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Rethinking our Notions of Asia

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Rethinking our Notions of Asia

Fifteen years ago, we published a special section titled “Rethinking our Notions of Asia.”

This column will hopefully help EAA readers and their students continue this process in multiple ways. Most fundamentally, students should first learn basic information about Asian cultures. That said, instructors and students in middle school, high school, and undergraduate classes can learn even more about Asia and the world through considering the essays below.

In nineteenth-century America, it was a safe bet that literate Americans of modest means, but limited incomes owned just a few books and these collections would almost certainly include the Works of Shakespeare and the Bible. “The Bard’s” influence on Asia is the first annotated recommended EAA essay that appears below. Discounting British colonial terms like “Near East and Mideast” and examining a map indicate a significant part of the Bible’s geography and portions of verifiable historical occurrences within its covers involve “Asian” cultures.

What many readers probably don’t realize is that “the Bard” has become popular globally and nowhere more so than in Asia. Alexander C.Y. Huang’s “Asia, Shakespeare, and the World: Digital Resources for Teaching about Globalization” (volume 17, number 1, spring 2012) vividly describes why Shakespeare has so many devotees in Asia and, as important, includes a comprehensive web page by MIT where viewers can watch extensive portions of performances and, if familiar with some of Shakespeare’s works, witness first hand both similar and new themes generated by Asian performances of Shakespeare.

Screen capture of MIT’s Global Shakespeares website
Screen capture of MIT’s Global Shakespeares website at https://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/asia/.

Charles Holcombe in “Rethinking Early East Asian History” (volume 11, number 2, fall 2006), an article that has very much influenced my own teaching and curiosity about antiquity, correctly reminds us that the very term “Asia” is a legacy of the ancient Greeks, and that pre-modern East Asians did not think of themselves as “Asians” but also often did not conceptualize themselves as Chinese, Japanese. Vietnamese, or Koreans either. Reading Holcombe’s article suggests the importance of localism, continual dynamism in intercultural contacts, and the limits of transnationalism. Consider the first sentence of Holcombe’s understated, but powerful conclusion: “It seems unlikely that this globalization will reduce the world to homogenous uniformity any time soon.”

Most EAA readers are American, but outside the academy, at least some of both middle and high school teachers have responsibility for American as well as world history. Dave Wang’s “The US Founders and China: The Origins of Chinese Cultural Influence on the United States” (volume 16, number 2, fall 2011) works for both courses. The author evidentially demonstrates that Imperial China influenced the thought and actions of Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson, as well as other Founders. Readers interested in this topic are encouraged to consider Wang’s forthcoming book, China and the Founding of the United States: The Influence of Traditional Chinese Civilization (Lexington Books) available in both hardcover and ebook formats (the author has indicated a paperback version will be available in the future).

Image of the front of the supreme court building, showing the details of the architecture.
The East Pediment of the Supreme Court building. A statue of Confucius appears in the center with Moses and Solon representing lawgivers from three great civilizations. Source: “The East Pediment” from the Supreme Court website at https://tinyurl.com/2cju3878.

Many EAA readers are aware for several reasons of the long-time presence of Christianity in Asia and, until recent PRC crackdowns on Christians, the projection that by 2030, China was forecasted to have the world’s largest number of Christians. Fewer readers, and most likely a limited number of students at best, understand the historic and multi-varied influence of Islam in Asia. In mining the archives, An Interview with Morris Rossabi (volume 10, number 1, spring 2005) by Zainab Mahmood is a four-page gem. Rossabi, no stranger to EAA readers, is a China specialist and an internationally-known expert on Central Asia and Inner Asia where Islam is a dominant religion. Professor Rossabi was born in Egypt in a Jewish family who had resided there since 1830. Readers interested in a succinct contextual piece that traces Islam in China and Central Asia are encouraged to first read this interview. It provides context for understanding not only historical development but contemporary topics ranging from the plight of Uigurs in Xinjiang to better understanding current problems and challenges of post-Soviet Union central Asian governments. Joan Brodsky Schur’s “Sinbad the Sailor and the Eastward Journey of Islam” (volume 10, number 1, spring 2005), a seventh grade unit, highlights one of literature’s most famous mariners in teaching how Muslim maritime traders helped to spread Islam throughout Southeast Asia.

In “Gilgamesh Goes Greek: Teaching the Epic as the ‘College Experience’” (volume 15, number 1, spring 2010), College Professor Steven Patterson uses the world’s oldest epic emanating from the “Ancient Near East,” with other engaging teaching resources that lampoon college and university “Greeks” and certainly motivated his students to rethink this icon of world literature.

Other Teaching Resource: “The Qin Dynasty, the Hellenistic Empire, and the Art that May Connect Them: Why Exploring Cultural Connections Matters for Educators and Students of World History”

Given that in this column “Greeks” of several sorts have been entangled with Asia, or if readers reject the Greek-coined term “Asia,” certainly living in the vicinity of populations that we now associate with “Asia,” what better comparative transcultural resource to recommend than high school teachers Patrick and Michelle Bullas’ “The Qin Dynasty, the Hellenistic Empire, and the Art that May Connect Them: Why Exploring Cultural Connections Matters for Educators and Students of World History” from the online journal World History Connected.