Translating Ancient Chinese Wisdom into Medicine for Today
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History and Culture 1

Chinese History and Culture Part One:

Early History and Classical Philosophy

The first block of my three-part course on Chinese History and Culture for CM Practitioners covers early Chinese history, from the beginnings of Chinese civilization to the Warring States period. In my experience, the two topics of most relevance to modern medical practitioners in this period are Shang shamanism and communication with the ancestors or “Heaven,” and classical philosophy, most notable Confucianism and Daoism. I suggest the following breakdown into nine separate lessons with pertinent study assignments, but am of course happy to tailor any course more specifically to your needs.

Lesson 1: Introduction to China: Geography, languages, Borders. With a side note on the dangers of Orientalism

  1. Instructions for the first two lessons: Click here.

  2. Slideshow: Click here.

  3. Readings

    • Sabine Wilms, “Orientalism, Cultural Appropriation, and Critical Thinking.” Link to the blog here

    • Exploring “A visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization: China Proper” at this fantastic website

    • Map activity.

Lesson 2: Origins of Chinese civilization in the Shang dynasty: shamanism, oracle bones, writing, and bronzes. Deconstructing “civilization.”

  1. Slideshow: Click here.

  2. Readings:

  • Patricia Ebrey, Cambridge lllustrated History: China, pp. 6-37.

  • Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, pp. 1-7.

  • K.C. Chang, “Ancient China and its Anthropological Significance” in Symbols, 1984.

  • K.C. Chang, “The “Meaning” of Shang Bronze Art” in Asian Art, Spring 1990. 

Lesson 3: Zhou dynasty and Warring States. Mandate of Heaven and the politics of the Iron Age

  1. Study Question: Why and how might the historical changes (political, social, economic, or religious) between the Shang and the Zhou periods have affected the rise of philosophical and cosmological ideas in the Warring States period?

  2. Readings

  • Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History: China, pp. 38-58.

  • Ebrey, Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, pp. 42-45. 

Lesson 4: A very brief introduction to Chinese writing and classical texts

  1. Study Question: Why and how can even a cursory study of literary Chinese (writing and grammar) help you in your medical practice?

  2. Readings:

  • Wieger, Chinese Characters, “Introduction.”

  • Michael Fuller, An Introduction to Literary Chinese, “Introduction.”

  • Archie Barnes, Chinese Through Poetry, “The Chinese Script.”

Lesson 5: Introduction to Chinese philosophy and cosmology

  1. Study Question: Why did the Duke of Zhou (Van Norden, pp. 9-10) become such an important figure in early Chinese historiography and philosophy, especially in Confucian teachings, and what do his actions tell us about the meaning of the Chinese concept dé 德 (“virtue” or “potency,” see van Norden, p. 8)?

  2. Readings:

  • Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, “Chapter One: Historical Context.”

  • Sabine Wilms, Translation of the Xiaojing. 

  • Livia Kohn, Daoism and Chinese Culture, “Introduction”

Lesson 6: Confucius

  1. Study Question: Contemplate the meaning of the following short but deep statement as it might apply to medical practice:

    “The gentleman is not a vessel” (Analects 2:12. The original is 《君子不器》).

    Hint: Looking at Analects 19:7 in particular may help you understand what he is trying to express here. Analects 9.6 and 13.4 may also shed some light on this question.

  2. Readings:

  • Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, “Chapter One: Kongzi.”

  • Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, Chapters Two and Three (Kongzi and Confucianism; Kongzi and Virtue Ethics).

  • Robert Eno, “The Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean,” available online here.

Lesson 7: Confucius’ Legacy

  1. Study Question: Compare and contrast how Mencius and Xunzi understood the Five Confucian Virtues (仁 rén “humaneness, benevolence”; 義 yì “Justice, uprightness; 智 zhì “knowledge, wisdom”; 信 xìn “loyalty, trustworthiness”; or 禮 lǐ “ritual, propriety”). How do you see yourself expressing these virtues in your clinical practice?

  2. Readings:

    • Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, “Chapter Three: Mengzi” and “Chapter Six: Xunzi.”

    • Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, Chapters Six and Ten.

    • Note: Focus in particular on the following passages:

    • Mengzi: Introduction, 1A1, 1A7, 1B6, 2A6, 4A11, 4A17, 4A27, 4B24, 6A1, 6A2, 6A4, 6A5, 6A6, 6A7, 6A86A10, 6A12, 7A1, 7A15, and 7A45.

    • Xunzi: Chapters 1, 2, 9, 17, 19, 20, and 23.

    • If you have extra time, energy, and interest, feel free to also read Readings, “Chapter Two: Mozi” and Chapters 4 -5 in the Introduction.

Lesson 8: Daoism: Laozi and the Daodejing. The Neiye (inner cultivation)

  1. Study Question: Read the Laozi in light of the following four themes

    • Metaphors: What are the most common ones? How does Laozi use them? What is he trying to say?

    • Political advice

    • Reversal: cycles, opposites?

    • Femininity: What attributes does he use and why?

  2. Readings

    • Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, “Chapter Four: Laozi.”

    • Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, Chapter Eight.

    • Harold Roth, “Science, Daoism, and Scholarly Subjectivity,” a lecture on youtube found here.

Lesson 9: Zhuangzi

  1. Study Question: I dearly love Zhuangzi’s stories, not just for their entertainment value and the beauty of the literary Chinese, but also for the deep teachings they contain. For next week’s class, please pick two stories that speak to you and explore

    • what insight Zhuangzi is trying to express here, and

    • how you may want to apply this in your clinical practice or how they might coincide with something you have learned elsewhere in your CM education.

  2. Readings:

  • Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, Chapter Five: Zhuangzi.

  • Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, Chapter Nine.

Lesson 10: Conclusion of early Chinese Philosophy

  • Michael Puett, “Why are Hundreds of Harvards Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy?” in The Atlantic Monthly, found online here.