Socrates in Sichuan


Socrates in Sichuan

Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice, and the (Chinese) Way

Peter J. Vernezze

212 pages


April 2011


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eBook (PDF)

(Requires Adobe Digital Editions)

October 2011


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About the Book

When Peter J. Vernezze took a leave of absence from his position as a philosophy professor to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in China, he supplemented his main task—teaching English—with leading a weekly philosophical discussion group with Chinese undergraduate and graduate students at Sichuan Normal University in Chengdu. In each session the students debated topics as diverse as the status of truth, the meaning of life, the reality of fate, the definition of sanity, the necessity of religion, and the value of romantic love. Each of the twenty-five chapters focuses on the topic of one evening’s discussion, which was always in the form of a question: How are ancient conceptions of virtue holding up in a society overrun by capitalism? Are traditionally conservative sexual values going the way of the rickshaw? Can an atheistic country even have a sense of morality?This unprecedented portrait of the Chinese mind allows the up-and-coming generation—known as the ba ling hou, or “post-1980s generation”—to express its unique perspective on China—and America. In addition, the book provides the reader with a crash course in Chinese culture, both ancient and modern, as students discuss everything from Confucius to the Edison Chen scandal (a Chinese pop star whose sexually explicit pictures found their way onto the Internet), from classical Chinese poetry to the Super Boy and Super Girl competitions (Chinese versions of American Idol).Throughout, the author provides the intellectual and historical context necessary to appreciate and understand today’s China.

Author Bio

Peter J. Vernezze has edited two books (Bob Dylan and Philosophy, The Sopranos and Philosophy) in the bestselling philosophy series, Open Court’s “Popular Culture and Philosophy,” and is the author of Don’t Worry, Be Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Troubled Times. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.


“Peter Vernezze's witty and informative book is far more than a lively and often funny series of Socratic dialogues with his deftly characterized Chinese students. It is a chance for us to eavesdrop as this American teacher grapples with students who challenge his own set notions. These debates have much to teach us about how young people in this ever-changing China think about politics, human relations, and even sex education.”—Charles Hayford, visiting scholar, Department of History, Northwestern University, and author of To the People: James Yen and Village China

Socrates in Sichuan provides a panoramic view of ‘living’ Chinese philosophy in contemporary China. His book is an honest, good-humored, and hugely engaging attempt to describe the pain and the joy of a seasoned teacher’s encounter with Chinese students, who reveal the fears and the values of their generation in this sometimes radically foreign country.”—Roger T. Ames, professor of Chinese philosophy, University of Hawai'i, and editor of the journal Philosophy East and West

“With the observant and nonjudgmental eye of an American philosopher, Peter Vernezze provides fresh insights into the views of a generation now entering the expanding Chinese middle class, which will take part in shaping China's future. This book opens a unique window to understanding what China, and its people, are becoming.”—Xujun Eberlein, author of Apologies Forthcoming

“In the vein of Bill Holm’s Coming Home Crazy, Socrates in Sichuan is a lively introduction to teaching in China and acclimating to the standards of a provincial teacher's college. Vernezze’s respect for and interest in his students’ opinions allows their voices to fill the pages, making this an educational portrait of a unique seminar.”—Michael Meyer, author of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Socrates in Sichuan is a fascinating window into the outlook of young Chinese today and is fun to read into the bargain.”—Richard Nisbett, author of The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently. . . and Why

“One of the best ways to understand another culture is to spend time in its education system. Peter Vernezze arrived in China with the rare experience of having taught philosophy in American colleges, and his book is more than just a window into the minds of Chinese students – it’s also a study of how Western philosophical concepts translate into a very different culture.”—Peter Hessler, staff writer at the New Yorker and author of the trilogy Oracle Bones, River Town, and Country Driving

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