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Asian Studies

Seth Harter

Asian studies sets for itself a very ambitious goal: an interdisciplinary understanding of nearly half the world. Within this mandate, students may choose to focus on a particular region within Asia, a particular time period and a particular discipline, or on a comparative subject that cuts across areas, times and disciplines. Though rooted in history, Asian studies also addresses the concerns, and draws upon the methodologies, of anthropology, literature, foreign languages, political science, religion, philosophy, sociology, economics, ecology and the arts.
Classes in Asian studies aim to develop four fundamental skills. Foundation classes call on students to (1) read critically and (2) write clearly about basic primary sources in translation and scholarly literature. More advanced classes and Plan tutorials require students to (3) define and execute research projects. These projects often entail fieldwork in Asia and work with documents in Asian languages. Finally, all Asian studies classes should help students to (4) cultivate a critical and imaginative appreciation for social systems different from their own.

My own interest in Asia grew from experiences living in Hong Kong and studying modern Chinese history. My dissertation explored the theories and practices of modernization, nationalism, socialism and colonialism in 20th-century China. More recently, I have become very interested in the history and contemporary practice of Daoism in China and abroad.

While I seek to aid students with interests in all corners of Asian studies, I am best versed in the areas of China, Japan and Southeast Asia, and the disciplines of history and anthropology. I especially welcome Plan work in the following fields:

Areas of Interest for Plan-level Work:

  • Urban history
  • History of migration
  • History of Vietnam and the war with America
  • Asian religions
  • Ancient Chinese philosophy (Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism)
  • Ethnicity and nationalism
  • Relations between Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China
  • Modern Asian literature
  • Social constructions of time and space
  • Colonialism and imperialism
  • Socialism and post-socialism

Starting Points (Basic and Introductory Courses)

This course will examine the development of Chinese culture from the earliest divination rites to the flowering literature during the Ming dynasty. Along the way we will explore the sparring schools of Confucianism, Daoism and Legalism; we will study the creation and growth of the imperial institution and meritocratic civil service that made it work; we will consider some of the fabulous economic and technological developments that made Chinese products the envy of the world in the 17th century; and we will read a selection of poetry and prose by Tang hermits, Song officials and Ming aesthetes. The course will be integrated with a year-long lecture series that will bring outside experts to speak on diverse aspects of Chinese culture. Please note that students wishing to take part in the college-sponsored trip to China in May-June 2012 should take either this course, or its spring-semester continuation (Modern Chinese History and Culture), or both. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

A continuation of Ancient Chinese History and Culture (HUM 1052), this course will examine the major trends in Chinese history from the 17th century to the present. Along the way we will consider phenomenal expansion of China’s territory, population and economy under the Manchu Qing dynasty. We will then explore the onslaught of rebellion, reform and revolution that put an end to the imperial system. Finally, we will study the radical communism of Mao Zedong and conclude by looking at the challenges facing China today, including population control, minority policy, economic development, relations with Taiwan and the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangzi River. Note: Students wishing to participate in the college-sponsored trip to China in May-June, 2012 should take this course, its fall-term precursor (Ancient Chinese History and Culture (HUM 1052)), or both. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

This course will examine three big, interrelated problems in contemporary China: environmental degradation, demography and human rights. We will start with a brief overview of modern Chinese history and political thought. Then we will consider the challenge of protecting China’s environment in the face of unprecedented economic development. We will move on to a study of China’s family planning program: the One-Child Policy. Finally, we will extend this study of the relationship between individuals and the state to recent efforts to democratize, the protests at Tiananmen Square, and the government’s campaign against the Falun Gong. Students will develop their own fields of interest by researching and presenting case studies. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

This course is an introduction to two Chinese schools of thought and practice: Confucianism and Daoism. We will read the foundational texts in each school. Discussion will focus on ideas of morality, social relations, self-cultivation, good government and nature. We will also consider the historical context of the primary texts as well as their influence on religious practice and art. Students will engage in a close analysis of key terms through tests and short papers. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

The ripples of Japanese culture have reached all sides of the Pacific. This seminar will examine selected topics in the origins and development of Japanese culture from the late eighth century to the present. We will begin with a general overview of Japanese language, history and geography. We will then consider the fundamental themes of Japanese history while reading key works on Japanese literature, art, politics, religion and contemporary society. Each student will take responsibility for leading discussion at least once, will write weekly commentaries on the reading, and will produce, by the end of the term, a 15-page research paper. Knowledge of Japanese language is not necessary, but some prior exposure to Japanese culture will be helpful. Prerequisite: Permission of instructor     Intermediate | Credits: 4

Pursuing Interests (Intermediate and Thematic Courses)

What is ethnicity? How is it related to nationality? And why are the two so important? This class tries to answer these questions by looking at a wide range of case studies in modern Asia: highlanders in Indonesia, overseas Chinese in Malaysia, the Ainu in Japan, the various minorities in Southwest China and the Mongols in Central Asia. In each of these cases we find tensions between minority and majority populations. Who has the power to determine who belongs to which ethnic group? What resources become available through ethnic and national belonging? What responsibilities do they entail? We will look at state policy and social responses in the realms of religion, tourism, cultural preservation, economic development and language use. Students will do close readings of pieces from the contemporary media to help us make sense of the way ethnicity is represented in these Asian cases. Prerequisite: None   Introductory | Credits: 4

Reading The Daodejing and The Zhuangzi may tell us what Daoists believe, but what do they do? In this course we will consider not the tenets, but the central practices of Daoism. Using the works of historians, anthropologists, scholars of religion, medical practitioners, taiji masters, poets and other wanderers on the way, we will explore ritual, self-cultivation and community organization in the Daoist experience. Students will write a substantial research paper over the course of the semester.     Intermediate | Credits: 4

What happens when you live in one culture but identify with another? In this course we will explore the tumultuous history and hybrid cultures of modern Southeast Asia through the theme of exile. The class will draw together political narratives, social science theory, memoir and fiction to generate a complex understanding of exile. Through this lens, we will consider the problems of colonizers, refugees, nomads and adventurers. Students will explore case studies on Indochina, Indonesia and the Philippines, while choosing their own case for a final research paper. Prerequisite: Permission of instructor     Intermediate | Credits: 2

What are time and space? Paradoxically, they appear to be universal yet culturally distinct; ineffable yet quotidian. Drawing on the disciplines of history, geography, art history, literature and religion, this course will investigate the ways in which time and space have been shaped and understood in Asia. We will begin by considering traditional notions embodied in the cosmology of temple architecture in Cambodia, the fengshui (geomancy) of city site selection in Vietnam and the principle of emptiness in Japan. The course will then examine the changes wrought in Asian conceptions of time and space by modernizing projects ranging from cartography in Thailand to irrigation in Indonesia to Marxist historiography in China. Prerequisite: Previous coursework in Asian studies, anthropology, cultural history or art history, or permission of instructor     Intermediate | Credits: 4

DARK TWINS: THE UNDERSIDE OF ASIAN URBANIZATION (HUM951) While Asia is still often thought of as primarily agricultural, it is now home to most of the world’s largest cities. And while these cities are rightly seen as places for coming together, they also depend on social segregations. In ‘dark twins’ such as ghettos, squatter settlements, sweatshops, jails and sewer systems, much of the work that allows these newly prosperous cities to function takes place. Using sociology, anthropology, journalism and urban planning, we will peer into the history of these hidden spaces. What institutions, formal and informal, create and preserve urban enclaves? How does the study of these ‘dark twins’ change our understanding of cosmopolises such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Calcutta and Chandigarh?  Introductory | Credits: 4

This seminar will introduce students to some of the methods and resources used to research humanities and social science questions concerning Asia. We will begin by reading cautionary studies on the history of the representation of Asia in the West. Then we will explore online, print, visual and field resources for Asian studies. Students will conclude the semester by generating a substantial annotated bibliography to support their own plan work.     Advanced | Credits: 2

ASIAN STUDIES SENIOR PLAN WRITING SEMINAR (HUM1359) A student-driven plan writing seminar for seniors working on plans in Asian studies. Prerequisite: Plan in Asian studies    Advanced | Credits: variable

Good Foundation for Plan

Plans in Asian studies depend on preparatory work in a number of fields. Students develop disciplinary expertise in a separate field—most commonly history, anthropology or politics, but any field could work—and then apply the appropriate methodology to cases drawn from Asia. Usually this requires language study and, where possible, travel to Asia and fieldwork. Strong writing skills are essential for Plans in Asian studies.

The best way to prepare for a Plan in Asian studies depends a great deal on a student’s specific disciplinary and topical interests as well as prior experiences. However the following foundation will serve most students well:

  • Discipline-specific foundation courses introducing the methodologies of history, anthropology, political science, literature, etc.
  • Foreign language classes
  • Intentions to spend time in Asia either on a study abroad program, the World Studies Program or doing independent research.

Students on Plan in Asian studies will want to include Asian Studies Junior Plan Research Seminar and Asian Studies Senior Plan Writing Seminar.

Sample Tutorial Topics

  • Japanese Aesthetics
  • Philosophy and Spiritual Identity in Traditional Chinese Martial Arts
  • Study of Chinese Woodworking
  • The Body in Japan
  • Writing About the Body & Language in Japan
  • Writing Bushido
  • How Many Children
  • Population Studies in Contemporary China
  • Studies on the Contemporary Japanese Educational System