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Chinese Literature: a Lens for the Humanities

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Chinese Literature: A Lens for the Humanities

Although the humanities are often a subject of bitter debate in school today, when the most important thing seems to be to acquire marketable skills, many people acknowledge the importance of the humanities to education and the world overall. Yet, too often, when people discuss the salient features of the humanities, they narrowly and overly focus on the Western traditions. However, many important characteristics of the humanities can be found in the Eastern tradition as well, and in Chinese literature in particular. This essay discusses how some common Chinese stories exemplify vital aspects of the humanities and consequently increase our understanding of culture.
First, what are the humanities? According to Stanford University, “The humanities can be described as the study of the myriad ways in which people, from every period of history and from every corner of the globe, process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world” (Stanford University). Often, humanities classes focus on these topics – yet all too often, students learn a narrow view of the humanities, one that seems to assume the world began in Greece and ended in America.
Although people often viciously criticize the humanities, since the correlation between studying them and earning a big paycheck is a difficult logical leap for some people, the humanities are something of a mode of thinking, a way of processing and documenting the universal aspects of the human experience (Stanford University). Therefore, they can improve people in terms of their critical thinking, ethics, and understanding of logic. Logic, ethics, and critical thinking are essential skills in every single career, and enrich one’s experience as a human being: they can equip someone with better ways of handling stress, and they can teach someone to think creatively until they find a new way to solve a problem. Teachers of the humanities argue that they are vital because they provide “insights into everything,” aid us in “understanding our world,” and therefore help us better bring “clarity to the future” (Stanford University).
Thus, having argued that the humanities are absolutely vital, it is time to turn to the Eastern humanities tradition. One useful way to begin to understand the long tradition of the humanities among the diverse cultures in Asia is through an anthology, as anthologies present a “buffet-like” introduction to a variety of authors, texts, writing styles, cultures, religions, and time periods. One representative anthology of Asian literature can demonstrate why Asian literature is essential windows into the humanities.
The Treasury of Asian Literature, like corresponding Western books on the same topic, contains important works of literature that provide key insight into these cultures’ views of ethics, history, and religion. For example, the Treasury provides the text of “Of Man and Nature,” a poem that analyzes the speaker’s relationship to humanity and the world around him. The poem explores a theme that will be universal or familiar to many people, loneliness, and yet the speaker finds his way through this loneliness by seeking connection to the world around him – both its natural wonders and beauty, and its people. This poem contains imagery, philosophy, and religion, and certainly illustrates the aspects of the humanities mentioned above.
Similarly, the analects of Confucius present aphorisms and proverbs for everyday life in a way that attributes them to Confucius. These are more than simple prescriptions for everyday life. They allow the reader to get inside the mindset of a very different culture. The Analects are quite concerned with the definition of virtue, a point of comparison between the Greek tradition and the Eastern one. For example, the Confucian analects say, “When the love of superiority, boasting, resentments, and covetousness are repressed, this may be deemed perfect virtue" (Yohannan 314). Reported in the analects as the speech of the master, the work nonetheless encourages the progress of a human to a higher plane of existence by seeking to diminish the negative aspects within oneself.
That is, the Analects encourage an essentially humanities-based way of thinking, because not only do they provide a document that allows readers to experience how other humans have processed and experienced human existence, but they espouse a philosophy that has strongly influenced Asian cultures. Similarly, the Tao Ching also provides insight into another major philosophy that has influenced Asian cultures for millennia. The Tao states, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao / The name that can be named is not the eternal name / The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth / The named is the mother of myriad things” (Yohannan 340). This passage reveals important beliefs, such as the unknowable origin of most things in the universe. This, too, is an example of the philosophy underpinning a culture, as well as a text in which the speaker seeks to situate his experiences with the world, focusing on the natural world and his place within a full, harmonious universe. Seeking to understand the humanistic roots of these beliefs is vital even for those who would otherwise turn up their noses at the humanities. Why?
In today’s increasingly globalized world, even those who pursue business careers will likely have occasion to interact with those from other cultures – and, more and more often, it is likely one will interact with those from Asian cultures. Therefore, it can truly facilitate business to understand the philosophy, culture and history that underlies an individual or an organization’s business decisions. Texts like the Analects and the Tao can help people find common ground, which can only improve communication and even friendship.
The humanities – particularly the Eastern traditions thereof – can help diplomacy, as well as business. Understanding why a culture or government chooses to act in certain ways can potentially avoid conflict. It can also equip individuals with a greater range of knowledge, thus preventing them from relying too heavily on their own culture of origin.
Certainly, it is important to study the humanistic traditions in as many cultures as possible. While this essay has focused exclusively on a few Asian examples published in one anthology, there still remain numerous possibilities for additional explorations into more works as examples of the humanities. Regardless, the imperative still exists to study the humanities. The traditions of mankind are too important to ignore by doing anything less.

Works Cited
Stanford University. What are the humanities? . n.d. 20 September 2013. <>.
Yohannan, John D. A Treasury of Asian Literature. New York: Meridian Books, 1994.

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