Rice Paddies

Following Jonathan’s lead, here is my syllabus for History of East Asia, more commonly known as Rice Paddies. I suppose the first question to answer is why I teach this class at all. Lots of people don’t any more. The idea that you can cover all of the history of East Asia in one class is a relic of the elder days. Fairbank created the basic course and called it Rice Paddies in the 1950s, and from there it spread. At one point offering any classes on the history of Asia mean you were some sort of uber-fancy sinological training institute. Rice Paddies was the class that colleges all over the country eventually started teaching, which meant that they had to hire someone to teach it, and add Asia as a regular part of the curriculum, thus providing me with a job. (Thank you John K. Fairbank.)

When I got here this was the only East Asia class on the books, and it was an upper-division class. I kept it in part out of a sense of tradition, and moved it down to the sophomore level to fit it in with the other surveys. Part of the reason I wanted to keep it is that I wanted to avoid too much overlap with the upper-division Modern China and Modern Japan classes. One of the things that happens anywhere but particularly at a small school is that you get a lot of repeat business, and so I like to focus my classes differently. One part of this is using a long time-frame for the intro class (rather than splitting it into, say Traditional and Modern East Asia) The other is making the intro class a bit more social and cultural and the Modern classes more political.

So, how do you go about teaching such a thing? One thing that helps is finally having a decent textbook. The new Ebrey one looks very good, and it fills a huge gap. I used to use a lot of extra readings in the past, but this first time through I will try to use the book pretty much straight. The book seems to have a lot of Korea in it, which is a little odd, but I usually try to do as much ‘other’ (not China and Japan) as possible in this class. The individual weeks of the class are organized around “worlds” i.e. themes that tie together a chunk of of the class. Thus the ‘world of the Buddha’ section is partly about the arrival of Buddhism in China as part of the standard narrative, but also a more anthropological (and a-historical) treatment of the role of Buddhism and especially lay Buddhism in Asian cultures. The course skates very close to being a cultures of Asia thing, which is about what I want. Things tend to get a bit more narrative as you get to the end. Then there are the outside readings. One China and two Japan, the first time I have ever done that.

Book of Songs is always nice to use early in the class and make them write on. In part I like it because it is pretty foreign, and yet in bite-size pieces. The old edition, divided into topics, was even easier for them to work with. Also, it and Zhuangzi are the only classical texts I really enjoy working with for this type of class.

Mutsui is the story of a late Tokugawa samurai/underworld enforcer, which I hope will work well. This class always attracts a fair number of martial arts enthusiasts, and I usually throw them a bone in the shape of some chunks from Water Margin, but this time I am doing this. I actually like the martial arts stuff, since this class has a tendency to get way too intellectual, and I like to remind myself that no matter how much Confucian or Buddhist stuff was being peddled at the top of society at the bottom your best friend was a spinning drop-kick.

I have not used Hane’s Gallows book before, but I always like his stuff. Plus women are great for doing 20th century in China and Japan since one of the big issues in both places was how to turn people who were not modern citizens into modern citizens, and women are an obvious and conscious focus of this.

Any suggestions for future iterations of the course greatly appreciated.


  1. I’ve had good luck with Gallows in my modern Japan courses, but I’ve never tried to use it in a Rice Paddy (yes, they still called it that at Harvard ten years ago) survey. Actually, we don’t teach that course here, for which I’m kind of grateful: I always felt like it was “China plus” and I’d rather do them separately.

  2. Alan’s comments are, as always, apt and interesting.

    But actually the Harvard Rice Paddies course goes back to the 1930’s, when Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer teamed up. They wanted to get beyond the diplomatic history approach used in earlier courses, which reduced China and Japan to passive and often incompetent responders, but to show them as “cultures,” as we would now say. They presumed that “China” and “Japan” were not hermetically sealed units represented only by their political systems, as in that diplomatic approach, but had long, relevant histories. Fairbank asked “How can Chinese foreign policy be discussed before one discusses the Confucian state?” An introductory “modern” course, he said, “must begin with the late Chou dynasty.”

    But he and Reischauer also veered away from the sinological approach, which, at least in the United States, mostly stuck to classical texts. They wanted the course be interesting and appeal to future citizens, not future scholars. It had to come down to the present and not get bogged down in academic trivia. Fairbank also pioneered the use of photos and maps to spark the imaginations of the undergraduates.

    Some of these points we now take for granted, while others (such as the advantages of teaching China and Japan together) are sometimes left behind.

  3. Charles,

    I did not know that the class went all the way back to the 30’s, which is something worth knowing. I do find however, that it is getting harder and harder to use this class. As there is more and more you could possibly teach it gets harder to figure out what to do. As students get to be more and more willing to study Asia you can fill more classes. On the other hand, none of the ways of splitting it up really appeal either.

  4. Yes, the “Introduction to Everything (Asia)” is a real problem. You can’t “cover” all the new topics by talking faster and printing text books in smaller type. But most students will not advance to upper level courses; the Intro is it. So I don’t think we can ditch the “Rice Paddies” survey in favor of “One Rice Paddy” or “One Furrow in My Rice Paddy.”

    The approach which I called Fairbank’s actually grew out of a much broader Wilsonian liberal rethinking of American relations with the world after WWI. The “American Century” was on the horizon and these chastened Wilsonians looked to prepare the public for their new responsibilities. We’re in a parallel situation now. Globalization Inc. requires new rethinking. Maybe “East Asia” is not the rubric, but let’s not replace it with (with all respect to the venue in which we’re talking) a “frog in the well” course.

  5. Have you seen Holcombe’s Genesis of East Asia book? That is the only one I have seen that really integrates all of East Asia. Sadly it does not covern enough time to be used as a text for Rice Paddies. If he could be persuaded to extend it teaching that class would be a very different thing.

  6. In the world of the Salriman, I would have included readings on both South Korea and Taiwan, particularly this last as it provides such contrast to the mainland’s economic and political development. The “salriman” doesn’t really fit in with Singapore, but that too is worthy of some review.

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