Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi et al: Ancient Chinese Thought MOOC

Course: Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought
Length: 8 weeks
School/platform: University of Hong Kong/edX
Instructors: Chad Hansen
Quote:

We make ethical or behaviour guiding right / wrong judgments all the time but have you ever wondered where Ethics comes from, what it is about and why it is important? This course provides an introduction to traditional Chinese ethical thought and focuses on the pervasive contrast in the way Chinese and Westerners think about ethical guidance or guidance concerning what is right and what is wrong, good or bad.

While I’ve greatly enjoyed many of the moocs I’ve taken over the past three years (I’ve lost count, about 70, I think), I can count on the fingers of one hand the ones that have shifted a paradigm or had a lasting impact on life-as-lived. This is one of those few.

By a happy coincidence of timing, I’d just finished the first module of Harvard’s 10-part ChinaX series covering the Period of the Warring States and the Hundred Schools of Thought. Not only did that give me at least a vague familiarity with the names, but it let me situate the philosophers in a particular time and give me something of a foundation: an understanding of the Sage Kings that had gone before, of the transition from Shang to Zhou and the legitimacy of tianming, of the chaos of the time and the period that followed. None of this background was in any way required to understand the material itself, but it did prepare the field for sowing, so it’s an approach I recommend to those as completely unfamiliar with ancient China as I was.

The course is based on Prof. Hansen’s book, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. We opened with an overview of philosophical approaches and fields, showing where the ancient Chinese thinkers fit compared to Western philosophers. I found this very helpful as a way to keep my conceptual bearings (and picked up a few tidbits about Western philosophy in the process). It’s always a good idea to network new ideas to old ones.

The next seven weeks each featured a school of thought: Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Shen Dao/Laozi, and Zhuangzi, who took up two weeks. Xunzi took up most of the final week, which, though unavoidable (the history of philosophy is what it is), was perhaps the only complaint I have about the course: it ended on a real downer, particularly at this moment of time when an authoritarian anti-intellectualism seems to be sweeping the world, not to mention the US. The last couple of lectures offered a review that somewhat recaptured the feeling of the rest of the material, but I also went back to listen to some of the Zhuangzi lectures so I could personally end there, feeling enriched instead of scolded and scared.

Lecture courses can be tedious – so many wonderful professors turn into soulless automatons when plopped in front of a camera to read a script – but Prof. Hansen’s able to pull it off extremely well, and this was far superior to most “talking head” courses. During the course they released a “the making of” video which shows the kind of thought and care that went into presenting lectures. They weren’t happy with the first few attempts, so they kept changing the format until they found one that worked. As a result, the lectures seem more like story-telling, with little “cliffhangers” at the end of each one that keep the momentum going, even create a degree of suspense that’s atypical for a history of philosophy course. Part of it is Prof. Hansen’s relaxed and engaged delivery, which is probably helped by the presence of students in the room so he’s not talking direct to camera (which can kill even the most animated speaker). Little animations with sound effects add a sprinkle of fun, with the overall result being lectures that are a delight as well as clear and instructive, with enough foreshadowing, repetition, and summary to help retention of the ideas.

Each week included an introduction, about 10 lectures (roughly 10 minute each), handouts for each lecture for those who would rather read than listen, and links to ctext files for pertinent text excerpts. I was a little confused about those links for a while, but I finally got the hang of it. Lecture captioning is available in English and Chinese, by the way; while the course occasionally explains characters for various concepts, no knowledge of Chinese is needed (a good thing, since I have none). A non-graded “knowledge check” of one or two questions followed each lecture, with a graded quiz, about 10 questions, at the end of each week. Two peer-assessed essays, 300 to 500 words, were required, each comparing two philosophers on some topic.

Staff was very involved in the course throughout. Prof. Hansen and an excellent TA responded to most student posts in some way, often extending into new directions and giving additional insights; as a result, the boards were active and thought-provoking. Each week featured Prof. Hansen in an impromptu “roundup” video addressing some of the more popular topics from the forums. As moocs aim more for scalability and automation, these are features that will be lost, and they’re the features that differentiate a meh mooc – youtube plus some quiz questions – from an educational experience that will be remembered and will entice students to learn more.

Those of us who know little or nothing about China, or Chinese thought, probably know the words Confucius and Dao, but chances are we don’t really have any idea what is packed into those names. I’d always assumed Confucius was the epitome of Eastern wisdom; imagine my surprise to find that I don’t particularly agree with much of his point of view. Dao is one of those massive topics, like math or history or Liberty or Shakespeare, that tends to get shoehorned into a pithy definition that doesn’t begin to cover it all. I’m going to need to read poet Afaa Michael Weaver’s work with new eyes now; he explicitly mentions Zhuangzi in his interviews, and now that I have some idea of what that references, I’d like to reconnect to that.

For me the central moment came during lecture 6 with the “fish in water” description of how we relate to Daos: I flashed on DFW’s “This is Water” graduation speech (immortalized in brilliant video form which may or may not be on youtube at this moment). I was stunned to find DFW in Zhuangzi (or is it Zhuangzi in DFW?). The technique I call “finding my compassion” versus compassion fatigue when yet another panhandler asks for spare change? My impatience with the maintenance guy who doesn’t believe it’s necessary to find the source of a leak but just to cover up the water damage? Those are choices between daos, and often we don’t realize we’re making a choice.

This course taught me about Mozi and logic and natural philosophy, yes, but it also taught me to look for the choices I make without realizing I’m choosing – because chances are, if I were aware I was choosing, I’d choose differently. I highly recommend the experience.

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