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Family & Society in East Asia

Course Overview

This is a one-semester discussion-based course on East Asian identity from ancient times to the present. Employing techniques of Gender History and Cultural Studies, we will examine the ways in which Chinese, Japanese, and Korean conceptions of “masculine” and “feminine” have evolved in relation to a myriad of political and economic forces, as well as through the self-directed endeavors of people in this area to discover and express their “true” selves. After first going over the conceptual and social underpinnings of traditional East Asian gender roles via close readings of representative primary sources, the remainder of the course will engage recent scholarship to uncover how these roles have developed in the modern and contemporary eras. Particular emphasis will be placed on how national conceptions of identities are formed within a broader environment of transnational cultural consumption. Students will also compare and contrast East Asian gender roles over time, within the region, and with the United States. The course will conclude with student presentations on a self-selected research topic.

Course Content

Unit 1: Traditional East Asia

This four-week unit focuses on dominant Confucian-based gender roles within China, Korea, and Japan before these civilizations began sustained interactions with Europe in the 19th century. While the goal of this unit is to impress upon students that “traditional” East Asian gender roles rested upon a holistic social and philosophical system, emphasis will also be placed on how this system evolved over time, even before European arrival.

Unit 2: Modern East Asia

This four-week unit focuses on East Asia during the “modern” era, here narrowly defined as stemming from the late nineteenth century until the end of WWII. During this period Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans took an active role in selectively implementing aspects of the Western-originated modernization paradigm. Consequently, gender roles underwent a fundamental change. The dominant takeaway from this unit is that, during the modern era, gender and national identity became inextricably fused.

Unit 3: Cold War East Asia

The Cold War profoundly affected East Asia, splitting countries in two and bringing about new regional and international alliances. In this two-week unit focused on China, we first cover depictions of revolutionary femininity within the communist People’s Republic of China before turning to a 1950s case study on the capitalist Republic of China and Taiwan. By examining both “Chinas” from either side of the Cold War divide, students will gain appreciation for the ways in which individuals may at times lose agency over their identities, due to oppressive discursive forces.

Unit 4: Contemporary East Asia

Our final five-week unit will focus on the contemporary era. We start by transitioning away from the Cold War, looking at the experiences of North Korean refugees in South Korea and Hong Kong social workers in Mainland China. In both cases, uneven levels of development and lingering Cold War rhetoric frame these encounters not only under the lenses of “advanced” and “backwards” but also “masculine” and “feminine.” We close by drawing students’ attention to how capitalism has both liberated and confined gender expression, with a focus on China and Japan. The final week of the semester will be devoted to student presentations on their self-selected research topic.