Syllabus: Early China (Hist 501-02; Spring 2009)

Hist 501: China to 1700

Prof. Jonathan Dresner
Office: RH 406F
Office Hours: TuTh 10-12; MWF 10-11, 1-2
Hist 501-02
Spring 2009
TuTh 12:30-1:45
Classroom: RH 407

“If I were granted many more years, and could devote fifty of them to learning,
surely I would be able to be free of major faults” – Analects 7.17


China was the site of the most powerful and prosperous empires in the world for most of human history, with an artistic and philosophical tradition that continues to influence world culture. Well known names — Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, the Qin Emperor, Zhu Xi, Yang Guifei, Kubilai Khan, Kangxi — and lesser known — Sima Qian, Li Bo, Du Fu, Ban Zhao, Oriole, Zheng He, An Lushan — ring through this history. Though China has an image of stability and tradition, its history and culture have been dynamic and innovative. This course will examine Chinese development and culture from prehistory through the early Qing dynasty (roughly 1700 C.E.), including the poetic and intellectual traditions, political institutions and events, social and economic systems and changes.

Textbook readings and lectures will be heavily supplemented by primary sources — mostly religious and philosophical documents, poetry and other art – and secondary scholarship. Class discussion will be central to the course. The exams will cover the readings and lecture material, as well as geography.

Course Goals

In addition to the historical and cultural content, students will demonstrate increasing mastery of critical reading of primary and secondary sources in writing and discussion. “Critical” does not mean “attacking” but “analytical”: putting material in historical and cultural context, drawing appropriate inferences and and deductions from the evidence of the text, and raising relevant questions for futher inquiry.


History is about real people, diverse cultures, interesting theories, strongly held belief systems, complex situations, conflicts and often-dramatic actions. This information may be disturbing. Such is the nature of historical study.


  • Valerie Hansen. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. W.W. Norton&Co, 2000.
  • Ivanhoe and Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. 2nd Ed., Hackett, 2006.
  • Burton Watson. The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century. Columbia UP, 1984.
  • Jacque Gernet. Daily Life in China, on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276. Stanford UP, 1962.
  • Ray Huang. 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline. Yale UP, 1982.

Course Administration

Course Website:

Bookmark it. Check it regularly. I will use it for announcements (course stuff, special events, extra credit), to maintain the schedule (particularly if it changes), to post handouts (so if you lose or miss one, it’ll be there) and keep a small library of useful links. In the event of a disparity between the original syllabus and the website, follow the website: I reserve the right to change readings, test dates, due dates, grade weights and assignments as necessary throughout the semester.

Plagiarism will not be tolerated in this course.

Plagiarism is the use of the words or ideas of another person without proper acknowledgement. Plagiarism is intellectual theft; in an educational setting it is particularly repugnant. Plagiarism in my courses will be punished. It’s simple: Anytime you copy words into your own work, you must clearly mark them and acknowledge the source of those words. Anytime you use someone else’s ideas, you must admit it. There are three options: put it in quotation marks and footnote; paraphrase and footnote; or be original. If you have any questions or any concerns about citation format or necessity, ask someone who knows what they’re doing.

Other forms of academic misconduct will not be tolerated either
The use of unauthorized aid on tests, failing to write one’s own papers, using papers for more than one course without permission. For more detail, see the relevant sections of the University Catalog. None of this precludes group study and discussion: those are actually really good ideas.


Students are expected to behave respectfully towards their peers and instructor. Disruptive behavior, including failing to turn off cell phones during class, will result in participation penalties and possibly removal from the classroom. This does not mean that there can’t be lively discussions and disagreements, but personal attacks, excessive volume, threatening gestures or words, and failure to give others a chance to speak and be heard are not acceptable.

Academic Advising

Advising is a very important resource designed to help students complete the requirements of the University and their individual majors. Students should consult with their advisor at least once a semester to decide on courses, check progress towards graduation, and discuss career options and other educational opportunities. Advising is a shared responsibility, but students have final responsibility for meeting degree requirements.
Disability accommodation

Any student with a documented disability who would like to request accommodations should contact the instructor as early in the semester as possible. For more information, contact the Learning Center (Kelly D. Heiskell, 235-4309,

Course Prerequisites and Application

World History to 1500, equivalent or permission of instructor is required before taking this course. This course counts towards the History major or minor as a non-Western course.


All schedules, assignments, etc, in the syllabus are subject to change. Check the website, which will have the most current and accurate information possible, as well as copies of course handouts. All readings, and assignments, must be done before class on the assigned day.


Reading assignments — textbook and documents — must be done before class on the day indicated. Lectures and discussions will assume that the reading has been done.

Regular and substantive participation in discussions is an integral component of this course. I will try to make sure that everyone has a chance to speak up, and if you have trouble speaking up, talk to me privately and we’ll work on opportunities.

Pop Quizzes

If I find significant numbers of students are not doing the readings, I reserve the right to begin giving pop quizzes on the day’s reading assignment. The scores will become part of the attendance/preparation/participation grade.

Geography Quiz

At the beginning of the third class (Thursday, 1/22) I will give a quick fifteen (15) question quiz on the geography of modern China: neighboring countries, islands, major cities, rivers. Any student who gets fewer than fourteen (14) correct, will need to retake the quiz until they get a passing score. I will give the quiz in my office, during office hours or by appointment. Students may take the quiz once a week for the entire semester if necessary, but everyone in the class will pass this geography quiz, and have at least one ‘A’.

Short Essays

There will be nine short papers (800-1200 words) based on the readings, due in three installments. Topics for the papers will be distributed well in advance, but if you think of an interesting question/topic which is not included, check with me. Papers will be graded primarily on how effectively they use historical evidence and knowledge to support your conclusions. I will drop the lowest essay grade from your final grade calculation.

Final Exam

The final exam will be a comprehensive essay test. Questions will be distributed well in advance. You do not need to do outside research to answer these questions, but you do need to think about them long and hard.


The most important component of your grade on writing assignments will be whether you have used the historical materials available to effectively answer an interesting question. I will give you topics to focus on, but you will have to decide on and articulate a thesis, select and present relevant evidence, and make it clear to your reader how the evidence proves your point. I do not generally grade on style, grammar or spelling, unless they are so bad as to obscure the meaning of what you are writing.

  • All assignments are due in class at the beginning of class on the due date.
  • Absences may be excused for unusual school-related events (not athletic practices), illness or family-related problems, but only if I am informed in advance or you have documentation (such as a doctor’s note). Unexcused absences will affect your attendance grade.
  • Unexcused late assignments will be penalized one grade level per class period late.


Attendance, Preparation and Participation 25%
Geography Quiz 5%
Short Essays (8) 40%
Final Exam 30%

NOTE: I will be happy to go over your grades and let you know how you are doing in the course at any time.

NOTE #2: Even very bad work, or very late work, is still going to get an F, which is a lot better than a zero.

Administrative Deadlines and Instructional Holidays are in Italics

Assignments and Tests are in Bold

Readings are by chapter and should be done before class on the assigned day.

A version of this schedule with additional links and updates can be found on the course website.





1/15 (Th) First Day of Class: Syllabus, etc. Handout
1/20 (Tu) Chinese Pre-history and Proto-history Hansen 1
1/22 (Th) Warring States and Hundred Flowers
Geography Quiz
Last day for full fee refund
Last day to add new classes
Last day for late enrollment
Hansen 2 Watson 1
1/27 (Tu) Qin and Han Hansen 3 Watson 3 (to 81)
1/28 (W) Final day for dropping course without grade report
1/29 (Th) Kongzi, aka Confucius Readings 1 Watson 3 (from 82)
2/3 (Tu) Mozi Readings 2 Watson 4 (to 111)
2/5 (Th) Mengzi, aka Mencius Readings 3 Watson 4 (Ts’ao Chih)
2/10 (Tu) Xunzi: Who’s the True Disciple? Readings 6 Watson 5
2/12 (Th) Han Feizi: Legalism Readings 7 Watson 6 (to 159)
2/17 (Tu) The Daodejing of Laozi Readings 4 Watson 6 (160-181)
2/19 (Th) Zhuangzi’s Way Readings 5 Watson 6 (181-end)
2/24 (Tu) Catch-up / Review
2/26 (Th) First Essays Due
3/3 (Tu) Buddhism and “Disorder” Hansen 4 Watson 7 (Wang Wei)
3/5 (Th) Sui and early Tang Hansen 5 Watson 7 (Li Po)
3/10 (Tu) Later Tang Hansen 6 Watson 7 (Tu Fu)
3/12 (Th) Song and Southern Song Hansen 7 Watson 8 (Han Yü)
3/16-20 Spring Break , D/F Grades Due
3/24 (Tu) Urban Culture I: City Life Gernet 1, 3 Watson 8 (Po Chü-i)
3/26 (Th) Urban Culture II: City Society Gernet 2, 4 Watson 8 (Han-shan)
3/31 (Tu) Urban Culture III: Cultural Practices Gernet 5, 6, 7 Watson 9 (to 280)
4/2 (Th) Catch-up / Review
4/7 (Tu) Second Essays Due
4/9 (Th) Neo- Confucianism Wang Anshi Controversies Watson 9 (281-end)
4/10 (F) Final day for dropping course unless withdraw from school
4/14 (Tu) Northern Dynasties, aka Barbarians, and Mongols! Hansen 8
Hansen 9
Watson 10 (Su Tung-P’o, Lu Yu)
4/16 (Th) Ming Hansen 10 Watson 11
4/21 (Tu) An Emperor Against his Court Huang 1, 2
4/23 (Th) An Empire Declines Huang 3, 4
4/28 (Tu) Notable Subjects of Empire Huang 5, 6, 7
4/30 (Th) Ming-Qing transition Hansen Epilogue
5/5 (Tu) Catch-up/ Review
5/7 (Th) Third Essays Due
Last day to withdraw from university
5/14 Final Exam, 12:30-2:20.

“Learning proceeds until death and only then does it stop. …
To pursue it is to be human, to give it up is to be a beast.”
— Xunzi, (Ivanhoe and Van Norden, p. 250)