SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Classical Chinese Thought

Module Code:
158000103 not running in 2020-21
Year of study:
Year 2, Year 3 or Year 4

This module is an introduction to the main themes, arguments and debates of classical Chinese thought, in the period approximately between the sixth and the third centuries BCE. Its focus is on the transmitted texts of the Masters (zhuzi 諸子), from Confucius to Han Feizi and including the Book of Changes, the Mohist school, Laozi, Mencius, Zhuangzi and Xunzi among others. Building on the past several decades of scholarship and archaeological discoveries, the module looks at these texts chiefly as the products of fluid communities of discourse rather than works of individual authorship. It therefore explores the textual construction of wisdom and authority over an extended period of time in China's classical age. Topics include:

  • historical, linguistic and conceptual issues in the study of classical Chinese thought.
  • the nature, structure, formation and chronology of the texts of the Masters.
  • their core ideas and implied readerships.
  • their interpretation in the commentarial tradition and in modern scholarship.
  • their significance in terms of modern categories of discourse such as ethics, logic, politics, psychology, cosmology and religion.
  • the forms of argumentation, rhetoric, and production of meaning.
    The module has no language prerequisites, as it is based on close reading and discussion of the texts in English translation. Wherever necessary, original Chinese texts will be compared, and linguistic explanations provided.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  • identify the main textual sources of classical Chinese thought.
  • reveal a critical awareness of the linguistic, cultural and historical contexts.
  • understand and analyse the main ideas of each text.
  • articulate the significance of classical Chinese thought in terms of modern categories of discourse such as ethics, logic, politics, psychology, cosmology and religion.
  • analyse the structure of argument and the production of meaning in each text.
  • critically assess the nature of the Masters literature and its place in the notion of world philosophies.


2 lectures per week.

Method of assessment

  • One Reaction Paper of 2,000 words (worth 30%)
  • One Essay of 4,000 words (worth 70%)

Suggested reading

  • Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle: Open Court, 1989. [CC181.00901 /586601; CC181.00901 /586602; CC181.00901 /628749; CC181.00901 /857391]
  • Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Bryan W. Van Norden (eds.). Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2006. [CC181 /992833]
  • Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985. [CC181.00901 /521033; CC181.00901 /621693; Ebook Central]
  • Van Norden, Bryan W. Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2011. [Ebook Central]
  • Loewe, Michael and Edward L. Shaughnessy (eds.). The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. [Ref CC931 /760292; Ref CC931 /931464; Ref CC931 /931465; Cambridge Histories Online]


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules