Foundations of East Asian Literature and Culture: From Confucius to the Beats

Today we have the luxury of reading more literatures in more languages than ever before, giving us the opportunity to explore the great diversity of what is called “literature” across the time and space of world history. This course introduces you to some of the most seminal and thought-provoking texts from East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam), and is conceived as complementary to the Foundations of Western Literature course in the Literature curriculum. We persistently ask how “literature” looks different when viewed through the literary heritage of East Asia: what does poetry written in Chinese characters accomplish that alphabetic poetry cannot? How does Buddhist reincarnation change the way you tell stories and devise novels? Why is Japan the world’s only major literature where female authors dominated certain literary genres as early as the 11th century? How did the complex interplay in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam between high-brow literature in the cosmopolitan language of Literary Chinese, and vernacular or popular literatures expand the possibilities of literary expressivity, gender figuration, and identity play? What was it that made American avantgarde writers of the Beat generation so ecstatic about classical Chinese and Japanese poetry? 

Our strategic journey through East Asian literatures and cultures will take us through philosophical master texts such as Confucius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi; Tang poetry; China’s classical novels such as Journey to the West; Japan’s female-authored tales and diaries, such as The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book; Korea’s classical novel The Nine Cloud Dream, and the heart-wrenching pansori play Song of Ch’unhyang. To enhance your ability to appreciate these rich texts and to speak and write about how they matter to us today, we will also draw on films, venture into creative exercises, and work on a translation project. All readings are in English, no language skills are required.