Erwin Li looks into some of the top US college classes on China

From its inception, China Hands has championed the power of dialogue and exchange as a way to influence the future of US-China relations. In this issue, we take a look inside some of the classrooms of the best American college courses on China. Our selection of classes incorporates a breadth of subject areas, ranging from Chinese ethical philosophy to the Chinese-American diaspora. Each course offers a unique perspective on the complex dimensions of modern China, and contains subject content worth investigating for anyone interested in Chinese politics, history, and culture.


1. Cornell University
GOVT 3403: China Under Revolution and Reform and the World
Professor Andrew Mertha
This course seeks to trace the formation of the modern Chinese state by examining the rise of communist power following the Qing Dynasty’s collapse in 1911. In addition, the class focuses on China’s institutional apparatus, mapping out the relationships between         government, military, and Party bureaucracies both past and present.Students say:
“Professor Mertha’s enthusiasm and passion for this area of study is infectious; even the most cynical student cannot deny the depth and scope of this subject area when we witness Professor Mertha try to dissect every issue from multiple angles….his personal anecdotes of living and doing research in China really add a [whole other] perspective.”

On the syllabus:
Lieberthal, Kenneth. Governing China: From Revolution through Reform. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995).

Chang, Jung. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991).


2. Harvard University
ER18: Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory
Professor Michael Puett
How should one make ethical choices? What is the best way to live an ethical life? How should the state be organized to best encourage proper human behavior? This course is a study of how classical Chinese thinkers wrestled with these questions and what responses they gave. It investigates how the views that arose in classical China are among the most powerful and influential in human history.  On the syllabus:
Ivanhoe, P. J., and Bryan W. Van Norden, eds. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2005).

Roth, Harold David. Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. (New York: Columbia UP, 1999).


3. Yale University
HIST 183: Asian American History 1800 to Present
Professor Mary Lui
This course provides an introduction to the history of East, South, Southeast Asian migrations and settlement to the United States from the late 18th century to the present. Major themes include labor migration, community formation, US imperialism, legal exclusion, racial segregation, gender and sexuality, cultural representations, and political resistance.Students say:
“With Chinese Americans playing an increasingly important role in U.S.-China relations (e.g. Gary Locke and Yale-China’s Nancy Yao Maasbach), understanding how this ethnic group has crafted an unique identity in the face of racial discrimination, legal exclusion, and U.S. imperialism is crucial…. Professor Lui’s course provides a thought-provoking framework for doing so.”

On the syllabus:
Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2003).


4. Wesleyan University
HIST 308: The Jewish Experience in China from Kaifeng through the Holocaust in a Comparative Perspective.
Professor Vera Schwarcz
With the growing importance of Sino-Israel relations in mind, the goal of this seminar is to introduce students to the historical details of the Jewish experience in China — including the historiography of Chinese attitudes toward Jews and Judaism. The course also aims to situate such discussions and their significance in a broad comparative context, and will identify the cultural, religious and political factors that have enabled Jews to survive in China for centuries.Students say:
“Professor Schwarcz does not only inspire students only to discover the hard “facts” about China, but as an intellectual historian who studies historical trauma and memory, [she encourages students] to listen to China and feel China through its history, culture, arts, and language.”

On the syllabus:
Goldstein, Jonathan A., and Frank Joseph Shulman, eds. The Jews of China. (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000).

Schwarcz, Vera. Bridge across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory. (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1998).


5. University of California, San Diego
IRGN 404: Chinese Politics
Professor Susan Shirk
Today, Chinese elite politics still remains an enigma for scholars, policymakers, and citizens alike. In response to this challenge, this course seeks to elucidate the operations behind China’s modern political institutions as well as how its political institutions operate. Questions such as “How are policies in different issue arenas formulated and implemented?” and “How does the Communist Party maintain its sway over a changing society?” are focal points for discussion.Students say:
“While similar courses are offered at other institutions, there is only one Susan Shirk…[Her course] is consistently one of the most popular courses at the School of International and Pacific Studies (IR/PS), providing a profound framework for understanding the Chinese policymaking process.”

On the syllabus:
Shirk, Susan L. The Political Logic of Economic Reform in China. (Berkeley: University of California, 1993).

Nathan, Andrew J. China’s Crisis: Dilemmas of Reform and Prospects for Democracy. (New York: Columbia UP, 1990).