China has more than 3,000 years of recorded history, but misconceptions abound at every stage. This series takes you on a thematic tour of four important topics in ancient Chinese history: religion, ethnicity, law, and eunuchs. Justin M. Jacobs, a professor of Chinese history at American University, gives you a nuanced overview based on the latest scholarship and illustrated with copious slides.
Jacobs is the author of The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures. He recently completed a 24-episode series on UNESCO World Heritage Sites for The Great Courses and is currently conducting research on the voyages of Captain Cook in the Pacific.
Please Note: Individual sessions are available for purchase.
May 24 Religion in Chinese History
China has a rich and diverse religious tradition that dates back to the 13th century B.C., when oracle bones—part of the shoulder bone of an ox or a piece of tortoise shell—were used for divination. Jacobs examines many types of supernatural worship, from deified ancestors to river gods to Taoist and Buddhist deities. He also looks at Taoist efforts to achieve immortality, the evolution of conceptions of the soul, and changing views of the netherworld.
May 31 Ethnic Identity in Chinese History
The Chinese people are often perceived as a relatively homogenous ethnic group, but the reality is far more complex and surprising. Jacobs analyzes the earliest ideas regarding civilization and barbarism, the crucial role of northern nomads and their creation of the ethnonym “Han,” and just what it meant to be considered “Chinese” or “Han” in different places and times throughout history.
June 7 Law and Punishment in Chinese History
China is heir to one of the oldest legal codes in the world, one that has been continuously adapted for more than 2,000 years. Jacobs discusses the ideological assumptions that informed the code, including views on class, gender, and politics. He reviews fascinating criminal cases that were deemed so consequential that the emperor himself was forced to weigh in on the judgment.
June 14 Eunuchs in Chinese History
Long despised by the Confucian elite and grossly neglected by historians, eunuchs often appear as little more than a demeaning caricature in narratives of Chinese history. Jacobs details the everyday lives of imperial Chinese eunuchs and explains why they were so politically indispensable despite rhetorical denunciations of them. He also examines the traumatic life cycle of a eunuch from birth to employment to retirement.