young residents on his medical team, and eventually return to the U.S. and devote himself to a health-care field instead.^

“None of this has anything to do with the fact that he was in Spain; it’s just that one series of experiences led to another and opened up things to him that weren’t part of the plan. There’s nothing wrong with spending a year in Madrid or majoring in international relations. But there is something wrong with going abroad as part of a plan that fits in with a vision of who you already are and where you’re going. Concrete, defined plans for life are abstract because they are made for a self who is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on a snapshot of yourself now. You are confined to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now—not of the person you will become. ^

Mencius encourages us to think of life not in terms of decisions but as a series of ruptures that lead us from one thing to another. He would say to the students of today and their anxious parents: Live with a constant awareness of the ever-changing world and your ever-shifting self. Train your mind to stay open and constantly take into account all the complex stuff that is you.” ^

Zhuangzi’s Relevance to the Modern World


Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh wrote in the Wall Street Journal: But how do you train your mind to stay open, you ask? Zhuangzi, another ancient Chinese philosopher, has the answer: Make a point of breaking out of your limited perspective every day. Live spontaneously at every moment. But don’t we do that already? We live in a culture that positively reveres spontaneity. We find predictability boring. We chafe at rules. We admire the free thinker, the person who dares to be different, the lone genius who dropped out of college on a whim and founded a startup. But spontaneity, for Zhuangzi, wasn’t about doing whatever you want whenever you want. What we call spontaneity, he would call the unfettered expression of desires, and there’s no way anyone can embrace that sort of a life all of the time. [Source: Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh, Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2016 ^]

“Zhuangzi embraced “trained spontaneity.” When you train yourself to play the piano or learn tennis, trying to reach a joyful place where you can play a Mozart sonata or gracefully arc a lob, you are following his advice. You are putting effort into reaching a moment when your mind does not get in the way. You are training yourself not to fall into the trap of seeing yourself through one fixed perspective. You are training yourself to spot the shifts that make for an expansive life.^

“Doing this doesn’t require formal mastery of an activity; it can happen in everyday life, too. Take a walk with someone very different from you: a toddler, your grandmother or even a dog. Notice that they experience the walk differently from you: The toddler stops to gaze at every rock; your grandmother, an avid gardener, names every flower she sees; the dog tunes into a world of scent. Realize that each of us moves through a narrow set of instincts. One of them has to do with how we define ourselves: This is what I’m good at, this is what I’m doing to build my life toward the future; these are my leisure activities, which I fit in on the weekends. ^

“But there’s a reason that so many Nobel Prize winners are also musicians, artists, actors, dancers and writers, just as there’s a reason why Steve Jobs drew on his knowledge of calligraphy, which he’d studied in college, when he designed his iconic typography for the Apple computer. It isn’t that diverse activities, so unconnected from the primary work of scientists, help them to loosen up. It’s that a breadth of experiences and perspectives helps break them out of their pathways and see new connections and opportunities everywhere. With this kind of trained spontaneity, you become able to make connections so that you’re not even waiting for those breaks. In fact, you create the conditions in which they will happen. And you are no longer attempting to fit the diverse experiences you have into a definition of who you are. You are training yourself to see your life as a constant flow of possibilities.” ^

Xunzi ’s Relevance to the Modern World


Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “But possibilities, in and of themselves, are not enough. As the Chinese philosopher Xunzi would implore us to remember, what’s most important is what we do with them. Consider how many of today’s students were raised: Their talents were identified early. They were “athletic,” “good at math,” “a natural at the violin.” Soon enough, they were winnowed into a stream that would allow those talents to flourish. They learned to stick with what they were good at. Over the years, it became instinctive to sideline the interests for which they didn’t show a natural aptitude. [Source: Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh, Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2016 ^]

“Xunzi argues that we should not think of the self as something to be accepted—gifts, flaws and all. He would argue instead that we should think of the self as a project. Through experiences, we can train ourselves to construct a self utterly different from—and better than—whatever self we thought we were. A man we know was diagnosed as dyslexic at a very young age. Because of this diagnosis, he became determined to train himself to understand the complexity of languages and sentence structure. He eventually mastered Sanskrit, one of the world’s most difficult languages.^

“As Xunzi reminds us, nothing is natural. The talents and weaknesses we are born with get in the way if we allow them to determine what we can and cannot do. The only thing you really need to be good at is the ability to train yourself to get better. We have seen the practical effect of Chinese philosophy among students who have opened themselves to these ideas. There’s the young man who excelled at math and came to Harvard expecting to major in economics, since it played to his strengths, until a semester of foreign language led to travel abroad and new interests; he ended up in a graduate program in East Asian studies instead. ^

“There’s the student who mapped out a career as a scholar in Asian philosophy until his work in music and computing allowed him to develop a new form of electronic instrument, so he founded a company to manufacture it. Then there’s the young woman who agonized over taking a job on Wall Street because she had planned since high school to work on maternal health issues. She accepted the offer and discovered that working in finance was exactly the “break” she needed. ^

Lessons Learned from Chinese Philosophy: Go Where Life Takes You

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “All of the changes in the lives of these young people came about not through assuming they knew their talents and following a trajectory, but through deliberately breaking with what they thought they knew about themselves. “All I know is America, and I should just experience what it’s like to live somewhere else,” one student told us. “I’m curious about modern dance even though it will have nothing to do with medical school,” said another. “I’ve never been good at languages, but I’m going to take Italian this semester and just see what happens. [Source: Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh, Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2016 ^]

“All of the changes in the lives of these young people came about not through assuming they knew their talents and following a trajectory, but through deliberately breaking with what they thought they knew about themselves. “All I know is America, and I should just experience what it’s like to live somewhere else,” one student told us. “I’m curious about modern dance even though it will have nothing to do with medical school,” said another. “I’ve never been good at languages, but I’m going to take Italian this semester and just see what happens.” ^

“The students we know who have taken these teachings to heart are not expecting that a new interest will necessarily lead to a new direction or a new career. For them, the goal is simply to break from what they think they know about themselves. So if you want not only to be successful but also to live a good life, consider these subversive lessons of Chinese philosophy: Don’t try to discover your authentic self; don’t be confined by what you are good at or what you love. And do a lot of pretending. We could all benefit from a little more insincerity.” ^

Chinese Philosophers Missing from College Classes

Eric Schwitzgebel wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Philosophy professors in the United States have all heard of Confucius and the Daoist Laozi. Many have also heard of their approximate contemporaries in ancient China: the later Confucians Mencius and Xunzi; the easygoing skeptic Zhuangzi; Mozi, the advocate of impartial concern for everyone; and Han Feizi, the authoritarian legalist. But most of us have not read their works.As a result, most U.S. university students are not exposed to Chinese thinkers in their philosophy classes. Looking at the course catalogs of three major universities in Los Angeles — UCLA, USC and Cal State L.A. — I find 23 philosophy department course listings that mention ancient Greek philosophy or specific ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle. Four such classes are on the fall 2015 course schedule. In contrast, neither USC nor Cal State L.A. has a single philosophy catalog listing that mentions ancient China or a specific ancient Chinese philosopher. UCLA has one listing — for a class that was last taught in 2009. [Source:Eric Schwitzgebel, Los Angeles Times, September 11, 2015. Eric Schwitzgebel is a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside and the author of "Perplexities of Consciousness." He blogs at the Splintered Mind. /]

“In the United States, there are about 100 doctorate-granting programs in philosophy. By my count, only seven have a permanent member of the philosophy faculty who specializes in Chinese philosophy. Ancient Chinese philosophers are more commonly taught in departments of history, religious studies, Asian studies and comparative literature than in departments of philosophy. The same is true — even more so — for Indian and other non-Western philosophers. /

“Our neglect of ancient Chinese philosophers in U.S. philosophy departments is partly a remnant of our European colonial past. But is it justifiable on academic grounds? One might argue that Confucius, Laozi and others are not really philosophers; they are literary or religious figures, and their relegation to other departments is therefore appropriate.Of course, there is no universally accepted way to distinguish philosophers from other thinkers. A narrow view — too narrow — might be this: Philosophers write carefully argued essays on topics generally considered to be philosophical, such as ethics and epistemology, and are seemingly guided less by aesthetic standards than by an interest in discovering the truth. /

“Even applying this restrictive standard, however, Mozi and Xunzi clearly fit the bill. They are both responsible for long, argumentative works of ethics and political philosophy. Han Feizi's writings are similar in structure though more narrowly focused, like Machiavelli's, on advice for achieving political power. Although Mencius and Zhuangzi did not write in what we now think of as standard philosophical essay format, both offer persuasive arguments for positions in ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of mind and epistemology. Unconventional format should no more disqualify Mencius and Zhuangzi from counting as philosophers than it disqualifies Nietzsche and Wittgenstein in the Western tradition. Confucius and Laozi are more fragmentary and less argumentative, but many ancient Greek philosophers are even more fragmentary than Confucius and Laozi. /

“Nor do these philosophers rely on any narrowly religious dogma. Rather, they start from considerations that are for the most part intuitive and widely acceptable, even in the contemporary West. Mencius, for instance, builds a picture of moral emotions from observations about our sympathetic reactions to children in danger and our hatred of being treated disrespectfully. And despite the fact that their works are more often taught in religious studies than in philosophy departments, their religious commitments are less obtrusive and dogmatic than the religious commitments of many European philosophers. Descartes, for one, famously relies on a Christian-influenced proof of God to establish that his senses are trustworthy and that the external world exists. /

“Someone intent on justifying the exclusion of these ancient Chinese philosophers might, alternatively, argue that they're insufficiently important to warrant broader attention — that their philosophical work simply isn't very good or very influential. That's not right either. Mencius' and Xunzi's views of moral psychology are as interesting as any in the Western philosophical tradition, and their debate about whether human nature is good or bad is considerably more sophisticated than the famous corresponding debate between Hobbes and Rousseau. For example, Hobbes and Rousseau appear to infer our "nature" from dubious thought experiments about what people would be like absent any social structures, while Mencius and Xunzi are more psychologically realistic. /

“Considered globally, moreover, Confucius, Laozi and, to a lesser extent, the other major ancient Chinese philosophers have been enormously influential — probably more influential in East Asia than Socrates, Plato and Aristotle have been in the West. Even in the United States, among the general population, Confucius and Laozi are better known and more broadly discussed than any but a handful of European philosophers.” /

Han Feizi, The Legalists and Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

Ryan Mitchell wrote in The Diplomat: “Much like a dragon, ‘the ruler of men has bristling scales. Only if a speaker can avoid brushing against them can he have any hope of success.’ That, at least, is the dilemma facing Chinese statesmen as described by the ancient philosopher Han Feizi. Officially repudiated – but still influential – throughout China’s 2000+ years of imperial rule, he and his “Legalist School” have gained new prominence recently due to favorable citations by People’s Republic of China leaders. Above all, those include references made by President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful ruler in decades. Far from mere casual remarks, such statements serve as ideological guideposts to determine the Communist Party line. Just one sentence of Han Feizi’s that Xi quoted last autumn, for example, subsequently appeared thousands of times in official Chinese media at the local, provincial, and national levels. [Source: Ryan Mitchell, The Diplomat, January 16, 2015; Ryan Mitchell is pursuing a Ph.D. in Law at Yale, where his research focuses on political philosophy and international law]

Scholars Orville Schell and John Delury, in an influential book on the history of Chinese reform efforts, credit “pragmatic” Legalist thought of as being behind both much of China’s historical success and its ongoing rebirth as a great nation. For Confucians, who focus on ideals of loyalty, righteousness, and benevolence, little could be more repugnant than the Legalist position that “if a wise ruler masters wealth and power, he can have whatever he desires.”

On this topic, Han Feizi’s overall pragmatic approach begins the moment an aspiring politician opens his mouth to speak. Like Machiavelli in the West, he lived in a dangerous political climate where a wrong word could result in disgrace, exile, or worse. As he explicitly stated in his writing, the first task of any political theorist is to avoid getting on his prince’s bad side; or “brushing against the ruler’s scales.” Discretion, and subtlety, are the key to achieving influence. Ideals, and morals, are to be kept private.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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