Questions for Sima Qian II

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Questions for “The Account of Ta Yüan”

1.) Who are the Hsiung-nu people? Why do they present such a threat to the Han state?

2.) Prof. Heng in his lecture talked about the process of sinicization of the borders of the Han state. How does sinicization occur in this narrative?

3.) What is the relationship between the Emperor and his envoys?

4.) In what ways can we say that Sima Qian in his narrative gives us an early account of the ethnography of China’s “others,” or “barbarians”?

5.) How does the Han state court alliances with its neighbors?

6.) Pay attention to all the different cultural groups. How are they depicted?

7.) What are the emperor’s strategies for sending out envoys?

8.) What is the strategy of sending a Han princess to a foreign kingdom and a foreign kingdom sending a king’s first born to the Han court?

9.) Why does the emperor make a tour of his land and entertain foreign visitors?

10.) From p. 290-98, the narrative spends a considerable amount of time on the Ta-yüan affair. What Confucian moral lessons can we draw from this?

11.) In what ways does this chapter reflect the Han era’s increasing geographic expansion and trade?

12.) In what ways does Sima Qian present a early example of international relations, military engagement, and state diplomacy? Is it driven by the economy? What does China have that the “barbarians” do not, what do the “barbarians” have that the Chinese do not?

 

The Basic Annals of Emperor Kao-tsu

Shih chi 8 (pp. 105-46) presents the Basic Annals of Emperor Kao-tsu (202-195 BC). There are many names of places, tribes and people in this section which can make the reading difficult to comprehend.

The important thing is to keep track of the two protagonists:

  • The ‘hero’ is Liu Chi. He is referred to as Liu Chi at the beginning, then as governor of P’ei (pp. 110-20), then King of Han (pp. 120-33), then Supreme Emperor (pp. 133ff.). His posthumous name is Kao-tsu, ‘Exalted Ancestor’, and he is sometimes referred to by this name (anachronistically) in this section.
  • His adversary is Hsiang Yu.

Read the section carefully and consider the following for the seminar discussion.

From Prof. Steven Green:

The Supernatural

(a)What roles do the supernatural/ the divine play in this section?

(b)What differences do you observe between the ways that history/ historiography (representative of prose) and epic (representative of poetry) handle the topic of the supernatural?

Characterisation

The section opens by making clear-cut distinctions between the two protagonists: “Hsiang Yu was violent and tyrannical, while the king of Han practiced goodness and virtue”. To what extent is this polarisation reinforced within the narrative itself?

Didactic Import

(a)What different sort of moral lesson/ message does the narrative present, and to whom do you think they are presented?

(b)How similar/ different is the didactic mode to/from that found in RamayanaOdyssey or The Book of Songs?

Questions for Sima Qian

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Letter to Ren An

 What is the purpose of Sima Qian’s letter to Ren An?

 Sima Qian frequently mentions castration, saying there is no greater disgrace. In what ways does he try to mitigate this shame through the performance of writing?

 Sima Qian is concerned with his genealogy—his inheritance of his father’s position and his patrimony for his offsprings. In what ways can writing—the production of something in view of the future—be liken to biological reproduction?

 Whereas the composition of the Book of Songs maps the transition from orality to textuality, the world of Sima Qian is fully in the world of script. What are his thoughts on writing as an instrument of moral preservation and cultural transmission? In what ways can writing be used as an instrument of political ideology?

 If the paradigmatic statement is Chinese poetics is “Poetry expresses intent,” what would be the paradigmatic statement of Chinese historiography be?

 Multiple times in the letter Sima Qian refers to historical precedent in reference to his own condition (e.g. Zhongqi and Bo Ya on pg 228; Duke Ling of Wei and the eunuch Yong Qu on pg. 229; Xibo, Li Si, Han Xin on 234; Xibo, Confucius and Qu Yuan on 235 pg.). What is the rhetorical strategy of this?

 Sima Qian is concerned with families, moral virtues, good governance, and judgment. What ideas from PPT can we draw on to help us understand Sima Qian’s worldview?

From Prof. Steven Green:

The Basic Annals of Emperor Kao-tsu

Shih chi 8 (pp. 105-46) presents the Basic Annals of Emperor Kao-tsu (202-195 BC). There are many names of places, tribes and people in this section which can make the reading difficult to comprehend.

The important thing is to keep track of the two protagonists:

  • The ‘hero’ is Liu Chi. He is referred to as Liu Chi at the beginning, then as governor of P’ei (pp. 110-20), then King of Han (pp. 120-33), then Supreme Emperor (pp. 133ff.). His posthumous name is Kao-tsu, ‘Exalted Ancestor’, and he is sometimes referred to by this name (anachronistically) in this section.
  • His adversary is Hsiang Yu.

Read the section carefully and consider the following for the seminar discussion.

The Supernatural

 (a)What roles do the supernatural/ the divine play in this section?

 (b)What differences do you observe between the ways that history/ historiography (representative of prose) and epic (representative of poetry) handle the topic of the supernatural?

Characterisation

The section opens by making clear-cut distinctions between the two protagonists: “Hsiang Yu was violent and tyrannical, while the king of Han practiced goodness and virtue”. To what extent is this polarisation reinforced within the narrative itself?

Didactic Import

(a)What different sort of moral lesson/ message does the narrative present, and to whom do you think they are presented?

(b)How similar/ different is the didactic mode to/from that found in RamayanaOdyssey or The Book of Songs?

Chinese Book of Songs

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Hi everyone!

One more week before Week 7! For our unit on early poetry, we conclude with the Chinese Book of Songs (Shijing, 詩經). The assignment for my seminar is a bit different than the one posted on the syllabus. For Monday, please read:

1.) Waley, The book of Songs, Poems: 1-11, 14, 23, 26, 78, 81, 82. Those with some knowledge of Chinese might wish to consult the original text on this site.

2.) the “origins of poetry” episode in the beginning of the Ramayana.

 3.) the Great Preface in “Criticism and Theory” by Steven Van Zoeren

4.) another version of the Great Preface in Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, by Stephen Owen. The text below the translations (indicated by a different font and below the line) is the explanation by Owen, a Professor of Chinese Literature at Harvard.

The documents for the last three readings may be accessed here. I will bring hand-outs to class.

Questions for blog posting:

1.) How does the Great Preface articulate the relationship between the interior mind and its expression in language?

2.) How does the Chinese account of the function of poetry compare to those in the Ramayana and the Odyssey?

 3.)  How can music be used to arrange human relationships? How can we understand, on the one hand, music and poetry as a spontaneous expression of the individual, and on the other, a force of control and instrument of instruction by the body politic? Any connections with the PPT readings?

4.) Thought experiment: Imagine we are archeologists and we discover these poems. We do not know anything about its date, authors, or geographical location, or cultural context. Based on the poems themselves, how might we reconstruct the society that it depicted? What do the poems tell us about its life-world? Choose one or two poems and explain what we can gather about its social context.

5.) As you remember from Prof. Mira Seo’s lecture, scholars have applied the theory of “oral-formulaic composition” to Homer. How might we think of the Book of Songs (Shijing) as also composed through oral-formulas? Explore with reference to one or two poems.

6.) As Stephen Owen, a well-known scholar of Chinese poetry at Harvard, writes in his foreword to the Arthur Waley translation: “Scholars have often expressed puzzlement that early China, unlike so many other cultures, has no epic, in which some central myth of the people is shaped into a narrative whole. In Chinese literature The Book of Songs occupies the place where Western notions of literary history assume an epic ought to be. However, when we reflect on the nature of The Books of Songs, we find in it a different vision of wholeness. The Book of Songs is a work that attempts to embrace every aspect of its world: the dead ancestors and the living, past history and present, men and women, the ruling house and the common people. . . The anthology constitutes a whole without possessing any simple unity. Moreover, its wholeness has an ideological basis which would preclude the possibility of epic. Epic unity demands a focus that speaks from one group and excludes other voices: the voices of the common people, the voices of women, voices from all aspects of life outside the heroic ethos.” (xv-xvi). What do you make of this claim? Give examples from the poems which express the multiplicity of voices within the social order.

7.) The most apparent differences between the Sanskrit and Greek epics that we have read and the Chinese Book of Songs are the latter’s brevity and seeming simplicity. As such, it gives us a great opportunity to look at what we might call the “anatomy of lyric.” With this in mind what are some of the fundamental building blocks or units of these short poems, for example, patterns of repetition, imagery? Explore with reference to one or two poems.

The end of the poem: Books 21-24

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1.) The description of the bow in Book 21 (15-40) contains yet another digression. In what ways is this a mini-Odyssey again?

2.) Note that O. reveals himself Eumaeus by means of the scar. It is a “living proof” of the master’s identity. Cf. with Eurycleia.

3.) When Odysseus strings his bow, the simile used is “like an expert singer skilled at lyre and song / who strains a string to a new peg with ease.” Unpack this imagery. What relationship is shown in likening an archer to a poet?

4.) How do the suitors react to the unveiling of O.’s disguise? Eurymachus tries to negotiate with him, “we’ll recoup your cost with a tax laid down upon the land, covering all we ate and drank inside your halls.” O. rejects this offer. Why is monetary compensation insufficient?

5.) In what ways does the slaughter of the suitors bring the violence of the battlefield, and in a sense a recapitulation of the plunder of Troy, back to the home front?

6.) At knife’s edge, Phemius the Ithacan bard pleads clemency to O. in 22.355ff. He says, “[I] sing for gods and men, I taught myself the craft, but a god has planted deep in my spirit all the paths of song.” In what ways is this a meta-poetic moment?

7.) O. says “it’s unholy to glory over the bodies of the dead” (22.437) and orders his son and servants to scrub down the chairs and tables “with sponges rise them clean.” “Bring sulfur, nurse, to scour all this pollution, bring me fire too, so I can fumigate the house.” (22.509-10) In what ways does this represent a ritual cleansing, a purgation, after the orgy of bloodshed?

8.) Not only does O. kill the suitors, he spares no mercy to the maids either. O. hangs them, and the lines vividly describe the manner of their deaths, “as doves or thruses beating their spread wings / against some snare rigged up in thickets . . . they kicked up heels for a little—not for long.” Pretty ghastly. What do you make of this?

9.) The recognition/ reunion scene between O. and Penelope is extremely important. Think about the recognition scene before with Telemachus, the Dog, the Nurse, and the Eumaeus. Penelope is skeptical and tests him. How and why? What “living proof” and “strong clear signs” does she need?

10.) Book 1 proper begins with Zeus invoking the tragic homecoming of Agamemnon. The last book of the poem begins with us meeting Agamemnon in Hades (we met him already in Book 11). He discourses at length on the burial rites of Achilles. Why? In other words, why does Book 24 have a scene in the land of the dead?

11.) The recognition/ reunion scene between O. and his father is equally important. O. in 24.260 debates in his heart and head, “what should he do now? Kiss and embrace his father, pour out the long tale. . . or probe him first and test him every way?” He decides the latter. Why? What “signs, some proof” does Laertes demand?

12.) Eupithes, the father of Antinous calls O. and his crew “murderers of our brother and our sons” and demands revenge. The island is about to erupt in civil war. Athena is clearly troubled and doesn’t know what to do. Zeus replies, “let us purge their memories of the bloody laughter, of their brother and their sons. Let them be friends, devoted as in the old days. Let peace and wealth come creating through the land” (24.535-8). What does this tell us about the problems of homecoming and the restoration human order? Is it peace ever possible? Is the only path of reconciliation divine intervention and intentional oblivion?   What do you make of the ending of the poem?

Odyssey Books 17-20 Reading Questions

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Dear all,

congratulations on finishing your first paper for LitHum! I look forward to reading them and I'm sure i'm going to learn a lot from them. This week we finish our reading of Homer (that went quick, right?) Here are the reading questions for Monday.

As a reminder, you are requested to do a blog post once a week. For tomorrow, you can answer the questions below, the questions I posted for Books 13-16 last week, or come up with your own ideas. The posts are supposed to be around 200 words or less. These are very low stakes assignments that are only for the sake of getting your thinking started. I'm not expecting any magisterial, polished gems, only your rough, initial thoughts that will get our seminar conversation started.

1.) Pay attention to the different scenes of recognition: Odysseus and Telemachus (16.200ff.). Odysseus and Argos (17.315ff.). Odysseus and the nurse Euryclea (19.400ff.). The scene with Odysseus and his Nurse is a famous one in world literature. What’s the process of recognition here? Why this digression into the boar hunt? What does this episode reveal to us about Odysseus’ rite de passage?

2.) Why does Odysseus chose to disguise himself as a beggar? Why not some other role? How might this impersonation deepen the poem’s exploration of the guest-host relationship?

3.) How do the suitors—and other inhabitants of Ithaca—treat this stranger? What does it reveal about their “inner hearts”? What do we learn of the social class on the island?

4.) Books 17-20 seem the more “realistic”—in the sense that the gods hardly make an appearance—what do you make of the absence of the divine? What’s the image of society that portrayed here?

5a.) In 19.48 Odysseus tells his son that “I’ll stay here behind to test the women, test your mother too.” How does he test him? What does he find out? Do they pass?

5b.) In 19.246, Penelope herself decides to test Odysseus, “Now stranger, I think I’ll test you.” How does she test him? What does she find out?

6.) What’s the tale that Odysseus weaves for Penelope (19.195)? How does it compare to his previous Cretan tales? (what he tells Eumaeus in 14.228ff.)

7.) Pay attention to this beautiful simile: “As she listened on, her tears flowed and soaked her cheeks / as the heavy snow melts down from the high mountain ridges . . .” (19.235) Or this vivid one: “but he himself kept tossing, turning, intent as a cook before some white-hot blazing fire who rolls his sizzling sausage back and forth. . . ” (20.28-31). We have talked a little about their functions in seminar. There are many striking ones in today’s reading. Any thoughts?

8.) Remember that at this point Odysseus has only revealed himself to his son. In what ways is Telemachus now being trained as a master tactician? What kind of father/son bonding is happening?

For September 4

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Hi everyone!

Odysseus’ autobiographical voyages are so rich that we’ll spend a little more time in class on Books 9-12 on Thursday. In particular, I’m interested in discussing his journey to the underworld and the temptation of the sirens. So please re-read these passages. We will not be having presentations. Instead, Pareen and Clin will lead discussion, just as Sarah and Crystal did on Monday.

In the last 20 minutes of class, we will continue to work on our papers. Please take a look at the worksheet that I distributed on Monday (attached below again) —we will discuss it in pairs.

Here are some questions for Books 13-16. Since papers are due on Saturday, no need to post on Thursday!

1.) Why does Athena always appear in disguise, for example, 13.255ff.?

2.) Why does Odysseus himself appear in disguise? What sort of story does he spin this time?

3.) In 14.182, Odysseus, in disguise, says, “I hate that man like the very Gates of Death who, ground down by poverty, stoops to peddling lies.” In what ways is Odysseus being extremely ironic here?

4.) What sort of story does he spin for the swineherd (14. 228ff)?

5.) In Book 15, a strange man appears—Theoclymenus (line 285). Who is he and what is he doing in the story?

6.) What parallels are there in Theoclymenus’ story and how Eumaeus became a swineherd?

7) Pay attention to the marvelous simile of Eumaeus and Telemachus, “As a father, brimming with love, welcomes home / his darling only son in a warm embrace” (18.16). Notice that this is in the presence of Odysseus. What does this say about the relationship between fathers and sons in the poem?

Happy reading!

First Paper Workshop worksheet

 

Odyssey Questions Books 6-12

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What do you make of the boundaries between humans and gods in the Odyssey? What rituals and distinctions are observed when humans and gods meet?

Who are the Phaeacians? What kind of society do they have? Their lifestyle? Why are they so nice to Odysseus?

What do you make of the erotic interplay between Nausicaa and Odysseus?

8.300ff: The bard sings the adulterous tale of “the Love of Ares and Aphrodite” which does not seem to portray the gods in a very kind light. How might this be a reflection on the mortal world? Is this an instance of the poem as a narrative “fractal” (a thing that reveals repeating pattern in every scale)?

8..100-110: As the bard sang his tale, “Odysseus, clutching his flaring sea-blue cape in both powerful hands, drew it over his head and buried his handsome face, ashamed his hosts might see him shedding tears.” Why does we weep?

“The Homeric simile” is one of the defining features of the poem. Look up its definition. The one in 8.586-600, one of the most beautiful, Odysseus weeps again. Rather surprisingly, he is described as “a women weeps, her arms flung round her darling husband, a man who fell in battle. . .” There seems to be a gender as well as victor/defeated reversal here. Why?

Why does Odysseus tell his own autobiographic story in books 9-12? Why not have the poet himself narrate it? How trustworthy is Odysseus in his tales?

What kinds of women does Odysseus meet on his journeys? What is the power dynamic between Odysseus and these women?

The episode of the sirens: what do these enchantresses promise? Why are they so beguiling? In what ways does Odysseus get to have his cake and eat it too?

The blinding of the Cyclopes: this is one of the most celebrated episodes in the poem. What does this reveal to us about “cultural difference” or “the Other”? In what ways are Odysseus’s actions a demonstration of his metis? (Greek word for cunning, intelligence.)

What are Agamemnon and Achilles most concerned with in the underworld?  How might this relate to the themes of the poem so far?

What other examples of “narrative fractal” or moments of meta-poetic self-reflexivity can you find?

A Word About Discussions and Presentations

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I have mostly lead the discussions of the Ramayana and modeled for students how to ask questions and how to close read a text. From the Odyssey forward, students will now be sharing in this responsibility in order to become more independent learners. So for every text we read, there will be a couple of students who will act as discussants and presenters.

The role of the discussants is to be the professor as seminar leader! You take my place for around 20-minutes, you set the agenda and lead the conversation about the text. You will read through the readings questions that I post on the blog before every class, read through the students’ posts, and craft a lesson plan. Before the class, we will have a quick “huddle” session and go through the game plan.

The goal is to cultivate a good conversation through understanding the text by close-reading. A good strategy is the “zoom-in,” “zoom-out” method. Begin with a big idea, then try to explore it through a close, fine-grain analysis of a short passage of the text.

The role of the presenter is to be the professor as lecturer! The week before, I will give you some scholarly materials to work on, and you are to deliver a 10-minute presentation to the students. The purpose is to provide historical knowledge that helps us understand the text in a deeper way. After that you will lead a 10-minute question-and-answer period.

Assignment for Monday, September 1.

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Hi everyone! Hope you’re enjoying The Odyssey. It’s a fabulous poem to read after the Ramayana. I read it when I was a freshman in college years ago, and it’s part of the reason why I’m a literature professor today! I’m glad to be re-reading it now with y’all (as we say in Texas)!

1.) For those of you who have not commented on your classmate’s questions, please do so. During Friday or Saturday, I will offer my own comments to the students’ questions.

By Sunday night (9 p.m. at the latest), I ask that you reflect on these comments and generate a new, revised question that you will use for your essay. Please then provide one paragraph explanation of why you think this is a good question for helping us understand the text, and a second paragraph on how a close-reading of the episode you have chosen will help you answer this question.

2.) For this week, I ask that all students post on the Homer readings for both Monday and Thursday. For the Monday one, you can answer any questions from Books 1-12.

On Monday, Sarah and Crystal will be leading discussions on selected episodes of Books 9-12. We will then spend 30-40 minutes on a workshop of the paper questions.

On Thursday, Pareen and Mei will give a presentation on some aspect of the poem.

The revised schedule for presentations and discussions are posted on this page here. In the next two posts, I will follow with reading questions as well as give some guidance on these roles.

Reading questions for the Odyssey, Books 1-5

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NB: The proper way to cite Homer’s lines is by book number followed by verse number, i.e. (10.60-80). Be sure to write “gods” and not “Gods.” The Odyssey, like the Ramayana, is an epic, not a novel! Be sure not to make this generic mistake in your writings.

1.) The opening verses of epics are extremely important. What does the proem tell us about its values and what it cares about? How is Odysseus described?

2.) Why does the narrative proper begin with the counsel of the gods? What sort of politicking do they do? Is it reflective at all of the situation “down below”—in the human world? What powers do they have and not have?

3.) Pay attention to Zeus’s first lines, “Ah how shameless—the way these mortals blame the gods. / From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes, but they themselves, with their own reckless ways, compound their pains beyond their own reckless ways” (1.36-40) What does this tell us about free-will and determination in Homer’s world?

4.) Look up the background stories of Aegisthus and the house of Agamemnon. Why is everyone always talking about them?

5.) How does Athena appear to Telemachus? Why does she appear in disguise?

6.) Pay attention to the bard Phemius in Ithaca—what does Homer do in this meta-poetic moment? Cf. Valmika’s etiology of poetry with shoka and shloka.

7.) Why does Telemachus leave home? Who does he visit and what does he learn about his father? What are the various ways of remembering and story-telling that are presented in his different visits?

8.) What sort of guest-host relationship is established when Telemachus visits his father’s comrades?

9.) What's political situation like in Ithaca in Odysseus’ absence?

10.) Pay special attention to Helen in Book 4. How does she cope with the traumas of war? In what ways are her strategies of remembering and, more importantly, deliberate forgetting, “defense mechanisms”?

11.) Odysseus finally appears to us in Book 5—why this delay? Where is he and why is he crying?

12.) One nineteenth-century scholar proposed a theory that a female poet had written the Odyssey; what about the poem’s representation of women might have inspired this theory?