As I was cleaning out my office I found a copy of Approaches to Asian Civilizations by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Anslie T. Embree.1 First published in 1964, the book is the record of a conference on the teaching of Asia to American undergraduates. 1964 would be about the dawn of what you could call modern Asian Studies in the U.S. The field was being freed from “the incubus of philological Orientalism”2 The De Bary source readers were coming out, Fairbank, Reishcauer and Craig’s A History of East Asian Civilization came out in 1960. Learning about Asia in a serious way was starting to become possible for Americans who did not plan to become professional Asianists and were not at a handful of elite universities.
So, how does it look 50 years later?
Not surprisingly, some things look remarkably modern, and some much less so.
It is rather hard to imagine the Great and the Good of the profession all coming together today to discuss undergraduate education, but part of the reason for that is that there are too many Asianists for that now, unless we met in the Astrodome or something. The field has also fragmented a lot, in part because there are so many more of us. The book deals with China, India, Japan and a bit on the Middle East. The writers include historians but also political scientists and economists, the last of whom would seem unlikely at such a gathering today.
Parts of it seem shockingly old-fashioned. Most of the states of the Middle East (and Asia) “are inexperienced in the conduct of statehood, and most of them are also uncommitted in a literal sense. They do not feel the tug of global issues. Nor have they in fact accepted formal obligations either in degree or variety that the older states have, so that, at times, they behave in a manner we are prone to label irresponsible.” p.135-6
It is also interesting that the assembled professors do not seem terribly concerned about how they will justify having students take courses on Asia. The whole student as consumer/how will you market your program in the undergraduate marketplace thing is still in the future. A bunch of scholars will decide what and education is, and students and administrators will go along.
The American relationship with Asia is quite different, which ties in with the ‘why would undergraduates be interested’ thing. Today there are large groups of students (and granting agencies) who have an interest in Asia before you even open your mouth. There is no reference here to students who are interested in participating in the immense growth of the Asian economies, (not surprisingly) no mention of those fascinated with Asian pop culture (even less surprisingly.) We do get one disparaging reference to “dharma bums,” who may show up in your classes, but that’s it. Nor is there much much emphasis on the idea that being an American citizen should involve thinking in an informed way about the advisability of getting involved in a land war in Asia, even though that was something American citizens really should have been thinking about in the early 60’s.
Asia is pretty much an academic subject here, and the key issue that academics are struggling with is what’s wrong with Asia, specifically, why it is so stagnant and was stagnant for so long before being awakened by contact with the West.
Here is Arthur F. Wright’s periodizaiton of Chinese history
A. The period of genesis: the emergence of distinctive features of a Chinese civilization in the Shang;
B. The later Chou viewed as a “classical age”
C. The unification of state and culture: the founding of the Chinese Empire by the Ch’in, consolidation and development by the Han
D. The first experience of dismemberment and foreign invasions, cultural and political, c. 300-589
E. Unification: a new centralized empire and its culture-Sui and T’ang, 589-750
F. The breakdown of the second imperial order and the beginnings of the new society and culture-late T’ang, Five Dynasties, and Sung; proto-modern China
G. The first experience of total conquest and of incorporation in a larger world-empire: the period of Mongol domination, the brutalization of politics, and the evolution of mass culture;
H. Reassertion of Chinese control over state, society, and culture: the Ming. The failure of creativity. With apologies to Toynbee, “the abortive effort to revive the ghost of the T’ang oekumene” (Toyenbee gets mentioned a lot in here)
I. The second total conquest, continuation and atrophy of Ming institutions and culture under a Manchu-Chinese dyarchy.
The first bit seems not that different from the way we would outline it now. The middle gets bogged down in invasions with the occasional nod at ‘culture’, but the real difference is at the end, where we get lots of atrophy, an end to creativity, and a good 300 years of decline and stagnation. This is not at all how it would be seen today. William Rowe claims that the Qing had “worked out systems of administration and communication more efficient and effective than any of its predecessors.” and had “achieved a level of material productivity (indeed, prosperity) far beyond that of any earlier Chinese dynasty, as well as institutions of economic management probably more ambitious and effective than any seen previously in the world.” It had a “vibrant cosmopolitan culture.” One might almost think that Rowe is trying to dispel a lot of the old myths, and he makes it pretty clear that is what he is doing. It’s a lot easier to explain why people should study Asia when you see Asian history as a success rather than a big mistake its people would be better off forgetting.
While the books approach to Asian societies may seem old fashioned, many of their other concerns seem quite up to date. How do you teach history without getting bogged down in details or skimming over things? When will they publish some better books for students to use? Do comparisons with the West help more than they hurt? How do you deal with the cliches and stereotypes your students come to class with?
Of course some of these problems have been fixed by time and technology.
Arthur Wright mentions that he likes showing slides to his students, but is never sure when to interrupt lectures and show some pictures “Ideally, one should have a slide operator always courteously waiting and prepared to flash five minutes of carefully selected materials whenever they would support or illustrate the subject at hand.” See, Powerpoint does help!
- No, the office is still a mess. Interestingly, I inherited this book from Tom Goodrich, our department’s Ottomanist and the son of L. Carrington Goodrich. [↩]
- p.69 Hellmut Wilhelm points out that the old sinological tradition actually functioned more or less like modern area studies. You are not limited to History or Literature or Economics. You learn the language and then go all over. I guess in 1964 Sinology and Classics were all of a sudden methodologically trendy. [↩]