Understanding China

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Course Information
Asian Studies
Terms offered: 
Language of instruction: 



The dramatic changes in China over the past thirty years, far from being an aberration, are a continuation of a dynamic past. This course provides the student with a broadest possible overview of Chinese history, politics, and society to prepare you for your future courses, travels, and time in Beijing.  We will explore a range of issues, both contemporary and historical, as we seek a means to grapple with China’s past, present, and future.  In this course the students will:

  1. Develop a basic understanding of Chinese history
  2. Be introduced to the core issues affecting China today
  3. Be exposed to a broad range of opinions on historical and contemporary issues in China.
Learning outcomes: 

By the end of the term, students should:

  1. Possess a deeper understanding of China’s recent history.
  2. Be able to make connections between current events and trends and the past, thus developing a more nuanced perspective on contemporary conditions.
Method of presentation: 

Class discussions, lectures, and fieldtrips

Required work and form of assessment: 

Your grade will be assessed as follows:

Participation                                                  15%
Political and Biophysical Map Quiz                 5%            
Reading Questions/Class Responses             40%
Documentary Annotation Project                   10%
Interview Project                                            30%                    

All assignments must be completed in order to receive a passing grade.

Grades are assigned according to the following point system:
A    93-100    B   83-86    C   73-76    D  63-66
A-  90-92      B-  80-82    C-  70-72    F   62 or below
B+ 87-89       C+ 77-79    D+ 67-69

Grading criteria:
C work means adequate and satisfactory completion of assignments.  It indicates you were able to recall the basic subject matter of the course, apply that knowledge in discussions and written assignments, and express your ideas and arguments in an intelligible but otherwise undistinguished manner.

B work is good. It means you recall more than just the basic facts and that you can apply that knowledge in a way that makes connections with your own ideas and observations. You express your ideas and arguments with great clarity and concision.

A work is excellent. It means that you have an absolute mastery of the subject matter. You can apply your knowledge in critical and original ways, and express your ideas in a very clear and persuasive manner while drawing on a variety of sources to support your arguments.


Class Participation & Attendance 15%. Woody Allen once said 90% of success in life is just showing up.  Well, the sentiment is right even if the percentage is a bit off. IES has a strict attendance policy for Area Studies classes and it will be enforced in this class.  EACH unexcused absence will lower your overall grade by a step (e.g. a B becomes a B-). Please see the IES Handbook for further guidelines on documenting absences.  Please show up to class on time, three times being tardy without a proper excuse will count as an unexcused absence (see above).

Preparation is essential to participation.  There is a lot of reading for this class. Some of it is mandatory, some of it is optional. Homework assignments and the occasional pop quiz will no doubt contribute to your motivation to plow through it, but I also feel that to truly get something out of this course and to promote an atmosphere of lively discussion and debate in the class, it is imperative that you have done the day’s reading and carefully considered the information in the overall context of that day’s class and the course in general.

Reading Questions/Class Responses 40%: These are short assignments to get you thinking about the readings and site visits for that week. Your total answers need not be extensive (500-750 words total) but should show careful thought and consideration of the readings and the questions asked.  Questions will be sent out following class and are due by email (to [email protected] by the start of the next class.

Map Quiz 5%: This quiz will test your knowledge of China’s geography.  A study sheet will be provided prior to the quiz.

Interview Project 30%: Students will formulate their own question or set of questions and conduct a series of interviews in the local community.  Students will then write a short (1500 word) report of their findings due the last week of class.

Keeping Current: As this class is about contemporary China, it is important that students keep abreast of ongoing stories, themes, and events.  The following websites are HIGHLY recommended and I will assume that students are checking them regularly and will refer to stories posted their from time to time.  You may need a VPN to access some of these sites.

  • China Beat – More academic, with contributions from many authors on a wide range of topics.
  • China Dialogue – bilingual site focusing on environmental and development issues in China
  • China Geeks – run by recent college graduates, does translations of interesting/important pieces from the Chinese media and Internet
  • China Law Blog – follows legal and business trends in the PRC
  • China Media Project – tracking news stories, journalism, and censorship in China. Based at Hong Kong University.
  • ChinaSmack – The “Jerry Springer” to ChinaGeeks “PBS.” Always entertaining.
  • Danwei – Tracks Chinese media and culture. Very influential. Blocked.
  • EastSouthWestNorth Tracks and translates the Chinese media and Internet.
  • Forbes China Tracker – Business, politics, and news from Forbes commentators
  • New Yorker Blog: Letter from China – Written by Evan Osnos. Thoughtful and timely commentary on China
  • Sinica Podcast --Also available on iTunes, this weekly roundup of Chinese news and views is required listening.
  • Sinocism – Smart commentary and links from a veteran China watcher.
  • Wall Street Journal China Real Time Report – Good journalist blog on Chinese current events

Deadline Extensions must be requested in advance, and will be granted only in exceptional cases. If you are not granted an extension in advance, your grade will be lowered by one step for every 24 hour period after the due date.  Homework assignments lose one step (check plus becomes check, etc.) for every 24-hour period late with a maximum of three days.  Homework overdue by more than 72 hours will not be accepted for credit.

Academic Integrity All students are expected to adhere to the highest standards of academic honesty. Cheating or plagiarism of any kind will not be tolerated and will result in substantial penalty to your course grade as well as lead to further administrative sanctions.  If you are unsure what constitutes plagiarism, check with me before you submit your work.


Course Introduction: What is Modern China?

  • Mitter, pp. 1-16

 “The ‘Dao’ that can be spoken of is not the real ‘Dao,’
FIELDTRIP:  Yonghegong, Confucius Temple and Imperial College

  • Wasserstrom, pp. 1-18
  • “Confucius” in John E. Wills, Jr. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. pp. 11-32
  • Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. Patricia Buckley Ebrey, ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993)
    "Confucian Teachings,” pp. 17-26
    “Daoist Teachings,” pp. 27-31
    “Legalist Teachings,” pp. 32-37
  • Sam Crane, “The Impossibility of a Confucian Society,” The Useless Tree, November 21, 2010
  • Ian Johnson, “The Rise of the Tao,” The New York Times, November 5, 2010

Imperialism, Patriotism and Chinese Modernities

  • Wasserstrom, pp. 19-36
  • Mitter, pp. 17-39
  • Xu Jilin“Historical Memories of May Fourth: Patriotism, but of what kind?” China Heritage Quarterly, March, 2009
  • Wasserstrom, pp. 36-66
  • Mitter, pp. 40-73
  • Lu Xun, “My Old Home” in Lu Xun: The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China. Tr. By Julia Lovell, pp. 70-78

Watch one of the following films:  
The Last Emperor, Farewell My Concubine, To Live, Blue Kite, or Morning Sun

“To Get Rich is Glorious”

  • Wasserstrom, pp. 67-80
  • Mitter, pp. 74-117
  • “China’s Challenge to the Global Economic Order,” in China’s Rise: Challenges and Opportunities, Nicholas Lardy, et. al. (CSIS, 2009), pp. 9-32
  • Leslie T. Chang, Factory Girls, (2009) pp. 97-119
  • Philip Pan, “The Rich Lady” in Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of New China. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), pp. 147-174

 “Grass. Mud. Horse. This blog has been river-crabbed!”

  • Mitter, 118-138
  • Wasserstrom, 80-102
  • “Things Seen and Unseen,” China in 2008, pp. 226-237
  • James Fallows, “The Connection has been reset,” Postcards from Tomorrow Square
  • Fang Ning, “China Must Not Have a Western Multi-Party System,” The People’s Daily, (February 9, 2009)
  • Sun Liping (孙立平): “The Biggest Threat to China is not Social Turmoil but Social Decay”, China Digital Times, March 2009
  • Yu Jianrong: Rigid Stability: an Explanatory Framework for China’s Social Situation, May 9, 2009
  • Ai Weiwei (艾未未) on Citizenship and Freedom, China Digital Times, December 17, 2009
  • SCIO Internet News Work Training Session, China Digital Times, December, 2009
  • Zhao Qiang, “Loss of Control Over Public Opinion: A Catalyst for the Breakdown of the Soviet Union” Seeking Truth (Qiushi), November 1, 2010
  • Rebecca MacKinnon, “China’s Internet White Paper: Networked Authoritarianism in Action,” RConversation, June 15, 2010
  • Liao Yiwu, The Corpsewalker, pp. 146-159, 230-241
  • Jane Macartney, “One Billion Souls to Save,” London Times, March 28, 2009

Watch one of the following documentaries:

  • China From the Inside – Freedom and Justice,
  • China From the Inside Power and the People
  • Young and Restless in China

Party and Pessoptimist Nationalism
        Fieldtrip: Yuanmingyuan     

Panda Huggers and Dragon Slayers: Visions of China in the 21st Century

  • Mitter, 139-141
  • Wasserstrom, 116-135
  • Susan Shirk, China: A Fragile Superpower (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 1-12, 255-269
  • David Shambaugh, The Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, (2010), pp. 161-183
  • Mark Leonard, “The New Intelligentsia” Prospect, March 28, 2008
  • Jim Mann, The China Fantasy, (2008), pp. 1-27
  • Qian Gang, “How the next 10 years will decide China’s future,” China Media Project, October 29, 2009
  • Zhang Xiaoying, “What the West can Learn from China,” The Guardian, October 25, 2010
  • Geramie Barmé, “China’s Promise,” The China Beat, January 20, 2010
Required readings: 

Rana Mitter, Modern China: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Jeffrey  Wasserstrom,  China  in  the  21st   Century:  What  Everyone  Needs  to  Know,  (Oxford University Press, 2010)