Week 2: The Idea of China

Lecture 1: Orientation

I. Why history?

  • History as a discipline
  • History as exploration

II. The “life-cycle” of thinking about the past

  • Question
  • Sources
  • Contexts
  • Interpretation
  • Hypothesis
  • Narrative
  • Argument
  • More questions

III. Why China?

  • The pragmatist’s argument
  • The humanist’s argument

IV. By the end of the course, students should be able to . . .

  • identify some of the organizing themes in the history of later imperial China
  • discuss the unity and diversity, changes and continuities, of Chinese society
  • come to an understanding of the nature of historical knowledge

V. Course elements

  • Website
  • Lectures/Discussion
  • Textbook/Readings
  • Reading Responses
  • Library Assignment
  • Museum Assignment
  • Take-home exam
  • Research essay option
  • Office hours

VI. Approaches to Chinese History

  • Dynastic cycles
  • Early European perspectives (e.g., Hegel [1770–1831])
  • Universal history
  • Change within tradition
  • China in the World
  • Global history / Big history

Lecture 2: Early China

I. Lands and Peoples

  1. Environment and History
  2. Physical Geography (river systems: Yellow, Yangzi, Pearl)
  3. Human Geography

II. Periodization

  1. Ancient “China”—Xia (ca. 2200–1700 BCE) . . . Shang (ca. 1700–1100 BCE) . . . Zhou (ca. 1100–221 BCE)
  2. The First Empire—Qin (221–207 BCE) . . . Han (207 BCE–220 CE)
  3. Period of Disunion (220–589)
  4. The Second Empire—Sui (589–618) . . . Tang (618–907)

III. Major Themes

  1. Continuity and change
  2. Unity and diversity
  3. Structure and agency
  4. Power and Identity


  1. What is the difference between a primary and a secondary source?
  2. What are some of the sources historians use to reconstruct China's past? What are the benefits and pitfalls of such materials?
  3. How would you define "China" or "Chinese"?


External links to Maps:

Boundaries 1 | Boundaries 2 | Comparisons | China/US | Mountains | Rivers | Agriculture

Physical Map

Map of Modern China: Physical Geography

Source: National Museum of Chinese History, ed., A Journey into China's Antiquity, vol. 1 (Beijing: Morning Glory Publishers, 1997), pp. 8–9.


Physical Map by Satellite

Map of Modern China: Physical Geography

Administrative Map

Map of Modern China: Administrative Divisions

Source: SACU


The Economist: What China Wants

Map of China: Languages

Map of China: Regions


"Lingering Melodies from the Xunyang River"
Source: Oil on canvas, by Chen Yifei (1946–2005). Craig Clunas, Art in China, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 230. Note the features of the women portrayed. How "authentic" is this representation?

Note the features of the man portrayed. How "Chinese" is he?
Source: Oil on canvas, by Luo Zhongli (b. 1950). Craig Clunas, Art in China, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 225.



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