Potential Paper Topics
HST261 ~ Traditional China

The final assignment will be a 10 page (2500 word minimum) research paper that will be due on the last day of class (Friday, November 18). A list of Potential Paper Topics is provided below, though you are encouraged to revise them however you see fit, or develop a topic of your own choosing. In either case, you will be required to submit a 1-page topic paper together with an annotated bibliography of the sources that you intend to use by Friday, November 4. The topic paper should identify the issue that you wish to explore in the final paper and must include a “thesis statement,” which is the main point that you will attempt to demonstrate in the paper. The annotated bibliography should be divided into two sections, one for “primary sources” and the other for “secondary sources”; altogether, your bibliography must include a minimum of seven “academic” sources (i.e. peer-reviewed books and journals, as opposed to non-academic websites), at least two of which must be “primary sources.” Each source should be followed by an “annotation” that summarizes the source, assesses its reliability, and reflects on its relevance to the project. The final paper must include appropriate citations for both direct and indirect quotations using “Chicago Style” footnotes, as well as a final bibliography (without annotations). Since I take plagiarism very seriously, I strongly recommend that you become familiar with the boundaries of academic honesty and don’t attempt to transgress them. If you have any doubts regarding what does or does not constitute plagiarism, please refer to the college’s plagiarism policy. Essays that contain significant instances of plagiarism will receive a 0 and be reported to the Office of Academic Affairs. Since this paper is worth a significant portion of your final grade (25% for the paper plus 10% for the Topic Paper/Annotated Bibliography), you should expect to devote a considerable amount of time to this project; towards this end, I will be happy to meet with you individually to provide further guidance at any stage in the process.

Potential Paper Topics

1. Each of China’s three major religions (Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism) has had a profound impact on the evolution of Chinese civilization. Confucianism laid the foundation for a social and political structure whose legacy is still clearly visible today; Daoism has been closely associated with everything from popular religious movements that spurred peasant rebellions (such as the Yellow Turban Rebellion) to the fine arts cultivated by the elite (such as poetry, painting and calligraphy); and Buddhism became an extremely powerful institution that made tremendous contributions to various aspects of Chinese civilization, from the fine arts (most notably sculpture and painting) to politics (with Empress Wu of the Tang claiming to be a manifestation of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future). Choose one of these three traditions and focus on one of the ways that it influenced the development of Chinese civilization.

2. The Chinese refer to their country as the “Middle Kingdom” (zhongguo) based on the traditional belief that China is the “center” of civilization — a view that was informed by their early encounters with the “barbarians” that surrounded them. Discuss these early encounters between the Chinese and the so-called barbarians. How did the lifestyle of the barbarians differ from that of the Chinese? To what extent did Chinese civilization transform the barbarians who ruled China at various points in its history (such as the Mongolians and the Manchurians)? To what extent was China transformed by these non-Chinese rulers?

3. In addition to their complex relationship with the “barbarians” referred to in the previous question, the Chinese engaged in foreign relations with the various states of East and Southeast Asia, most notably Korea, Vietnam and Japan. As noted above, the “Middle Kingdom” ideology saw China as the center of civilization, but it also implied that all other states were “tributaries” — theoretically under Chinese suzerainty, though in practice China rarely attempted to exert direct control over such states. This leads to significant questions regarding traditional Chinese conceptions of foreign relations that may, for instance, be compared with conceptions of foreign relations in the West, both past and present. On the other hand, China’s special relationships with Korea, Vietnam and Japan may be explored through an examination of the influence that Chinese civilization had on the development of one of these three states. Finally, China’s impact on the ancient world could be explored in terms of trade, either with its close neighbors (which was often closely tied to the “tributary” system discussed above) or with more distant states, such as India and Rome.

4. Initially established by Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, the examination system was one of the most important institutions in imperial China. Discuss the social and political impact of the examination system on Chinese civilization, focusing on a particular issue, such as how the exam system affected the way the empire was governed, or how it contributed to the rise of a “gentry” class (i.e. the landholding elite who were thoroughly steeped in the Confucian tradition).

5. In 1948, the British sinologist Joseph Needham submitted a proposal to the Cambridge University Press for a book called Science and Civilisation in China that would explore the question of why the West had overtaken China in the fields of science and technology despite the fact that China had been a world leader in these fields prior to the scientific revolution. The project, which has now produced 24 volumes and continues under the direction of the Needham Research Institute since Needham’s death in 1995, has clearly demonstrated the important role that China has played in the history of science, though ironically most scholars now regard his initial question (i.e. why China failed to produce its own scientific/industrial revolution) as a misguided line of inquiry, since history can only hope to explain what actually did happen, not what might have been. This notwithstanding, there are many areas of Chinese science/technology that are worthy of exploration, most notably the so-called Four Great Inventions: paper, printing (both woodblock and movable type), gunpowder, and the compass (which in turn allowed for the monumental voyages of Zheng He in the early fifteenth century — voyages that both preceded and dwarfed those of Christopher Columbus).