Classics of Chinese Humanities: Guided Readings

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Course Date: 01 September 2014 to 27 October 2014 (8 weeks)

Price: free

Course Summary

An introductory yet trenchant exploration of select Chinese classic texts that cover the domains of classical literature, history, philosophy, and fine arts.

Estimated Workload: 5-8 hours/week

Course Instructors

Ou Fan Leo Lee 李歐梵

Prof. Lee is currently Sin Wai Kin Professor of Chinese Culture at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, having taken early retirement from teaching at Harvard University to become a long-term Hong Kong resident.  Apart from his academic work, he has been an active participant in the Hong Kong cultural scene, having published in the past decades nearly 20 books of cultural criticism in both Chinese and English, including (in English) City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong (Harvard University Press, 2008). Among his scholarly books are Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945 (Harvard University Press, 1999). In addition to literature, his other humanistic interests include classical music, film, and architecture. 


Course Description

This English course is adapted from the Chinese version of the course carrying the same title (中國人文經典導讀), which was offered in April-June 2014.  The present course aims at introducing non-Chinese speakers to four key themes in Chinese humanities: the character of the Chinese hero, the Confucian tradition proper, Chinese lyrical aesthetics, and the Chinese ethnic spirit.  Participants will deepen both their understanding and appreciation of, and develop a critical eye in interpreting, the select texts.  The course thus provides a general framework for students to explore Chinese humanities. Yet, participants should take the initiative by doing both the recommended and the supplementary readings, most, if not all, of which are available at good public libraries.


This course consists of four lectures. Each lecture explores one key theme in Chinese humanities:

Week 1: The True Face of Hero
The lecture examines “Biography of Xiang Yu”, from Sima Qian’s (145-86?BC) magnum opus “Records of the Grand Historian”. Through analysing Xaing Yu’s complex character, the lecture explores the essence of heroism in ancient China, and how it distinguishes from the Western heroic figures. Sima Qian’s depiction of Xiang Yu has an important impact on the development of Chinese philosophy and literature, and hence the lecture also covers related modern works in order to delineate this masterpiece’s lasting legacy.

Week 2: The Way of the Confucian Tradition
The primary text of analysis here is “The Way” by Han Yu (768-824AD).  This text was the first ever attempt to establish the way of Confucian sages into orthodoxy, in order to refute the sayings and preaching of both the Taoist and the Buddhist schools. It has had considerable influence on later Confucian scholars. It is also a representative work by the author, who is regarded as the first of the eight great masters of the Tang and the Song Dynasties – its structure is clear, its arguments superbly constructed, and its writing vivid and dramatic.

Week 3: Landscape of Immortality
The lecture explores three classic texts portraying the famous historical site “Red Cliff”. These texts were written by Su Dongpo (1037-1101AD), one of the most distinguished Chinese poets in history. The persona of Su Dongpo is characterised by the three dimensions of Chinese ideologies (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism), all elegantly expressed in the texts. The lecture traces the origin of the lyrical tradition in Chinese literature, and also examines the intricate yet multifaceted relations between classical Chinese writings, and calligraphy and ink paintings.

Week 4: In Search of the Chinese Soul
The focus of the lecture is two renowned tales by Lu Xun (1881-1936): “The True Story of Ah-Q” and “Dairy of a Madman”. Lu Xun is full of paradoxes, ideologically and linguistically. His works reflect a desperate side of the Chinese tradition. He castigates feudal literary norms by creating soulless characters like Ah-Q. Still, he cannot help giving readers hopeful endings in some other stories. Putting politics aside, Lu Xun is considered the father of modern Chinese literature. He endeavours to promote the use of modern vernacular, yet personally he is fond for classical Chinese poetry and writes some poems in this form. This lecture therefore examines Lu Xun’s entanglement with the Chinese tradition, and attempt to find the Chinese national character in his works.


Four bi-weekly lectures, and corresponding peer-assessed discussions.

Course Workload

5-8 hours/week

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