In a world grown increasingly smaller, China nonetheless seems to remain as most of us have always seen it: a land far away and exotic, suggestive of secrets and mysteries, its history and thoughts veiled from most Westerners.
Yet behind that veil lies one of the most amazing civilizations the world has ever known.
In fact, evidence argues that for the greater part of its 5,000-year history, China has been the largest, most populous, wealthiest, and mightiest nation on Earth.
- China had a theory of social contract, the "Mandate of Heaven," in place by 1500 B.C.E.
- It had seen the rule of three classical dynasties before 200 B.C.E.
- It developed agriculture and writing independently of outside influence.
- In Confucius and Laoziâ€”among othersâ€”it had philosophers of the Axial Age as influential as were Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle in ancient Greece.
- While the Roman Empire was at its zenith, Chinaâ€™s Han dynasty ruled over an empire superior in almost every measurable way, including technological advancement.
A Civilization So Advanced, Its Wonders Were Thought to Be Lies
This veil that hides Chinaâ€™s extraordinary past from many of us today is far from a new one.
When Marco Polo wrote of the wonders he had seen over his 20 years in China, the majority of his fellow Venetians were simply unwilling to accept his descriptions of a level of civilization to rival their own.
In fact, they contemptuously referred to the book in which he shared his adventures as "The Millions"â€”the number of lies they believed marched across its pages.
Those Venetians had chosen to turn away from a precious opportunity to glimpse Chinaâ€™s wonders and better understand the world.
But itâ€™s an opportunity you can claimâ€”in a course that delivers a nuanced understanding of one of the most fascinating and complex cultures in world history.
A Journey across a Virgin Landscape
Every lecture of this course may well seem like a journey across a virgin landscape, for the ground it covers is terrain largely unexplored in the history courses most of us in the West have taken.
You learn about:
- the great dynasties that have ruled China over the years
- the philosophical and religious foundationsâ€”particularly Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhismâ€”that have influenced every iteration of Chinese thought
- the larger-than-life personalities, from both inside and outside her borders, who have shaped Chinaâ€™s history.
As you listen to these lectures, you see how Chinaâ€™s politics, economics, and art reflect the forces of her past.
Explore Several Major Themes
In guiding you through 5,000 years of Chinese history, Professor Kenneth J. Hammondâ€”who received his doctorate in History and East Asian Languages from Harvard University and is head of the history department at New Mexico State Universityâ€”has organized his lectures around several major themes:
- the evolution of the social and political elite and how they acquired and asserted their power as rulers
- the history of political thought and the ways in which the Chinese have organized their society and government
- the ways in which the Chinese have thought and written about themselves and the world around them
- the connections between economic and social life and the worlds of art, literature, and philosophy
- the interaction among cosmological ideas, the metaphysical insights of Buddhism and religious Daoism, and the perennial mysticism of popular religion
Chinaâ€™s history as it relates to the world beyond its borders.
A Compelling Foray into Chinaâ€™s Story: From Night Skies Ablaze to Opium
Dr. Hammondâ€™s lectures are richly detailed, and lead you on compelling forays across many aspects of Chinaâ€™s story, including:
- how the short-lived Qin dynastyâ€”with "Legalism" as its often brutal ideology of governanceâ€”became the first unified empire, laying the basis for an enduring imperial order
- how the fighting Buddhist monks of the Shaolin Monastery became famous as bodyguards for the founder of the Tang dynasty, becoming the forerunners of many martial arts and a subject of popular myth that continues to this day
- how a concubine named Wu Zetian rose to become the first and only empress to rule China in her own right
- the crucially important implementation of the imperial civil service examination system by the Song dynasty in the late 10th century, giving intellectual issues renewed importance and making the 11th century flower with great debate and discussion about literature, philosophy, government, and art
- the dramatic description of the great ceramic center at Jingdezhen, which, in the 12th century, became one of the first true industrial cities in world history, its massive production lines setting the night sky ablaze with the glow from their great kilns
- the "neo-Confucianist" teachings of Zhu Xi, one of the great figures in Chinese intellectual history, whose sharply divergent commentaries on the classical Confucian texts placed an emphasis on moral self-cultivation and the role of the individual and became their only officially accepted interpretation
- the conquering of China by the Mongols, including a riveting discussion of their culture and tactics
- the golden age of the Ming dynasty, when art and literature flourished amidst economic growth and the revival of a great merchant class, including the invention of a postal system that became the foundation of a great trading network
- how opium became the commodity that allowed Great Britain to pry open China to the avarice of the West, making millions of Chinese into addicts and bringing about the Opium Wars and a profound humiliation for China
- the extraordinary story of a failed examination candidate named Hong Xiuquan, whose certainty that he was Jesusâ€™ younger brother drove him to lead a revolution that nearly succeeded in overthrowing the Qing dynasty
- the eye-opening story of how China was betrayed by the allies at Versailles, precipitating riots in Beijing and helping pave the way for the emergence of the Chinese Communist Party.