Lecture Series: Introduction to China

This lecture series, produced for students of the first-year undergraduate subject Introduction to Asia: China and India at La Trobe University in 2013, provides an introduction to contemporary China through the lenses of geography, history, politics, economy, gender relations and popular culture. The lectures are tied together by several common themes, including China’s incredible geographic, ethnic and cultural diversity, it’s dual exceptionalist and wounded nationalism, and the Deng Xiaoping-era social bargain between the Communist Party and the Chinese people based on improving living standards in exchange for acquiescence to one-party rule.

For the first time, this lecture series has been made publicly available via iTunes U.

Thank you to my colleagues Dr James Leibold, Dr Yangbin Chen and Dr Can Qin for their input into this lecture series, to the wonderful people I have met during my travels through China, and to the students taking Introduction to Asia: China and India for their interest and enthusiasm.

Chinese new year holiday celebration at Bohai Park in Beijing.
Chinese new year holiday celebration at Bohai Park in Beijing.

Lecture 1: One China or Many China’s?

China is a country of enormous scale and rich diversity, the governance of which can be considered as one of the greatest social engineering projects in human history.  This lecture explores China’s geographic, ethnic, cultural and economic diversity and considers the challenges this poses to social cohesion, economic vitality and political stability.

Discussion Questions:

  • Are China’s geographic, ethnic, economic and environmental cleavages a strength or a weakness?
  • What does it mean to be “Chinese”, and what holds the Chinese state together?
  • What is the relationship between humans and the environment in modern China?

Lecture 2: Han Chinese Exceptionalism vs the Century of Shame

China is one of the oldest and richest civilisations in human history, traditionally occupying a central position in world affairs.  Yet China descended into a century of decline after the First Opium War, a period of chaos that saw the demise of the Qing dynasty and the descent of the post-dynastic nationalist republic into civil war.  This lecture documents China’s century of decline and evaluates the forces that shattered the old dynastic order and plunged the country into political chaos.

Discussion Questions:

  • How did China transition from a dynastic realm to a modern nation-state?
  • What factors contributed to China’s decline as a paramount power in world affairs during the nineteenth century?
  • What were the power dynamics that led to the Chinese civil war?

Lecture 3: Mao Zedong and his Political Legacy

Mao Zedong’s influence on governance, his legacy, and the reaction to it are integral to the story of politics in post-1949 China.  His accomplishments as a military leader and revolutionary are significant, however his record as a national leader if more ambiguous.  This lecture evaluates the Mao Zedong era and illustrates how Mao’s legacy continues to influence Chinese politics today.

Discussion Questions:

  • How did Mao Zedong approach the task of governing China?
  • What was Mao’s role in forging China’s current political system?
  • What is the relationship between the Communist Party and the state in China today?
Mao Zedong monument in Dandong, Liaoning Province.
Mao Zedong monument in Dandong, Liaoning Province.

Lecture 4: Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese Economic Miracle and the Communist Party’s Social Bargain

Since the inauguration of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform program in 1978, China has grown to become the world’s second-largest economic power.  It’s export-driven economic model has seen it become the locus of global economic production and the world’s largest creditor state.  This lecture examines the pivotal role of Deng Xiaoping in reforming China’s Mao Zedong-era command economy, tracing the contours of Deng’s reform program and identifying looming challenges ahead for China’s economic miracle.

Discussion Questions:

  • What were the deficiencies of the Mao-era command economy?
  • What changes were made to the command economy during the reform period?
  • To what degree does the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party hinge on continued growth of the Chinese economy?

Lecture 5: Gender and Family Relations in China

Gender and family relations in China have changed dramatically over the past century, reflecting the socio-economic and political transformation of the country from a feudal-dynastic realm under the Qing empire to a modern nation-state ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.  This lecture traces this evolution by comparing workplace, marriage and reproductive politics from the late dynastic period, Mao-era and post-reform China, identifying Confucianism, communist ideology and market forces as critical drivers of this change.

Discussion Questions:

  • What role does Confucianism play in Chinese family and gender relations?
  • How did communist principles and Mao Zedong thought change the role of women in Chinese society?
  • What are the contours of gender and family relations in China under the post-reform market economy?

Lecture 6: Youth and Popular Culture in China

Young people have been at the vanguard of every significant social movement in China for over a century, yet the youth archetype has changed significantly over this period.  This lecture explores what it means to be a young person in China today, examining the relationship of Chinese youth with the one-party state and the Communist Party’s grand legitimacy bargain, along with their interactions with the market economy and the world outside of China.

Discussion Questions:

  • How do Chinese youth relate to China’s history and national story?
  • Is youth culture a threat to the Chinese state?
  • How do Chinese youth interact with the internet?


See also my 2012 lecture series from this subject: Introducing Contemporary China.

The author, scaling the "Wild Wall" from Jinshanling to Simatai, July 2002.
The author, scaling the “Wild Wall” from Jinshanling to Simatai, July 2002.

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