After 60 months of head-down drilling into Chinese philosophy, culture, and history (and 13 years now of living in Confucian East Asia–China, Korea, now Singapore), it’s time to surface. My aims in posting here are simply to collect my own thoughts on the relevance — which to me is huge — of Chinese philosophy to the world today, and of the challenge of teaching it to Western students so that they can do more than spout cliché factoids about it. Things are getting interesting on that front — but more on that later.
Reading this thinker from 250 bce feels like reading a thinker viewing the world — and yes, particularly the American one — today:
The Evidence of a Chaotic Age
Men wear brightly colored clothing; their demeanor is softly feminine; their manners are lascivious; their minds are bent on profit; their conduct lacks consistency; their music is wicked; and their patterns and decorations are gravely in error and gaudy. They nurture the needs of the living without measure, but they send off their dead in a niggardly manner and with blackly impure principles. They despise proper etiquette* and moral principles, and prize instead valor and feats of strength. When they are poor, they become robbers; when they are rich, they become predators. An orderly age is the opposite of this.
The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death.
— the Zhuangzi, Ch. 6, transl. Burton Watson*
On Beauty, Tragedy, and Inspired Irresponsibility
Zhuangzi, Daoism’s second sage, dreams he’s a butterfly. Or is the butterfly dreaming it’s Zhuangzi? Zhuangzi isn’t sure.
One of the beauties of teaching Chinese history, for me, is that I make my living doing something I passionately love to do. Not only would I do this job for free — I would even pay to do it.**
But this beauty has a tragic side too: the demands of the teaching profession allows precious little extra time to write regularly about the daily riches of the mind flowing through the hours in the classroom. My beloved John Keats, that sublime, gorgeous, tragic English Romantic poet who died so young — only 24! — expresses this tragedy well in his sonnet, “When I Have Fears” [emphasis added]:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore Of the wide world I stand alone, and think Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
That “teeming brain” is the real pay of teaching Chinese history and thought. That “fear” of “ceas[ing] to be” before being able to write out the thoughts flowing from the daily work is the tragedy.
So, stack of papers to mark and lesson-planning template currently demanding my time? For the moment, be damned. Because I have just fallen in love with the mind of a man named Chad Hansen, after reading the first five pages of his ground-breaking 1992 study, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. Continue reading →
In which this teacher sacrifices himself as “Sacrificial Poet” to warm up and launch the First Annual IASAS Forensics and Debate Poetry Slam. SAS, March 2012. (The “Sacrificial Poet,” I was told, is the teacher who is willing to submit himself to audience’s and judges’ knives before the students take the stage.)
You’ll note I stress “at 3.45″ to justify any lameness in the poem. I did write it in the two hours preceding the performance. Later, the Chinese History teacher-lover in me reflected that this comfort with writing-on-demand is very close to China’s traditional attitude toward poetry. Any educated Chinese wrote poetry, I gather, as frequently and nonchalantly as we tweet or post on Facebook today. One Song Dynasty poet produced over 10,000 poems, while the Qing emperor Qianlong has, I believe, several hundred poems, if not thousands, to his credit. (All Chinese emperors and politicians wrote poetry. You weren’t educated if you didn’t, and nor were you civilized.) That’s so worth thinking about.
Anyway, sharpen your knives and watch the performance below. Warts and all, I enjoyed the slam. I got to deliver a message I’ve wanted to send students for ages.
Hi, can you elaborate on a document based lesson? How much time do you spend working with a document?*
I’d love to hear others’ takes on this question. Me? I’m making my own DBQs, basically, to bring out the essential learnings and understandings key to the narrative frame that I’m building around the entire span of China’s recorded history. It’s a semester course, so much selection and rejection of textbook content is going on — and textbook coverage of those concepts is disappearing almost entirely. Other sources bring these things out so much better, and with so much more interest.
Since the Shang and Zhou dynasties are as seminal to China as the Hebrew and Christian traditions are to the West (Confucian ritual and ideology trace back to the Shang and Zhou), I’m spending a lot of time on those two dynasties in primary source work.
Long story short, rather than a paragraph from a textbook about the importance of Ancestor Rites, I lead students through a three-page essay from a secondary source about the role of music in Zhou ritual that (deliciously) includes two extended texts — one from the Zhou Classic of Odes (Shi Jing), another from a bronze bell inscription — that actually narrate the ritual performance from start to finish.
Since Confucian ethics revolve around ritual and music, not religion or rules, I spent about a half hour on these three pages in class. Procedure (and I myself wince at this too, but feel it’s justified since it’s so crucial to understanding the next 3,000 years of China’s history):
I read aloud once, slowly, instructing students to annotate anything that strikes them (their choice), but also to double-underline any word or phrase that I pause to read twice. (Why? There are key repetitions and motifs that sleepy or inattentive students can gloss over and miss. My reading these key passages twice, I hope, forces the discussion afterward to address these key elements.)
I occasionally pause with comprehension-checking questions (“Who is the ‘impersonator’?” “Who is the ‘revered guest’?” “Remember who King Wen and Wu are?”) along the way to keep everybody from getting lost.
Once I finish reading aloud, students get the essential questions (E.g., “These rites, and the values in them, will be central to China for the next 3,000 years. When Christian Europe arrives 2,500 years later, how do you think Christian missionaries will react to the types of ritual worship we see here? What is ‘holy’ in China that might be ‘sin’ to Europeans?” “What do we learn about how the ancient Chinese saw the afterlife? Is it similar to Christianity, or different?” On and on.)
We open it up and discuss from there.
Homework is only to write on a team blog a minimum 14-sentence post about one of the essential questions of the day. They comment on each others’ posts as a way of peer teaching and, in the best cases, simply conversing about the interesting thoughts they’re having.
I’ve been timing how long it takes me to read the texts aloud before class, and planning the length of discussion based on how many texts are included in the day’s plan.
Here’s the packet with the readings I referenced for the session above (the Shang and Zhou Ritual text on the last two pages is incredibly interesting). The entire packet is a two-lesson mini-unit on the legacies of the Shang and Western Zhou. We’re on a block schedule, so that means about 2 hours in class.
*Copied from an H-NET history teachers list-serv for my own records.