Common Mistakes in Teaching China

Mistake #1: Sloppy Comparisons

Perhaps the most common approach to teaching China is to attempt setting up some kind of comparison: “In China they do it that way, whereas in America we do it this way!” While it is possible to set up instructive comparisons, in general this is a difficult approach. More often than not such comparisons essentialize “China” and “the West” and thereby strengthen those binary oppositions between “us” and “them” which students have learned in grade school and high school. While in theory it may seem that one is simply comparing a particular practice in China with a particular practice in “the West,” it is in the nature of such comparisons that the “specifics” chosen tend to be seen as indicative of a broader national character, and so the entire exercise easily becomes ethnically-charged. In the end such comparisons too often imply that cultural practices in China or Europe are the product of fundamentally different kinds of national character. If this were actually the case it might be worth doing, but in reality the differences are not so fundamental as they are made out to be.


Generally it is more instructive to begin with the assumption that “we’re all human.” History shows that, when people have similar opportunities, they often do similar things no matter what language they speak (for example, once print culture emerged, people took advantage of it to expand public debate both in China and in Europe). Help students understand that the way people behave has a lot to do with the problems they face and the resources they have available to them. Comparisons therefore should start from an analysis of the structural factors involved, for example, “When personal accessories first became available to non-aristocratic women in early modern Europe, what sorts of accessories did they use, versus those used by non-aristocratic women in Song China? The differences would tell us something about the range of social institutions and resources available in different parts of Eurasia in early modern times. In such a comparison the emphasis of course would be on “first.” It would make little sense to say “What sorts of accessories do women in America today use versus those used by women in Song times?” (see Anachronism below).

Mistake #2: Anachronism

It is very common for teachers to want to compare premodern China to contemporary America: “So, we can see that, in 18th century China, people used herbal medicines to treat illness. How do we treat illness in America today?” Apart from being transparently self-serving, this mode of reasoning happens to be a classic kind of fallacy known as “anachronism” (see Critical Thinking). We don’t normally hear people say “Ben Franklin and Voltaire rode about in horse-drawn carriages. What do people in Japan ride about in today?” This would sound rather silly, yet it is just as strange to compare 18th century Chinese medicine to modern medicine.


What if you really want to compare then and now? China Mirror units provide sound examples for the teacher, but these should not be turned into “us/them” comparisons by comparing their “then” with our “now.” Think about it, would you ever compare our “then” with their “now,” for example: “Alexander Graham Bell used a primitive phone needing electric wires to transmit signals, but in China even the poorest person has at least one cell phone. The absence of wires gives people in China much greater mobility.” It’s hard to imagine someone offering a comparison like this. A better plan might be, after reading the “then and now” section in a China Mirror case study unit, ask students to create a “then and now” section comparing, say, how people in England treated pregnancy then versus how it is treated in England now. One could also attempt to compare “now” in China and England or America. In such ways it is relatively easy to avoid committing anachronism.

Mistake #3: Relying on “Common Knowledge”

In teaching, it is common to want to begin with “knowledge” one feels sure about. This makes sense because one naturally thinks “at least I’m certain of this, so let’s use this as a frame for looking at (for instance) treaties.” The problem is that, when it comes to China, too often such “knowledge” is no more reliable than our “knowledge” about other minorities such as “African-Americans are naturally more athletic than whites.” Most likely no self-respecting college teacher would use this as a frame for teaching African history, so why use something like “the Chinese emperor was all-powerful” as a frame for teaching Chinese history? The only knowledge we can be truly certain of is primary source material. This is why China Mirror units try to make primary sources available as a springboard for class discussion. Pedagogically also it is usually safer to begin with concrete objects or texts rather than with folk myths.

Below is a list of some of the most common folk myths about Chinese history which it would be well to avoid. FYI we provide as well some hints about how these myths deviate from the historical record (see also Critical Thinking).

The All-powerful Emperor

This is one of the most popular, but also one of the most misleading, of stereotypes. Why not teach students that the Chinese emperor was all-powerful? Because the reality was more complex. In general the Chinese emperor had more constraints than early modern European monarchs because the administration in China was divided into ministries which operated, for the most part, quite separately from the emperor. After the 9th century or so the Chinese government as a whole had a separate budget and separate administration from the court. The emperor had two roles, a private one as head of the court, and a public one as head of the state (“private” and “public” were the period terms used to describe this situation), but the two roles were legally distinguished in important ways. Most decisions made by the Chinese government traditionally originated with state officials, were composed by state officials, deliberated by state officials, and executed by state officials. Officials were chosen, promoted and demoted by the Bureau of Administration, not by the emperor. Citizen’s taxes were paid to the government, not to the emperor. The judicial apparatus was run by the government, not by the nobility as was common in Europe. Most policy issues were deliberated upon by the appropriate ministry. If there was disagreement, a committee of experts could be appointed and a report would be submitted. The emperor presided over debates within the cabinet but often as not had to follow the will of his top officials. Early modern Europeans who wrote descriptions of China’s political system often failed to understand the separation between court and state because no such formal separation existed in most European countries (for example, European monarchs could grant official titles to their favorites at will as there was no formal civil service examination or administration in European countries). As a result they assumed that, in China, as in Europe, most decisions made at the highest level originated with the monarch. This error has come down to us as the all-powerful Chinese emperor myth.


The Mindlessly-obedient Oriental

Of course China’s central authorities would have encouraged obedience to both moral and legal strictures, but the authorities would do the same in all countries, ancient and modern. What is unusual about premodern China is the degree to which defiance was valorized in both the political and cultural realms. From Confucius onward, Chinese intellectuals tended to regard themselves as defenders of the common people with an obligation to expose injustice. Articulate defenses of free speech can be found in Chinese classical works as well as later writings throughout history. The world’s earliest student demonstrations occurred in China in the second-century A.D. and continued to occur throughout Chinese history. Political criticism is a common subject of Chinese literature from ancient times onward. Almost every major poet produced a substantial corpus of critical poetry, which might attack the highest levels of government including the emperor himself. A comparably rich and ancient body of critical writing as an established genre would be difficult to find in the European literary tradition. In fact, the most admired of Chinese writers (Bai Juyi, Liu Zongyuan, Su Dongpo, Lu You, Xu Wei, Yuan Mei etc.) often developed reputations for both social and political defiance. Clearly this particular misconception distorts the historical record to a degree unacceptable for professional educators. The solution is to present students with primary sources rather than generalized stereotypes and allow students to make up their own minds. China Mirror is designed to make this easy to do.


“They Don’t Value Human Life”

Acts of atrocity can be found in all historical traditions without exception. The claim that any particular culture doesn’t value human life is tantamount to saying that the denigration of human life was considered normal and acceptable in that tradition. Such a claim cannot be made for the Chinese tradition any more than for Islamic, Jewish, or Christian traditions. One indicator of the value of human life in any tradition is the treatment of criminals and slaves. Slaves acquired legal protection early on in China and the level of protection generally increased over time. For instance, as early as A.D. 35 the law stated that “It is in the nature of Heaven and Earth that mankind is noble; whosoever should kill a male or female slave shall be punished to the full extent of the law.” By Song times (the 11th century) a slave’s “master” no longer had the right to render judgement on a slave who allegedly broke the law. The slave’s case was to be tried by a civil court as with any other person. Moreover, as with all Chinese citizens, the families of slaves had the right to bring civil suits to court. There is a case in Song times of an imperial relative murdering slaves. The families brought the case to court and the nobleman was tried, found guilty, and executed. As for criminals, Chinese prisons were supposed to be inspected for signs of the mistreatment of prisoners. Chinese magistrates, unlike European magistrates, did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment. All capital cases had to be reviewed by a higher court before a capital sentence could be rendered. The reason for this, according to a Han dynasty official, was that “human life was valued.” The value of human life in fact underlies the arguments in countless memorials written over centuries. One could go on, but it should be clear that there is little historical basis for regarding the denigration of human life as a normative feature of Chinese culture.


“They Only Know How to Copy”

The implication of this particular bit of “common knowledge” is the assumption that artists in China were not expected to be novel or original. If that is the case, then we should be able to detect this attitude in Chinese discussions of artistic imitation. Here it is necessary to bear in mind that “Imitation” was in fact a core value in early modern European art. Every self-respecting artist would have seen himself as imitating the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance canonical masters on the one hand, and Nature on the other. By the 5th century or so China also had a list of canonical masters, and it was common for artists to learn by studying and copying master works. However, “imitation” in Chinese art theory never achieved the status it acquired in Europe. As early as Song times literary critics began to denigrate the term fang which, at that time, referred to the imitation of either natural appearance or some ancient master. For example: “A work of literature must establish its own style; only works such as this will live on in literary history. If one mechanically follows the rules, in the end one becomes nothing more than someone else’s slave. The classical masters ridiculed those who built their homes inside someone else’s. It was all a matter of integrity.” Even the court academy in the 11th century regarded imitation as unworthy of the best artists. The Song histories make it clear that: “In grading paintings for examinations, the first grade should go to those that do not imitate/fang previous artists, in which the form, color, and disposition of the objects appears naturalistic, and where the brush manner is refined and simple.” Another indicator of the value of creativity is whether or not artists accept the cultural hegemony of the court, or if they insist on maintaining their own standards. In China some artists had rejected courtly standards and declared their artistic autonomy as early as the late 11th century. The issue of artistic independence from the classical tradition, moreover, remained a subject of lively debate throughout later centuries. Such a topic would not have arisen in the literature if individual creativity didn’t matter. As a result it would be difficult to support “common knowledge” in this case based on the historical record. Again, teachers would be better advised to regard primary sources as more reliable than folk wisdom.

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