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 2017-2018

Asian Studies

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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Previous Courses

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.

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

Open , Seminar—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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Readings in Daoism: Zhuangzi and His Followers

Sophomore and above , Seminar—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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Chinese Philosophy: Tao, Mind, Human Nature, and Metaphysics

Sophomore and above , Seminar—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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Reading China’s Revolutions Through Literature and Memoir

Open , Seminar—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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