History class on Chinese culture still accepting students

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Staff Writer

   China is a cultural goldmine, much of which remains unknown to the average American beyond Netflix movies, Anthony Bourdain and news reports about digital sunsets in Beijing. A new class starting late in the semester offers an examination of Chinese culture that might help broaden the average American’s perspective.          

   While it does make for a fascinating environmental experiment to have a city of more than 11 million double its population in little more than a decade, the capital city of China only represents 6,400 of the 3.7 million square miles belonging to the People’s Republic. Surely there is more going on in China than a burgeoning population in the capital city.

   Ke Ren, now a history professor at IU South Bend, is from Xi’an city in the capital of the Shaanxi province. It is one of the oldest cities in China and has its own rich culture. Ren is a historian of modern China who is teaching a history on post-Mao Tse Tsung, post-socialist, pro-capitalist Chinese culture.

   He double-majored in economics and history at UC Berkeley before getting his doctorate at Johns Hopkins. Ren hopes to further Sino-Western relations by promoting diplomatic concepts like transnationalism and cosmopolitanism.

   Ren’s course will highlight tangible milestones for contemporary Chinese culture. The focus of Ke’s doctoral research was a late 19th century Chinese diplomat who wrote about Confucian patriarchy and gender relations in French publications.

“This was exceptional for a Chinese diplomat at that time,” he said.

   The course will also teach students about China’s shift away from socialism toward a more capitalist, market economy with privatization of companies. Ren says the Chinese refer to the time period since 1976 as the “period of reform and opening, which we are still in.”

   Western economic models have worked for China not only from a functional standpoint, but also culturally, he said.

“Once you let in the market economy, it is not just factories that produce clothing and food, it is also record labels, publishers, internet since the mid-1990s, a number of certain Hollywood films that are allowed into China that creates a reaction on the Chinese directors in terms of what they want to do with their movies.”

When asked what he hopes to accomplish with the course, Ren said, “It will make people think about china in a different light. Cultural history is informed by people who have studied China as anthropologists, as political scientists, as literary and film scholars and of course this kind of journalism stuff. Things have really changed in the last 35 years, a lot.”

In addition to learning the history of cultural China, students will also get to learn about more recent cultural figures that are comparable to names like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the course will be the focus on the Chinese intellectuals who stand up to the authoritarian state, for example Liu Xiaobo, winner of a 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to lead the non-violent struggle for human rights in China.

The class will touch on some hot-button political and social aspects of modern China as well. Ren points out that, “As china gradually became more confident and embedded in the global system, for example joining the WTO [World Trade Organization] in 2001, you had more of a sense of nationalism.”

Class inequality is another reality to address when learning about modern China.

“There are 200 to 300 million migrant workers who are Chinese nationalists but don’t have official status in the cities. They are the labor force behind China’s national growth and don’t have access to resources like education or housing. We want to show students what their culture is like.”

HIST-T 190 begins today and will meet from 8:30 to 9:45 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays due to the shortened semester. Ren says late registrants to the class will be welcome. Interested students should contact their advisor or the registrar as soon as possible to enroll.

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