Teaching Neo-Confucianism Topically

This short essay is reproduced from pages 217-219 of our book. For more on teaching Neo-Confucianism, see this page.

Almost every course that has been taught about Neo-Confucianism has been arranged chronologically by thinker—and this includes courses taught by the two authors of this book, prior to our beginning this project together. The primary sources that one might assign, whether in Chinese or in translation, are inevitably organized by author, which makes it natural to treat one thinker after another. It is also attractive to ask how one part of a given writer’s thought fits with another, and much of the secondary literature on Neo-Confucianism is conceived historically or even biographically. For all these reasons, it is not surprising that this approach to the material has dominated our pedagogy.

Still, there are reasons to think a different pedagogy might have distinctive advantages. For Neo-Confucians themselves, there were two distinctive ways of writing about their tradition. Historians seeking to narrate the development of the tradition did so chronologically. But the anthology that Zhu Xi and Lü Zuqian themselves compiled to teach the ideas of their Neo-Confucian predecessors, Reflections on Things at Hand, is organized into a series of fourteen topical chapters. Like our book, Reflections begins with abstract topics (its first chapter is “The Inherent Reality of the Way [daoti 道體]”) and moves toward more concrete issues like techniques of personal cultivation and institutions of governance.[1] Throughout the Neo-Confucian period, this topical approach continued to dominate texts aimed at teaching the basic ideas of Neo-Confucianism. In similar fashion, we have found that by examining the views of a number of thinkers on a given topic together, students can better discern what is at stake. Where do the philosophers agree (and why?), and—perhaps more importantly—where do they disagree (and why?)? By focusing on debates and on problems that the thinkers are trying to solve, we have sought to emphasize such questions in our own presentations.

There is a further, more practical, reason for teaching Neo-Confucianism topically. Because most of the thinkers use similar terminology to discuss similar issues, treating the same questions over and over in slightly different contexts, as chronology often requires, can lead to several undesirable results, including declining student interest or efforts to exaggerate the differences among thinkers. In our earlier experiences teaching chronologically, in fact, a good way to avoid such boring repetition is to focus on different issues when discussing different thinkers. Once an instructor has decided to take this step, it becomes natural to want to make connections to other thinkers’ views on the currently highlighted issue, and it is only a short further step to a full-fledged topical presentation.

There are of course some challenges that come with teaching Neo-Confucianism topically. The most obvious difficulty concerns how to enable students to keep track of different Neo-Confucian thinkers, especially at the beginning of the course when everything is new. For many students, not only will the ideas and philosophers be unfamiliar, but so will be the basic history of the era, and these difficulties will be exacerbated by the need to keep straight a slew of Chinese names and terms. To some degree, the only solution to these problems is to encourage students to put extra effort into learning the basics (for example, with quizzes), but course design can also help out. Beginning with an overview of the history, key ideas, and most important few thinkers can be extremely productive; Chapter 1 of this book is intended to provide some direction. As we note there, even though we do not endorse the common practice of dividing Neo-Confucians into two (or more) schools, we do think it is useful to track the “focus” of each individual’s philosophy. By starting with just a few thinkers, roughly divided by dynasty and focus, students should be able to orient themselves sufficiently to get going.

The details of how, exactly, to implement topic-based instruction of Neo-Confucian philosophy will depend on the nature of the course. We have tended to teach full-semester courses on Neo-Confucianism, but others may be interested in semester-long courses on Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism or on the full Confucian tradition, or a shorter section on Neo-Confucianism within a course on Chinese (or East-Asian) culture, or a section on the Neo-Confucian treatment of a given problem or topic within a broader course in comparative philosophy. All of these can work, and in addition to the suggested primary texts and discussion questions after each chapter, we offer sample syllabi and other teaching ideas at http://neo-confucianism.com. We begin our full-semester courses with rapid reviews of classical Confucianism and of Chinese Buddhism; in other contexts, other approaches may be better. Finally, the website also allows us to post helpful ideas that others share with us, as well as try to answer questions that arise both in the interpretation and the teaching of Neo-Confucianism. We welcome suggestions!

[1] See (Zhu and Lü 1967).