The Gongfu Approach to Teaching and Doing Chinese Philosophy across Cultures


  • Robert A. CARLEO III East China Normal University, Center for Intercultural Research, Shanghai, China



gongfu, transcultural, methodology, Chinese philosophy, pedagogy


This paper introduces a method of doing and teaching East Asian philosophy transculturally. The method underlies a pedagogy that has proven successful with students from diverse international backgrounds studying primarily in English, which suggests its potential for the wider scholarly community. The method centres on the practice, or gongfu, of doing philosophy with classical Chinese texts. The gongfu approach emphasizes the skill of interpreting and analysing texts within the context of the traditional works themselves. We have found that this skills-based approach to analysis bears much philosophical fruit. It does so, moreover, without subordinating the texts, their ideas, and their arguments to other more academically predominant frameworks. Or in more positive terms, it allows and encourages students to critically philosophize with the early Confucian and Daoist texts on their own terms, and to then creatively bring those unique insights and perspectives to bear on contemporary life.

This paper first introduces the gongfu approach to doing and teaching Chinese philosophy and its distinctive characteristics. It then contextualizes the value of this method through critically examining the nature of Chinese philosophy and how we can do Chinese philosophy in English. (How Chinese is it, and in what ways?) Throughout I offer short case studies from our program. I conclude by highlighting its promise as a mode (or valuable component) of transcultural philosophizing and briefly reflect on some reservations one might have.


Download data is not yet available.


Ames, Roger T. 2015. “Classical Daoism in an Age of Globalization.” Taiwan Journal of East Asian Studies 12 (2): 105–48.

Arendt, Hannah. 1961 [1968]. “The Crisis in Education.” In Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, 173–96. New York: Viking.

Carleo III, Robert A. 2021. “Confucian Freedom: Assessing the Debate.” Asian Philosophy 31 (3): 1–18. DOI:

Carleo III, Robert A., and Liu Liangjian. 2021. “The Philosophy of Affairs.” Contemporary Chinese Thought 52 (3): 125–36. doi:10.1080/10971467.2021.1977073. DOI:

Chan, Joseph. 2014. Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. DOI:

Christiansen, Morten H., and Nick Chater. 2022. The Language Game: How Improvisation Created Language and Changed the World. New York: Basic Books.

Connolly, Timothy. 2015. Doing Philosophy Comparatively. London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic. DOI:

D’Ambrosio, Paul J., and Timothy Connolly. 2017. “Using Familiar Themes to Introduce Chinese Philosophy in Traditional Courses (for the Non-Specialist).” Teaching Philosophy 40 (3): 323–40. doi:10.5840/teachphil2017101874. DOI:

D’Ambrosio, Paul, Dimitra Amarantidou, and Tim Connolly. 2021. “Teaching (Chinese/Non-Western) Philosophy as Philosophy: The Humble Gatekeeper.” Teaching Philosophy 44 (4): 513–34. DOI:

Dai Zhen 戴震. 1961. Mengzi ziyi shuzheng 孟子字義疏證 (Evidential Commentary on the Meanings of Terms in the Mengzi). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

De Bary, Wm. Theodore, and Tu Weiming, eds. 1998. Confucianism and Human Rights. New York: Columbia University Press.

Defoort, Carine. 2001. “Is There Such a Thing as Chinese Philosophy? Arguments of an Implicit Debate.” Philosophy East and West 51 (3): 393–413. DOI:

———. 2006. “Is ‘Chinese Philosophy’ a Proper Name? A Response to Rein Raud.” Philosophy East and West 56 (4): 625–60. DOI:

Graham, A. C. 1989. Disputers of the Tao. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

———. 1990 [2002]. “The Background of the Mencian Theory of Human Nature.” In Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi, edited by Xiusheng Liu, and Philip J. Ivanhoe, 1–63. Indianapolis: Hackett.

———. 1991. “Conceptual Schemes and Linguistic Relativism in Relation to Chinese.” In Culture and Modernity: East-West Philosophic Perspectives, edited by Eliot Deutsch, 193–212. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Hall, David L., and Roger T. Ames. 1987. Thinking Through Confucius. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 1995. Anticipating China: Thinking through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 1998. Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Huang, Yong. 2013. “How to Do Chinese Philosophy in a Western Philosophical Context: Introducing a Unique Approach to Chinese Philosophy.” Chinese Studies 31 (2): 117–52.

———. 2016. “The ‘Double Bind’ on Specialists in Chinese Philosophy.” Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies. The American Philosophical Association Newsletter 15 (2): 18–23.

Jia, Jinhua. 2009. “Religious Origin of the Terms Dao and De and Their Signification in the Laozi.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 3.19 (4): 459–88. doi:10.1017/S135618630999006X. DOI:

Kim, Sungmoon. 2016. Public Reason Confucianism: Democratic Perfectionism and Constitutionalism in East Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press. DOI:

———. 2018. Democracy after Virtue: Toward Pragmatic Confucian Democracy. Oxford University Press.

Li, Xueqin 李學勤, ed. 1999. Shisan jing zhu shu 十三經註疏 (The Thirteen Classics Annotated with Commentary). Beijing: Peking University Press.

Li, Zehou 李泽厚. 2011. Zhexue gangyao 哲學綱要 (Outline of a Philosophy). Beijing: Peking University Press.

———. 2018. The Origins of Chinese Thought: From Shamanism to Ritual Regulations and Humaneness. Boston, Leiden: Brill.

Lin, Tongqi, Henry Rosemont, Jr., and Roger T. Ames. 1995. “Chinese Philosophy: A Philosophical Essay on the ‘State-of-the-Art.’” The Journal of Asian Studies 54 (3): 727–58. DOI:

Liu, Liangjian 刘梁剑. 2015. Hanyuyan zhexue fafan 漢語言哲學發凡 (Introduction to Chinese-Language Philosophy). Beijing: Higher Education Publishing House.

Liu, Xiusheng, and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds. 2002. Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Møllgaard, Eske J. 2021. “Is Confucian Discourse Philosophy?” Philosophy East and West 71 (4): 1029–45. doi:10.1353/pew.2021.0067. DOI:

Ni, Peimin. 2017. Understanding the Analects of Confucius: A New Translation of Lunyu with Annotations. Albany: SUNY Press.

———. 2018. “Philosophy of Gongfu Revealed through Confucius: Responses to Chenyang LI and Huaiyu WANG’s Comments on My Book Confucius: The Man and the Way of Gongfu.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 17: 167–76. doi:10.1007/s11712-018-9606-x. DOI:

Olberding, Amy. 2015. “It’s Not Them, It’s You: A Case Study Concerning the Exclusion of Non-Western Philosophy.” Comparative Philosophy 6 (2): 14–34. DOI:

Rosemont, Jr., Henry. 1988. “Against Relativism.” In Interpreting Across Boundaries: New Essays in Comparative Philosophy, edited by Gerald James Larson and Eliot Deutsch, 36–70. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. DOI:

———. 1996. “Beyond Post-Modernism.” In Chinese Language, Thought, and Culture: Nivison and His Critics, edited by Philip J. Ivanhoe, 155–72. Chicago, La Salle, Illinois: Open Court.

———. 2015. Against Individualism. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

Rošker, Jana S. 2019. Following His Own Path: Li Zehou and Contemporary Chinese Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 2020. Becoming Human: Li Zehou’s Ethics. Leiden: Brill.

———. 2021. Interpreting Chinese Philosophy: A New Methodology. London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

———. 2022. “Chinese and Global Philosophy: Postcomparative Transcultural Approaches and the Method of Sublation.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy. (online first, published 14 April, 2022). doi:10.1007/s11712-022-09823-1. DOI:

Shun, Kwong-Loi, and David B. Wong, eds. 2004. Confucian Ethics: A Comparative Study of Self, Autonomy, and Community. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. DOI:

Wang, Robin R. 2012. Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press. DOI:

Wang, Xinli. 2018. “Incommensurability and Comparative Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West 68 (2): 564–82. DOI:

Xiao, Yang. 2020. “‘Chinese’ Philosophy or ‘The-Chinese-Language’ Philosophy?” Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture 33: 139–54. doi:10.22916/jcpc.2020..33.139.

Yang, Bojun 杨伯峻. 1960. Mengzi yi zhu 孟子譯注 (Translated and Annotated Mengzi). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

Yang, Guorong. 2021. “‘Affairs’ and the Actual World.” Contemporary Chinese Thought 52 (3): 137–65. doi:10.1080/10971467.2021.1977074. DOI:



2. 09. 2022

How to Cite

Carleo III, Robert A. 2022. “The Gongfu Approach to Teaching and Doing Chinese Philosophy across Cultures ”. Asian Studies 10 (3): 13-38.

Similar Articles

1-10 of 259

You may also start an advanced similarity search for this article.