Teaching Late Imperial Chinese cultural history


So I think I have figured this one out, with a little help from my friends, both here and via e-mail. I will be using Tim Brook’s Troubled Empire to start with.


Tim Brook himself is teaching this class next semester. He is using his own book, and then the next book in the series (Rowe) and that’s it for books. I like starting with a textbook (or having a short textbook) since students are used to them and when done well they explain what needs to be explained. I don’t like building a class too much around textbooks, however, since I have never had a student have much of an intellectual experience from reading one. Maybe Troubled Empire will break the string.

I decided to use Sanyan Stories next.


This is a short version of the much larger three volume collection of Ming dynasty short stories collected by Feng Menglong. The whole massive three volumes of his collection have also been published, but that is a bit much for undergrads. Sanyan is a bit more than they will want to pay for a few stories, but it does have some good ones. It will also be the center of the research project. I like having them do some research, and I think it will work better if you give them a place to start with. There are more than enough stories in this short volume (and the larger three volumes in the library) to get a perfectly acceptable undergraduate paper on “The Ming exam system as seen by Feng Menglong” or “Commerce and Money in Ming China: The evidence from popular fiction”. Or, if they want, they can just use one of these stories as a jumping off point and do a more traditional research paper (with a fair number of other sources) on “Popular cults in Late Imperial Chinese Cities” or “Wives and Concubines in Chinese Law and Custom” Or whatever.

The final book is Empire and Identity in Guizhou


I kept this one because I want at least one monograph. When I teach the intro methods course I always stress that most upper-level history classes will have at least one monogram (young historians must learn the names for different types of books) for them to read, and so they need to learn how to read and analyze a monolith. This is a good monoplane for this class because it is Qing, it deals with the frontier and identity, it has a rebellion in it and it is a good book.

There will be a bunch of other things as well, but this is the core of the class.



I will be teaching a class in the Fall that I have never done before.

HIST 433 Bandits and Poets: The Cultural and Social History of Late Imperial China

Prerequisites: Sophomore standing and 3 cr of college history

Examines the cultural and social history of Late Imperial China. Includes elite attempts at creating an orderly Confucian society and also how less powerful groups altered of challenged this vision. Discusses the role of commercialization and commercial culture and China as an Early Modern society.

That was the lame description I came up with when I split Modern China into two parts, with the first part (Late Imperial China, ending about 1830) being more social and cultural and the second part being more political and revolutionary.

So now I need to come up with some readings. There is no textbook. I will recommend Brook and Rowe from the History of Imperial China series to anyone who wants to read them. I tend to avoid textbooks as much as I can, since with our students if you want to read anything you need specific assignments that they will get credit for to encourage them. You can do this with quizzes and stuff, and sometimes I do, but if I am going to encourage them through 200+ pages of reading I want something more than a textbook.

Plus, I really like having them read real books. Dr. Rosen told me many years ago that he had forgotten the names of most of his teachers, and certainly all the essay questions he had answered, but he remembered all the real books he had actually read even 40 years later. The students are going to get bunch of articles and primary source stuff (see this for how I tend to structure these things) and do a research project, so I am thinking three books is about the limit, if not way, way, way  over it. My current candidates are….

Yu, Li. The Carnal Prayer Mat. Translated by Patrick Hanan. 1st edition. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990.

I think this has to be the first book. A nice modern translation of a book that gives you all sorts of things about commercial culture and family and gender. Also sex.

Songling, Pu, and John Minford. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. London; New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.

Yes, like the above it is also an elite text. But it is easy to dip into and brings up all sorts of cool things. If I got rid of it what else would I use?

Weinstein, Jodi. Empire and Identity in Guizhou: Local Resistance to Qing Expansion. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013.

I want at least one historical monograph, and this one seems an obvious option. It deals with a lot more  Qing and lower class issues. Plus all the cool stuff about frontiers and the Qing as a multi-ethnic empire. What would be better to replace it, especially if you took out Pu Songling?

As I look at this I am thinking of cutting it down to two books, with Carnal Prayer Mat and the Guizhou book staying. A nice bridge book between them would be good…

Any tips or random ruminations are welcome. If you had to teach Late Imperial history around three books, what would they be?


  1. Might or might not fit your frame. Caveats: I teach Chinese history to prep school high school students, but they’re sharp; and the course this year was an attempt to teach a new “China and the West: Comparative History” version of my old Chinese history course (it failed, due to administrative initiatives smothering time to focus on curriculum, so I’m going back to the straight Chinese history course next year, since no end to new distractions from on high is in sight).

    So: Nigel Cameron’s 1970 Barbarians and Mandarins: Thirteen Centuries of Western Travelers in China, though surely dated in some ways, is still a cracking good read. I started it with Ricci’s arrival and we read each succeeding chapter to the Boxer uprising.

    Cameron’s use of primary sources is extensive and his quotes from them deliciously judicious and liberal–and he has the instincts of a satirical novelist. My students especially enjoyed the chapters on Verbiest: the first showing Verbiest the gentle friend of Kangxi, the second unmasking his perfidy when given the opportunity to reveal state secrets to a visiting Russian ambassador.

    Again, might not fit your frame, but a great book to pull students into the drama and open their eyes to historiography instead of textbooks.

    Ray Huang’s China: A Macrocosm (did I get that right?) is also a lively read.

  2. I should have added: Cameron’s work is especially vivid in portraying court life in Beijing. Kangxi and Qianlong emerge as very round, complex, and endearingly impressive characters in these pages.

  3. Clay,

    Thanks, I will think about it. There will certainly be some Ray Huang in the class. I have never thought about using Cameron. One problem I will have with this class is figuring out when and how to split it from the one after, which of course was not a problem before. I will probably do less with the westerners in this version, but I probably need at least the Jesuits

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.