What to expect when you're expecting Chinese philosophy

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On March 10, Karyn Lai and I will be launching the much-awaited podcast series on classical Chinese philosophy! This series will go up to the Han dynasty, ending with the introduction of Buddhist ideas into China. Obviously this leaves room for many more episodes on later Chinese thought and there may be another series on that at some point in the future. But for now, plenty to look forward to here! Note that this list does not include planned interviews, and that this list is extremely provisional beyond the first ten episodes or so, which is the part for which we have either already written/recorded episodes or at least have concrete plans. The final list of episodes will probably look very different and some topics here may receive more than one episode even where this is not indicated. We're shooting for around 60 episodes total not counting interviews.


Introduction: the concept of Dao

Change and the I Jing

The historical context

The nature of classical Chinese texts


Kong Zi (Confucius) and the Analects

Key themes in Confucianism

The Confucian canon

The self in Confucianism



Moral action in Confucianism

The body in Confucianism


Music in Confucianism

Moral psychology in Confucianism

Confucian political philosophy

Women in Confucianism (and other traditions)



The Mohist texts

Standards for life


Philosophy of language and reasoning (several episodes)






Skepticism in the Zhuangzi

Animals in the Zhuangzi

Wandering and skill stories


Daoist epistemology

Daoist ethics

Daoist political philosophy



Shang Yang

Shen Buhai

Han Fei

Political power and bureaucracy

Philosophy in the Han

Empire and philosophy

Yin-Yang thought

Developments in metaphysics

Ancient Chinese medicine

The Daybooks

The arrival of Buddhism

Themes in Chinese Buddhism (several episodes)

G. Tarun on 4 February 2024

China series structure

This sounds well-laid out, even if provisional! The historical context episodes, Dao as background, later exploration of Buddhism, all welcome moves!

In Buddhism, I think it would be helpful to focus on how Buddhism spread beyond South Asia, eastwards, and then cover affinities and divergences in Indian and Chinese Buddhisms? Forging this connection with the Buddhism discussion in the India series, in other words.

Finally, like the Chike Jeffers discussion episodes in the Africana series, do you plan to end each section with a discussion with Karyn Lai?

In reply to by G. Tarun

Peter Adamson on 4 February 2024

China series

We actually already recorded an interview with Karyn that will be towards the start (episode 3) looking ahead to what we are planning. I think probably the plan is then to have a wrap-up interview with her at the end, rather than after each sub-part.

On the further spread of Buddhism, I think probably that would have to wait for the hoped-for further series on later Chinese/Asian/Indian philosophy.

Alexander Johnson on 5 February 2024

Book Burning

Will you be briefly covering the Qin book burning sometime in the legalist episodes to clarify to what extent it occurred or what impact it had?

I imagine school of names will be covered, probably with the philosophy of language and reasoning section.

Will minor schools like "school of agriculture", "school of medicine", or Sun Tzu get covered in the series?

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Peter Adamson on 5 February 2024

Book burning

Actually I read a bit about the supposed “book burning” already for the historical context episode and it seems to be somewhere between a real thing that has been exaggerated and a total myth, so not sure we will bother to mention it. If I understand correctly, it is more that there was a concerted effort to collect books in the Qin official library and everything else vanished out of simple neglect (an ironclad rule of pre-modern intellectual history: the default fate of all texts is to disappear, not to survive).

I am also skeptical (already) about this “school of X” and “school of Y” business: this seems to be without exception a Han, post-facto attempt to organize a mass of extremely complicated material into neat traditions and well-defined groups that simply didn’t exist in the Warring States period. Even our own division of the whole series into these “schools” is to be taken with something of a grain of salt though I think it is fair to say that there were Confucians and Mohists who disagreed with one another; but a lot of the interesting debates are intra-school. So for instance the “school of names” seems, again, to be more something that was invented later on (and again this is just my impression from what I have read so far). Still, we’ll have much to say about both naming and medicine, so we are covering the topics, but maybe not as “schools.”


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Alexander Johnson on 8 February 2024


I thought the book burning thing sounded implausible, but i have heard that claim asserted more often than i have heard the claim al-Ghazali destroyed Arabic science or various other misconceptions you dispelled, so I was hoping it'd get a brief mention in either Han intro or in legalist section to dismiss it.

As for the schools, I thought the schools i mentioned like medicine and agriculture were not real schools of thought (though i did think school of names was), but am more interested in if you'll find room to cover minor figures like Xu Xing or cover classical Chinese medical theory (like you did with India)

kaveinthran on 5 February 2024

links and book recommendations to history of philosophy without

I really love your links section. Perhaps at some point you can do a blog series to recommend resources/books to learn the history of philosophy without any gaps through books, particularly nonwestern philosophy that you may cover some years later. this will equip learners with materials while rooting for your episodes.


It can also be a cental place to compile reading list that is around the links from each series.



In reply to by kaveinthran

Peter Adamson on 5 February 2024

Book recommendations

Thanks! I think we kind of already provide that on the “top pages” for each series: this is where you’ll find general bibliography on, say, Hellenistic philosophy or Indian philosophy, and then you can dig deeper by looking at the bibliography for each episode. 

Razia on 5 February 2024

Tripartite Structure

So excited for this! Trivial question, but India, Africana, and most of the Western eras were broken up into three sections. Is the Chinese portion going to continue this, or will the categorization be in the six italicized Beginnings, Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, Legalism, Philosophy in the Han? If the latter, then have the prior tripartite structures been purely unplanned coincidences, or was thought given to the minor question of whether Chinese philosophy can fit a three-pronged division?

In reply to by Razia

Peter Adamson on 5 February 2024

Tripartite structure

Yes I had wondered the same thing: we do in a way have three parts, the opening section on background ("beginnings") then the Warring States traditions (Confucianism, Mohism, etc), and then the Han period. But they look like they will be so unequal in size that I think we won't have them labeled as such here on the website, with separate sub-series in the dropdown menu. We might do that for the book version though.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

G. Tarun on 5 February 2024

Tripartite structure

I agree that the book version could use that division. But even if there's very few Beginnings episodes and the Warring States part is the largest, I think the tripartite structure on the series page and/or drop-down is still helpful in clarity? (For instance, in including section references, listing episodes, etc?) And it keeps the format similar to earlier series.

In reply to by G. Tarun

Peter Adamson on 5 February 2024


I guess one criterion would be whether we wanted to have a bibliography just for the subsections, since then we have the section top pages to put it up. Which in this case I think we probably don’t? 

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 5 February 2024

I'm speaking from a place of…

I'm speaking from a place of ignorance here, but if a three part structure seems so troublesome for size, maybe there is a better way of splitting up the content? Either still with a three part structure but something different from beginnings -> warring states -> han period, or maybe more than or less than three sections? Maybe it is possible to put beginnings and warring states together (since I assume the han period is the one causing the issues about size)? Another idea could be to make it 4 sections, and instead of merging beginnings and warring states we split han? I have no idea if there is a philosophical/historical basis for making such a split though.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

mehmet on 16 February 2024


I think a tripartite structure (basics, warring states, han) will be better, because it matches into the pre-established periods of chinese history like a hand and a glove. One can immediately see at a glance that warring states period is one of the most pluralistic an intellectually active period of chinese history, for example, and much of classical china is a product of that time.  In this respect, unequal size will become an advantage. 

dukeofethereal on 5 February 2024

Sun Tzu + History writing (Philosophy of History)

Nice list professor, will Karyn be willing to focus on historical writing as a theme, you wished you had covered Herodotus/Thucydides in your series  when starting the series but covered other historians such as Ibn Khaldun, so how about covering Sima Qian and the many subsequent Historians afterwards for example? 


Also will Sun Tzu be given an episode given how influential his works has been for the last 2500 years? I know Sun Tzu was not covered in Karyn Lai's original book for CUP. He will fit in nicely in the 'war and violence'/'ethics' 'political philosophy themes.

In reply to by dukeofethereal

Peter Adamson on 6 February 2024

Sun Tzu

I suspect we’ll cover Sun Tzu around where we do Legalism but I will check with Karyn about this.

The early episode about historical context is largely about historical treatises, like the Annals of Spring and Summer. Already written in fact!

DreamingButterfly on 10 February 2024


So glad to see the Liezi in there. There's such a tendency (in my admittedly limited experience) among many English speakers to reduce other philosophical traditions to the aspects that are recognizably philosophical and ignore the rest. I even saw some people on philosophy.SE claiming that Daoism wasn't a religion. I appreciate that your Indian philosophy series covered things that aren't usually thought of as philosophical, like Ayurveda, and examined them seriously from a philosophical perspective, but also in their own context. I'm excited that this series looks equally thorough. I've been waiting for it ever since it was announced! 

dukeofethereal on 11 February 2024

Interview Alexus McLeod when you reach the Han period

I hope you record an interview with with Professor McLeod, a specialist in this field of Early Chinese philosophy and also Meso-American philosophy (a chance to interview him again when you discuss Pre-Colonial works on meso-America).




Also how comes you are stopping with the Eastern Han dynasty ? do you plan on the next series (whenever we get there) for the topic of 'Neo-Daosim' to be the Segway since Neo-Daosim takes place during the Eastern Han Dynasty up to the 6th century (also known as the Six Dynasties period or 'Wei-Jin Period - 220ce - 589 ce with the emergence of Sui-Tang dynasty the great epoch of Chinese history). 



In reply to by dukeofethereal

Peter Adamson on 11 February 2024


Yes I would definitely like to interview him, probably for the Mesoamerican series. The stopping point for this current series was more to do with how many episodes we wanted to have, plus Karyn’s specialism which is actually more Warring States but she felt like she could stretch to the Han. Part of the thinking too is to cover the arrival of Buddhism to stitch together the classical Indian and Chinese series... and then go from there, hopefully. But I do think Mesoamerican is more like to be the next non-Western series after China so might be a while.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

dukeofethereal on 12 February 2024

Is there enough secondary literature on Meso-American Philosophy

Is there enough secondary literature on Meso-American, Colonial Latin-American Philosophy and 20th Century? unlike Africana which has lots of secondary literature? Since you'll be dealing with Spanish/Portuguese texts primarily in Latin-American Philosophy.



In reply to by dukeofethereal

Peter Adamson on 13 February 2024

Philosophy in the Americas

I agree that is a concern, certainly compared to e.g. classical Chinese philosophy where the literature is vast. But actually I think the answer is yes; there is a lot being done nowadays on Latin American philosophy though I would need to dust off my high school Spanish for a lot of it. When we were doing oral traditions in Africa I actually read a lot of work by ethnographers and anthropologists and I would similarly expect, when looking at Native American thought for example, that I would be reading outside the literature designated as explicitly “philosophical”. But that would be part of the challenge and interest of doing it.


In reply to by Peter Adamson

dukeofethereal on 13 February 2024

How is your knowledge of Portuguese/ are you doing it yourself?

1. How is your knowledge of the Portuguese language ? 

2. Do you have a partner lined up or seeking one or do you plan on doing it yourself (like how you have been covering Medieval/Byzantine/Islamic East after Ghazali which were all new grounds you've covered outside of your expertise)

3. Since you are currently covering Iberian Philosophy in the reformation then will cover Iberian thought in 1600-1800 period when you move on to early modern France-Low countries, it makes sense that you cover the Americas-Pre colonial Latin America as the next step, plus with that geographical region covered you would have touched upon philosophy around the world ( except for Oceania and Korea/Japan/Tibet). I would hope you cover it after Classical China or if you want to wait for more secondary literature/scholarship to come out from Latin America philosophy (since there is not much from what I can see other than Mexican philosophy then you could go back with Ganeri and cover post Digana philosophy. 

In reply to by dukeofethereal

Peter Adamson on 13 February 2024


Unfortunately no Portuguese though between Spanish and just generally having done a lot of Romance languages, I always feel like I can sort of read it if I tilt my head to the side, so to speak. I did get advice from a Portuguese colleague for pronunication on our episode about Brazil in the Africana series though!

The partner question is a good one, I have been thinking about that too. My inclination is to try to do it myself while getting lots of advice from colleagues, simply because I can't really imagine finding some one person who is an expert on all these topics (Native American, Mesoamerican, plus Latin American since 16th century).  

A. Ahmad on 11 February 2024

Later China - Islamic-Confucian Philosophical Dialogue?

The provisional list is looking great, am excited to see this! Although I appreciate that the first series will be on early China, I was curious as to whether the oft-forgotten engagement between Islamic and Confucian intellectual traditions would be covered later?

It would fit in quite well with the theme of 'without any gaps' and cover an area that is only recently gaining more recognition and scholarship despite its historical relevance - emblemised by the Hundred-Word Eulogy written by the founder of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang or the Hongwu Emperor, where he praises the Prophet Muhammad - highlighting the level of cultural exchange taking place during that time period in particular.

Books (not exhaustive):

Murata, Sachiko (2009). The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi: Islamic Thought in Confucian Terms

Frankel, James (2011). Rectifying God's Name: Liu Zhi's Confucian translation of Monotheism and Islamic Law

Murata, Sachiko (2017). The First Islamic Classic in Chinese: Wang Daiyu's Real Commentary on the True Teaching

Frankel, James (2021). Islam in China

Chinese Islam with Professor Naoki Yamamoto by Blogging Theology (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xiv8nKVqyE)


In reply to by A. Ahmad

Peter Adamson on 11 February 2024

Islam and China

Thanks, that’s really helpful! This is definitely something I would want to cover later, yes, so I will make a note of these suggestions. As it happens I just wrote and recorded an episode for the Counterreformation series where I talk about Matteo Ricci which is a similar story.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

A. Ahmad on 12 February 2024

Islam and China

Glad to hear it. That sounds really interesting! I'll need to check it out, thanks for the heads-up.

dukeofethereal on 29 February 2024

Timeline of Classical Chinese Philosophers?

Hi Professor, just curious to know when you will release the timeline of Chinese philosophers for your classical series, since we're premiering the series next Sunday on 10th March!

In reply to by dukeofethereal

Peter Adamson on 29 February 2024


Right we need to do that! I think it will not be ready in time for the series launch but it’s on my “to do” list.

Andrew on 13 March 2024

Three questions

1. Are you not going to cover Yangism and Yang Zhu?

2. I see you are using various latinisations and romanisations. Is there any rule going on here beyond just using the dominant version in the English speaking world for a given name/word? Is there going to be any talk about this?

3. Outside of near the end of the series where you talk about medicine, I don't see you going beyond what is traditionally considered philosophical. Does the various technologies that ancient China developed (the four great inventions come to mind) not play a role in the development of classical Chinese philosophy? Physics? Maths? Poetry? History writing? Mythology? You did say if you started the podcast over again you would have covered Homer and Hesiod, so what about the equivalents for Ancient Chinese Mythology?

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 13 March 2024


Yes actually we have an episode planned on Yangism, it's already on the list - not sure why it isn't here above, I might have missed it out when transcribing. Sorry about that! Poetry, music, and history writing are definitely on the itinerary also; history writing will actually be a big theme in episode 4 already. Mythology is a good point, I think that is less on our radar.

As for spelling, the above list is total chaos obviously but as we write the scripts (looking ahead to the book version) we are being careful about it, giving the standard pinyin, then Chinese characters.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 13 March 2024

Might be a good idea to…

Might be a good idea to check if anything else is also on the list but was forgotten. If there is any, I sure wouldn't notice, that is for sure!

So nothing about maths or physics/natural philosophy? Did they not have such a strong link to the philosophical traditions in classical china as they did in the Greek and later traditions?

Something related to spelling though, are you going to use/talk about the alternative term for Confucianism? Ruism I mean. Wikipedia at least tells me that Ruism is a term more preferred by some modern scholars, doesn't carry some misleading associations, and actually corresponds to the terms used in the original Mandarin, all three unlike the term Confucianism. 

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 14 March 2024

Math and Ru

Yes, good point on mathematics, I'll ask Karyn about both this and mythology.

We mention that the Confucians were called the Ru in Chinese, but we're going to stick to calling them Confucians just to avoid confusing the listener (though we call the founding thinker Kongzi not Confucius).

In reply to by Andrew

Alexander Johnson on 15 March 2024


The math probably will have to wait until the next Chinese series.  As far as I'm aware, the 10 mathematical classics were almost all written after the Han dynasty ended (Liu Hui being just after, but some of them a couple hundred years later), and so there isn't a lot to go by that isn't purely speculative.  If it was stretched forward to cover Liu Hui, there is some interesting stuff to talk about, but it would also be reasonable to list him as the first part of an episode that covers him, Yi Xing (and the rest of the Chinese Indian math exchange), and Qin Jiushao in medieval Chinese mathematics.


For Natural philosophy, I am guessing Wuxing must be be on the list of topics to cover here, and is just not listed here

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Andrew on 15 March 2024


There is more to cover than just that. I know the Mohists did write quite a bit on geometry. Plus, there is the I Ching, which will definitely be covered. So at least there is more stuff that we do know of for certain than what you suggested.

I definitely don't have enough knowledge to really assert this next part, but I would think that even if the details are speculative, it wouldn't matter too much? This is a philosophy podcast after all, not a history of maths. We would only be interested in how maths related to the philosophy that was going on. How much we can comment on that though without the details I can't say though.

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