China: Traditions and Transformations

While cyberspace abounds in free American and European history courses, until recently there has been no free online course devoted to Chinese history. But now we have China: Traditions and Transformations (website) from Harvard Extension’s new Open Learning website. (The 2009 syllabus is here.)

The course is team-taught by two China scholars, Peter Bol, who focuses on China’s history and culture, and William Kirby, who explains how the history and traditions play out in modern China.

Their interaction makes the classroom lively and often playful, and they make good use of the Extension School’s video interface, which displays visual slides alongside the lecture video. Their maps, photos and illustrations greatly enhance the lectures.


Emperor Yu as imagined by by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin. Image credit*

A good place to see the two professors in action is in lecture #2, as they discuss different accounts of China’s origins. One story is the Confucian origin myth which tells of a mythical early Chinese Empire, ruled by three wise kings. One of the kings, Emperor Yu, is said to have tamed China’s rivers and created extensive irrigation works.

Confucius, Bol points out, was teaching in a time of great turmoil and frequent wars between small Chinese states. Thus the Confucian myth looks back to an earlier time of order and unity, and holds this up as an ideal.

The modern account of China’s origin is based on archaeological evidence showing that Chinese culture originated in many different centers, which only later became politically united. In some ways, Bol notes, this recent narrative might be seen as challenging the supremacy of the very centralized modern Chinese state. Bol remembers speaking about this newer account at a Chinese teachers college, where he was corrected and informed that the proper formulation of China’s origins is “many origins but a single structure.”

Kirby then rounds out the lecture by noting a number of parallels to modern China, which despite its vast geography, operates on a single time zone: Beijing time. Furthermore, all of China’s top leaders are engineers, like the mythical Emperor Yu. And perhaps only China could have focused their resources and political will to the vast modern public works project, the Three Gorges Dam.

(Note: while this course is not available for download, you can record the audio on your computer for off-line listening. See: How to record a streaming lecture.)

Lectures to raise your China IQ
Asian Studies

*Image credit: Wikipedia. Public Domain.
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