Education About Asia: Online Archives

Teaching Asian Political Economy: The Evolution of an Ethnographic Survey Course

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Let me confess at the start that I am not an economist, but an anthropologist with an interest in comparative political economy, and an area specialization in China. In the early 1970s, I conducted field research in Hong Kong on urban craftsmen, apprenticing as a woodcarver in a factory producing “art-carved” furniture and camphor wood chests. In later years, I conducted a study of the rural industrial sector of Dongyang County in China’s Zhejiang province, the native place of my former Hong Kong “master.”

My experience teaching about Asian economies derives from responsibility for two survey courses offered by our East Asian Studies Center, one undergraduate (EASC 150g), and one graduate (EASC 592). These courses rotate among the East Asian Studies faculty in our various social science and history departments, and change emphasis according to the respective talents/interests of the instructor. The undergraduate version usually enrolls from fifty to one hundred students, and the Center provides a teaching assistant who holds weekly discussion sessions and helps to grade papers. The graduate version usually enrolls five to ten students, and is conducted as a seminar. One or another of these courses circles back to me every fourth or fifth semester.

For several years, I struggled with the “little bit of this, little bit of that, in chronological order” syndrome in the undergraduate version (EASC 150g), that takes in “only” China, Japan and Korea, and satisfies a general education requirement in a non Western cultures category. My woeful ignorance of Korean and Japanese history always made it an extremely trying experience. The class is usually filled with so-called “heritage students” which heightens the anxiety that one of them will come into class and proclaim that his/her grandma says “Dr. Cooper has it all wrong about Korea/Japan.” There is less such anxiety for China, where I am more confident of my facts and their interpretation. But even with a stray guest lecturer here and there, one still ends up being pretty uncomfortable for more than half the semester.