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PH203: Nature in East Asian Traditions of Thought

This course will focus on key traditions of thought in China and Japan, with a thematic emphasis on how these traditions understand human-nature relations, and what resources they may provide for contemporary environmental philosophies. The course as a whole will emphasize three central themes, drawing on East Asian traditions to explore multiple conceptions of: 1) human nature and relations of persons to the wider world; 2) “nature,” “environment,” and non-human plants and animals; and 3) the path to a good life and a good society.

In Block 1 we will begin with China, studying classical Confucianism (the Analects and the Mencius), early Daoism (Zhuangzi), and early Chinese Buddhism. Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism (the latter by way of Korea) all later migrated to Japan and were adapted and synthesized in various ways. In the second part of the block, we will discuss these adaptations, and their relationship to Shinto – which grew out of Japanese indigenous traditions and continues to play an important role in Japan today. Throughout the course, we will consider the contemporary relevance of classic texts and how these complex traditions continue to shape conceptions of humans and nature in East Asia and beyond.

In Block 2 we explore the connection of early Chinese and Japanese philosophical and religious foundations with both traditional and modern Japanese literature and culture.  Our focus will be on identifying and understanding how these concepts inform texts from the 8th through the 21st centuries.  We will start with early histories and poetry dating from the 8th century CE and proceed through the centuries to see the intersection between underlying aesthetics of literature (from classical poetry and drama to manga) and art forms (from calligraphy and gardens to anime).  We will continue to interrogate themes from Block 1, focusing on 1)  connections with the wider world; 2) “nature” and “environment”; and 3) striving for a cultural identity.  Most observers of Japan see a close connection among nature, culture, and literature.  However, through a careful reading of selections of Japanese literature throughout many historical periods, we will come to realize that the concept of nature was often re-created and employed as a trope.

In addition to discussed-based sessions where we analyze readings and films about Japanese history, literature, and anime, students will have many hands-on opportunities, including calligraphy sessions, cooking a Japanese meal, and performing a kabuki play.