Written Assignments

Interpreting Chinese Stories


Web Resources for This Assignment

Confucius' Analects
Lao Tzu

Prelude to Modern China   As a prelude to modern China, I'd like you to thoroughly understand the nature of traditional Chinese culture just a few decades before the conflict with the West in 1839. In order to do that, I'd like you to interpret the first chapter of The Dream of the Red Chamber in the light of Confucianism or Taoism. The novel, even though it is fanciful, is largely a tale of everyday life in the upper classes in China. It's a unique view of how life was lived and understood on the more modest, domestic scale, rather than in a heroic or epic scale. This is the great virtue of the vernacular novel: what separates the novel as a genre from other literary genres is its insistent focus on the everyday.
   The brief and tragic story of Chen Shih-yin is a glimpse into a standard life of an upper-class gentleman and his family. While supernatural events intrude on his life, they are not all that supernatural. The Chinese of the Ch'ing dynasty, for instance, believed that dreams were sometimes instruments of supernatural intervention or prediction. In both Taoist and Buddhist dream theory, dreams were considered more "real" than reality itself. So the supernatural events are not out of line with common life in the Ch'ing period before the Opium War.

Traditional Patterns of Thought   What I'd like you to do on this assignment is to understand the story in terms of traditional Chinese thought, that is, how traditional Chinese thought helps you to understand or interpret the story. This process will really open your eyes into what life really looked like before the advent of modernism, how life itself was lived and understood at the everyday level. We've been dealing in this class with large patterns of thought and grand designs in history; we haven't really understood the various cultures at the level of the everyday. That's the base I want to build from when we confront modernity in China.
   In order to interpret the story according to traditional patterns of thought, you should concentrate on Confucianism or Taoism only. In your essay, you are to identify a part of or event in the story that you're going to interpret or explain. In one paragraph, identify and interpret a passage from Confucius' Analacts or from Lao Tzu. Make sure that your interpretation is thorough and accounts for the rest of the ideas in the selected reading. Then, using your explanation of Confucius or Lao Tzu, apply the details of that explanation to the part of the story that you're interpreting.

Grading   I'm looking for three things: a.) a thesis which clearly defines your argument and how you're going to relate Confucius or Lao Tzu to the problem that you've identified; b.) the thoroughness of your explanation of Lao Tzu or Confucius; I want to see you relate the passage you're explaining to the other aspects of the Analects or Confucius; c.) how much of your explanation of Confucius or Lao Tzu you apply directly to the reading. Remember: you are trying to explain what the everyday Chinese undestanding of the world looks like, that is, you're trying to get in the minds of a late eighteenth century person in an economic or social situation very similar to your own.


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