CCCH9038 China: Culture, State and Society
Chinese Social Values: Authority and Anarchy

Non-Permissible Combination:
CCCH9025 Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought

Course Description

This course traces the evolution of Chinese social and political values in the classical period of Chinese thought. Their discussions about, society, human nature, culture and coercion led to the great Legalist experiment of the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) and its aftermath which produced the Han conception of what we now know as Chinese political values. We start with the theory of the “mandate of heaven”, which leads us to Confucius’s appeal to ritual practices grounding a cultural account of social role ethics. We look at Confucius’s arguments for his educational methods including his rejection of punishment and coercion. Next we turn to the rival Mohists’ critique of Confucian social values. Mohist innovations launched a greater focus on political theory. We trace the role of pivotal concepts driving problems and solutions in the era’s political discourse. Key terms include 法 fa (standards), 名 ming (names), and 道 dao (way). We next study how prevailing views of psychology, cosmology, and social change inspired Daoist anarchism and in turn moral skepticism, pluralism, and Daoist values of freedom or spontaneity. Then we examine the Confucian authoritarian backlash, in which a darker view of psychology motivated arbitrary authority and severe punishments. These strands of political thought came together in the Legalist synthesis that unified China into a dynastic empire that lasted for two millennia. Finally, we examine how Qin Legalism was repudiated in favour of a Confucian orthodoxy that came to dominate imperial China. Students will draw on selected readings to debate in tutorials and in class how Chinese values as expressed in Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, and Legalism figure in contemporary arguments for individualism, human rights, freedom, democracy, and rule of law.

Course Learning Outcomes

On completing the course, students will be able to:

  1. Describe the theoretical role of key concepts such as fa (standards), ming (names), dao (way) and de (virtuosity) in the early development of Chinese norms.
  2. Compare and contrast rule by fa (standards) with rule of law and explain the conceptual basis for rule of law in traditional Chinese political philosophy.
  3. Demonstrate interpretive, analytical, and argumentative skills in oral presentation and writing by discussing issues arising in early Chinese social thought in written assignments, tutorial discussions, and debates.
  4. Demonstrate appreciation of the intellectual framework for and historical experience with rule by fa (standards) in traditional Chinese political thought.
  5. Demonstrate critical reflection on the value of rule of law, democracy, liberty and potential challenges to their implementation in a Chinese cultural context.

Offer Semester and Day of Teaching

Second semester (Wed)

Study Load

Activities Number of hours
Lectures 26
Tutorials 10
Reading / Self-study 64
Assessment: Essay / Report writing 20
Total: 120

Assessment: 100% coursework

Assessment Tasks Weighting
Tutorial participation 30
Brief writing assignments 40
Debate 20
Written reflections 10

Required Reading

Selections from:

  • Bix, B. (1996). Natural law theory. In D. M. Patterson (Ed.), A companion to philosophy of law and legal theory. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Bodde, D., Le Blanc, C., & Borei, D. (1981). Essays on Chinese civilization. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Fraser, C. (2001). Mohism. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Summer 2010 ed.).
  • Hansen, C. (1992). A Daoist theory of Chinese thought: A philosophical interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Hansen, C. (1996). Fa: Laws or standards. In N. Smart & B. S. Murthy (Eds.), East-West encounters in philosophy and religion (1st US ed., pp. 151-165). Long Beach, CA: Long Beach Publications.
  • Hansen, C. Rule of law in ancient China: Chinese substance or Western function?
  • Hsiao, K. (1979).  A history of Chinese political thought (Vol. 1). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Waley, A., Zhuangzi, Mencius, & Han, F. (1939). Three ways of thought in ancient China. London: G. Allen & Unwin.


  • Chan, W. (1963). A source book in Chinese philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • De Bary, W. T., Bloom, I., Chan, W., Adler, J., & Lufrano, R. J. (1999). Sources of Chinese tradition (2nd ed., Vol. 1). New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Watson, B., Mo, D., Xunzi, & Han, F. (1967). Basic writings of Mo Tzu, Hsün Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press.

Course Co-ordinator and Teacher(s)

Course Co-ordinator Contact
Dr C.J. Fraser
School of Humanities (Philosophy), Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 2796
Teacher(s) Contact
Professor C. Hansen
School of Humanities (Philosophy), Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 2796