The Open Empire is a textbook that is assigned for the 114 survey course in Chinese history. Since I’m an assistant for the course, I thought I’d get ahead with the readings, starting with a general overview of the history that I hope will be useful grounding for the subsequent primary source readings. Hansen makes some bold claims in the introduction that she’s doing something different with the book. I’m not sure how different some of these broad points are . . . every newish text on China asserts that it, unlike others, is not portraying China as a static, closed entity based entirely on dynastic succession. But I guess it’s worth stating when that view prevails anyway (as does the idea that the reflection of the ocean makes the sky blue)—such misconceptions are difficult to dislodge.
It is interesting that she makes, as a primary focus, the disputed elements of dynastic succession, or the contested archaeological finding s, particularly (for me) in the period between 2000 BCE and maybe 500 CE. This is a period about which I know very little, in any context (save a rough idea of the Middle Eastern world)—I certainly know very little about European settlement and travel at this time. Hansen tantalizingly suggests a European/Caucasian settlement in region of Xinjiang between 2000 and 500 BCE. Not only is this pretty darn cool, but so are the unusual sculptures of Sichuan. These include a mask with stylings that look like Canadian first-nations art (ie. Haida), and a “tall priest” sculpture which looks like no art I’ve ever seen before. While I’m sure there are scholarly treatments of these nuggets, they are not yet overtold in the general history of China, and as a result seem excitingly new.
What Hansen really attempts to do—which may be different from most traditional textbooks—is include unusual sources to give a better glimpse into the lives of women, minorities, travelers, and other folks who don’t make it into the written histories of Sima Qian and his successors. I will be interested to see what elements of the textbook students attend to most, and what they think of the general tone.