Dr. Ellen Y. ZHANG
B.A. (Beijing Normal University), M.A. (People’s University of China), Ph.D. (Rice University)
Head and Associate Professor, Department of Religion and Philosophy
- General Research Fund (GRF), HKSAR Government
China has a long and unique tradition deliberating matters about war and peace. While Confucianism is most well-known today, there were many competing thoughts in the Pre-Qin period and Daoism was a prominent one among them. Although over the last few decades, there has been a growing body of writings on early Daoism offering a wide range of interpretations targeting the hermeneutical interest of contemporary readers, there is hardly anything substantial to connect Daoist thought to contemporary debates on ethics of war, peace, and related controversies due to reasons listed here: (i) As a dialogue partner, Confucianism has been viewed as a more important and influential tradition that represents the moralpolitik of ancient China; (ii) It is relatively difficult to schematize Daoist philosophy in terms of normative ethics since the very effort to do so seems to be contrary to its principles of non-conceptualization and non-dogmatization; and (iii) “Daoism” is a contested and ambivalent term, so much so that any attempt to speak of “Daoist ethics” as a coherent whole would be considered suspicious, if not meaningless. As such this project will focus on early Daoism, including Laozi’s Daoism and Huang-Lao Daoism, contending that there is much of value in the tradition that can be reconstructed to make it part of the contemporary discourse. The PI’s intention is to look not only backward but also forward by assessing potential contributions of Daoist social, political and ethical thought in contemporary times.
This projects studies classical Daoism from the perspective of war and peace. The ethical dimension of war and peace has been an attractive topic for scholars in recent decades and there is, no doubt, a solid foundation for a cross-cultural research study on this topic between China and the rest of the world. By exploring issues with regard to the complex moral dilemmas and controversies on war, peace, and their justifications from the perspectives of ancient Chinese thought, and Daoism in particular, the PI intends to produce a research achievement that will contribute to the contemporary discussion on similar issues.
Due to the complexity of ancient Chinese texts and their contexts, some of the findings provided by historians will be used as well to explicate specific historical conditions in which discourses on war and peace are given. The PI aims to map out an ethical contour of a Daoist alternative on particular political and intellectual issues, bringing them into conversation with the current debate. Although contemporary ethics will, to some extent, define the parameters for application of ethical terms regarding just war theories and pacifism, it should not preclude an attempt to explore the Daoist thought within its own context and tradition, and to locate the classical Chinese thinking in the matrix of contemporary explications and comparative discussion.
- Methodologically, the project focuses on textual-hermeneutical analysis of early Chinese texts, ethical inquiries with regard to contemporary debates on war, peace, and global order, and critical dialogue between Chinese versions of pacifism and various pacifist theories in the West.
Ethics and political philosophy
Part of the findings in the project was presented at the University Edinburgh, UK in 2017.