Ellen Neskar

Merle Rosenblatt Goldman Chair in Asian Studies

BSc, University of Toronto. MA, MPhil, PhD, Columbia University. Special interest in the social and cultural history of medieval China, with emphasis on the intersection of politics and religion; author of Politics and Prayer: Shrines to Local Worthies in Sung China; member, Association of Asian Studies; recipient of an American Council of Learned Societies grant. SLC, 2001–

Undergraduate Courses 2019-2020

Asian Studies

Virtue and the Good Life: Ethics in Classical Chinese Philosophy

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course centers on the close, detailed reading of a small number of foundational texts in classical Confucianism and Taoism. Our focus will be to explore how these texts might fit “virtue ethics,” which emphasizes moral character and the pursuit of a worthwhile life. Some attention will be paid to other forms of ethics, including those that stress either the adherence to duties and obligations or the social consequences of ethical action. Our primary goal, however, will be to examine the ways in which classical Chinese philosphers regarded personal virtues and “good character” as both a prerequisite to and an explanation of appropriate action and its consequences. Among the more specific topics that we will explore are: ideal traits of virtue, the links between moral values and different understandings of human nature, the pyschological structures of virtue, practices leading to the cultivation of virtue, the roles of family and friendship in developing moral values, and what constitutes a good life.

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Previous Courses

Reading China’s Revolutions Through Fiction and Memoir

Open , Seminar—Spring

Some of the most consequential and revolutionary prose written in 20th-century China is to be found neither in history nor politics but in fiction and memoir. Indeed, state leaders, reformers, and revolutionaries all believed that fiction was central in their push toward political change and national modernization. The premise of this course is that literature offers an important glimpse into the individual, social, and cultural goals and ramifications of China’s political revolutions. More specifically, the course will look at the short-story fiction and memoirs produced following the 1911 revolution and May Fourth Movement (1919), the 1949 communist revolution, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and the post-Mao era (1976-1990). Although we will use various methods of literary analysis, the primary approach to the readings will be historical. Topics to be explored include: the ways in which early writers viewed the problems of traditional literature, the role of literature in bringing about social and political change, the tension between the individual and society, and changing notions of gender. We will also look at the ways in which some writers (among them Lu Xun and Ding Ling) created new narrative techniques to embody their vision of social realism and in which others adopted Western literary techniques to convey their self-image as “modern” or “international” writers.

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Religion and the State in China

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

News coverage of China often highlights the government’s persecution of religious groups, among them Falungong and Tibetan Buddhism. And yet, the same government tolerates a widespread cult to the deceased Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong as the god of wealth and business success. This course seeks to place China's often contradictory attitudes toward religion within a broader historical and cultural context by looking at the rise and unfolding of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and popular religion. We will focus on two related themes: 1) how different religious groups in China interacted with and affected the state; and 2) how the state created its own religious structure and ultimately shaped the various religions. Questions to be raised will include the following: How did the traditional religions both support and oppose the state? How did the state adopt the symbols and practices of these religions to legitimize its authority? How did the traditional Chinese state conceive of the sacred role of the emperor? What assumption led to its creation of a state religion that controlled private religious practices? How has the contemporary Chinese government borrowed, transformed, or eradicated the traditional relationships between religious groups and the state? We will attempt to answer these questions from a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses religious, institutional, intellectual, and cultural perspectives. Although readings will include secondary sources, emphasis will be placed on primary documents. Sources will include government edicts, ritual manuals, legal cases, religious texts, temple records, private memoirs and diaries, miracle tales, didactic fiction, and folklore.

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Taoist Philosophy and the Arts

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

This seminar centers on foundational texts in the classical Taoist tradition and their unfolding in later religious and artistic movements. The goal of this course is twofold: to understand the texts as they were written between the fifth and third centuries BCE and to examine the ways in which they were interpreted and reinterpreted in later religious traditions and applied in poetry and painting. The first semester will focus on a close and detailed reading of the Daodejing (Tao-te-ching), Zhuangzi, and Liezi as a way of examining their core philosophical concepts. Questions we will ask include: What is being? What is knowledge? What is the Tao, and how might individuals attain it? What is the ideal relationship of the individual to society, nature, and the cosmos? Second semester, we will explore the influence of these texts on later religious and artistic traditions. Topics we will explore include the relationship between religious practice and artistic expression, the creation of visual and literary art as an expression of the Tao, and the practice of being a reader/observer. Here we will examine medieval and Late Imperial texts on Taoist religious practice, poetry, painting, and aesthetics. In addition to these more theoretical works, we will study the lives and works of some notable Taoist-influenced poets and artists.

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Religion and Politics in China

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

News coverage of China often highlights the government’s persecution of religious groups, among them Falungong and Tibetan Buddhism. And yet, the same government tolerates a widespread cult to the deceased Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong as the god of wealth and business success. This course seeks to place China’s often contradictory attitudes toward religion within a broader historical and cultural context by looking at the rise and unfolding of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and popular religion. We will focus on two related themes: how different religious groups in China interacted with and affected the state and how the state created its own religious structure and ultimately shaped the various religions. Questions to be raised will include the following: How did the traditional religions both support and oppose the state? How did the state adopt the symbols and practices of these religions to legitimize its authority? How did the traditional Chinese state conceive of the sacred role of the emperor? What assumption led to its creation of a state religion that controlled private religious practices? How has the contemporary Chinese government borrowed, transformed, or eradicated the traditional relationships between religious groups and the state? We will attempt to answer these questions from a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses religious, institutional, intellectual, and cultural perspectives. Although readings will include secondary sources, emphasis will be placed on primary documents. Sources will include government edicts, ritual manuals, legal cases, religious texts, temple records, private memoirs and diaries, miracle tales, didactic fiction, and folklore.

Faculty
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