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Civilization in East Asia: Hero! Outlaws, Order and Honor in East Asian Society and Culture


Blocks 1 and 2: John Williams

The two-block course fulfills the Global Cultures and Social Inequality Critical Perspectives Requirement.

From China's legends of Warring States assassins to the bloody epics of John Woo; from Japan's medieval Tale of the Heike to Beat Takeshi's contemporary gangster dramas, this course explores East Asian visions of the heroic -- and their social underpinnings -- from the fourth century BCE to the present. Questions this course considers are:  What makes a hero or heroine? Are they outsiders or insiders? How do visions of the heroic change from the 'premodern' to the 'modern' eras? How do the media of cultural transmission change over the same period? How does the emergence of the nation-state shape representations of the heroic? Course texts include: Sima Qian's biographies of the assassin-retainers; the Tale of the Heike, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Outlaws of the Marsh, samurai autobiography, The Forty-Seven Ronin, as well as films by Akira Kurosawa, John Woo, Zhang Yimou, and Kitano Takeshi.

In the process of exploring these questions, the course also surveys of the development and transformations of East Asian societies from ancient times to the present, stressing in the first block processes of migration, trade, cultural interaction, state-building and imperial expansion. The second block turns to the evolution of modern East Asia, emphasizing themes of imperialism, nationalism and industrialization, as well as the problematic nature of ‘modernity’ itself.  Simultaneously, students learn the basics of historical method – how to evaluate and interpret primary sources – in order to produce a substantial research project by the end of the course.

A two-block course with one instructor; one grade will be given for the course as a whole.


• Meets requirements for Critical Perspectives: Global Cultures (2) or Social Inequality (2)

• Two units toward the Asian Studies major.

• Both blocks, taken together, serve as a gateway and meet the Introductory Course requirement of the History Major

• No labs or creative projects. Does include a major research project and films, the latter of which may be scheduled for before 3:00pm.

• Daytime field trips TBD.

• No prerequisites. World or Asian History background a plus, but not required. Good time management skills necessary for all students, but especially those with significant extracurricular obligations.