The Classic of Documents and the Origins of Chinese Political Philosophy:
An Oxford-Princeton Research Collaboration

Oxford conference, 21-22 March 2014: The Queen's College, University of Oxford 


Organiser: Dirk Meyer, The Queen's College

As part of the Oxford-Princeton research partnership on the Classic of Documents, there will be a conference at the Queen's College, University of Oxford (21-22 March 2014). This meeting is the second of a series of conferences devoted to the study of the Shangshu. With this partnership, we propose a new approach to one of the core texts of the classical Chinese philosophical, historical, and political tradition that dates from the first millennium BCE, with its early parts likely to come from the 10th century BCE. While current Chinese political discourse—including some of the leading voices in politics and international relations—is replete with references to the political and philosophical discourse of Chinese antiquity, the focus remains on Confucius (551-479 BCE) and the political thinkers that followed him over the next three centuries. However, the one text that consistently served as a reference to  these thinkers, the Shangshu containing a series of royal speeches attributed to the emperors of high antiquity, remains woefully understudied. Within the Chinese tradition, these speeches are central as the earliest formulations of the concept of kingship and the “Mandate of Heaven”; they emphasize the common people as the source of their ruler’s legitimation, they discourse on just war and legitimate regicide, and they debate issues of loyalty and dynastic succession and consider the terms of interstate relations. Yet to this day, there is no systematic study in any European language on these speeches.

In this situation, we wish to develop a deep and interdisciplinary study of the origin and early development of Chinese political philosophy. Our long-term questions are: how can we contextualize the royal speeches in their original political and cultural environment, in particular in relation to the thousands of bronze inscriptions, dating from the 13th century BCE onward, that have been excavated in recent years? What are the origins of the Chinese political idiom that intellectuals today—in relation to China’s current political rise—find meaningful and unproblematic to appropriate? How is imperial rule (now easily mapped onto one-party rule) legitimized? Who are the agents of both power and change in this system? What is the public arena of political discourse in high antiquity, as it can now be revisited through the full use of epigraphic evidence that had been buried for three millennia? How can we compare the Chinese origins of kingship—and indeed imperial rule—with those of other ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, and later Rome? What does the case of ancient China contribute to the nascent field of “Empire Studies,” and why does it matter today as a point of reference in current Chinese political discourse?

These are just some of the questions we need to address, and that strike us as rather urgent. Moreover, Qinghua University—one of China’s top three universities—has just acquired a large cache of bamboo manuscripts dating from circa 300 BCE that contain significant overlap with parts of the Shangshu and related texts. These previously unknown manuscripts had been looted from an ancient tomb and were then offered on the Hong Kong antiquity market. Their discovery and initial publication has already triggered hundreds of studies in China, revealing the extraordinary importance modern Chinese scholars accord to them. While current Chinese scholarship is shaping the ways in which the Shangshu texts provide today’s political discourse with inspiration and legitimation from (an however idealized) antiquity, scholars in North America and Europe have only just begun to study these writings. Thus, from the dual yet intimately connected perspectives of “China today” and the newly visible “China in antiquity,” we believe now is the time to develop an interdisciplinary research agenda focused on the ancient classic in its own context, and by this laying the groundwork for further study of its current ramifications.



The Shangshu has long been looked at as a source of history, political thought, religion, mythology, or archaic language. Yet, after centuries of Chinese scholarship, the Shangshu—or even any subset of chapters such as the early speeches vs. the later cosmological accounts—still lacks comprehensive analysis in terms of political philosophy, ideology, and rhetoric.

Such an analysis may involve three perspectives: as a contribution to the study of early China, as a contribution to the comparative study of ancient kingship, and as an intervention into the current appropriation of ancient Chinese political thought for contemporary purposes (e.g., in the work of Yan Xuetong, Jiang Qing, Daniel Bell, and others). While mostly devoted to the first and second perspectives, we also believe that scholars of early China should not leave the interpretation of ancient texts to political scientists who more often than not are driven by their own agenda rather than genuine interests in early China proper.

With our project, we are less concerned with questions of textual history or philology per se, or with using the Shangshu as a source text for Zhou history. Instead, we ask: what are the political and ethical values espoused in the Shangshu, and how are they expressed rhetorically? What are the patterns of oratory and rhetoric in the representation of archaic kingship? Can we advance new linguistic, literary, historical, and philological approaches to such oratory and rhetoric? Can we historicize key philosophical issues such as the Mandate of Heaven, the succession of power, or the relation between ruler and populace in political, religious, and mythological terms? Can we contextualize the early royal speeches in their own political and cultural environment? How do they relate to bronze inscriptions and the Shijing, and what is their common public arena? Furthermore, how are the political ideals of the early Shangshu chapters interpreted, transformed, and employed in Warring States and early imperial thought and political practice? And finally, can we compare Chinese origins of kingship—and indeed imperial rule—with those of other ancient civilizations? What does the case of early China contribute to a comparative endeavor, and how can the latter help us understand ancient Chinese political thought?

The multidisciplinary complexity of such questions—and of a host of others that extend from them—calls for a collaborative effort. The principal format of this effort will be several workshops and conferences, supported by specific research tasks that involve not only established scholars but also graduate students. For the beginning, we focus directly on the Shangshu; at later steps, we intend to invite a select group of scholars from other fields with whom we can then discuss comparative perspectives. Our ultimate goal is to publish a new body of collaborative scholarship on the Shangshu in its manifold dimensions.

Our first conference was held in May 17-18, 2013, at Princeton. For this meeting, each participant chose one particular Shangshu chapter for close analysis in terms of political thought and rhetoric. As very few such studies of entire chapters exist, our first conference built a more solid basis for all further discussions and analyses of larger issues at subsequent meetings.

For our second second conference, March 21-22, 2014, at The Queen’s College, University of Oxford, we ask each participant to develop their Princeton paper into a fully developed study. While the Princeton workshop looked at individual chapters in isolation, the idea is that the Oxford workshop takes a more inclusive focus.

The Oxford papers should be circulated circa two weeks before the conference.