Education About Asia: Online Archives

Telling Stories About Lives: The Uses of Biography in Teaching Chinese History

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In every part of Asia and the rest of the world, we teach about transmitters and transformers of traditions, themes, customs, practices, and powers.1 In the process, we have told stories, and many of them have been stories of individual human lives. Listeners have hung on their words, saying, “What happened next?”—thrilled with bold, clever heroes and heroines, while gnashing their teeth at villains and tyrants. Some of these stories were about gods and goddesses or others who had supernatural powers but might behave all too humanly. Listeners could identify with others who had ordinary origins, parents, spouses, and children.

We historians also tell such stories. We find that they catch the interest of students, give them powerful examples of general points we are making, and engage their moral imaginations. This is very easy to see in the teaching of Chinese history. I learned a lot from doing it for many years, especially a one-semester survey of all Chinese history—300 years per week—and that teaching led to a book of which I am very proud.2

A biographical approach is obviously more apt for Chinese history than for some other Asian and other national/cultural histories. Chinese understandings of ultimate reality, High Heaven, the Lord on High, and even Boddhisattvas and Daoist deities are seldom or never shown as having intentions and actions far beyond but still comparable to those of humans. One of the deepest Chinese metaphors for ultimate reality is the nameless, impersonal dao (Way). Ancestors of family, clan, and dynasty are entirely human. A central theme in traditional political values was the ruler-minister relation in which both appear as mortal and fallible humans in a complex moral interdependency.


1. This is a brief essay about a powerful kind of teaching for a journal with “education” in its title. No longer regularly in the classroom, I find that teaching taught me a lot. Teaching always is value-laden. We want to engage the moral imaginations of our students. Trying to explain this to ourselves, our colleagues, and the apprentice teachers many of us mentor can lead into discussions that seem a long way from the survey classroom. Not too long before Mountain of Fame was published, I summarized some of the relevant literature in an article, “Lives and Other Stories: Neglected Aspects of the Teacher’s Art,” The History Teacher 26, no. 1 (1992): 33–49. Later, I found much of value for the understanding of our work as writers and teachers of history in the work of some important and lucid modern philosophers; see my “Putnam, Dennett, and Others: Philosophical Resources for the World Historian,” Journal of World History 20, no. 4 (2009): 491–522, and my review article on John Searle, “Making the Social World,” Journal of World History 22, no. 4 (2011): 811–816. In teaching and writing about other parts of Asia and even the world, I found that stories about lives are especially powerful in teaching about great transforming religious teachers—the Hindu Sri Krishna Caitanya, the Sikh founder Guru Nanak, and even Martin Luther; see Wills, chapter 3, The World from 1450 to 1700 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Most of us hang out in history departments, and this might be a good conversation starter. Ask a US history colleague what he or she makes of the life of Benjamin Franklin or Harriet Tubman.

2. John E. Wills Jr., Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012, first published in 1994).

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