China has more than three thousand years of recorded history, but misconceptions abound at every stage. Historian Justin Jacobs takes you on a thematic tour of four important topics in ancient Chinese history: relations with nomads, sacred mountains, the civil service exams, and the maritime voyages of Zheng He. Each lecture includes a rich, nuanced overview based on the latest scholarship and illustrated with copious slides.
Justin M. Jacobs, professor of Chinese history at American University, is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Plunder? How Museums Got Their Treasures.
May 1 China and the Nomads
For most of its history, China has fought, negotiated with, intermarried with, repudiated, and capitulated to the nomadic peoples who inhabit its northern peripheries. Jacobs provides a detailed overview of these contentious relationships, including those with the Xiongnu, Tabgatch, Mongols, and Manchus, in the process dispelling popular caricatures of “barbaric raiders” and highlighting the fundamental transformations occasioned by nomadic invasions.
May 8 Sacred Mountains of China
There are many notable mountains in China, some of which can tell us a great deal about Chinese civilization. This virtual tour visits two of the most famous sacred mountains in Chinese history: Mount Tai and Mount Emei. Emperors and imperial officials imprinted their legacy on the Confucian landscape of Mount Tai for more than two millennia; many Buddhist pilgrims have braved the misty slopes of Mount Emei in search of spiritual enlightenment.
May 15 The Chinese Civil Service Exams
Developed during the Tang dynasty (618-907) and institutionalized during the Song dynasty (960-1279), the Chinese civil service examinations constitute the world’s first standardized exams—and the first attempt anywhere to implement a large-scale recruitment process based solely on merit. Jacobs examines how this ambitious recruitment system worked, the career paths of those who passed it and those who didn’t but found ways around it, the content of the exams, and alternative paths to recruitment that persisted until the end of the imperial era.
May 22 The Maritime Voyages of Zheng He
From 1405 to 1433, the Ming dynasty eunuch Zheng He undertook seven extraordinary maritime voyages to the shores of Southeast Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, and even East Africa. This lecture will provide a comprehensive overview of these often-misrepresented voyages, revealing surprising historical precedents, examining why the voyages were commissioned by the emperor, and analyzing just what Zheng He and his fleet did and did not do in foreign lands.