A scene from The Tale of Genji,17th century, Edo period (1615–1868)

Faculty Projects: A Literary Deep Dive into the Medieval History of China, Korea, and Japan

Commonwealth School teachers bring an infectious intellectual energy to their classrooms, fueled, in part, by their own innate curiosity. What happens when that curiosity is unleashed? The Hughes/Wharton Fund for Teachers aims to do just that. Named after the late John Hughes, who taught English at Commonwealth for nearly thirty years, and after recently retired Head of School Bill Wharton, who founded the original Hughes fund in 2011 and championed faculty scholarship throughout his tenure, the Hughes/Wharton Fund ensures faculty can pursue their academic passions, access fulfilling professional development opportunities, and have the latitude to create new courses and reinvigorate existing ones. 

History teacher Sonia Aparicio had a problem: how could she expand her curriculum—specifically, around the medieval histories of China, Korea, and Japan—without sacrificing academic depth? After all,“a shallow survey course will not set students up to be successful in accurately and insightfully analyzing primary sources or in developing a nuanced understanding of historical societies, historical change, and historical narratives.” Her solution: painstakingly review texts to develop a cohesive series of reading-based units covering the deeply intertwined histories of these three nations. Through poems and letters, religious texts and military histories, monks’ memoirs and cautionary tales for kings, Ms. Aparicio deftly transports her students through 1500 years of history—and you can get a sneak preview below. (Don’t worry: you can take a deeper dive with Ms. Aparicio’s selected readings, listed at the end of each section.)

Over the summer of 2023, I set out to develop a medieval history curriculum centering China, Korea, and Japan, narrowing the timeframe to (partially) offset the expansive geography. The curriculum largely focuses on political, religious, intellectual, and cultural history, giving students a solid understanding of religion and philosophy in pre-modern East Asia. It is my hope that they will learn how various traditions (Confucianism and Buddhism in particular, but also Daoism, native Korean and Japanese beliefs, etc.) intermixed and coexisted. They will also get a sense of the diverse practices and beliefs that existed within “single” traditions; Buddhism, for example, is not a monolith. In terms of political history, the students will learn not just about important events and individuals, but how the governments of these societies were structured, as well as who held authority and what was the basis of that power. My course gives significant attention to interstate relations, and we will study the ideals that governed the international order of medieval East Asia while also considering some specific points of cultural exchange, diplomacy, and conflict. Finally, by reading literary sources, I hope students will come to understand the prominent role the cultivation of literary talent played in the lives of the elites in many of these societies. 

The course never tries to survey an entire period in a single day. Each lesson is based around studying a specific topic within that era. By going through a few such topics, the students will begin to form a robust, if incomplete, picture of the period.

China: Division (220–589 CE)

Our study of China will begin during the period following the fall of the Han dynasty prior to reunification under the Sui dynasty. This is a period of many warring (often short-lived) dynasties. After studying Buddhist beliefs in the abstract, the students will learn about how Buddhism was received and adopted in the Chinese context, largely through the primary source readings, which highlight the complexity of the relationship between Buddhism and the existing socio-political fabric of China, in particular Confucianism. Readings include Lotus Sūtra (“The Parable of the Burning House”), Wei Shou’s Weishu (The Book of Wei), and Huijiao’s Gaoseng zhuan (The Memoirs of Eminent Monks).

China: Tang (618–906 CE)

After discussing Tang religion, with readings focused on Buddhism and Daoism that also acknowledge how those traditions coexisted with folk religion, ancestral cults, etc., we will switch over to the political aspects, going back to the foundation of the dynasty and reading about the government system and imperial structure. This includes discussion of the empire’s expansion, which resulted in far-reaching trade and an interest in non-Han culture. In continuing the theme of government, we will use the primary source by Taizong (one of the dynasty’s founders and its second emperor) to review Confucian ideals of leadership. We’ll then look at the relationship between the emperor and the great aristocratic families, which arose in the period preceding the Tang and dominated the political landscape of the dynasty only to disappear with the dynasty’s fall. The reading on Tang women can be tied into the topic of the aristocratic families by considering the socio-political importance of marriage ties and how the daughters of prestigious families were exceptionally desirable marriage partners. Royal women also played an unusually significant role in politics during this period. The last topic is the An Lushan Rebellion and eventual decline of Tang, which will build on the theme of the Tang empire’s structure and multi-ethnic nature. Readings include Taizong’s Difan (Models for an Emperor).

Korea: Three Kingdoms (57 BCE–935 CE)

Despite the early start date for this period (the founding dates we have for these kingdoms are legendary; Koguryŏ may actually date back that far, but Paekche and Silla did not emerge until the fourth century), we will start our study in earnest with Silla in the sixth century. As the state that ultimately emerged the victor in the contest between these three kingdoms, Silla is the one historians know most about and the most direct predecessor to later Korean states. We will focus on Silla’s expansion and ultimate conquest of Koguryŏ and Paekche. This was achieved through an alliance with Tang, which then had to be pushed out of the peninsula for Silla to complete this “unification.” Most of our primary sources can be used to explore multiple themes. For example, the source on Chinhŭng is a monument of conquest but also shows the influence of Confucianism on ideals rulership. The accounts of Kim Yushin will introduce the students to one of the most important generals in Silla’s expansion but also recount legendary events that attest to the persistence of native religious beliefs, such as mountain spirits. Readings include Kim Pusik’s Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms), Iryŏn’s Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), and Kakhun’s Haedong kosŭng chŏn (Lives of Eminent Korean Monks).

Japan: Asuka (592–710 CE) and Nara (710–794 CE)

Our study of Japan will start with the first book of the Kojiki, an early eighth-century account of the Japanese creation myth that also functions as an imperial genealogy. As with Korea, our in-depth study of Japan (at that time, Yamato) will begin in earnest in the sixth century. The major theme will be the essential role that culture and institutions imported from China and Korea played in the development of the Japanese state. Korean immigrants, who brought with them skills and knowledge, formed a significant portion of the Japanese elite. Moreover, Silla and Tang’s alliance against Koguryŏ and Paekche was one impetus for the transformation of the Japanese state during this period. Our readings will cover reforms aimed at creating a Chinese-style bureaucracy and the construction of a Chinese-style capital at Nara. Readings include Nihongi (“The White Pheasant”) and Ō no Yasumaro’s Kojiki.

Japan: Heian (794–1185)

The last reading from the Asuka-Nara section will be about the Nara capital and the central importance of Buddhism in the new Japanese state. This will transition perfectly into the two primary sources I have selected from early in the Heian period: The first is the Nihon ryōiki, which is a collection of Buddhist tales. This has some resonances with previous Buddhist sources the students will have read but while these previous Buddhist sources have been semi-legendary accounts of historical figures, these tales are more purely stories of miracles and the supernatural. The second early Heian source is the monk Ennin’s account of his pilgrimage to Tang. Ennin’s writings will continue the theme of Buddhism as a point of cultural connection fond in Korean monks Wŏngwang and Chajang’s travels to Tang, and it also provides more description of Buddhist practice in Tang as it is Ennin’s own account rather than later hagiography.

The second part of the section on the Heian period will focus on court culture through two famous works from this period, The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon and The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. We will include as much of Genji as can be reasonably fit into the class, as it is not only a great work of literature but an incredibly rich source on a variety of topics including aristocratic social practices, the aesthetic sensibilities of the elite, and native beliefs (such as spirit possession) that coexisted with Buddhism. We will finish off this section with a political focus by reading about the gradual rise of the samurai over the course of the Heian period as well as the conflicts at the end of the period that resulted in the emperor and Heian court largely losing their authority to military leaders in Kamakura. Readings include Kyōkai’s Nihon ryōiki, Ennin’s Nittō guhō junreikōki, Sei Shōnagon’s Makura no sōshi, and Murasaki Shikibu, Genji monogatari.

Japan: Kamakura (1185–1333)

Somewhat out of step chronologically, we transition to Kamakura, where we will discuss conflicts and diplomacy between Song, Xi Xia, Liao, Jin, and Koryŏ before going straight into the Mongols conquering Xi Xia, Jin, and Song and invading Koryŏ. We’ll continue on the topic of the transition from government centered at the court to government by the Kamakura bakufu. The primary sources for this period are also literary accounts of the events in the late Heian period that led to this transition in authority. These stories contrast the courtier elite of the Heian period with the warrior elite of the succeeding periods. Readings include Hōgen monogatari and Heike monogatari.

Korea: Koryŏ (918–1392 CE)

In returning to Korea, we will backtrack in time to Silla’s decline, which will provide useful context for understanding the foundation and early political situation of Koryŏ. These readings provide an in-depth look at how the early Koryŏ kings sought (with only partial success) to consolidate their authority. During the middle period, military dictators held de facto power, though the king and civil bureaucracy remained. We will revisit themes such as the competition for authority between the ruler and the elite, the relationship between aristocracy and bureaucracy, central vs. local authority, and ideological or religious underpinnings of kingship. We will explore a royal genealogy (essentially a dynastic foundation legend), which will allow us to consider how this dynasty sought to legitimize itself and also to compare to the Kojiki’s creation of a mythic genealogy. And we will read scholar and statesman Ch’oe Sŭngno’s account of the reigns of Koryŏ’s first five kings as lessons—or cautionary tales—for the sixth king. Readings include Koryŏsa (Segye, Ch’oe Sŭngno, Im Ŏn, Kim Puŭi, “Memorial on Relations with Sung”) and Sŏ Hŭi’s Koryŏsa chŏryo.

China: Song (960–1276)

One of the major themes of this part of the course will be the shift from the aristocratic elite who dominated the Tang to the Song elite of scholar official families and an increased importance of examination (which had existed since the Sui dynasty) as a path to government positions. The scholar official is by no means new, but unlike Tang and Koryŏ, where those scholar officials were drawn largely from the ranks of great families, the prestigious lineages had disappeared by the Song and the selection of officials was (perhaps) more meritocratic. This change in the composition of the elite coincided with the reemergence of Confucianism as the dominant ideology among the elite, though it still coexisted with other traditions. To this end we will study the form of Confucianism (called Neo-Confucianism in the West) that developed during this period. In particular we will read the writings of Zhu Xi, whose work ultimately became the standard, not only in China but also in Korea and Japan, until Westernization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

We will also explore the role that North Asian nomadic peoples have played in the history of China. Unlike Tang, Song never managed to rule over the entirety of China and coexisted with a number of non-Han dynasties, most notably Liao and Jin. While we will have already encountered the topics of East Asia’s hierarchical international order and concepts of “civilized” vs. “barbarian” in our discussions of Korea and Japan, we will focus fully on these topics during this section. We will consider the ideal model of the “tribute system” in contrast to the reality of international relations in this period. The primary sources include a letter from the emperor of Xi Xia to the emperor of Song as well as Southern Song poetry lamenting the loss of the northern territories to Jin. Readings include Zhu Xi’s Zhuzi quanshu, Zhuzi yulei, Zhuzi wenji; Hong Mai’s Yijian zhi; Nai Deweng’s Ducheng jisheng; Songshi (Weiming Yuanhao’s letter to the Song Emperor Renzong); and poems by Li Qingchao, Yue Fei, Lu You, Zhang Xiaoxiang, Xin Qiji, and Chen Liang.

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