Searching across Disciplines: Linking History, Literature, and Religion in a China Studies Curriculum

By Jang, Rose | East-West Connections, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Searching across Disciplines: Linking History, Literature, and Religion in a China Studies Curriculum


Jang, Rose, East-West Connections


Introduction

The Evergreen State College is a small liberal arts college in Olympia, Washington. At Evergreen, the curriculum primarily comprises interdisciplinary, team-taught academic programs lasting through a whole year. This year (2006-2007), faculty member Andrew Buchman and I have been team-teaching a China studies program titled "Searching for Modern China" which applies many interdisciplinary ideas and strategies. I would like to share some of the ideas and strategies we have implemented in our program that have proven particularly useful and effective in teaching Chinese culture to undergraduate students.

A year-long, all-level program, "Searching for Modern China" was designed to provide students with a comprehensive grasp of Chinese history and culture, from pre-historic archaeological discoveries to the complexities and conflicts of the nation-state's modern era. Our survey started with fall quarter's emphasis on the foundations of Chinese culture, established over more than three thousand years of dynastic history. Now, in winter quarter, we have progressed to the critical phases of democratization and modernization during the 20th century. We will then continue on to study China's contemporary roles as a dynamic economic powerhouse and enigmatic, ambitious world political presence in the spring. The program also offers a travel component in the spring which takes students to China to visit such major cities as Beijing and Xi'an, where they can experience both the preserved memories of classical China and the changing realities of contemporary China.

The Thematic Model: An Interdisciplinary Approach

At this point mid-way through our program, I would like to offer our fall experiences and some of our winter assignments as a case study of interdisciplinary innovations in the curriculum for undergraduate China studies. To prepare students for a close, well-rounded examination of modern and contemporary China in all her complexities, as promised by our program title, we purposefully started our studies from China's ancient roots in classical China. During fall quarter we traced and investigated historical, religious, literary, and artistic developments in China from Neolithic times up to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and strategically ended before China's intensifying exposure to the West in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

We carefully chose our texts for this period and meticulously wove our weekly syllabus into a web of activities to engage our students through a broad scope and wide variety of cultural exposures that kept building on each other through time. Due to the limited scope of this paper, and since the artistic experiments were usually conducted in the context of workshops independently from the analysis of texts in the main program, I will not touch on our explorations of visual and performing arts in this paper, but concentrate specifically on the thematic studies through the main texts.

As fall quarter began, we did not jump into ancient China right away. Instead, we decided to use a recently published book written by an American journalist, John Pomfret's Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of New China, as our first week's reading. This critical but very personal look at contemporary China immediately brought students aboard on a journey to China's complex past, largely because it is projected through the eyes of an American whom students can easily identify with. This reading assignment, for which many students expressed deep appreciation, not only started off our chain of investigations into China's past by making them relevant to China's present and to Western sensitivities, but also whetted students' appetites for our planned travels and studies in China scheduled for the spring.

Starting with the second week, the program plunged into full-scale immersions in China's ancient culture. …

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