2014-2015 Asian Studies Courses
Chinese Popular Culture
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.
Chinese Philosophy: Tao, Mind, Human Nature, and Metaphysics
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.
Reading China’s Revolutions Through Literature and Memoir
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.
First-Year Studies: Cultures and Arts of India
The Indian subcontinent hosts many cultures grounded in Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, secular, and unassimilated traditions. This seminar addresses the diverse cultural traditions of India through literature and the visual arts. It also introduces first-year students to history, anthropology of religions, and cultural studies, bridging college-level work in both humanities and social sciences. Beginning with core mythologies and iconography, we explore modes of Indian thought and expression found in devotional texts, court poetry, popular narratives, Hindu temple sculpture, and Mughul miniature painting. Artistic production under Mughal and British imperial rule provides a framework for our study of the formation of modern Indian identities. Sectarian movements and caste hierarchies are analyzed in relation to systems of patronage. We move on to explore contemporary Indian fiction and poetry, photography and film. We interpret aesthetic, religious, economic, and political aspects of South Asian arts in light of postcolonial theories of production and consumption. How do arts of the 21st century both reflect and transform traditional myths and images? What social agendas have led to conventional distinctions between “classical” and “folk” arts, and why are such definitions now widely rejected? Why does the Indian canon include cuisine and body decoration among classical art forms? Which arts historically have been available to women? How have South Asian artists “written back” to orientalist representations?
Post-Revolutionary Chinese Fiction: The Novel as History in a Neo-Liberal Age
This seminar looks to mainland and Taiwanese fiction as a window on recent Chinese history. In the 1980s, China emerged from the paroxysms of the Maoist period (1949-76) and began its transition toward a market-based economy. Accompanying this economic liberalization, many of the tight political controls on writers were loosened. All types of literature, but particularly fiction, boomed. China returned to its rich heritage of a book culture, with a mass book market sustained by avid consumers. And Chinese fiction has won an international audience and acclaim, culminating in 2011 with Mo Yan’s Nobel prize in literature. Literature, thus, stands at the heart of China’s post-revolutionary history. We will interrogate fictional works in post-revolutionary China for how they deal with and understand a rapidly changing society and economy. What are the legacies of decades of revolution for Chinese literature? By examining narratives that deal with the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), we will look at how writers have assessed and appropriated the Maoist period, especially the experience of intellectuals “sent down” to the countryside. How did the “nativist” fiction of the 1980s and 1990s reevaluate Chinese tradition and traditional society? Urban fiction, often decadent and gritty, will raise issues of how authors and narratives portray China’s breakneck economic development. What is the relationship between art and politics in these works? Do they tacitly support or subtly resist political authoritarianism? We will also look at Taiwanese literature from the 1960s through the 1990s, as it, too, grappled with economic development, its political basis, and social effects. Along the way, we will encounter Mo Yan’s blood-drenched bandit heroes; Yu Hua’s long-suffering peasant; Su Tong’s vicious sadists; disaffected urban youths in an age of sex, drugs, and rock and roll; Han Shaogong’s novel written in the form of a dictionary; and Bai Xianyong’s homosexual young men searching for love. The majority of the course consists of fiction from mainland China and Taiwan, but we will also read some short memoir pieces by novelists and the debates in Western media about Mo Yan’s 2011 Nobel prize. There is no prerequisite knowledge of China (history or literature) for this course.
Gender and History in China: Beyond Eunuchs and Concubines
This seminar is a sustained exploration of gender in the Chinese context. We will treat women and men, female and male, as historically constructed categories, examining how both have been imagined and portrayed, made and mobilized, at different times. A recurring theme will be the relationship of gender to power in its various modes: social, familial, economic, and political. 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 traditional Chinese family systems? And what are the implications of viewing imperial-era Confucianism as male oppression of women? Topics of conflict within families and the practice of footbinding will highlight female agency within and complicity with the gender hierarchy. We will delve into the appearance of feminism in the early 20th century and its subsequent fate to see how gender shaped revolution and how gender was 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 will also cover 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 of historical scholarship and appropriate (translated) primary sources, including ritual prescriptions, (auto)biographies, essays, drama, and fiction that will ground the course in the authenticity of real lives of both men and women. This class has a heavy reading load, but no prior knowledge of gender theory or Chinese history is required.
This seminar explores classical Indian and Western themes of sacrifice that survive today in contemporary literature and cinema. The sacrifice of a scapegoat channels violence and legitimizes acts of killing in order to serve social interests of surrogacy and catharsis. Sacrificial practices bridge religious, political, and economic aspects of culture. As sacrament, sacrifice represents transformational mystery. As ceremonial exchange, it facilitates negotiations of status, observance of boundaries, and the redistribution of goods. In specific cultural settings, sacrifice functions as celebration, as a manifestation of goodwill, as insurance, and as a source of communion. Seminar topics include gift exchange, fasting and feasting, the warrior ethic, victimization and martyrdom, bloodletting, scarification, asceticism, and renunciation. The seminar concludes by addressing the politics of sacrifice and alterity through recent critical inquiry into: 1) sati (widow immolation) in India; 2) charity and service tourism; 3) court rituals and judicial proceedings; 4) the targeting of ethnic scapegoats in transnational politics; and 5) contemporary “bullying” incidents. Texts include Hindu liturgies, Greek tragedies, Akedah paintings, the Roman Catholic Eucharist, and selected modern literature.
Pilgrimage and Tourism: South Asian Practices
Among global cultures of travel, pilgrimage is notably prevalent in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi Islamic traditions of South Asia. At temples and shrines throughout the subcontinent, pilgrims perform sacraments, rites of initiation, sacrifices, and other acts of renunciation. Pilgrim fairs and festivals serve multiple functions, providing venues not only for religious expression but also for arts performance, social negotiation, and economic exchange. This seminar explores the proposition that pilgrimage and tourism are functionally indistinguishable. If categories of travel are to be defined, 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 from home relate to the experience of arrival at a destination? Through a study of 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. We analyze travel industries and the specialists who service the many spectacles and attractions found along pilgrim and tourist routes. Films and photographic sources are used extensively. Readings are drawn from cultural studies, history of religions, anthropology, and personal narrative.