Feasts and Phoenixes: Teaching China and Iran

Ruth Mostern and Sholeh Quinn | Nov 1, 2015

As faculty at a very small campus—the University of California, Merced—we are two of only seven historians. One of us (Ruth Mostern) is a scholar of China during the Song dynasty (960–1276); the other (Sholeh Quinn) studies Iran during the Safavid dynasty (1501–1722). In both time and space, our research would be contiguous—were it not for the Mongol empire separating us. We are in the closest fields among our campus's historians, and we are not only colleagues but also friends. In spring 2014 we developed and taught a new course, The History of China and Iran, 600–1600. This article explains how the collaboration happened and its outcomes.

Merced is the newest campus of the UC system, opened to students only in 2004. Its total undergraduate enrollment is just below 5,900. In this tight-knit setting, we discovered that whenever we chatted about our research and teaching, our conversations had a common trajectory. Often, one of us would dash into the other's office with an extraordinary image, and the other would exclaim with delight, "That's amazing! In my civilization, it's like this . . . ." We realized that we were becoming really excited about each other's work and the connections between our fields, but we also knew we could never go deeper as long as our conversations transpired only while we were standing in hallways and whispering during meetings. It was at that point that we resolved to teach a class together.

Iran, Ilkhanid Star Tile, 13th–14th century. Sailko, CC 2.5 Generic. Via Wikimedia Commons. This and the following image of contemporaneous decorative ceramics, with animals and flowers, are the kinds of works we shared with our students to allow them to engage in comparative visual analysis.One subject of this report, then, is the pleasures of team teaching. We loved working together, which historians do not do often enough. But that alone would not be sufficient reason to relate our experience. As soon as we began writing the syllabus, we realized that this course had probably never been taught before. As the semester unfolded, we discovered the extent of the direct and indirect connections between these two great Asian civilizations and the similarities and differences between the ways they grappled with common questions. Both societies confronted foreign conquest, pondered the meaning of the past, explored the nature of beauty, and launched religious revolutions. The second purpose of this article, then, is to make a case for teaching this particular course. The only reason courses like ours are not history department mainstays is that there is still not enough of a theoretical or pedagogical framework for comparing such histories. The last purpose of this article, therefore, is to explain the intellectual and conceptual framework of our course, which we hope will inspire others like it.

This course, which had few prerequisites, used a world-historical perspective to study China and Iran from 600 to 1600 CE through comparison and connection. We began with introductory and theoretical readings on comparative history as practice and method, and students were required to refer to those readings in writing assign­ments. We divided the rest of the course into two main chronological periods: the history of China and Iran up to the Mongol invasions, then the Mongol invasions and their aftermath. Each unit began with a week of textbook reading about each civilization. Subsequent weeks focused on themes we thought would be fun (food, poetry, and science) and also would give students a framework for comparison. Throughout the semester, the class asked why (until very recently) historians had studied each civilization nearly completely independently from the other, despite their physical proximity and the interactions between them over time.

At the same time, we found that even the most technical of academic studies could stimulate similarly successful discussions. For instance, we read Yokkaichi Yasuhiro's article "Chinese and Muslim Diasporas and the Indian Ocean Trade Network under Mongol Hegemony" (2008), which explains how Mongol rule transformed Eurasian trade networks and the Eurasian economy. The material was so novel and eye-opening, to us as well as our students, that the whole class was inspired to spend an hour unraveling the intricacies of Mongol currency policy. On the basis of end-of-semester student evaluations, the class was very successful, earning an overall rating of 6.6 on a 7-point scale. Students particularly appreciated the comparative framework, which was new to all of them. Some of the best things that happened were practically spontaneous. On the very first day of class, we shared two near-contemporaneous paintings of rulers and courtiers picnicking. While we expected to show them to the class and quickly move on, to our surprise, the images generated a lengthy discussion in which nearly every student participated. They analyzed the images' backgrounds, furniture, musicians, power dynamics, and more, all in a comparative fashion. Students were so inspired by the opportunities for comparison that these images offered, we spent nearly the entire class discussing them!

Wine Jar with Fish and Aquatic Plants, 14th Century. Brooklyn Museum, The William E. Hutchins Collection, Bequest of Augusts S. Hutchins. Via Wikimedia Commons.Inevitably, not every class meeting went perfectly. We had to adjust to teaching a class in which students were reading specialized material and primary sources without having taken relevant lower-division courses. We learned that students could engage in sophisticated and nuanced discussions as long as we introduced such topics through concrete examples. Biographies were consistently effective, and so were images. For example, when they compared the biographies of the 12th-century scientists and polymaths Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Shen Kua, students engaged in a wide-ranging and highly insightful discussion that touched on the body, the circulation of knowledge, the career arcs of medieval intellectuals, and the place of religion in learned life. By contrast, they struggled with topics for which more specialized background knowledge would have been helpful, such as poetry, which is always a hit in our nonconjoined classes.

We designed a final assignment that would reflect and reinforce the fact that the topic and format of the class were so novel. Since there is no textbook on this topic, we asked students to imagine themselves as experts who had been invited to write a textbook on the history of China and Iran between 600 and 1600. Acting as the publishers of "Mostern-Quinn Textbooks," we asked them to submit an introduction explaining why Chinese and Iranian history should be studied together, along with a bibliography of key works and a table of contents for the entire book. Students were to present these elements along with an attractively formatted page showcasing one or two images that included titles, background information, and captions. As one student wrote in the course evaluation, this was "a class that mixes teaching history with teaching how to actually do history."

We started the semester with two weeks of conceptual material. Among the readings we selected, the work that we thought would be the least accessible to undergraduates ended up having the most enduring impact on the class. This was eminent German historiographer Jörn Rüsen's article "Some Theoretical Approaches to Intercultural Comparative Historiography" (1996). We were fortunate that his theory and our practice reinforced each other. As he explains, comparison has to be done with precision and scale in mind. Students took this insight to heart. The article gave them the confidence to provide a theoretical justification to engage in comparison in more than a superficial way. Armed with these analytical tools, students understood why we made the phoenix and the simurgh, similar mythical birds of China and Iran, mascots for this class.

Ruth Mostern is associate professor of history at the University of California, Merced, and chair of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Graduate Group. She is author of Dividing the Realm in Order to Govern: The Spatial Organization of the Song State, 960–1276 (Harvard Univ. Press, 2011). Sholeh Quinn is associate professor of history at the University of California, Merced. She is author of Historical Writing during the Reign of Shah 'Abbas: Ideology, Imitation, and Legitimacy in Safavid Chronicles (Univ. of Utah Press, 2000).

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