This unit is a six-class arc introducing 20th- and 21st-century Chinese perspectives on human rights.

Courses and Texts


  • Philosophy of Human Rights
  • Comparative Political Theory
  • Modern Chinese Thought
  • Human Rights Across Cultures

Assigned Texts

  • Van Norden, Bryan, trans. (2009). The Essential Mengzi. Hackett.
  • Angle, Stephen C. & Svensson, Marina, eds. (2001). The Chinese Human Rights Reader. M.E. Sharpe
  • “Bangkok Declaration.” Officially known as the “Final Declaration of the Regional Meeting for Asia of the World Conference on Human Rights.” Available at
  • “Charter 08.” Available at
  • Tu, Wei-ming (1996). A Confucian Perspective on Human Rights: The Inaugural Wu Teh Yao Memorial Lecture. Singapore.
  • Chan, Joseph (1999). “A Confucian Perspective on Human Rights for Contemporary China.” In Joanne R. Bauer and Daniel A. Bell, eds., The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights. Cambridge University Press, 212-40.

Secondary Texts for Instructor

  • Rosemont Jr., Henry (1988). “Why Take Rights Seriously? A Confucian Critique.” In Leroy S. Rouner, ed., Human Rights and the World’s Religions Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 167-82
  • Angle, Stephen C (2002). Human Rights in Chinese Thought: A Cross-Cultural Inquiry. Cambridge University Press
  • Kent, Ann (1999). China, The United Nations, and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Tiwald, Justin (2011). “Confucianism and Human Rights.” In Thomas Cushman, ed., The Routledge Handbook of Human Rights. Routledge.
  • Chan, Joseph (2013). Confucian Perfectionism. Princeton University Press
  • Angle, Stephen C (2013). “Contemporary Confucian and Islamic Approaches to Democracy and Human Rights.” Comparative Philosophy 4:1
  • Angle, Stephen C (2018). “Human Rights in Chinese Tradition.” In Sarah Biddulph and Joshua Rosenzweig , eds., Handbook on human rights in China. Edward Elgar Press. A pre-publication version of this essay is available at:

Recommended Schedule

Day 1

Introduction to Confucianism

The Essential Mengzi, pp. xi-xxi, 1-22, 54-62

Day 2

Twentieth-Century China and HR: Nationalists and Marxists

Reader, General Introduction, ##18, 23, 24, 29, 43, 44

Day 3

Early Liberals and Current Establishment Intellectuals

Reader, ##10, 13, 22; 50, 57

Day 4

White Paper and Asian Values

Reader, ##52, 56, 58; Bangkok Declaration; China's 2012-15 HR Action Plan (

Day 5

Activists from Democracy Wall to Charter 08

Reader, ##39, 60, 61; Charter 08

Day 6

A Role for Confucianism?

Tu, “A Confucian Perspective on Human Rights”;
Chan, “A Confucian Perspective on Human Rights for Contemporary China”

Background Information

The general idea of this unit is to complicate the simplistic dichotomy between universal and cultural relativism by exploring some of the arguments made by modern Chinese theorists concerning human rights. The unit begins with a taste of classical Confucian political thinking and ends with some contemporary Confucian voices, but the bulk of the readings are from thinkers for whom China’s traditional culture is not an explicit influence—and may even be an explicit target.

Session one looks at the thought of Mengzi (or Mencius), a critical early Confucian whose teachings concerning “humane government,” centered on the importance of caring for the realm’s people, set the tone and many of the terms for Confucian political thinking for many centuries. He also articulated a controversial teaching that some have interpreted as a “right to rebel,” though others (including myself) have questioned that interpretation.

The second session jumps forward to the early 20th century, when human rights ideas are explicitly taken up for the first time. The Reader’s general introduction sets the historical scene, and each of the assigned pieces contains rich philosophical argumentation representing the competing perspectives then in play.

Session three looks at characteristic arguments made by Chinese liberals over the century, including more contemporary theorists who are seeking to work within the current PRC system to advocate for human rights (as they understand them). We see both continuity and difference over time, as well as with their contemporary Western liberal theorists.

The next session looks at PRC governmental perspectives, both related to the “Asian values” debate and in the series of White Papers and other official documents issued in the years after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Many dismiss these claims as mere propaganda, but looking at them more closely shows that there are real arguments and some concrete (and therefore assessable) objectives, even if the arguments are not always convincing and the objectives not always met.

Session five looks at some of the key activists and their arguments. The combination of the previous session and this one allows for a particularly interesting perspective on universalism and relativism, since the universalistic claims are coming from Chinese actors themselves.

The unit concludes with a look at two early and influential representatives of the burgeoning philosophical work on Confucianism and human rights. This could easily be supplemented by additional essays and further complications, but these two essays set the scene quite well. Another possibility is to look at arguments by contemporary Confucian theorists who insist on a more adversarial relationship between Confucianism and human rights; see Rosemont, “Why Take Rights Seriously.”


Stephen C. Angle (Wesleyan University)