Asian Studies

Asian studies is an interdisciplinary field grounded in current approaches to the varied regions of Asia. Seminars and lectures are offered on China, Japan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Indonesia. Courses explore Asian cultures, geographies, histories, societies, and religions. Visual and performing arts are included in the Asian studies curriculum. Faculty, trained in languages of their areas, draw on extensive field experience in Asia. Their courses bridge humanities, social sciences, and global studies.

Students are encouraged to consider studying in Asia during their junior year. The Office of International Programs assists students in locating appropriate opportunities. Recent Sarah Lawrence College students have participated in programs of study in China, India, and Japan.

2017-2018 Courses

Asian Studies

First-Year Studies: Pilgrimage and Initiation

Open , FYS—Year

1) Pilgrimage and initiation play a major role in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi Islamic traditions of South Asia. This seminar introduces students to the cultures of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka through a comparative study of religious practices. In homes, temples, and shrines throughout this region, devotees perform elaborate rituals of initiation. These often occur at moments of life-cycle transition. Calendar-based sacraments also occur on the major holidays of each religion. When devotees celebrate these ceremonies, they are "performing" important cultural values. 2) Globally, pilgrimage festivals can be seen as codes for interpreting cultures. Meaningful journeys reflect the structure of initiation rites in that one is transformed by the experience. 3) Pilgrim fairs and festivals serve multiple functions. They provide venues not only for religious expression but also for arts performance, social negotiation, and economic exchange. 4) This seminar explores questions such as: Are pilgrimage and tourism functionally indistinguishable? What role, if any, do travelers’ intentions play in such an analysis? Is a spiritually inscribed journey qualitatively different from tourism with recreational, cultural, or service agendas? How does the transitional process of a journey relate to the experience of arrival at a destination? What do pilgrimage and initiation sometimes have in common with the experience of immigration? 5) Using travel memoirs, we explore themes of quest, discovery, and personal transformation. Postcolonial writings on spiritually inscribed journeys raise issues of dislocation, exile, memory, and identity. We inquire critically into traditional mappings of “sacred geographies” and the commercial promotion of competing destinations. 6) Sources: Within travel industries, we analyze the specialists who service many spectacles and attractions found along pilgrimage routes. Films and photographic sources are used extensively. Readings are drawn from cultural studies, history of religions, anthropology, and personal narratives.

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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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Gender and History in China: Beyond Eunuchs and Concubines

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

Open to sophomores and above. (First-year students may register with permission of the instructor.)

This seminar is a sustained historical exploration of gender in the Chinese context, which is not only significant in its own right but also serves to complicate some of the common Euro-American assumptions about family dynamics, emotional life, and gender hierarchies. We will treat female and male as historically constructed categories, examining how both have been tied to modes of power (familial, social, economic, and political); in other words, how men and women have been imagined and portrayed, made and mobilized, at different times. We will confront, head on, stereotypes about the passive Chinese woman and the Confucian family, asking: Where do we find and how do we understand women’s agency within the permutations of the traditional Chinese family? We will interrogate Imperial-era family conflicts and the practice of footbinding to highlight female agency within, and complicity with, the gender hierarchy. The appearance of feminism in the early 20th century and its subsequent fate will provide a window on how gender shaped revolution and how gender was, in turn, shaped by it. And rather than leave masculinity as an assumed constant, we will examine historical and cultural constructions of what it meant to be a man in China. Located between the poles of the scholar and the warrior, Chinese manliness exhibits unfamiliar contours and traits. The course also covers same-sex desire in both traditional and modern China. For example, in the Late Imperial era, we will look at homoeroticism among fashionable elite men and at female “marriage resisters” who dared to form all-women communities in a society where marriage was virtually universal. Class readings consist primarily of historical scholarship; however, (translated) primary sources pepper the course and include ritual prescriptions, (auto)biographies, essays, drama, and fiction that ground our inquiries in the authenticity of Chinese voices. Due to its reading load, this seminar is listed as “intermediate” but requires no prior knowledge of Chinese history.

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Images of India: Text/Photo/Film

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

1) This seminar addresses colonial and postcolonial representations of India. For centuries, India has been imagined and imaged through encoded idioms of orientalism. In recent decades, writers and visual artists from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have been actively engaged in reinterpreting the British colonial impact on South Asia. Their work presents sensibilities of the colonized in counter-narration to images previously established during the Raj. Highlighting previously unexposed impressions, such works inevitably supplement, usually challenge, and frequently undermine traditional accounts underwritten by imperialist interests. 2) Colonial and orientalist discourses depicted peoples of the Indian subcontinent in terms of both degradation and a romance of empire, thereby rationalizing various economic, political, and psychological agendas. The external invention and deployment of the term “Indian” is emblematic of the epoch, with colonial designation presuming to reframe indigenous identity. 3) Postcolonial writers and artists, therefore, continue to renegotiate identities. What does it mean to be seen as an Indian? What historical claims are implicit in allegories of language, ethnicity, and nation? How do such claims inform events taking place today, given the resurgence of religious fundamentalisms? This seminar on the semiotics and politics of culture is based on works by influential South Asian writers, photographers, and filmmakers.

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Hindu Iconography and Ritual 

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This seminar focuses on the visual cultures of India and Nepal. Hindu traditions encompass a dramatically diverse range of beliefs and practices. Iconography provides a pathway toward decoding that diversity. How are the proverbial 330,000 gods and goddesses understood to be manifestations of a common unity? How does the Hindu pantheon encode gender with respect to status, functions, and roles? Where are caste hierarchies reflected among the emblems held by multi-armed deities? In what ways does iconography narrate the history of Aryan and Dravidian interactions? Through a study of painting, sculpture, popular lithographs, and multi-media sources, this seminar offers a window into the social histories, cultural practices, and spiritual values of Indian civilization.

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The Geography of Contemporary China: A Political Ecology of Reform, Global Integration, and Rise to Superpower

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

Some experience in the social sciences desired but not required.

Despite widespread daily reporting on China’s rise to superpower status—and both its challenge to and its necessary partnership with the United States—what do we really know about the country? In this seminar, we will explore China’s evolving place in the world through political-economic integration and globalization processes. We will consistently focus our efforts on reframing debates, both academic and in mass media, to enable new insights and analyses. We will begin with an overview of contemporary China, discussing the unique aspects of China’s modern history and the changes and continuities from one era to the next. We will explore Revolutionary China and the subsequent socialist period to ground the seminar’s focus: post-1978 reform and transformation to the present day. Rooted in the questions of agrarian change and rural development, we will also study seismic shifts in urban and industrial form and China’s emergence as a global superpower on its way to becoming the world’s largest economy. We will analyze the complex intertwining of the environmental, political-economic, and sociocultural aspects of these processes as we interpret the geography of contemporary China. Using a variety of theoretical perspectives, we will analyze a series of contemporary global debates: Is there a fundamental conflict between the environment and rapid development? What is the role of the peasantry in the modern world? What is the impact of different forms of state power and practice? How does globalization shape China’s regional transformation? And, on the other hand, how does China’s global integration impact development in every other country and region of the world? Modern China provides immense opportunities for exploring key theoretical and substantive questions of our time. A product first and foremost of its own complex history, other nation states and international actors and institutions—such as the World Bank, transnational corporations, and civil society—have also heavily influenced China. The “China model” of rapid growth is widely debated in terms of its efficacy as a development pathway, and yet it defies simple understandings and labels. Termed everything from neoliberalism to market socialism to authoritarian Keynesian capitalism, it is a model full of paradoxes and contradictions. Not least of these is its impact on global climate change. Other challenges include changing gender relations, rapid urbanization, and massive internal migration. In China today, contentious debates continue on land reform, the pros and cons of global market integration, the role of popular culture and the arts in society, how to define ethical behavior, the roots of China’s social movements—from Tian’anmen to current widespread social unrest and discontent amongst workers, peasants, students, and intellectuals—and the meaning and potential resolution of minority conflicts in China’s hinterlands. Land and resource grabs in China and abroad are central to China’s rapid growth and its role as an industrial platform for the world. But resulting social inequality and environmental degradation challenge the legitimacy of China’s leadership like never before. As China borders many of the most volatile places in the contemporary world and increasingly projects its power to the far corners of the planet, we will conclude our seminar with a discussion of security issues, geopolitics, and potential scenarios for China’s future. Throughout the seminar, there will be comparisons with other areas of the world within the context of the broader theoretical and thematic questions mentioned above. Weekly selected readings, films, mass media, and books will be used to inform debate and discussion. A structured conference project will integrate closely with one of the diverse topics of the seminar.

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Japanese I

Open , Seminar—Year

This course is for students with no previous knowledge of Japanese. Students will develop basic communicative skills in listening comprehension and speaking, as well as skills in reading and writing (katakana, hiragana, and 145 kanji) in Japanese. While classes will be devoted primarily to language practice, an understanding of Japanese grammar will also be emphasized as an important basis for continued language learning. Classes will meet three times weekly, and tutorials with a language assistant will meet once a week.

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Japanese II

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

This advanced-beginning course is for students who have completed Japanese I or its equivalent. Students will continue to develop basic skills in speaking, listening, reading, and writing while expanding their vocabulary and knowledge of grammar. At the end of the course, students should be able to handle simple communicative tasks and situations effectively, understand simple daily conversations, write short essays, read simple essays, and discuss their content. Classes will meet three times weekly, and tutorials with a language assistant will meet once a week.

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Japanese III

Intermediate/Advanced , Seminar—Year

This course is for students who have completed Japanese II or its equivalent. The aim of the seminar is to advance students’ Japanese language proficiency in speaking and listening, reading (simple essays to authentic texts), and writing in various styles (emails, essays, and/or creative writing). Students will meet for classes and conferences with the instructor and for weekly individual tutorials with a language assistant.

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Love, Sex, and Globalization

Open , Seminar—Year

In 2015, the issue of gay rights in Israel was thrust into international spotlight when 26 Israeli surrogate babies were evacuated from earthquake-devastated Kathmandu, but their Nepalese surrogate mothers were left behind. Among the Israeli parents were gay couples who had been forced to look abroad, as surrogacy is restricted to heterosexual couples in Israel. What this event also revealed are the strange bedfellows that love and sex find when they travel and take up new life in the age of globalization. In recent years, scholars have been increasingly concerned with the worldwide political-economic and technological restructuring that goes under the name of “globalization.” Too often, however, globalization has been figured as an abstract and all-powerful capitalist phenomenon imposed on the rest of the world by American political elites and US corporations. Missing have been accounts of how this restructuring is experienced by people in their daily lives, including their most intimate acts and practices. This course seeks to challenge the binaries of proximate/distant, economic/intimate, and global/local by which we understand globalization. Using an interdisciplinary lens drawn from anthropology, cultural studies, sociology, international relations, literature, and film and media studies, we will seek to account for the complex ways in which political-economic and technological transformations both shape and are shaped by love, sex, and intimacy. Among the topics of discussion will be gay marriage, mail-order brides, transnational adoption, international sex work, militarism, the Internet, and social media. Potential readings will include Symposium by Plato, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977) by Roland Barthes, The Transformation of Intimacy (1992) by Anthony Giddens, Neon Wasteland: On Love, Motherhood, and Sex Work in A Rust Belt Town (2011) by Susan Dewey, Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)longing in Contemporary India (2008) by Parmesh Shehani, Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa (2010) by Mark Hunter, and On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the US Military in South Korea (2010) by Sealing Cheng. For conference work, students will have a chance to expand upon their personal interests and learn the basics of ethnographic research by conducting mini-ethnography on a selected topic of their choice. Samples of past student work may be found on the instructor’s faculty home page.

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Global Masculinities

Open , Seminar—Fall

What does it mean for straight white men in fraternities and the military to grab each other’s penises as part of a hazing ritual (Ward 2015)? Or for blond, “all-American” jocks to dress like “nerds” with glasses and perform a Revenge of the Nerds skit for a high school’s “homecoming king” contest (Pascoe 2007)? Or for the National Basketball Association to feature a promotional video of Yao Ming, the first Chinese player in the NBA, leading a Tai-chi practice on a basketball court wearing his Rockets jersey (Wang 2004)? What do these images and practices reveal about the diverse cultures of masculinity that exist within the United States and around the world? Often when scholars study gender, they focus on women. In contrast, within this course we will spotlight the lives of men who have long escaped critical examination as members of an unmarked category that has stood for humanity in general. In exploring the diversity of men’s lives across the globe, this course will highlight the social construction of masculinity; that is, rather than understanding being “male” or a “man” as biological facts, we will view them as sociocultural constructs that vary not only according to time but also setting. We will see how masculinity intersects with race, class, age, language, sexuality, religion, and nationality to create various models of hegemonic and subordinate masculinities that co-exist and compete with one another. We will explore how, even as masculinity operates to empower men as a group, they inhabit positions of power and wealth and simultaneously regulate the behavior of all men. Therefore, we will also discuss how drag queens, butch lesbians, and transgender people create their own complex genders (Taylor 2004) that have the power to disrupt the gender binary that, in turn, supports not only a white normative queer community and heteronormative family system but also hetero-masculinist states as part of a global capitalist system of homosocial bonding and rivalry. Potential readings include Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (2011) by C.J. Pascoe, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (2015) by Jane Ward, Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing (2014) by Jeffrey McCune, “The Track of My Tears: Trans* Affects, Resonance, and PitBulls and Parolees” (2015) by Harlan Weaver, Manly States: Masculinities, International Relations, and Gender Politics (2012) by Charlotte Hooper, and Chih-ming Wang’s “Capitalizing the big man: Yao Ming, Asian America, and the China Global” (2004). For conference work, students will have a chance to expand upon their personal interests and learn the fundamentals of ethnographic research by conducting mini-ethnography on a selected topic of their choice. Samples of past student work may be found on the instructor’s faculty home page.

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Queer New Media

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

Until recently, “queer media” called to mind bar rags or community newsletters. With the proliferation of computer-mediated communication—including cell phones, fax machines, satellite television, and the Internet—queer communities around the world have seen the proliferation of multimedia conglomerates very much modeled on their mainstream counterparts (Gamson 2003). Not only that, as location-aware dating applications such as Tinder and Grindr provide novel opportunities for queers to socialize outside of gay spaces, Web 2.0 has resulted in the increased centrality of user-generated content, including DIY porn that is pro-sex, collaborative, and explicitly queer (McGlotten 2012). Finally, social networking and entertainment sites such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook offer possibilities, in previously unimaginable ways, for grassroots organizing and political struggle for social justice. Yet, even as the connectivity of the Internet has reinvigorated hopes for radical queer politics, democracy, and global community, it has also fed into fears about damage to face-to-face interactions and community. For instance, “No Fats, No Fems, No Asians” is now a ubiquitous phrase on gay hook-up apps where white, muscular, masculinity is most prized. At the same time, Big Data gathered from our Google searches and Facebook likes is threatening to become a regular part of diffuse and opaque campaigns of social engineering that involve guessing, among other things, one’s sexual orientation for marketing purposes. Clearly then, a more precise understanding of both the real and novel effects of queer new media is needed. Eschewing the largely speculative writing on sexuality and new media, this course will investigate how social media affect how queer users interact in online spaces as particular raced, classed, and gendered beings and how these interactions shape their understandings of themselves and the world. It will also explore how these communication technologies are situated in larger structures of political economy and how they have the potential to remediate mass mobilization and political action. Potential readings include Corinne Lysandra Mason’s “Tinder and humanitarian hook-ups: the erotics of social media racism” (2016), Catherine Connell’s “Fashionable Resistance: Queer ‘Fa(t)shion’ Blogging as Counterdiscourse” (2013), Dominique Pierre Batiste’s “‘0 Feet Away: The Queer Cartography of French Gay Men’s Geo-social Media Use” (2013), Shaka McGlotten’s Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect, and Queer Sociality (2013), and Lindsey O’Connor’s “‘Weird’ Sex: Identity, Censorship, and China’s Women Sex Bloggers” (2014). For conference work, students will have a chance to expand upon their personal interests and learn the basics of ethnographic research by conducting mini-ethnography on a selected topic of their choice. Samples of past student work may be found on the instructor’s faculty home page.

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The Buddhist Tradition in India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia

Open , Lecture—Fall

This intoductory course treats the evolution of Buddhism in India from the origins of the religion as a group of "world-renouncing" ascetics through the development of large, state-supported monastic communities and the emergence of the major reform movements known as Mahāyāna and Tantra. The course also focuses on the Buddhism of two regions of the world—Southeast Asia and the Tibetan plateau—where the respective traditions have been most self-consciously concerned with maintaining precedents inherited from India. Equal attention is paid to (1) matters of philosophy and doctrine, (2) religious rites and practices, and (3) social and institutional arrangements. The lectures are accompanied by copious audiovisual materials. Readings include An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices, 2nd ed., Peter Harvey, Cambridge University Press, 2013. For students who wish to continue studying the development of the Buddhist tradition in other parts of the world, a companion lecture course, The Buddhist Tradition in East Asia, is offered in the spring semester.

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The Buddhist Tradition in East Asia

Open , Lecture—Spring

This introductory course focuses on the Buddhism of East Asia: China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Buddhism first began to take root in China in the early centuries of the Common Era, having been transmitted from India via Central Asia and the maritime states of Southeast Asia. Buddhism initially met with much resistance, being branded an "alien" cult that was at odds with native Chinese (especially Confucian) values. Eventually, however, the Indian religion adapted to Chinese culture and came to have a profound influence on it, spawning new schools of Buddhism such as Tiantai, Huayan, Pure Land, and Chan (called Zen in Japan). The smaller neighboring countries that fell under the sway of Chinese civilization—Korea, Japan, and Vietnam—first imported forms of Buddhism that had taken shape in China, not India; but each, in turn, further changed the religion in ways that accorded with their own indigenous cultures. Equal attention is paid in this course to (1) matters of philosophy and doctrine, (2) religious rites and practices, and (3) social and institutional arrangements. The lectures are accompanied by copious audiovisual materials. The course has no prerequisite but is suitable for students who have already taken the companion lecture, The Buddhist Tradition in India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia, which is offered in the fall.

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Chan and Zen Buddhism

Open , Seminar—Year

This course is an in-depth, historical examination of the philosophy, mythology, literature, institutional arrangements, religious practices, art, and architecture associated with this most famous and widely misunderstood branch of East Asian Buddhism. The Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism arose in China as the result of a cross-cultural exchange of epic proportions: the gradual intrusion of an alien set of religious ideas, values, and practices—those belonging to Indian Buddhism—into China between the first and the eighth centuries of the Common Era and the subsequent efforts of some 20 generations of Chinese Buddhists to defend, adapt, domesticate, and finally make the foreign religion entirely their own. Chan became the most "Chinese" school of Buddhism by defining itself in terms of indigenous concepts of clan genealogy, by exalting members of its spiritual lineage as native-born buddhas, and by allowing those buddhas to speak in the vernacular, using a mode of rhetoric that was heavily influenced by the Confucian and Daoist traditions. The course begins by outlining the Indian Buddhist doctrines and practices that were imported into China and by summarizing the indigenous cultural milieu that was initially quite hostile to the alien religion. It then explores the various compromises and adaptations of Indian Buddhist teachings, practices, and institutions that took shape within the Chan tradition and enabled it to emerge in the Song dynasty (960-1278) as the predominant school of Chinese Buddhism. The main theme of the second semester is the transmission of the Chan school of Buddhism to Japan, where it became known as Zen, and the subsequent development of the tradition in that country from the 13th century to the present. Books and readings include Encyclopedia of Buddhism and Zen Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings, Brinker, both PDF files; Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra, Conze, Edward, trans., Vintage, 2001; ; and The Vimalakirti Sutra, Watson, Burton, trans., Columbia University Press, 2000. A background knowledge of East Asian history, languages, or religions is desirable but not required.

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