Matthew Hamm and I collaborated on the Database of Religious History entry on The Wenzi, which was published online in June 2021.


Welcome to the website of Paul van Els, University Lecturer of China Studies at Leiden University in The Netherlands. My area of expertise is early Chinese thought, which is to say that I study philosophical texts, thinkers, and traditions from the Warring States Period to the Former Han Dynasty (roughly the first five centuries before the beginning of the Common Era).

Those were the days when Confucius instructed his disciples in the ways of the noble man... 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. Numerous tombs have been excavated in China in recent decades (for instance at the famous sites of Mawangdui and Guodian). These spectacular discoveries bring us 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.