Location: Bowdoin / Leah Zuo


Leah Zuo

Assistant Professor of History and Asian Studies
(on leave for the fall 2016 semester)

Contact Information


38 College Street - 101

Teaching this semester

ASNS 2002 / HIST 2780. The Foundations of Chinese Thought

Leah Zuo
Seminar. Addresses Chinese thought from the time of Confucius, ca. sixth century B.C.E., up to the beginning of the Common Era. The first half of the time period nurtured many renowned thinkers who devoted themselves to the task of defining and disseminating ideas. The latter half witnessed the canonization of a number of significant traditions, including Confucianism. Major problems that preoccupied the thinkers include order and chaos, human nature, the relationship between man and nature, among others. Students instructed to treat philosophical ideas as historically conditioned constructs and to interrogate them in contexts. Note: This course fulfills the pre-modern requirement for history majors.

HIST 2322 / ASNS 2012. China's Path to Modernity: 1800 to Present

Leah Zuo
Introduction to modern and contemporary Chinese history. Covers the period from the nineteenth century, when imperial China encountered the greatest national crisis in its contact with the industrial West, to the present People's Republic of China. Provides historical depth to an understanding of the multiple meanings of Chinese modernity. Major topics include: democratic and socialist revolutions, assimilation of Western knowledge and thought, war, imperialism, the origin, development, and unraveling of the Communist rule.

Leah Zuo


  • B.A.  Peking University
  • M.A., Ph.D. Princeton University

Born and raised in hot and humid southern China, I have now lived in the north for more than half of my life. I first travelled to Beijing, the capital city perched against China’s vast northern plains, where I attended Peking University and received a B. A. in history. There I embarked on my journey as a novice historian and had my first delightful encounters with manuscripts and artifacts unearthed from China’s past. I then arrived in Princeton, New Jersey, where I earned a Ph.D. in East Asian Studies and mused about Chinese history in company with the famous Princeton black squirrels. My pilgrimage as a scholar is also a journey across different cultural worlds; I love to garner ideas and perspectives in a gamut ranging from past to present, and from “us” to “others.” Thus here I am, an intellectual historian deeply fond of ideas and immensely attracted to their circulation in the human world.

My research interests lie predominately in middle and late imperial China. While methodologically committed to intellectual history, I also make forays into the history of science, which affords me a unique perspective in exploring the production of discursive knowledge. Since my arrival at Bowdoin, “epistemology” has become the theoretical foothold that provides a coherent vision for my work. The significance of “epistemology” as an analytical framework emerges from a basic question that concerns every intellectual historian: why did historical agents think as they did? In addition to social and personal reasons that respond to this question in a different register, conceptual reasons—epistemic assumptions and methods of justification, for instance—provide profound answers that await scrutiny.

The book manuscript I am currently working on is a study of an important historical theory of knowledge. Provisionally titled A New Way of Knowing in Middle-Period China: Shen Gua (10311095) and the Birth of Empiricism, this book makes the case for Shen Gua as China’s first empiricist. Shen was a renowned polymath and a curious “precocious scientist” in middle-period China. My book demonstrates how he made the first attempt to introduce a kind of empiricism to the intellectual world and present it as a worthy way of seeking knowledge.

The articles I have published in recent years each address a specific epistemic assumption in a different empirical context. My article on the concept “number” in the Northern Song exposes a certain ambiguity in choosing sources of belief, as the eleventh-century literati admitted no clear boundary between physical reality and its postulation. My study of musical harmonics examines the “correlative” cosmological narrative and its significance in guiding highly practical matters such as music making, demonstrating that the epistemic authority this cosmological scheme assumed was real and substantial. My most recent article, “The Generalist and the Specialist in the Northern Song,” extends the discussion of epistemological stance from nature into culture; I argue that the cultural majority in the eleventh century endorsed a “generalist” stance, which encompassed an emphasis on fundamentality/generality as the source of epistemic authority and downplayed the significance of piecemeal, specialized skills.

Here at Bowdoin I teach Chinese history in all time periods and at all levels. My courses cover a wide range of topics from ancient Chinese thought to contemporary Chinese society. Please click on “Courses” to get an overview of them. 

Peer-Reviewed Articles

Ru versus Li: The Divergence between the Generalist and the Specialist in the Northern Song,” forthcoming in the Journal of Song-Yuan Studies 45 (2015) [86 pages]

“Beisong shu lun” 北宋數論 (Discourse on “Number” in the Northern Song), Tang Yanjiu 唐研究 (The Tang Studies) 18 (2012): 475–498

Edited Volume Contribution:

“Keeping Your Ear to the Cosmos: Coherence as the Standard of Validity in the Northern Song (960−1127) Music Reforms,” forthcoming in Standards of Validity in Late Imperial China, edited by Martin Hofmann, Joachim Kurtz, and Ari D. Levine [50 pages]

First-Year Seminar:

  • AS 1006/HIST 1036  China Encounters the West

1000-Level Lecture:

  • AS 1175/HIST 1420 China’s Path to Modernity 

2000-Level Lectures:

  • AS 2010/HIST 2320 The Emergence of Chinese Civilization
  • AS 2011/HIST 2321 Late Imperial China

2000-Level Seminars:

  • AS 2002/HIST 2780  The Foundations of Chinese Thought
  • AS 2005/HIST 2781 Science, Technology, and Society in China 

3000-Level Seminar:

  • AS 3100/HIST 3320 Revolutionary China