HY2206 China’s Imperial Past: History and Culture – Learning with fun and style

In this interview, Dr Wang Jinping tells us about HY2206 China’s Imperial Past: History & Culture, which will be offered to undergraduates of all disciplines in AY2021/2022 Semester 1.

We noticed that this module hasn’t been offered in recent years, and I’m sure a lot of students would be excited to know what you have in store for them. Could you tell us a bit more about the module?

This module is a survey course on Imperial China. In general, this module offers an introduction to China’s imperial history, which spans more than 2000 years. You can probably imagine that, with this scope, we’ll have to look at many different dynasties and events so we won’t be able to go into a lot of detail. Students will walk away with general knowledge of Chinese history, as well as some specific themes that will interest them. 

The weekly lectures are structured chronologically, and students get a basic understanding of China’s dynastic changes, factors that drive the rise and fall of empires, and the political changes in China’s institutions, along with many cultural themes. In tutorials, we will learn about specific topics in imperial China and engage closely with primary sources. We’ll only read translations of primary sources, and each tutorial has a specific set of text like historical, classical, literary and legal ones. 

We’ll explore themes like China’s political ideology of hegemonic rule, and the historical issue of tackling national security and economic welfare, romance, marriage, gender. This module particularly will highlight how the past will be relevant to us today. Some of these themes can immediately speak to issues that remain alive today, and can help students understand contemporary China better. 

What were some fond memories you had when you taught this module in the past? 

There are a lot of great memories about the module! Before I share some of them, I thought I should clarify why these memories are dear to me. In the modules I teach, I emphasise four values: knowledge, wisdom, skills, and most importantly: fun learning. 

I always emphasise that learning should not only be inspiring, but joyful. I designed different class activities and assignments to facilitate interactive and innovative learning environments. One iconic assignment that has always had a huge impact on me was the group project. The project gives students a lot of autonomy to design their own project in whatever format, as long as it’s related to imperial China. I remember vividly one particularly creative project where the team came up with a fashion show of the Tang Dynasty outfits. These interactive, collaborative works, backed by solid research, always amazed me. I’d always bring up these examples to encourage students to be creative in their projects, and I’ll tell them, “You are just as creative as anyone else in the world!”

What can students look forward to in terms of assignments or tutorial activities?

I’ve made a major change to the assignments to tailor to students’ different interests. The Individual Passion Project is something that students submit at the end of the semester. Students can choose to write a serious History essay, which I strongly recommend to History majors, and I will train them to write proper essays with critical use of primary sources and engagement with secondary literature. After teaching all these years, I’ve realised our History students don’t have enough training in using primary sources, so I hope this can be a valuable exercise for them. 

For non-History students, I encourage them to do a creative industry project, in which they could apply either to their own disciplinary knowledge or personal strengths. They could design a very unique project that speaks to their own interests. If students are good at editing videos, for example, they could use those skills and come up with interesting videos. Similarly, if they are good writers, they could also submit a short fictional story. I hope that this is something that different students can look forward to!

Could you share one interesting trivia about the module topic? 

I think a lot of students have been very interested in a text that I bring up during the third tutorial, The Story of Ying-ying. Students get excited because it’s something that’s directly related to their generation. The story is about a young man and woman and how they got to know each other. It’s a little like Chinese dramas today that portray complicated romance stories. The Story of Ying-ying is one of the most classic texts on imperial China, and sheds a lot of light on gender norms, class and social structures. You’ll be amazed that these themes are very much relevant today. 

In class, we will ask students to speak from the perspectives of the characters. Each group will send a representative to roleplay the two protagonists, Zhang and Ying-ying, and talk about why Ying-ying was abandoned by Zhang. We’ll see that this love story is very time-specific, but some of these themes continue to run across time and space, speaking to basic human nature and social structures especially in countries with strong Chinese cultural roots. Students have very excited debates, especially since they’re at the age of experiencing love and can clearly relate to the protagonists in the story.

Could you recommend a film or fictional book related to the module topic? 

Well, it depends on how patient the students are… I understand that these days, students can watch hours of videos but don’t have the patience to read a thick book. But anyway, if you’re interested in the general family dynamics and romance in imperial China, then the most classic novel is the Dream of the Red Chamber. If you’re interested in religion, ghosts and deities, then The Journey of the West. If you’re into politics and wars, then The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. There are English translations and film adaptations for all of these.

Would you have any advice for students who want to take this module next semester?

Not much. There is no prerequisite at all, and is open to all students. I just want students to have open minds when they come in!

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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