Lumpy Chinese History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:54 am

There are a few places to go for archived syllabi — H-Net, ExEAS, I had a printed collection at one point, as well, then there’s the GMU Syllabus Finder — but not a lot of open discussion of course design. I’ve gotten help on sources, etc., from lists like H-Asia or by blogging questions (“bleg” means to “beg via blog” but it looks like “blech” to me so I won’t use it) and bothering old friends. But we need a more sustained discussion. So I’m going to inaugurate what I hope will be an ongoing series of posts here (and the other blogs about syllabi I’ve designed or am working on.

My only Asian history syllabus this semester is Hist 312: China I: Early China. It covers China up to about 1600: China II is Qing, including the Ming-Qing transition; China III is 20th century.

Early China is a great course: I keep toying with the idea of making it the one required Asian course for history majors, because the material is so fundamental, and it’s my best-attended China course by far. The problem, of course, is the richness and range of the material. This semester, though, I’m not even trying to make the semester “flow” because the history itself doesn’t. It’s episodic and inconsistent and the emphasis has to shift to make sense of things.

The foundation of the course is in two books. The first is the textbook, of course: Valerie Hansen’s The Open Empire is a great book, well-written and challenging at the same time, with lots of material for me to work with and good basic stuff for the students. There may be a better textbook out there for this class, but I don’t know of it. My chief complaint about the book — relative weakness of intellectual/religious history — will be rectified with other readings (actually, I suspect that when she wrote the book, she knew that most teachers would spend quite a bit of time on the philosophical traditions anyway, so she didn’t have to). The second “constant companion” this semester will be Chinese poetry — Watson’s Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry covers up through the 13th century, and is a really good “greatest hits” collection — which we will discuss a bit almost every class period. I’m kind of a poetry geek: not much of a poet myself, and not a huge fan of Western poetry, but the orality and social nature of poetry in other times and parts of the world makes it fascinating social and cultural evidence. Plus, it’s often quite fun, very powerful stuff. The first class was Tuesday, and I had them reading poems aloud and discussing them, something I hope we’ll be doing over the rest of the semester with similar energy.

Now the lumpy bits. The other three books for the course are very time-specific, and we will work through them at the appropriate moments. First is the “Axial Age” philosophers — using Ivanhoe and Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, which I picked up at the AHA last year (those book table giveaways really can pay off!) — three weeks on Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, Mozi, Laozi, Zhuangzi and Hanfeizi. I used to use the old Columbia sourcebooks, but the new editions are … too much. Way too much stuff that I can’t use, and not quite enough of the stuff that I really want. This year’s text gives me about fifty pages of each of these thinkers: quite enough to discuss in depth, with some nuance and sense. I regret that I don’t have an equivalently good source for the Song Neo-Confucianists, but I might photocopy the Columbia sourcebook’s readings on the Wang Anshi debates, which has served me pretty well in the past. Buddhism also gets kind of short shrift, but I haven’t decided how much that’s a problem yet.

The last two books are secondary works, and they’re relatively older scholarship. This is where a really good chat with some Chinese specialist colleagues might have helped, but I think for what I’m trying to do these are good sources. First is the forty-year-old Jacques Gernet. Daily Life in China, on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276. I need to do a bit more background reading on Marco Polo before we get to that one: I’d forgotten until I picked the book back up last month that Gernet cites Polo as pretty reliable. But Gernet’s book is primary-source rich and nicely structured; supplemented with some good visual materials, and it’ll be a great “slice of life” experience. Second, and the last thing we read, is Ray Huang’s 1587, A Year of No Significance (I love that title!), which gives nice biographical sketches of officialdom from the Emperor down to “eccentric” scholar-bureaucrats, all grappling with the great (and not so great) issues of the day. The discussion of how the Imperial system is supposed to work, and how it actually does work, should be a good cap to the semester.

I’m experimenting this semester with a heavily discussion-oriented class, with much less homework than I’ve required in the past. So most of the grade is in the tests (a few midterms, some pop quizzes, and a final), with a full 25% coming from attendance/discussion/participation. The tests may end up being essays (I often do take-home essays for finals, in particular) so writing won’t go unevaluated. But I think I want to focus on reading this semester, and engagement with texts and colleagues. I hope I’ve picked sources that are lively enough and clear/complex enough to make that easier.

So, what have you done to your syllabi this term?

7 responses to “Lumpy Chinese History”

  1. John Franklin Sanders says:

    A few comments, if I may.

    Your comment, “…I’m not even trying to make the semester “flow” because the history itself doesn’t. It’s episodic and inconsistent and the emphasis has to shift to make sense of things.” initiated some thinking on my part. PPeople, individuals, live, do things, beget, do more things, and then die. The begotten, live, do things, beget, do more things, and then die; and so on. In that sense, their history, that is, their story is constinuous and not episodic. What is episodic is the theme, or drama (melodrama?) that we find more interesting, or significant, or meaningful, or epoch making.

    Not that it is important, but I prefer the history of people based on their economic activities and the technology they use; and superimpose upon this matrix the geo-political and high cultural (fine arts and philosohy) activities that are occuring at the same time.

    Concerning your remarks on plagarism in the syllabus, not to rail against the ethics of what you wrote,; but I have always believed that I had the right to quote a well known phrase without footnoting it (although I would put it in italics or perhaps quotes). For a professor, it may not be a bad intellectual game to see if you could identify the sources of any such quotes from your students.

    Concerning grades. I have several qualms about modern education in the United States (world wide, actually). But one of the aspects of education is the grading system. Students are coming into a class for several reasons. One of thos reasons may be they are required to for some reason or other; or perhaps it is because the subject matter of the class is topical. Whatever the reason, if the student wishes to just show up and hear what is said, I see nothing wrong with that. If they show up the prerequisite number of times, they should receive the adverage grade for the school. But some students wish more, they want to be certified that they know the subject. For them, I would give examinations and if they pass, the receive one grade above the average. Of course, there is downside risk. If they fail the examinations, they will receive one grade below the average. And then, there are those students who wish for even more than to be certified, they actually want to participate in a dialogue about the subject. For they, doing dialogue in class, doing essays about the subject is required, and if passing these items, they then get the trophy, that is, they receive the highest grade. Downside risk, one grade below the failures of the tests.

    Not that these thoughts are meaningful in any fashion, but I thought I would present them anyway.

  2. John Franklin Sanders says:

    Oh, by the way, I also like the idea of using poetry in the classes. Although I like Western poetry as well. Sometimes it is interesting to juxtapose Greek or Roman poetry or essays with comparable Chinese (or Korean or Japanese) poetry and essays. Of course, from a chronological standpoint, we are talking about from the Spring and Autumn to the end of the Three Kingdoms period (or thereabouts).

  3. Flow: Yes, you’re right, too, in a fashion. I tell my students, when it’s relevant, that the study of continuity is as important as the study of change, and try to make it clear that the “big picture” history is a construct from many, many individual choices and relationships. Nonetheless, in terms of teaching this material, an “even” approach would shortchange some of the most important stuff.

    Plagiarism: I’m not going to dock someone for citing “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it” without footnoting it; that’s not the point. It’s general knowledge, though anyone with a little effort could find a citation (at least to a dictionary of quotations). The point is to think about their handling of primary and secondary sources in relation to their own thinking and writing: rearranging is not the goal of my assignments, generally.

    Grading: If grading were relative, and most students just came to class without actively participating or doing well on the tests, then, yes, I could see giving students like that an “average” grade. My grading is not relative, however, so your system doesn’t work for me. Nor, in the long run, would it improve the problematics of higher education.

  4. Alan Baumler says:


    Looks like a good class. I sort of avoid the problem of lumpiness by ending my class
    at about the Tang-Song transition. It’s always the middle part that makes it hard to have a narrative. Up to the Han its creating an imperial-centered order, then it falls apart and the Tang re-do it. A nice, emperor-centered narrative that you can hang lots of things on. Eventually the red-haired barbarians show up and provide a new center, but I never know what to do with the 900-1800 period.

    One difference is that I don’t use a textbook for early China. In fact that is the only class I don’t use one for. I remember looking at Hanson and balking at the price ($75.00, although it seems to have come down) and the fact that so little of it is Tang and before. Have you looked at Sarah Allen’s The Way of Water and Sprouts of Virtue?
    for the Axial Age? You have to give them the bits of philosophers from somewhere else, but Allen works well because she focuses on the root metaphors that all the ‘schools’ had in common, and thus helps them pull the age of the philosophers together better than they sometimes do.

    Lewis Sanctioned Violence in Early China
    works well, but it may hit too early to really fit with your class.

    TeiserGhost Festival is a really good book to use, since it deals with both Buddhist doctrine and popular culture, so its a nice two for one.

    Early China is one of the hardest classes to do, because there are just not that many choices for outside readings

  5. Alan,

    Thanks for the links and ideas! If I was breaking the China history into four semesters (instead of just three), I could see breaking around the Tang, but the the Qing course makes such a nice narrative by itself (depressing, but pretty coherent) that I’d be loath to mix it up with anything else. The Tang-Song-Yuan-Ming narrative is pretty coherent, too, the way I tell it; seesawing between northern/western influences (pastoralists, Buddhism) and southern/eastern ones (Confucian revival; Ming cultural isolationism) at the same time that they are increasingly tied economically to the rest of the world, culminating in the European encounters and the overextension of the Ming…. You know, none of my China courses seem to have happy endings.

  6. Alan Baumler says:

    China courses -never- have happy endings. Or happy middles, for that matter. The students who follow me from course to course have made sort of a standing joke of that. Of course the last one we did was Modern China and they watched a lot of films where Gong Li plays the opressed masses of China, which would tend to do that.

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