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China and the West: Encounters


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor: Professor Julia Lovell
  • Assessment: coursework of 1000 words (20%) and a 4000-word essay (80%)

Module description

Since China’s traumatic nineteenth-century collision with Western imperialism, the relationship between China and the West has become one of the dominant preoccupations of China's rulers and intellectuals. The questions they have most often posed include:

  • To what extent should China open to the West?
  • How and what can China learn from the West?
  • Will learning from the West lose the Chinese national essence in foreign ways
  • Is China behind the West, ahead of it, or on another path entirely
  • How can China gain the international recognition and status that it deserves, as a country with thousands of years of history and a language spoken by one-fifth of the world’s population?

China, over the past 400 years, has been a source of almost equal fascination for the West. Since Western Europe began engaging in concerted outreach towards China - with the sixteenth-century launch of missionary overtures - the celestial empire has been viewed by churchmen, merchants and philosopher-intellectuals as a potent dreamland of near-paradisiacal opportunity for Christian conversion, for economic profit, and for lessons in government.

In this module we will consider political, cultural, economic, social, religious and ideological encounters between China and the West of the past four centuries, setting this ambivalent, and often troubled, relationship within a broader historical context, and examining the interplay between imperial Chinese worldviews and the dramatic changes that external forces and aggression made to the Chinese self-image from the nineteenth century onwards.

We will progress chronologically through the period under study, but each week’s encounter will have a thematic focus (such as travellers, trade, war, religions, ideologies and cities). Using a wide variety of sources - works of political, social and cultural history, fiction, travelogues, memoirs and images - we will examine the variety of conflicts, compromises and misapprehensions that have arisen, drawing out the complexities of individual responses on both sides, and the light that they shed on the political and intellectual realities of their time.

You will be encouraged to discuss more general theoretical perspectives on the historical relationship between the 'West' and the 'East', through reading texts such as Edward Said’s Orientalism, and the scholarly controversies they have provoked. Informing you about the key political, intellectual and cultural debates of nineteenth- and twentieth-century China, this module will be of interest to students of modern China, intellectual and cultural history, imperialism, the Cold War and globalisation.