Essay for Unit #1 on Classical Chinese Thought

Due September 30

The purpose of this assignment is to get students to interact directly with the words and ideas of either Confucius, in the Analects, or Daoism in the Laozi, in a way that gives the reader a sense of what these teachings were about and what they can tell us today about China.  So, your charge is to write an essay that explicates either Confucian teachings as contained in The Analects, or the thrust of the verses in the Daodejing--in an essay that is organized around 5-10 direct quotes from either of these texts and perhaps supplemented by interpretations of his thought (fom people such as Mote or Fingarette).  

So I might expect to see something like this:

Confucius lived during the early Warring States Period (400-221 BC) and taught the value of correct practice of Zhou rituals. Among his most important ideas were XYZ. For example, in Ch. Y of the Analects he obsersves that.....

Or, for Daoism, one might approach it like this:

Daoism emerged out of a counter tradition in early Chinese thought and emphasizes that.....For example, in Ch. 1 of the Daodejing we find....while in Ch. Z.....

The main point is to have these two classical sources at the center of your paper with your commentary on what you think they are saying and where we might go with their ideas, the advice they offer for how to conduct ourselves and make our lives better, etc.

The key question that you might want to answer is: What are the core components of theses teachings and how do they operate together as an integrated system? 

Some other questions you might want to raise--but you are neither required to address them all, nor limited to these ones specifically--have to do with the setting or context for the development of Confucius' ideas and they would include:

1. In Han times, when "Confucianism" became established as the official philosophy of the imperial regime, the first Qin ruler came to be seen as the perfect example of how NOT to rule or govern. Why was that? 

2. How did Confucianism and Daoism differ? How did they work together? What was Daoism's primary vision?


Your essay should be 5-7 pages in length and have a solid Introduction, a strong Body and a Conclusion. That means, you will want to have a solid Introductory paragraph or two where you clearly state the topic of your paper--what you want to discuss and why. For example,

This paper will explore what the discourse or the comments about X,Y, and Z in the Daodejing are asking us to consider. In Ch. 14 we find this: [Quote]. This language can be taken in a variety of ways. While it clearly suggests (one type of meaning) also, if we read it in light of another section....could also be referring to.....In my paper I will show or argue that....Or, this paper will argue that...

Or, if you are writing on the Analects, you could say that Confucius urged his readers to look back to the Early Zhou era and rely on the virtues and values that were practiced then. He pointed to quite a few key practices but this paper will argue that Li and Ren were among the most compelling and dynamic, for we find some of his most important teachings in the passages that deal with them and how they interacted with one another. By closely examing Confucius' sayings, we can also better understand whether Confucius was a thoroughgoing Traditionalist or an Innovator.

Then you get into your main arguments (Body), where you use passages from the text in order to make your case, and then you finish with your Conclusion that shows the reader that you accomplished exactly what you set out to do as you claimed in your Intro, and that your argument is worthy of serious consideration!

One of the great things about writing in the Humanities is that your argument does not have to be 100% correct; it just has to be convincing enough to merit sereious consideration.

So, can you argue any point under the sun, then? Perhaps, but not quite. For example, would you want to argue that Laozi was an alien who came from outer space to help the inhabitants of earth with some wisdom? If so, yet you can find no written evidence such as "I come from another planet and this is what I have to each you....," or no other, external evidence of alien spacecraft visiting China around the time this text emerged, then you had better come up with something else in the language of the text that points to its alien orgins. If you cannot do this, then your argument is not going to hold up very well. So, no, you cannot argue for just anything; what you claim must have support in your quotations from the text, and you may have to argue for your interpretation, or find some additonal support from folks like Mote or Fingarette, to strengthen your position.