From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History

Scope: The 36 lectures in this course explore the history and culture of China, spanning a vast temporal and spatial domain and developing several themes to help understand this ancient and complex society. We will proceed in an essentially chronological passage through the unfolding of China’s political and cultural evolution, with particular attention to important ideas and individuals and the roles they have played in shaping both China’s historical past and its dynamic present.

Chinese civilization originated in the confluence of several regional Neolithic cultures nearly 5,000 years ago. Emerging from the mythological Era of Sage Emperors, such as Yao and Shun, China’s historical record begins with the Shang dynasty around 1500 B.C.E.We will follow the growth of China from a small kingdom on the North China Plain to a major empire extending from the Siberian frontier to the jungles of Southeast Asia, from the Pacific coast to the Central Asian deserts.

One of our main themes will be the evolution of social and political elites and the mechanisms by which they acquired and asserted their power as rulers of China. Closely linked to this is the history of political thought in China, from shamanistic roots in prehistory through the Axial Age of Confucius and Laozi and the long process of crafting and adapting the Imperial Order over the past two millennia and more.

We will also be concerned with the ways in which the Chinese have thought and written about themselves and the world around them. Cosmological ideas about the nature of the universe, the metaphysical insights of Buddhism and religious Daoism, and the perennial mysticism of popular religion have blended and interacted throughout Chinese history in ways which have yielded both the beauties of art and the horrors of religious conflict.

Throughout these lectures, we will consider China’s history as it relates to the world beyond China. For more than 2,000 years, China has been linked to the global economy, and traders and travelers have brought both the riches of the empire and tales of its splendor to the West. We will trace the increasingly close relations between China and the West from the age of the Mongol conquests in the 13th century through the rise of European imperialism in the 19th and into the present age of China’s reemergence as a great world economic and political power.

By engaging with the history of China over the last five millennia, we will become familiar with one of the world’s greatest civilizations and, arguably, its most persistent. Far from the popular image of China as a stagnant, unchanging relic of a once glorious past, we will see China as a living culture that has flourished and declined, revived and returned to greatness several times over thousands of years. We will come to understand some of the key features that allowed China’s political order to remain stable for more than 2,000 years and that continue to shape this country at the opening of the 21st century.

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