Yale for Life

China From Present to Past: 2019 to 1000 C.E.

July 7-13, 2019

No one who follows the news these days can avoid hearing about China. China’s spectacular economic growth and its claims for recognition as a major world power have attracted incessant attention from Western media, who debate the effects of China’s rise on the future world order. Chinese themselves often echo these predictions, but they know better than Western observers that the long history of imperial and modern China strongly conditions what China can do in the world today. This is not the first time China has engaged actively with the world surrounding it from a powerful economic position. Over one thousand years ago, in the Song dynasty, China had the largest economy in the world, and its economic influence extended across the Southern seas and Eurasia. Economic power, geopolitics, social change, and intellectual ferment have characterized Chinese history for more than a millennium.

In this course, we will examine the underlying causes of current issues facing China by tracing them back to their origins in the premodern period. It has two major goals: to help you learn to evaluate current events in China critically and to analyze the historic roots of modern China. We concentrate on five themes: geopolitics, environmental crises, family and gender, economic development, and political protest. We will be exploring the news about China as we also learn about the past by a close reading of primary sources, scrutiny of secondary sources, and careful examination of art objects, maps, cartoons, and other visual materials.

We start from China’s present because it allows us to ask the most pertinent questions about its past. Many pasts coexist in China: what originally happened, what can be recovered from written, visual, and archeological evidence, the portrayal of history in popular culture (and television serials), and the increasingly strident version blasted by propaganda. As outsiders to China, we have important advantages: we can examine the historical record with fresh eyes, and we do not worry about censorship. Choosing among these competing narratives is what makes Chinese history so exciting.

How we see China, whether from inside or outside, also depends on what generation we belong to. China has changed so rapidly that it almost appears to be a different country every decade. Our students, who only know the China of global corporations and mass consumption goods, can scarcely understand those of us who began studying China in the 1960s and 1970s, the peak of Maoism.  We need historical perspectives, over the long and short term, to comprehend why Chinese so often invoke their past while at the same erasing and rewriting it to suit present needs.

We begin with geopolitics. As a succession of centralized empires, Chinese states conquered large territories and populations, but faced constant threats from their neighbors, by land and by sea. The modern nation-state faced most of the same neighbors, such as Russia, Vietnam, Korea or Japan, some friendly, some less so. We will look at the frontier policies of the empires, how they mapped their territories, and how they expanded and retreated in response to changing political environments.

Environmental historians focus on how natural forces have shaped the human world. China now faces unprecedented crises in supplying the basic human needs of food, water, security, and clean air, but these are not new. Flood, famine, and droughts have always forced every Chinese state to devote efforts to relieving its people, while also extracting taxes and soldiers from the farm population. Environmental history ties together the consequences of feeding a large population on restricted arable land, a deeply rooted feature of Chinese society.

Why is China’s population so large? This question takes us into deeper study of demographic and family history. Now we have sources that enable us to analyze in fine detail the decision of millions of Chinese families regarding child bearing, marriage, and the power of men and women. We can study the emotions, sexuality, and gender relations in surprisingly intimate ways, and we find strong continuities from past to present.

Chinese economic development also has a long history, as China has held not only the largest rural populations, but many of the largest cities in the world for over 1000 years. We will look at connections between domestic commerce, foreign trade, currency policy, mining, agrarian and industrial policy over the long term.

Finally, we show that Chinese have actively debated the major social issues of their time. No autocratic emperor or Communist ruler has ever completely suppressed critique: dissent is embedded in both the classical and modern traditions of political thought. Martyrs for intellectual independence abound, and they have had important effects on future thinkers.

By focusing on these five key themes, you will get a taste of the excitement that a deep historical understanding will give of modern Chinese life.

We will be led on this journey with two of Yale’s greatest China scholars:  Professors Valerie Hansen and Peter Perdue.  Their academic and in-China experience is peerless, and they will be joined by a dazzling array of guest faculty that reflect Yale’s long engagement with China.  All recognize that China is too complex, too old, and too fascinating to be exhausted in the time available; therefore, Yale for Life is offering “China, From Present to Past” as part of a 2+year project!  This course is completely self-contained, but in 2020 we will offer another, complementary course on China, (though 2019 is not required for 2020, and there is no obligation to take the 2020 course if you enroll in 2019), and we hope to then offer a trip to China with our faculty after the 2020 course (later that year, or in 2021)!  This is truly an exceptional opportunity to grasp the great colossus that looms in all of our sights.

Our Lead Faculty:

Valerie Hansen
Stanley Woodward Professor of History

Valerie Hansen teaches Chinese and world history at Yale, where she is the Stanley B. Woodward Professor of History. Her current book project is The World in the Year 1000: When Globalization Began.
She is a frequent visitor to Asia, spending two academic years teaching at Yale’s undergraduate program at Peking University, fall semester 2015 as a visitor at Yale-NUS College, and fall 2016 as an invited scholar at Xiamen University in Fujian province, China. Her books include The Silk Road: A New History with Documents, and The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800.

Peter C. Perdue
Professor of History

Peter C. Perdue is Professor of History at Yale University. He has taught courses on East Asian history and civilization, Chinese social and economic history, the Silk Road, and historical methodology. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of numerous books, including China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Harvard University Press, 2005). His current research focuses on Chinese frontiers, Chinese environmental history, and the history of tea.

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Guest Professors

Our morning seminars with lead faculty will be followed in the afternoons by a seminar with an amazing guest professor.  These scholars bring a variety of different perspectives to our subject, from ancient texts of Confucius, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution to Chinese religion and more.  Yale for Life continues its emphasis on interdisciplinary study, not only through the variety in the core syllabus, but through these world-class leaders of Yale’s intellectual portfolio.

Annping Chin
Senior Lecturer, Department of History

Annping Chin was born in Taiwan in 1950, to a mainland Chinese family that had moved there in 1948. She came with her family to Richmond, Virginia in 1962. She studied mathematics at Michigan State University and received her Ph.D. in Chinese Thought from Columbia University. She has written three books: Children of China: Voices from Recent Years (Knopf, 1989), based on interviews with Chinese children living in the People’s Republic of China; Tai Chen on Mencius (Yale University Press, 1990), a study of eighteenth century Chinese intellectual history; and most recently, Four Sisters of Hofei (Scribner, 2002), a history of China’s last century through the lives of four highly educated and accomplished women. She has also co-authored, with Jonathan Spence, Chinese Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years (Random House, 1996). Her fields of study include Confucianism, Taoism, and the Chinese intellectual tradition.

Daniel Mattingly
Assistant Professor of Political Science

Daniel Mattingly studies comparative politics, with a focus on political economy, authoritarianism, and Chinese politics. His research examines communal and ethnic politics, local governance, and the history of state building in China. His current book project, The Art of Political Repression in China, is about the artful ways in which autocrats use repression to encourage obedience with policies that exact heavy personal costs. In it, he examines several remarkable efforts by the Communist Party to control Chinese society, including protest control, land seizures, and the One Child Policy. He received his B.A. from Yale and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

Denise Y. Ho
Assistant Professor of History

Denise Ho an historian of modern China, with a particular focus on the social and cultural history of the Mao period. She is also interested in urban history, the study of information and propaganda, and material culture. Ho teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on modern and contemporary China, the history of Shanghai, the uses of the past in modern China, and the historiography of the Republican era and the PRC. She is the author of Curating Revolution: Politics on Display of Mao’s China (2018). Professor Ho has been a commentator on contemporary China for The Atlantic, Dissent Magazine, and The Nation, among others. She received her B.A. in history from Yale College and an A.M. and Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. She is currently one of twenty-one fellows in the Public Intellectuals Program of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

Eric Greene
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies

Eric Greene received his B.A. in Mathematics from Berkeley in 1998, followed by his M.A. (Asian Studies) and Ph.D. (Buddhist Studies) in 2012. He specializes in the history of medieval Chinese Buddhism, particularly the emergence of Chinese forms of Buddhism from the interaction between Indian Buddhism and indigenous Chinese culture. He is currently writing a book on the uses of meditative visionary experience as evidence of sanctity within early Chinese Buddhism; he has published articles on the early history of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, Buddhist paintings from the Silk Roads, and the influence of modern psychological terminology on the Western interpretation of Buddhism. He teaches undergraduate classes on Buddhism in East Asia, Zen Buddhism, ritual in East Asian Buddhism, and mysticism and meditation in Buddhism and East Asia, and graduate seminars on Chinese Buddhist studies and Chinese Buddhist texts.

Lucas Bender
Assistant Professor, East Asian Languages & Literatures

At Yale, Professor Bender has a joint appointment in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures and in the Humanities Program. His primary area of research concerns early and medieval Chinese literature (roughly 200 BCE to 900 CE), especially in its relationship to other areas of Chinese intellectual and religious life. His dissertation project argued that the work of the great Tang-dynasty poet Du Fu (712–770) has played a central role in the reimagination of poetry’s relationship with ethics over the last millennium of Chinese history. He also has a longstanding interest as well in Chinese and comparative religions, and comparative philosophy. He teaches courses, therefore, in Chinese literature and thought, comparative topics, and Directed Studies.

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All Yale for Life courses actually start months before our July meeting.  After registration, you will receive all books and scholarly articles for the course, and will immerse yourself in great works curated by our faculty.  “China, Present to Past” is no exception, with works ranging from contemporaneous writings to great books written by your own Yale for Life professors.  Primary sources will mix with authoritative texts to produce night after night of joy as you prepare for your return to the life of the mind.

See an excerpt from a Yale for Life Reading List

Special Events

One of Yale for Life’s unique and most beloved features are our Special Events; sessions at a number of Yale’s well-known (such as the Yale Art Gallery) or less-known (such as a 2012 session at the not-yet-processed Kissinger Papers) centers of collection and learning.  “China, From Present to Past” continues this tradition.

Details on the Special Events will be posted soon.

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Beyond the Classroom

Everything that happens during the Yale for Life program is colored by the fact that it takes place at Yale.  Learn more about the experience!

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