Featured Course: Foundations of Chinese Thought

Asia 371 Meditating Figure Full Banner w caption

Asia 371 “Foundations of Chinese Thought” represents the first time that a course in the Faculty of Arts at UBC will be taught in a “flipped classroom” mode.

This refers to a class structure where students spend a portion of their “classroom” hours watching course lectures at home and then one hour in a small-group discussion section once a week with the professor. Weekly quizzes and meetings with the TA will help the students to stay on schedule, and students will also be able to engage with the discussion board of the simultaneously-run Massive, Open, Online Course (MOOC) version of the course on the edX platform, which has had up to 1000 active students from all walks of life and from all over the world. Students enrolled in the class should find engaging with this massive, extremely self-motivated on-line community both edifying and stimulating.


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Winter 2017

ASIA371 Foundations of Chinese Thought Sections

Chinese thought from its beginnings until the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) in its historical and cultural contexts. Includes, among others: Confucius; Mo Zi; the Legalists/Authoritarians; Zhuang Zi; the Lao Zi book.


Asia 371 Wood steamer

Xunzi, a late Warring States Confucian thinker, thought that human nature was like a piece of crooked wood, which needed to be steamed and straightened before it was useful. Like Confucius, he thus emphasized the importance of culture, learning and effort.

In terms of content, this course is designed to give students a thorough introduction to early (pre 221 BCE) Chinese thought, its contemporary implications, and the role of religion in human flourishing. This period of Chinese history witnessed the formation of all of the major indigenous schools of Chinese thought (Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism and Legalism), which in turn had an impact on the development of East Asian cultural history that is still felt today. Students will be exposed to both received texts and recently discovered archeological texts; this combination of sources will both enrich students’ understanding of the world of thought in early China and call into question the boundaries drawn between the traditionally-defined “schools” such as Daoism or Confucianism.

Asia 371 Bell stand 2

This is the sort of elaborate luxury item, a carved bell stand and cast bronze bells, that was required for Confucian musical performances. We will look at the arguments of the Mohists that cultural activities like music or art were wasteful frivolities, and should be eliminated in favor of practical behavior that would increase the wealth, population and order of the state.

Important themes to be discussed include the ideal of wu-wei or “effortless action,” the paradox of how one can consciously try not to try, models of the self and self-cultivation, rationality versus emotions, trust and human cooperation, and the structure and impact of different spiritual and political ideals. We will also explore parallels with Western philosophical and religious traditions, the relevance of early Chinese thought for contemporary debates in ethics, moral education, and political philosophy, and the manner in which early Chinese models of the self anticipate recent developments in the evolutionary and cognitive sciences.

Who will be teaching this course
Edward Slingerland 2

Edward Slingerland is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, where he also holds adjunct appointments in Philosophy and Psychology. He is the author of many books, most recently Trying Not To Try: Ancient China, Modern Science and the Power of Spontaneity (Crown/Random House, 2014), and serves as Director of the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC) and the Database of Religious History (DRH).