The Dao of Secularism: Political Transformation and Secular Values in 20th Century Asia

by Michael Lestz, Associate Professor of History, Trinity College

I. Course Description:

In the 19th century, societies across the Asian map were governed by autocratic states that derived their legitimacy from religious or meta-religious worldviews and their accompanying ideologies. In China, the dynastic state based its legal and institutional framework on Song Neo-Confucianism; in Vietnam and Korea, Confucian monarchies, likewise, dominated the state. In Cambodia and Thailand, dynasties found legitimacy from the Hindu notion of the “god king” (devaraja). And in Japan, a hybrid mixture of Shinto and Confucianism provided a template for imperial and Shogunal rule.

These traditional schemes of legitimacy vanished in the twentieth century. Struggles against colonial rule, revolution, and complex post-colonial conflicts about the appropriate nature of the state yielded new states. Communism, development dictatorship, democracy, or military rule were the dominant political templates for the states that emerged in the ruins of the traditional order.

Within these states, secular values often motivated dramatic acts of personal sacrifice and passionate devotion to goals such as national unification, socio-economic transformation, and resistance to real and perceived forms of oppression. In addition, there was often an explicit renunciation of the traditional values as they were deployed in the political arena.

At the same time, however, the bedrock of the Confucian, Buddhist, or Shinto past continued to channel the “dao” or “way” of secular states.

Using memoirs, novels, documentary material, and historical monographs, this course will investigate the intellectual fabric of such powerful secular commitments in a number of Asian societies. The course will be formed around the lives of particular historical actors, revolutionaries, humanists, soldiers, and proponents of secular change, in China, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and perhaps other East and Southeast Asian societies.

This course will be a senior seminar and will be offered during the 2010-2011 academic year.

II. Bibliography (abbreviated/*starred titles to be ordered or duplicated for the course):

  1. Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War, Penguin, 1996.
  2. David Chandler, Voices from S21, Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison, University of California Press, 2000.
  3. Dang Thuy Tram, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, Harmony Books, 2007.
  4. Dower, John W. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York:  W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.
  5. Lloyd Eastman, The Abortive Revolution: China Under Nationalist Rule, 1927-1937, Harvard University Press, 1974.
  6. Bernard Fall, Ho Chi Minh on Revolution and War, Selected Writings 1920-1966, New American Library, 1967.
  7. Kazuo Kawai, Japan’s American Interlude, University of Chicago Press.
  8. Joseph Lau, The Analects of Confucius.
  9. Joseph Lau and Howard Goldblatt, The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, Columbia University Press, 2007.
  10. Michael Lestz, Pei-Kai Cheng, and Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, A Document Collection, Norton, 1999.
  11. Michael Lestz, Fascism in Republican China, 1924 to 1938, ms.
  12. Michael Lestz (trnsl.) Zhou Daguan’s A Record of the History and Customs of Cambodia (Zhenla Fengtuji), ms.
  13. Li Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story (2 vols),
  14. Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father, Harper Collins, 2000
  15. Mao Zedong, Collected Writings of Mao Zedong,
  16. Nikolai Ostrovsky, How the Steel Was Tempered
  17. Philip Short, Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, Macmillan, 2006.
  18. Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China, 1937.
  19. E. L. Voynich, The Gadfly, International Book and Publishing Company, 1900.
  20. Frederic Wakeman and Richard Edmonds, Reappraising Republican China, Oxford, 2000.
  21. Mary Wright, China in Revolution, The First Phase, 1900-1913, Yale University Press, 1971.

III. Class Schedule:

Week I: The Confucian State: China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan

  • *Selections from Lestz, Cheng, and Spence.
  • *Joseph Lau, The Analects of Confucius

Week II: The Xinhai Revolution of 1911 and the Republican State in China

  • Selections from Lestz, Cheng, and Spence
  • Mary Wright, (selections) including:
    • Ernest P. Young, “Yuan Shik-k’ai’s Rise to the Presidency.”  pp. 419-442.

Week III: Fascism in China

  • *Lestz, Fascism in China
  • Eastman, The Abortive Revolution (selected chapters)
  • Wakeman and Edmonds, Frederic Wakeman, A Revisionist View of the Nanjing Decade: Confucian Fascism, pp. 141-178

Week IV: Confucianism and the Yan’an Way in Northern Shaanxi

  • Dai Qing, Wang Shiwei and “Wild Lilies,” 1994. pp. 3-21
  • Ding Ling stories: Lau and Goldblatt, When I Was in Xia Village, pp. 132-146 and In the Hospital
  • Liu Shaoqi’s How to Be a Good Communist (nine sections):
  • Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Art and Literature:

Week V: The Plight of Korea: The Creation of New State Orders Below and Above the 38th Parallel in the Wake of Japanese Colonialism

Week VI: Occupation Japan: The MacArthur Constitution and the American-sponsored Invention of a New Constitutional Order

  • *Dower
  • Kazuo Kazai (selections)
  • documents

Week VII: Communist Revolution and Its Acolytes in Vietnam After 1954

  • Bao Ninh (selection)
  • *Dang Thuy Tram, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace
  • Ostrovsky (selection)
  • Voynich (selection)

Week VIII: Singapore and Li Kuan Yew: The Emergence of a Denatured Confucian Autocracy

Week IX: The Buddhist State: The Cambodian Variant

  • *Lestz,
  • Zhou Da Guan’s Zhenla Fengtuji

Week X: Sihanouk’s, the Devaraja System, and Development Dictatorship

  • Sihanouk memoirs

Week XI: The Pol Pot Experiment; A Communist State Founded on the Ruins of Angkor

  • *Chandler,
  • S-21 *Short selections

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