Ellen Neskar

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–

Current undergraduate courses

Chinese Literature and Folktales: Ghosts, Bandits, Heroes, and Lovers

Year

Throughout Chinese history, the most enduring characters of fiction were ghosts, bandits, and lovers. Authors used them as metaphors to contemplate and criticize their cultural, economic, and political traditions. This class will focus on the close reading of short-story fiction and folktales from three pivotal periods in Chinese literary history: the Tang-Song period (eighth-12th centuries), the Ming-Qing period (15th-18th centuries) and the 20th century. Our approach to the texts will involve both literary and historical analysis, and our goals will be to discover continuities and transformations in both content and form and the interplay between fiction and popular folktales. Topics for class discussion will include: the nature and definitions of the individual; the relationship between the self and society; changing notions of honor, virtue, and individualism; attitudes toward gender and sexuality, and the role of fiction in promoting or overturning cultural norms and creating a Chinese modernity.

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Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Readings in Daoism: Zhuangzi and His Followers

Year

This seminar centers on the careful reading of The Zhuangzi, one of the foundational texts of the Daoist tradition. Arguably the greatest piece of Chinese literature and philosophy, The Zhuangzi defies all categorization and, instead, invites readers to probe through its layers of myth, fantasy, jokes, short stories, philosophy, epistemology, social critique, and political commentary. In the end, Zhuangzi plunges us into an examination of some of the core questions of philosophy: What is being? What is knowledge? What is the nature of human nature? The goal of this course is twofold: (1) to understand the Zhuangzi as it was written in the fourth century BCE, and (2) to examine the ways in which it has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and applied in practice in later history. To accomplish the first part of the goal, we thoroughly familiarize ourselves with the text and the philosophical questions it raises through close and detailed reading. To accomplish the second, we will look at the text in its broader historical context, as well as its influence on later philosophical, religious, and artistic (painting and poetry) traditions. Readings will include the Dao-de-jing, Confucius, later Daoist philosophers and religious leaders, poets, and painters.

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Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Previous courses

Chinese History I: From Origins to the Mongol Empire

Fall

This course will explore the rise, development, and transformations of China’s sociocultural practices and political institutions from earliest times to the Mongol period (14th century). In doing so, we will challenge many of the conventional views of premodern China. For example, instead of seeing China as developing in isolation from the outside world, we will look closely at its international relations, its expansionist tendencies, its numerous conquests by non-Chinese neighbors, and its involvement in Silk Road trade. Topics covered will include the political and economic systems, urbanization and the development of a market system, the rise and unfolding of its philosophical and religious traditions (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism), and changes in its social and cultural practices. Class assignments will be varied, relying on scholarly articles as well as primary sources, including government documents, memoirs, diaries, biographies, philosophical texts, and fiction. Group conferences will allow for more in-depth reading and discussion of primary documents.

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Chinese Philosophy: Tao, Mind, Human Nature, and Metaphysics

Year

The nature of human nature, the ideal functioning of the mind, and the relationship of both to the Tao are central preoccupations of Chinese philosophy. Our goals in this course are twofold. First, we will pay close attention to different philosophers’ conceptions of the mind, emotions, human nature, thought, and knowledge. Second, we will examine the unfolding of the debates among the philosophers concerning the manner in which these conceptions relate to the Tao and shape the individual’s attainment of the Tao in his/her own life and practice. In the first semester, we will explore these concerns through a careful reading of the foundational texts from the early Taoist and Confucian traditions (including Confucius’ Analects and Lao-zi’s Tao-te Ching). In the second semester, we will look at the ways in which later Neo-Taoist and Neo-Confucian philosophers reevaluated the classics and created metaphysical systems based on yin-yang and qi (ch’i) in order to ground their understanding of perfectibility of all people.

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Chinese Popular Culture

Spring

This course explores a variety of forms of traditional popular culture that continue to survive in China and abroad. Among the topics we will cover are: folktales (Mulan, The Butterfly Lovers), festivals (New Year, Dragon Boat, Herdboy, and Weaving Maid), popular deities (Mazu, Guanyin), and religious practices (All Souls, Hell, ancestor worship). Our focus will be on their historical origins and transformations through a variety of cultural forms. Particular attention will be paid to their entertainment, political, ideological, and sociological functions. This course aims to build different and sometimes competing conceptions of “tradition” and to understand their continuing relevance today. Since many of these practices and beliefs reside outside the lens of elite taste and political authority, our materials will include opera, drama, popular fiction, and visual arts.

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Chinese Religion and Politics

Year

Recent news coverage of China has highlighted the Chinese government's persecution of religious groups, among them Falungong and Tibetan Buddhism, and has suggested that such persecution is a product of the Communist Party's failure to promote human rights and religious freedoms. At the same time, the 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 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 institutional, economic, intellectual, and cultural perspectives. Although readings will include secondary sources, emphasis will be placed on primary documents. Sources will include government edicts and ritual manuals, legal cases, religious texts and temple records, private memoirs and diaries, miracle tales, and didactic fiction.

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First-Year Studies: Chinese Philosophy and Daily Life

FYS

This course will look at China’s philosophical traditions—Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism—and seek to understand their role in shaping the cultural practices of daily life. To do this, we will take a two-pronged approach. The first approach will involve the close reading of the foundational texts in each of the traditions. Topics to be explored will include: notions of the Dao (Tao) and the ways in which it might be attained by individuals and society; the essence of the mind, human nature, and the emotions and the ways they interact in behavior; the relationship between knowledge and action; and ideals of inner self-cultivation and social engagement. The second approach will explore cultural practices through a different set of texts, including school regulations and curricula, monastery rules and ritual texts, “how-to” manuals for managing the family, records of charitable organizations, poetry and fiction, legal cases, diaries, and journals. Here we will consider the ways in which social and cultural institutions were shaped and reshaped by the ongoing debates within Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. The goal is to bring these two approaches together by considering the various ways in which philosophical ideals unfolded in, or stood in tension with, daily life and practice.

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Law and Order in Pre-Modern China

Spring

This course will offer a three-part approach to the study of law in pre-modern China, focusing on legal theory, institutions and practices, and the relationship between law and popular culture. The first part of the course will provide an overview of the philosophical basis of law, the state’s development of civil and penal law codes, and its creation of courts and judicial institutions. The second part of the course will look more closely at the implementation of the law code and its application to criminal cases in the medieval period. Here we will study case books and judicial judgments, precedent texts, magistrates’ manuals, forensic guidelines, and journal accounts. Topics that we will examine include: the role and function of local judges, the processes by which penal cases were judged and punishments determined, and the rights and obligations of the various parties in a legal suit. The third part of the course will use religious tracts, folktales, and popular fiction to examine the ways in which the judicial system both influenced and was influenced by popular culture. Topics include the ways in which the court system shaped popular notions of justice and revenge and contributed to increasingly complicated notions of heaven and hell, the intersection of Buddhist notions of karma and Confucian concepts of retribution with the legal system, and the rise of popular fiction centered on the courtroom and the wise judge. 

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Pre-Modern Chinese Literature: Ghosts, Bandits, and Lovers

Fall

Throughout Chinese history, the most enduring characters of fiction were ghosts, bandits, and lovers. Authors used them as metaphors to contemplate and criticize their cultural, economic, and political traditions. This class will focus on the close reading of short-story fiction from two pivotal periods in Chinese literary history: the Tang-Song period (8th-11th centuries) and the Ming-Qing period (15th-17th centuries). In part, our goal will be to discover continuities and transformations of the genre in both its content and its form. And, in part, our goal will be to explore changing notions of ghosts, bandits, and lovers as a window onto pre-modern Chinese society. Topics for class discussion will include:  the nature and definitions of the individual; the relationship between the self and society, the individual and the cosmos; changing notions of honor, virtue, and individualism; attitudes toward gender and sexuality; and the role of fiction in promoting or overturning cultural norms. 

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Reading China’s Revolutions Through Literature and Memoir

Fall

Some of the most revealing and groundbreaking prose written in 20th-century China is to be found in neither history nor politics but in fiction and memoir. The premise of this course is that literature offers an important glimpse into the individual, social, and cultural consequences of China’s revolutions. More specifically, the course will look at the literature produced following the 1911 revolution and May Fourth Movement, the 1949 communist revolution, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and the post-Mao era (1976-1990). Our reading will involve methods of both literary analysis and historical criticism. Topics to be explored include the ways in which early writers viewed the problems of traditional literature, the proper form and function of revolution, and the role of literature in bringing about social change. 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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Readings in Daoism: The Zhuangzi and Movement

Spring

This seminar will take a two-pronged approach to The Zhuangzi: the intellectual and analytical reading of the text and the physical and somatic practice of Zhuangzi’s Dao. One of the foundational texts of the Daoist tradition and, arguably, the greatest piece of Chinese literature and philosophy, The Zhuangzi defies all categorization. Instead, it invites readers to probe through its layers of myth, fantasy, jokes, short stories, philosophy, epistemology, social critique, and political commentary. One meeting each week will consist of a slow, careful reading of the text that will allow us to explore the core questions of Zhuangzi’s philosophy: What is being? What is knowledge? What is the nature of human nature? The other meeting each week will explore The Zhuangzi as a manual of practice that focuses on the body as a laboratory of physical knowledge and experience. Here we will explore the kind of movement that is, in Zhuangzi’s terms, both deliberative and spontaneous. This part of the course will be a collaborative experiment with Emily Devine’s improvisation class in the Dance program. No prior experience in dance or philosophy is necessary.

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