Paul van Els and Sarah A. Queen, eds. Between History and Philosophy: Anecdotes in Early China. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2017. 386 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4384-6611-8 (Hardcover); 978-1-4384-6612-5 (Paperback).

Between History and Philosophy is the first book-length study in English to focus on the rhetorical functions and forms of anecdotal narratives in early China. Edited by Paul van Els and Sarah A. Queen, this volume advances the thesis that anecdotes — brief, freestanding accounts of single events involving historical figures, and occasionally also unnamed persons, animals, objects, or abstractions — served as an essential tool of persuasion and meaning-making within larger texts. Contributors to the volume analyze the use of anecdotes from the Warring States Period to the Han Dynasty, including their relations to other types of narrative, their circulation and reception, and their central position as a mode of argumentation in a variety of historical and philosophical genres.

Between History and Philosophy: Anecdotes in Early China

Table of Contents

  • Anecdotes in Early China

    In this introductory chapter, Paul van Els and Sarah A. Queen discuss characteristic features of early Chinese anecdotes. They first outline a more general understanding of anecdotes, based on scholarly literature that focuses predominantly on anecdotes in German, English, and other European languages. Then, they analyze how anecdotes in the Chinese tradition correspond to, and differ from, the more general understanding of anecdotes. A draft version of this chapter is available here.

  • 1. Non-deductive Argumentation in Early Chinese Philosophy

    In Chapter 1, “Non-deductive Argumentation in Early Chinese Philosophy,” Paul R. Goldin shows that early Chinese thinkers, while familiar with the principles of deductive reasoning, a kind of reasoning that was favored by their counterparts in the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition, preferred crafting non-deductive arguments (including those involving anecdotes) instead.

  • 2. Anecdote, Narrative, and Philosophical Argumentation in Early China

    In Chapter 2, “The Frontier Between Chen and Cai: Anecdote, Narrative, and Philosophical Argumentation in Early China,” Andrew Seth Meyer explores the philosophical use of anecdotes through the study of one particular anecdote that occurs—in different forms and with different appraisals—in a variety of early Chinese texts. Building on the insights of Goldin in the previous chapter, Meyer provides an inter-textual analysis of the story of Confucius’ sojourn and near-starvation between the southern states of Chen and Cai, as it appears in the Lunyu, Mozi, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, Lüshi chunqiu, and other transmitted texts.

  • 3. An Intertextual Analysis of the "Gongshu" Anecdote in the Mozi

    In Chapter 3, “Mozi as a Daoist Sage? An Intertextual Analysis of the ‘Gongshu’ Anecdote in the Mozi,” Ting-mien Lee, much like Andrew Seth Meyer in the previous chapter, explores the occurrence of a single anecdote across different textual landscapes to understand their broader rhetorical aims. In the anecdote, the main protagonist, Mozi, manages to avert a war through adroit argumentation. Given that the Mozi, the text in which the anecdote occurs, argues that great merit leads to fame, one would expect that the protagonist Mozi, following his incredible achievement of averting a war, would be pictured as a famous hero. Instead, the anecdote’s ending curiously portrays Mozi as an unrecognized hero whose achievement went unnoticed by others. This intriguing ending, Lee argues, creates tension not only within the anecdote but also within the Mozi as a whole.

  • 4. Anecdotal Barbarians in Early China

    In Chapter 4, “Anecdotal Barbarians in Early China,” Wai-yee Li discusses anecdotes that feature non-Chinese tribes, or “barbarians,” in a variety of early Chinese texts. She shows how the anecdotes reveal different historical attitudes towards barbarians (for example, they can be represented as deplorably unsophisticated or admirably unadulterated), and suggests that some of the anecdotes may have even been created and transmitted as a way to engage in these debates, which could have broad political and cultural implications.

  • 5. Anecdote Collections as Argumentative Texts

    In Chapter 5, “Anecdote Collections as Argumentative Texts: The Composition of the Shuoyuan,” Christian Schwermann analyzes a Han Dynasty collection of anecdotes. Such collections were (and still are) often dismissed as mere pastiches of borrowed stories, but Schwermann convincingly shows how Liu Xiang, who is traditionally considered the editor or compiler of the Shuoyuan, combined the anecdotes in this collection to form an elaborate tapestry of argumentation in support of various propositions.

  • 6. The Function of Anecdotes in the Shifting Rhetoric of the Han Feizi

    In Chapter 6, “From Villains Outwitted to Pedants Out-Wrangled: The Function of Anecdotes in the Shifting Rhetoric of the Han Feizi,” through a close reading of anecdotes within a single early Chinese text much like Christian Schwermann in the previous chapter, Heng Du discusses the creation of that text, and demonstrates that it is far more systematic than scholars previously held. Specifically, Du analyzes the numerous and contradictory anecdotal portrayals of Confucius in the Han Feizi, identifying systematic shifts in rhetorical situation and strategy as factors behind the apparent inconsistencies.

  • 7. The Rhetorical Uses of Anecdotes in the Gongyangzhuan

    In Chapter 7, “The Limits of Praise and Blame: The Rhetorical Uses of Anecdotes in the Gongyangzhuan,” Sarah A. Queen draws our attention to this often overlooked collection of stories. Like Schwermann and Du in the previous chapters, Queen focuses on the creation of this one text. She offers several exemplary tales to consider the rhetorical uses of anecdotes as an important literary “genre” within the Gongyangzhuan, as distinct from other types of literary composition that comprise the commentary, most notably the judgments that are part and parcel of the Gongyangzhuan.

  • 8. History without Anecdotes

    In Chapter 8, “History without Anecdotes: Between the Zuozhuan and the Xinian Manuscript,” Yuri Pines explores the tension between historical writing and anecdotal narratives through his study of the Xinian, a recently unearthed text from the Qinghua University collection. By examining this text and relating it to non-anecdotal strands of narrative in the Zuozhuan, Pines considers the nature, goals, and potential audience of non-anecdotal historical writings, clarifying differences between the non-moralizing strand of early Chinese historiography and the vast majority of historiographical texts that deploy anecdotes to judge historical events.

  • 9. Cultural Memory and Excavated Anecdotes in "Documentary" Narrative

    In Chapter 9, “Cultural Memory and Excavated Anecdotes in ‘Documentary’ Narrative: Mediating Generic Tensions in the Baoxun Manuscript,” Rens Krijgsman distinguishes between anecdotal and “documentary” modes of historiography as two distinct types of narratives. Both types narrate historical events, even some of the same events in Chinese history, but in using different textual strategies they represent the past in fundamentally different ways.

  • 10. The End of the Anecdotes Tradition of Early China

    In Chapter 10, “Old Stories No Longer Told: The End of the Anecdotes Tradition of Early China,” Paul van Els brings our volume to a conclusion. He demonstrates that, although anecdotes occur across historical periods and literary genres, the specific anecdotes that were omnipresent in philosophical argumentation in early China, were hardly deployed in later texts. In this closing chapter, van Els offers tentative explanations for the decline. A draft version of this chapter is available here.


  • Andrew Meyer

    Andrew Seth Meyer (Ph.D., Harvard University, 1999) is Associate Professor of History at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He specializes in early Chinese intellectual history, and is a co-translator of The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China (Columbia University Press, 2010) and author of The Dao of the Military: Liu An’s Art of War (Columbia University Press, 2012).

  • Christian Schwermann

    Christian Schwermann (Ph.D., University of Bonn, 2005), is University Lecturer of Classical Chinese at the University of Bonn, and works mainly on early Chinese literature. He has published a monograph on the concept of stupidity in ancient texts, “Dummheit” in altchinesischen Texten (Harrassowitz, 2011), and he co-edited with Raji C. Steineck a conference volume on authorship in East Asian literatures from the beginnings to the seventeenth century, That Wonderful Composite Called Author (Brill, 2014).

  • Heng Du

    Heng Du (MA, University of Colorado, 2010) is a Ph.D. student at the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University. She is currently writing a dissertation on the collection and rhetorical usage of anecdotes in “master texts” from the Warring States Period and in compilations from the Han Dynasty.

  • Paul Goldin

    Paul R. Goldin (Ph.D., Harvard University, 1996) is Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi (Open Court, 1999), The Culture of Sex in Ancient China (University of Hawai’i Press, 2002), After Confucius: Studies in Early Chinese Philosophy (University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), and Confucianism (University of California Press, 2011). In addition, he has edited the Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei (Springer, 2011), as well as the revised edition of Robert van Gulik’s classic Sexual Life in Ancient China (Brill, 2003), and has co-edited with Victor H. Mair and Nancy S. Steinhardt Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture (University of Hawai’i Press, 2002), and with Yuri Pines and Martin Kern Ideology of Power and Power of Ideology in Early China (Brill, 2015).

  • Paul van Els

    Paul van Els (Ph.D., Leiden University, 2006), is University Lecturer of China Studies at Leiden University, where he teaches Classical Chinese language tutorials and courses on a wide range of topics, including Chinese culture, history, philosophy, and religion. His publications include a monograph on a perplexing Daoist text, The Wenzi: Creation, Manipulation, and Reception of a Chinese Philosophical Text (Brill, forthcoming), and a two-volume Dutch-language textbook of Classical Chinese, Van orakelbot tot weblog (Leiden University Press, 2011, 2015).

  • Rens Krijgsman

    Rens Krijgsman (DPhil, Oxford University, 2016) read a DPhil in Oriental Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford University, where he taught Classical Chinese language tutorials, as well as courses on topics ranging from the philosophy of the Zhuangzi to manuscript culture in early China. His dissertation, titled “The Rise of a Manuscript Culture and the Textualization of Discourse in Early China,” discusses the shift in the use and perception of the written word and manuscripts in the Warring States Period. His publications include “Traveling Sayings as Carriers of Philosophical Debate: From the Intertextuality of the Yucong to the Dynamics of Cultural Memory and Authorship in Early China” (Asiatische Studien / Études Asiatiques 68.1). He is currently preparing a manuscript on historical changes of reading and manuscript materiality.

  • Sarah Queen

    Sarah A. Queen (Ph.D., Harvard University, 1991) is Professor of History at Connecticut College. She is the author of From Chronicle to Canon: the Hermeneutics of the Spring and Autumn Annals according to Tung Chung-shu (Cambridge University Press, 1996). She co-edited with John Major, Andrew Seth Meyer, and Harold Roth, The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China (Columbia University Press, 2010); with Michael Puett, The Huainanzi and Textual Production in Early China (Brill, 2014), and with John Major, The Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn (Columbia University Press, 2015).

  • Ting-mien Lee

    Ting-mien Lee (Ph.D., University of Leuven, 2015) is assistant professor at the Department of Philosophy at Tunghai University (Taichung, Taiwan). She specializes in Early Chinese thought, with a focus on the aspect of language use in philosophical and political discourses. In a recent publication—“When ‘Ru-Mo’ may not be ‘Confucians and Mohists’: The Meaning of ‘Ru-Mo’ and Early Intellectual Taxonomy” (Oriens Extremus 53)—she argues that “ru-mo” in texts from the Warring States Period and Han Dynasty is sometimes used as a pejorative term carrying the connotation of “moral hypocrites” or “abusers of moral language.” She is currently writing an article on the pragmatic use of “ren-yi” (traditionally rendered as “humaneness and righteousness”) in classical strategic manuals and its implications for the interpretation of the philosophies of Mengzi and Zhuangzi.

  • Wai-yee Li

    Wai-yee Li (Ph.D., Princeton University, 1988) is Professor of Chinese Literature at Harvard University. Her publications include Enchantment and Disenchantment: Love and Illusion in Chinese Literature (Princeton University Press, 1993); The Readability of the Past in Early Chinese Historiography (Harvard University Press, 2007); and Women and National Trauma in Late Imperial Chinese Literature (Harvard University Press, 2014). She wrote chapters for and co-edited with Wilt Idema and Ellen Widmer Trauma and Transcendence in Early Qing Literature (Harvard University Press, 2006); and co-authored with Stephen Durrant, Michael Nylan, and Hans Van Ess, The Letter to Ren An and Sima Qian’s Legacy (University of Washington Press, 2016). She is a contributing translator and co-editor, with C.T. Hsia and George Kao, of The Columbia Anthology of Yuan Drama (Columbia University Press, 2014). She is also the translator, with Stephen Durrant and David Schaberg, of Zuo Tradition (Zuozhuan): Commentary on the “Spring and Autumn Annals” (University of Washington Press, 2016).

  • Yuri Pines

    Yuri Pines (Ph.D., The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1998) is Michael W. Lipson Professor of Asian Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; visiting professor at Beijing Normal University, China; and Guest Professor at Nankai University, Tianjin, China. His publications include Foundations of Confucian Thought: Intellectual Life in the Chunqiu Period, 722-453 B.C.E. (University of Hawai’i Press, 2002); Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era (University of Hawai’i Press, 2009); and The Everlasting Empire: Traditional Chinese Political Culture and Its Enduring Legacy (Princeton University Press, 2012). With Gideon Shelach and Yitzhak Shichor he co-authored in Hebrew the three-volume All-under-Heaven: Imperial China (Open University Press, 2011, 2013, and forthcoming); with Lothar von Falkenhausen, Gideon Shelach, and Robin D.S. Yates he co-edited Birth of an Empire: The State of Qin Revisited (University of California Press, 2014), and with Paul R. Goldin and Martin Kern, Ideology of Power and Power of Ideology in Early China (Brill, 2015).


The cover art, painted for this book by Monica Klasing Chen, depicts the aphorism "the mantis stalks the cicada while the siskin is behind him" 螳螂捕蟬黃雀在後. This aphorism, which warns against unawareness of impending danger, has its roots in a famous anecdote. The anecdote occurs in various forms in several early Chinese texts, including Liu Xiang's 劉向 (77–6 BCE) Shuoyuan 說苑 (Garden of Illustrative Examples). For an English translation, click here.

When the King of Wu wanted to attack Chu, he told his advisors, "Whoever dares to object shall die!" Among his retainers there was a young boy who wished to object, but didn't dare. With pellets in his chest pocket and a pellet bow in his hand, he wandered in the back yard, where dew moistened his clothes. When this happened several mornings in a row, the King of Wu enquired, "Why do you go through the trouble of coming here to moisten your clothes like this?" The boy answered, "In the yard there is a tree, and on that tree there is a cicada. Sitting on a high branch, chirping melancholically, the cicada is drinking from the dew, unaware of the praying mantis behind him! The praying mantis curves his body and bends his tentacles, as he wishes to grab the cicada, unaware of the siskin by his side. The siskin, stretching its neck, wishes to peck the praying mantis, unaware of the pellets and bow below him! These three, absorbed in their desire to grab the spoils in front of them, fail to notice the peril behind them." "Excellent!" said the King of Wu, and he halted his troops.


The book can be ordered from the State University of New York Press website. It is also available at Amazon and other bookstores.


The book has been reviewed by several specialists in the field. For a sample of their views, click here.

"The editors are to be commended for taking on a topic that is central to the textual and intellectual legacy of early China, yet challenging to grasp. Because of their ubiquity, brevity, and flexibility, anecdotes as a form have seldom been the center of scholarly attention. When judged from the perspective of European-based standards of philosophy or history, anecdotes are devalued: not as serious as deductive argument for philosophy, and less credible and more trivial than other kinds of historical narrative for history. As this book amply demonstrates, anecdotes formed a shared corpus deployed by multiple writers to divergent ends, undermining the divide between history and philosophy." — Rania Huntington (CLEAR 40: 269–273)
"In all, the essays, including the editors’ introduction, contribute to the understanding of early Chinese historiography and thought as well as to ongoing discussions about how the early literary heritage was remoulded and digested by authors and editors." — Oliver Weingarten (AS/ÉA 72.4: 1235–1245)