Power and Civilization: China (Gen Ed 1136)





What does China’s past mean for its and your future as China once again becomes the most powerful nation on earth?


Histories, Societies, Individuals icon with text

William C. Kirby and Peter K. Bol

How is a civilization built and sustained over millennia?  How are political systems supported or undermined by cultural, economic, and ecological challenges?  How does the need for shared values in a nation compete with individual interest and creativity?

These concepts are common to humankind, but nowhere on Earth are they more in evidence than in the story of the longest, continuous civilization in human history, China, home to one-fifth of mankind.

A century ago, the world was dominated by great empires—multinational, multicultural entities that spanned ethnic and geographic divides.  But of all those empires—the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, the Ottoman, the British and French colonial empires, and the Great Qing Empire of the Manchus—only the Great Qing survives, now reincarnated as the Chinese national state.

In China today we see a new country built on the bedrock of an ancient civilization. It is in the midst of the most extraordinary economic transformation the world has seen. This development comes on top of the political, social, and cultural revolutions of the 20th century. All these changes occur against a deep historical background still much in evidence.

This course explores how the world's largest and oldest bureaucratic state has dealt with enduring problems of economic and political organization. It will show how even modern answers to these challenges bear the imprint of China's history.  We will explore intellectual and religious trends, material and political culture, the tension between local society and the center, art and literature, and China’s multiple economic and political transformations.  

The consequences of the ancient Chinese political ideal of a single, civilized world empire is a central theme of the course, both from the comparative perspective of other multi-ethnic empires and in terms of the ever-broadening scope and intensity of China’s global connections.  We will draw comparisons with Rome between the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE; with Romanov and Soviet realms in the 17th century and 20th centuries, respectively; and with Western global empires of the age of high imperialism in 19th and 20th centuries.  All these empires have come and gone, while a unitary, multi-national, Chinese empire has endured.

On one hand, this has been a history of conflict, in which Chinese empires used military force to control the peoples on their borders. When they failed, border peoples incorporated China into their own inland empires: the Mongols in the 13th century and Manchus in the 17th.  On the other hand, it has been a history of economic and cultural relations, in which China absorbed foreign models (Buddhism from India in the 3rd century; the sovereign nation-state system from the West in the 19th century; and both industrial capitalism and Stalinist socialism in the 20th century),  defended trade by land along the Eurasian silk routes and by sea with South and Southeast Asia, and put itself forward as a model state for others in East Asia and beyond. 

The course will enable students to debate how the choices China has made in the past bear on the challenges it faces today, when a modern “China model,” with ancient roots, competes with the United States for global leadership.

The course is taught with multiple pedagogies.  By shifting lecture to on-line modules that include “field trips” to sites in China, class time is focused on active, participant-centered learning around major texts, works of art, and contemporary case studies.   Class preparation and attendance are mandatory.  Assignments include responses to online modules, weekly sections, a midterm examination, and a final group project.

This course assumes no prior knowledge of China.


Register for Gen Ed 1136