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:
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.
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.
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.
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!