Student Leads Class on Ancient Chinese History

KO student Charles Zhao ’22 took the reins in the Empires and Republics class and led an engrossing, well-researched class on the ancient history of China. As a native Chinese, Zhao taught the lesson from a Chinese perspective so that the students had a different vantage point in understanding the rich culture. Zhao felt it was not only important for the students to learn about his culture, but he also believed that it was important for him to give back to the KO community by teaching the lesson.

Zhao told the class, “I used to think that history was boring, but after a while, I understood that non-fiction can be more interesting than fiction. History is a time machine that allows you to experience more than one kind of life.”

Starting from the Shang Dynasty (1700-1027 bc), marked by its writing system on oracle bones, Zhao pointed out the notable achievements and characteristics in the various dynasties: Zhou (1046-256 bc), Qin (221-207 bc), Han (206 bc -220 ad), and Tang (618-906 ad). He related that the idea of China emerged in the Zhou Dynasty with the use of bronzeware and bamboo. During this era, feudalism dominated with a highly hierarchical society with the emperor with the most power, followed by the lord, noblemen, and peasant. Zhao discussed the friction between Confucianism, legalism and Taoism which defined Chinese thinking and philosophy for living. Confucianism restores the tradition and the good; legalism expresses an attitude of innovation and invention; Taoism reflects that nature will influence everything. The standardization in units, roads, and a writing system during the Qin Dynasty led to a stronger trade system. The Tang Dynasty, considered the peak of Chinese cultural influence, saw the rise of cities five times the size of a Roman city and the advent of block printing.

Zhao punctuated the class with questions to his classmates and asked them to think critically of how the unification of the country and standardization of measurements impacted the Chinese culture and economy over the centuries. He discussed how powerful remnants of the ancient culture i.e. the importance of examinations for government positions is felt still in Chinese society today.

While Charles spent a lot of time preparing to teach, he was most impressed by his classmates’ readiness to answer correctly the questions he posed...the same questions that took him days to ponder and understand. "The students' participation was greater than I expected. All their answers showed that they were digging deep and using the things I talked about to consider their gorgeous answers. They were very advanced in talking about the philosophies and the unification of the country, " he said. Zhao said that some of the ideas that are very authentic and unique to Chinese culture, like philosophy, the students tackled with sophistication despite not having background knowledge. He was also proud that he could keep most of the class's attention for the hour.

Zhao plans on starting a Chinese culture club on campus to increase students' understanding of the country's rich heritage. 
Empires and Republics class reviews the emergence of civilizations in early Mesopotamia and its development in Egypt. Throughout the course, the importance of non-western civilizations is emphasized. Students explore the political, intellectual, economic, religious and artistic contributions of each culture.
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