Welcome to the website of Paul van Els, university lecturer at the Institute for Area Studies of Leiden University in The Netherlands. My area of expertise is early Chinese thought, which involves philosophical texts, thinkers, and traditions from the centuries leading up to the beginning of the Common Era.

Those were the days when Confucius instructed his disciples in the ways of the noble person; when Mencius and Xunzi offered different views of human nature; when Laozi said in so many words that the inner workings of the world cannot be put to words; when Zhuangzi talked to skulls and dreamed of butterflies; and when Gongsun Long insisted that white horses are, in fact, no horses at all.

Zhuang Zhou Dreams a Butterfly 莊周夢蝶, as painted by Fan Zeng 范曽 (b. 1938) and inspired by these famous lines from the Zhuangzi:

Last night I, Zhuang Zhou, dreamt I was a butterfly, flitting and fluttering I was a butterfly, happy with myself and doing as I pleased... unaware of any Zhuang Zhou. When all of a sudden I woke up, I was solidly and unmistakably Zhuang Zhou. Now I wonder whether I am Zhuang Zhou who dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who dreams he is Zhuang Zhou.

Those were also the days when rulers, ministers, and other dignitaries were buried with a rich array of grave goods (including gold-ware, bronze-ware, and jade-ware), and occasionally with texts inked on silk, bamboo, or wood. Many tombs have been excavated in China in recent decades (for example at the famous sites of Mawangdui and Guodian). These spectacular discoveries offer a wealth of information about life in those days, and about the worldviews of the deceased and their contemporaries. They make the vibrant field of early Chinese thought a fascinating blend of archaeology, history, philology, and philosophy.

This website presents some of my work in the field of early Chinese thought, including a list of publications, an overview of the courses that I teach and the graduate students that I supervise. If you have any questions about my work, please feel free to contact me.