Paper Assignments

Before you write, please remember the following:

(1) you must have a meaningful working title that sums up your views like a synopsis

(2) develop a good thesis (focus on an issue or an intellectual concern) in the opening paragraph. In the opening paragraph which is like the abstract of a book or dissertation, you must introduce what you want to focus on; name the works and authors you shall include in this paper and discuss; give a very brief analysis of each work, and point out possible limits to your interpretive approach or possible countervailing arguments. To do all these requires a full paragraph (half a page); the scholarly substance of your paper is all in here; don’t present a weak or non-existent thesis in a couple of sentences that are inane and too general

(3) as you deal with each work, don’t lose your thematic focus and don’t lose sight of the point you want to clarify by discussing a group of works. Otherwise your discussion of the works in question would seem fragmented and even incoherent, without a thematic threat running through all the paragraphs. Also it is not necessary to deal with literary works one at a time; you can develop your argument or thesis paragraph by paragraph in each of which simultaneously dealing with several works whose parts seem to support your interpretation and viewpoint. Meanwhile, try to respect the integrity, richness and complexity of each work and resist the temptation to reduce a literary work to a couple of ideas.

(4) It’s a sign of good scholarship to do textual analysis, to quote from the literary text, and to always mention the name of the author whose work shapes the reader’s views. Discuss what the author is doing rather than what the fictional characters are doing. Otherwise you don’t know the first thing about literary criticism, which is having a conversation with the creator/author by interpreting his or her work. If you treat fictional characters as if they were real people, you entirely miss the point of reading literature, which is to understand the values and attitudes of the writer who is often ambivalent about culture and society.

First 4-page (single-space) paper, due 9/23

The worldviews and beliefs of Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Ban Zhao are reflected in their dramatic and moral writings. Each work reveals a situation of moral ambiguity and how the heroes or protagonists respond to and act in their respective situations expresses the moral philosophy of these thinkers and writers. In a 4-page paper, discuss the dramatic elaborations by these writers as their visions of the world and analyze (and interpret) the actions taken by the main protagonists in relation to Greek, Christian, and Confucian worldviews. In other words, as Georg Lukacs argues, the epic hero represents not only the values and attitudes of the time in which the dramatist lived but also a picture of the world as the writer found it.

  • What is the degree to which Man is responsible for his choices and actions?
  • Is the world a moral universe in which people must face the consequences of their moral actions?
  • What is the degree man is free to act to change the world through human efficacy?
  • Is humanity (human characteristics) celebrated or proven flawed?

While it is important to spell out the specific issues dealt with in these stories, try to resist the temptation of treating literature, with its richness, complexity and nuance, as ideology, with clear ideas and unambiguous messages. It’s very rare that a literary writer or artist would want to represent human life by reducing it to cut-n-dry philosophical positions. Pay attention to fictional details and explore their significance in relation to larger cultural and intellectual issues serving as the context or background. Moreover, give credit to Lu Xun as a writer whose literary narratives offer us ever changing and split perspectives within which to see “China”. Feel free to refer to critical secondary readings on the fate and problems of Confucianism, comparative philosophy, literary criticism, or social and intellectual histories of the time between 1840 and 1930s. However, your interpretation and analysis must be original and engaging the issues emerging from lectures and classroom discussion.

Second 4-page (single-space) paper, due 10/13

The word “history” consists of two words—his and story—that show, among other things, the process through which the private life of an individual becomes meaningful when signified in the grant narrative of a nation. As such, there is little difference between history (often viewed as factual and true) and fiction (imaginary and unreal); in other words, there is a connection between nation and narration; both the collective experience of a nation and the life of a private individual are myth to some extent constructed by narratives that are highly selective, highlighting certain events while ignoring other experiences. The fiction and film works selected for this section all in some way deal with history as myth by reconstructing it (history) through individual perspectives. Discuss no less than three works(and Soul Mountain one of them) as (re)interpretations of Chinese history on the part of the writer or director; try to identify needs and interests served in these fictional reconstructions of history. Discuss the messages that emerge from these works with regard to man’s war with his own culture, trying to remain whole in an increasing mass-minded culture.

  • What is the overall message of each story, with individual characters experiencing difficulties coming to terms with the changes through which China becomes “modern”?
  • In what way or to what extent is the author/director affirming or calling into question the values and attitudes embedded in the grant historical narrative?
  • What conclusions can you draw about modern Chinese history in the past century? In what way is “social progress” meaningful to the individual?
  • What is the relationship of man to the social changes by which he is judged? To what extent is he realized and fulfilled by the changes he brings about?
  • Is the individual a better person through culture and history? In what respect is he becoming better? And in what way is he his own worst enemy?
  • Is man an enigma to himself? Are all his endeavors signs of his self-ignorance?
  •  To what extent is James Joyce right that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken?”
  • What do we often lose sight of as we achieve cultural developments?

It pays to investigate and research the details (or facts/events) alluded to in the works; and become more informed and more appreciative of the tension between competing and contesting myths or histories. Let me also suggest that you take a look at the articles to which I’ve made links by Carl Jung and Norman Brown who are founders of psychoanalysis, itself a myth, that offers the kind of language you may find useful when discussing the crisis of modern man living in mass society ruled by mass-mindedness. You’ll discuss the works of Yu Hua (To Live), Zhang Yimou (To Live), Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), and Gao Xingjian (Soul Mountain) in relation to man’s war against culture and history.

Third 4-5 page (single-space) paper, due 11/16

In your paper, analyze at least four works of art as elaborations of women’s experience in China. Identify recurring themes and variations of being a woman in Confucian China by examining the dramatic details constellated around the heroine to suggest such problems as female sexuality, chastity, martyrdom, and gender inequality.

  • Does the writer view the ideal of female chastity as unattainable?
  • Does he try to delineate room in which traditional (Confucian) morality is defective or deficient for social reality?
  • Does he think critically or favorably of the female virtues in traditional China?
  • Does he consider female etiquettes in accordance with Confucian teachings a joke and fundamentally against how women as well as men act?
  • Discuss what it is that he satirizes, exalts, holds in contempt, or despises;
  • Is the author/director blaming the heroine for making bad choices, or, is the author/director critical of or even trying to indict a social system in which women often fall victims of a symbolic order?
  • In these stories, what is presented, identified and revealed as the contributing factors responsible for the downfall of these heroines?
  • To what degree are they morally responsible for what happens to them as women?
  • What is the overall meaning of the story in which the heroine goes bad and suffers the consequences of her immoral actions? Are women in these stories a trope to subvert, call into question, or negotiate the convention of gender differences?
  • Is the message one of the need for gender equality or greater respect for women’s right to live as women rather than as an extension of men?
  • Are there significant differences in the way men and women write about female experience in fiction? You must at least use two (if not all) works by women writers who seem to understand women’s existence differently from men. Please respect the complexity, integrity and nuance in each individual work and author.
  • As depicted in these fictional texts, are the failed women capable of speaking about and understanding the truth of their experience as mother, wife, daughter and lover? Is there truth as real and meaningful to men as to women, or is truth always gendered and cannot mean the same thing to men and women alike.

Try to exact the point, established and understood in the work, at which female chastity is something necessary and heroic for women to uphold and honor, but beyond which it becomes inappropriate and deserves contempt or warrants rebellion. Treat each work as a dialogue in which the author endorses, negotiates with and/or interrogates the cultural ideals concerning Chinese women.

Fourth and last (single-space) paper, due 12/ 7

In a 4-5 page paper (single-space), discuss Chinese attitudes (on the part of the author/director) towards cultural difference as represented in no less than four works of art. How do these novelists and directors present and reconcile the cultural differences brought to light through war, colonialism, trade, and diaspora. In fact, one cannot talk about China as a modern nation without referring to such events as wars, global capitalism and revolutions. In comparison to Confucian China where, although there were also diverse belief-systems and interactions with outside cultures, the dominance of Confucian ideology or state religion was never fundamentally questioned or challenged. In the last century, however, that was not necessarily the case when war, revolution, trade and diaspora introduced so many new ideas into China, and when the supremacy of Confucian ideology on which Chinese identity rests was in question. In these new historical situations, what values and beliefs are compelling people to do what they do? Are traditional (Confucian) values still relevant in modern realities? If so to what extent? If not, what other values are beginning to take roots in the Chinese mind as universal values? What is the author’s attitude toward such seismological changes and conflicts of cultures that shook to the ground the traditional values and beliefs and uprooted the people from their past? How are traditional Chinese values and attitudes represented in these works as their validity is challenged by new ideas and practices? Do they appear to be defensible, reasonable, universal and legitimate as the author negotiates these cultural differences that threaten the very foundations of Chinese identity?

  • True Story of Ah Q, Lu Xun’s idea of revolution
  • Regret for the Past, Lu Xun’s idea of bourgeois individualism
  • Black Li and White Li, Lao She’s idea of revolution
  • City of Life and Death, Lu Chuan’s idea of war and race
  • Chinese Box, Wayne Wang’s idea of colonialism and diaspora
  • World, Jia Zhangke’s idea of global capitalism and diaspora
  • New Women, Cai Chusheng’s idea of revolution and individualism
  • Wedding Banquet, Ang Lee’s idea of individualism and diaspora

Here is one thematic focus that might work for the last paper: the idea of the self as an individual and free moral agent. In traditional China there has been the idea of person (identity) or personalism, you making choices to become a better person, e.g. a Confucian gentleman or gentlewoman. But in the last century, the developments of that idea became accelerated due largely to outside influences: war, revolution, trade, introduction of Western technologies, cross-cultural fertilization of European liberalism through colonialism, global capitalism, Chinese diaspora, etc.

Perhaps “A tale of four cities: Nanjing (City of Life and Death), Hong Kong (Chinese Box), Beijing (World), and NYC (Wedding Banquet)”. Discuss what happened in these cities that significantly change the way Chinese (Lu Chuan, Jia Zhangke, Wayne Wang, and Ang Lee) understand themselves and their experience with world war, colonialism, global capitalism, diaspora and transnational identity. Also, you can talk about how changes depicted in the representative works for this class bring about a new idea of the individual self. This new understanding, shaped mainly by modern Chinese experiences, gets elaborated in many works and films in which the Chinese are seen experimenting with ways of re-imagining and reinventing themselves, with failure and success. Discuss the mosaic of this new Chinese identity in these works. The thematic focus is thus the problematics (dynamics/dialectics) of cultural identity as elaborated in these works in which traditional Chinese views must be reconciled with practices and realities of the modern world. Try to avoid a black-and-white argument. On the issue of cultural differences, all these artists are quite sophisticated and nuanced, never satisfied with any either/or position. Often times the artists end up redefining and recasting the issues as they share their unique perspectives.