Essays (with fewer than 8 legs)

One book that most people here who teach the methods course for majors use is Benjamin’s A Student’s Guide to History. It covers most of the stuff you want them to learn (basic research, working with primary sources, bibliographies etc.) and since we all use it you can always recommend that students in other classes “Go look at Benjamin.” There are two things I don’t like about it.

1. The publisher brings out a new edition every few years, with minimal changes. This makes it impossible to order enough cheap used copies for an entire class, so you have to use the overpriced new edition. Or you can do what I did and just tell them to pick any recent edition, and work around the fact that everyone’s copy is paginated differently. I realize that lots of publishers do this, but it still annoys me.

2. Obviously there are limits to how far you can get in explaining historical research in 10 pages. Still, some parts of it are really not that good. Witness for example, the model essays in How to Write an Essay. This is something we work on a lot, as the exam-type historical essay is the most common product of the undergraduate historian. Below is sort of a draft of what I want to give them on what is wrong with Benjamin’s section on essays.

Here are Benjamin’s sample exam essays. They appear on pp. 63-64 of the 2001 8th edition pp. 53-54 of the 2007 10th edition and pp. 28-29 in the 2013 11th edition

QUESTION Explain the origins of the Chinese civil war of 1945- 1949. How did the differing political programs of the two contenders affect the outcome of that conflict?

POOR ANSWER The Guo Mindang (Kuomintang) had a stronger army than the Communists, but the Communists won the civil war and took over the country. Their political program, communism, was liked by the peasants because they didn’t own any land and paid high taxes.

China was based on the Confucian system, which was very rigid and led to the Manchu dynasty being overthrown. The Chinese didn’t like being dominated by foreigners, and Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen) founded the Guo Mindang to unite China. He believed in the Three People’s Principles. At first he cooperated with the Chinese Communists, but later Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) tried to destroy communism because he was against it. Communism was not in favor of the wealthy people.
The Communists wanted a revolution of the peasants and gave them land. They also killed the landlords. Jiang Jieshi worried more about the Communists than about the  Japanese invasion. The Japanese looked to conquer China and make it a part of their empire. Jiang  Jieshi wantcd to fight the Communists first. After World War II the Chinese Communists attacked Manchuria and took over a lot of weapons. They fought the Guo Mindang army. The Guo Mindang army lost the battles. and .Jiang Jieshi was chased to Taiwan, where he made a new government. The Communists set up their own country and their capital was Beijing ( Peking). That way the Communists won the Chinese civil war.


I think we can agree that this is not a very good answer. In fact, it is so awful it is a bad example, since to me the point of an exercise like this would be to show students the difference between a C answer and an A answer, and this is more of an F- answer.

It is also probably not a very good question. The text suggests that this is an essay for a take-home exam, but for what class? The question seems to imply that you are looking for an answer that focuses on the 1945-49 period and thus deals with the Marshall mission and Communist expansion into Manchuria and the problems the GMD (Guo Mindang) had with re-occupying Eastern China. Maybe you gave them Westad to read, or Pepper. If you are going to ask that focused a question you need to give them the tools to answer it. I sometimes ask students to come up with exam questions. They usually point out that they have no idea what the questions should be. I point out that they should be able to come up with some questions about whatever the major problems we have been dealing with are, and which topics they have read enough on to be able to answer something well. This sounds like it might be a question from some sort of general survey class, asking about the long-term struggle between the CCP and the GMD but then why point people at 1945-49? It strikes me as exactly the type of question that will get you a lot of bad answers, and you will realize that it is mostly because you asked a bad question.

GOOD ANSWER The origins of the 1945-1949 civil war can be traced back to the rise of Chinese nationalism in the late nineteenth century. Out of the confusion of the Warlord period that followed the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in 1911 , two powerful nationalist movements arose- one reformist and the other revolutionary. The reformist movement was the Guo Mindang ( Kuomintang) , founded by Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen). It was based on a mixture of republican, Christian , and moderate socialist ideals and inspired by opposition to foreign domination. The revolutionary movement was that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), founded in 1921, whose goal was a communist society but whose immediate program was to organize the working class to protect its interests and to work for the removal of foreign ”imperialist” control.

Although these two movements shared certain immediate goals (suppression of the Warlords and resistance to foreign influence). they eventually fell out over such questions as land reform, relations with the Soviet Union. the role of the working class and the internal structure of the Guo Mindang. (The CCP operated within the framework of the more powerful Guo Mindang during the 1920’s.)

By the 1930’s, when Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) succeeded Sun the CCP was forced out of the Guo Mindang. By that time the CCP had turned to a program of peasant revolution inspired by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung)  A four year military struggle (1930- 1934) between the two movements for control of the peasantry of Jiangxi (Kiangsi) Province ended in the defeat but not destruction of thc CCP.

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria (1931) and central China (1936- 1938) helped salvage the fortunes of the CCP. By carrying out an active guerrilla resistance against the Japanese, in contrast to the more passive role of the Guo Mindang, which was saving its army for a future battle with the Communists. the CCP gained the leading position in the nationalist cause.

In the post-World War II period, the CCP’s land reform program won strong peasant support, whereas the landlord-backed Guo Mindang was faced with runaway corruption and inflation, which eroded its middle-class following. The military struggle between 1945 and 1949 led to the defeat of the demoralized Guo Mindang army and the coming to power of the Communists.

Well, this is better, but not much better. First romanization and dates. I try not to be too snotty about romanization, especially in the intro classes, but Guo Mindang? Did you not see the term Guomindang repeatedly in your reading? Was it not on the lecture outlines? Making a mistake like that is really not good gamesmanship. I usually just circle it and move on, but it does make me wonder. Likewise with the Japanese invasion of Central China in 1936-38. Well, the right year is in the middle there. I would probably not care too much about that either if the rest of the essay was any good, just figuring it was a minor mistake. (It does not help that this is supposed to be a take-home exam. Even Wikipedia gets these things right.)1

What really hurts are the serious factual and interpretive errors. The GMD was not a Christian party in any meaningful sense.2 The GMD were not reformist either, they were revolutionaries and they said so constantly. True, some have claimed that what they led was an Abortive Revolution, but still.

There is some stuff in here. We do get a vague reference to the CCP shift to a peasant strategy (although little on what that means), and something on how important the Japanese invasion was. Maybe I had them read Chalmers Johnson? Obviously the field has moved on a bit since then, and I probably talked about Chen Yung-fa in class, but maybe they were absent that day? Maybe I gave them a textbook old enough that it called the GMD a party of landlords? Or maybe they got that from some Mao stuff I gave them?

As you search for reasons to like this ‘essay’ you notice all the things that are not there at all. Terms like United Front or Third Revolutionary Civil War, Gold Yuan reform, places like Yennan and Canton,  the U.S. and the U.S.S.R for 1945-49, any people other than Chiang and Mao. I realize that these are not grad students, but there are very few specific events in here. Grading an essay is always somewhat subjective. It’s not just checking off what is there and what is not, it’s looking at the thing and trying to figure out how well the student understands the history they are trying to explain. Mentioning things that should be in there, even if you can’t explain them well, is good, unless you do it so badly it is obvious you don’t know what you are talking about. Saying that Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling’s Christianity probably helped their relations with the U.S. is good3 Calling the GMD a Christian party is bad.

The idea of an essay in a history class is that the student should synthesize the readings, the lectures and the discussions. In a take-home exam they have even more time and resources to do a good job with that. I would like to think that a student who did none of the other readings and never come to class could do better than this just by summarizing the textbook. Yes, the prose is better in answer two, but the content is not much improved.4 But, I guess it’s an A, since it is a model essay. What do you think of it, and if you don’t think it is a good essay how would you explain that? Or is it a good essay and I am just expecting too much?5

  1. Plus you probably looked up those Wade-Giles romanizations in Wikipedia. I’m sure they were not in the text. 

  2. Where is that coming from? This is the type of thing makes me start flipping through the other papers, wondering if maybe somebody slipped me some acid before class the day I talked about this and I rambled incoherently and they took it all down. 

  3. although it sounds more like something that belongs in an essay on the GMD 

  4. This is an important lesson for students. If you write competently you can get away with a lot. 

  5. If this is an ideal essay that maybe computer essay grading is easier than I thought.  


  1. I cynically suspect, on first reading, that a Chinese example was used *precisely* because most teachers and students using the book wouldn’t be familiar enough with the material to be distracted by the history or nitpick, but focus on the writing (as described: nobody actually reads long quoted text).

    But you’re right about the bigger point, too: even the better essay is barely acceptable historical depth for a big survey. For an upper division class, I’d expect specific references to course readings, historiographical awareness.

  2. “I cynically suspect, on first reading, that a Chinese example was used *precisely* because most teachers and students using the book wouldn’t be familiar enough with the material to be distracted by the history or nitpick, but focus on the writing”

    Wow. That is cynical. I bet you are right though, and I feel embarrassingly un-cynical for having not thought of it myself.

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