HY4231 Family-State Relations in Chinese History – Transforming the concept of kinship

In this interview, Dr Wang Jinping gives us a sneak peak into her module, HY4231 Family-State Relations in Chinese History, which will be offered to undergraduates in AY2021/2022 Semester 1.

Tell us a bit more about the module! Could you share some memorable experiences you had while teaching it?

This module has gone through a major revamp since the last time it was offered. We’ll focus on how the family unit relates to the state in Chinese history and culture. The reason why this topic is important especially in Singapore is because it surrounds one key concept: filial piety. Even though filial piety was clearly the central family virtue, but from the beginnings of Chinese traditions this family ethic was actually the foundation of the political culture as well. 

Since Confucius’ time, the formation of the state, and the relationship between state and family was built based on the family model. The state would sometimes be seen as an amplification of the family. This strong norm influenced the thousand years of Chinese history in terms of how family values affected the political culture, from ideology to practices, and how the state regulated the family in line with those Confucian values that highlighted the family-based virtues which include the relationship between husband and wife, father and son, etc. 

Unlike my other module (HY2206 China’s Imperial Past: History and Culture) which tracks China’s entire imperial history, we’ll look at family-state relations from the Song dynasty onwards. This was when the Confucian ideology were formalised and influenced the relationship between the family and state at a more profound level.

The course is divided into two parts. In the first half, we will focus more on the imperial period and look at how Confucian men and women are described in text, as well as how, in the late imperial period, the state intervened in family matters like taxation and conscription. We’ll also look at how religious and social organisations function between family and state.

In the second half of the course, we’ll look at the modern period from the Republic to the contemporary era. We’ll look at the transformation of both the family and the state as well as the interactions between the two as China began to shift away from the Confucian ideology. This semester, I’ll focus more on the modern part of history after students gave feedback in the past years.

Oh, the memorable details! My best memories come from a creative assessment. I gave students options for their final essay. For students who are about to write their Honours Thesis, I encourage them to write a research paper especially if their Thesis will be relevant to modern China. However, for those who are not going to write an Honours Thesis, they will be encouraged to write about their own family history in context of Singapore’s past. It was through reading the students’ family histories that I came to learn more about Singapore’s history, and that was a fun moment for me. It helped me to understand many things that I haven’t wrapped my head around before. For instance, some students wrote about the local language HDB, racial and gender policies, and how that impacted the family dynamics. This semester, I want to continue this valuable activity. In the last week of class, I’ll invite students to share about their family histories in Singapore’s historical context. 

Students of HY4231 in 2018. Image provided by Dr Wang

Is it necessary for students to have a background in Chinese history? How far does this module build upon the Level-2000 module that you’re offering?

I’ve taught several cohorts where students do not have any background in Chinese history. This time, for each of the five learning units, I’ll post an introduction video one or two days before class to introduce basic concepts or clarify doubts about the reading. I hope this will help ease students’ anxiety about whether they understood the readings. I’ve also reduced the reading workload to make it easier for students who don’t have any background in Chinese history. Instead, we’ll be looking at films and novels to get a better sense of the module topic.

How might students relate the module content to their understanding of current affairs and/or the way the world is headed?

I will introduce a new component in the upcoming semester – media. Students can use their class time to watch the introductory media materials, post their responses on the forum, and interact with their peers. The media I’ve picked for discussion are quite relevant to issues we discuss today. Some of the interesting videos I’ve picked, which I think students will be very interested in, include China’s Unmarried Leftover Women and What Happens to China’s Elderly? Both of them speak to key issues in the family – marriage and caretaking. 

Do you have any advice for students who might be interested in your module? 

We’ll start the learning process when you walk into the classroom! Don’t be too anxious about having to read up on Chinese history before taking the module.

This interview is a part of the Humans of History series, which spotlights the stories of the people that make up the NUS History community.

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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