Great Lakes History Conference – Oct 20-21

As some of you know, this year I will be coordinating (with Mike Huner) the Great Lakes History Conference. This conference is hosted by the Grand Valley State University History Department, and this year the theme is how historical research and the public intersect. The hope is to get historians thinking about reaching new audiences both inside and outside the classroom, and we are pretty darn proud of our poster!

We hope to have 10-15 sessions running October 21 and 22, along with a keynote address on the global WWI by Dr. Michelle Moyd, an associate professor of history at Indiana University – Bloomington.  The site is GVSU’s Eberhard Center in Grand Rapids, MI, and the surrounding area is beautiful to visit during late fall (recently named to Outside Magazines best towns ever list)! For those interested in submitting an abstract, they are due July 15 and you can find the call for papers here. And for anyone interested in attending to learn more about how historical research reaches classrooms or the public, please note that this conference has no registration fees! I will be sure to pass on information about registration once it opens, and until then, contact info can be found in the call for papers or through the form at the bottom of this post. Have a great summer, and hopefully I’ll see some podcast listeners at the Great Lakes History Conference in October!



I’ll be presenting at the World History Association at their annual meeting in Ghent (July 2-5). The paper will deal with the relationship between podcasting and world history, and why I think the two are uniquely well suited to one another. Message me if you are attending and maybe we can meet up for some delicious Belgian beer! I’ll try to post conference updates as well. Cheers!

Teaching the Swahili Coast

Map of Swahili Coast

Getting Started

From about 1000-1500 CE, the Swahili coast was one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world. Located along the Indian Ocean between Somalia and northern Mozambique, the region was home to dozens of small city-states which vied for control over lucrative trade routes between the African interior and the Middle East, India, and China. Ibn Battuta, a famous global traveler, visited Kilwa in 1331 and wrote that it was “one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world.”1 For world history instructors, the Swahili coast is a fascinating early example of global connections.

Textbook publisher have done an excellent job of describing these connections. Patterns of World History uses a detailed map to illustrate the trading links, but in the text focuses on the spread of dissident forms of Islam to the Swahili coast. This helps integrate this part of the world into the textbook’s overall framework of “religious civilizations.” Traditions and Encounters places greater emphasis on economics. An excerpt from Ibn Battuta describes how hospitality lubricated the wheels of commerce, and an image of a 15th century piece of Chinese porcelain found in Dar es Salaam provides a concrete example of the extent of the Indian Ocean trade. Panorama touches briefly on the significance of the Swahili language and its incorporation of Persian and Arabic loanwords, while Worlds Together Worlds Apart is the only textbook to mention Madagascar. The northern part of the island likely experienced the arrival of migrants from both the East African coast and the islands of Indonesia during the first millennium CE, and is described as one of the most multicultural places on earth at that time. It has far less to say about the rest of the Swahili coast, however.


A dhow along the East African coast. Source: Wikipedia

My Original Lesson Plan

Thanks to my specialist background, I had access to a different source than a generic world history textbook. In this case, a generic African history textbook! Africa in World History is written by two specialists on Islam, and Erik Gilbert is a historian who has extensively studied seaborne trade along the East African coast. Their chapter on “East Africa and the Advent of Islam”2 thus became the basis for my first class on the subject. Gilbert’s background led him to emphasize environmental factors in the origins of the Swahili. He feels the coastal city-states would not have emerged without the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean. These winds blow out of the northeast from November to April, and then transition to the southwest from May to October. This makes rapid downwind sailing possible from the Middle East and India to the Swahili coast in as little three weeks, but makes a return voyage impossible until the winds have shifted. This led many merchants to take rooms in Swahili towns while waiting for the winds to shift, and some even married into local families. Cultural exchange was greatly intensified by the monsoon winds.

My class then learned about the arrival of Islam, which we can date to 780 CE thanks to Horton’s excavation of a small mosque in Shanga. I described the importance of export commodities like ivory, gold and slaves, and following Gilbert and Reynolds included a brief description of how chattel slavery in the Middle East came to an abrupt end after the Zanj Rebellion in the 9th century. This would have reduced trade along the coast to an extent, but the discovery of gold in Great Zimbabwe created a significant boom after 1000 CE. I explored the depth of these global connections through a segment entitled “The Shanga Lion” on p.125 of Africa in World History. The students reading this excerpt learned about a small statue found in Shanga. It was made of copper from China, depicts an African lion, uses Indian artistic styles, and likely functioned as a weight for measuring currency. This segment does an excellent job conveying just how cosmopolitan the Swahili coast was, but sadly no image accompanies the excerpt. The class then finished with a description of Kilwa, focusing on the spectacular architecture of the Husuni Kubwa palace as well as the Great Mosque. From the beginning I enjoyed teaching this class, and I think students got a great deal out of it. Few knew that any place on earth, let alone sub-Saharan Africa, was so “global” during this early time period.

Zanzibar Stone Town today

Zanzibar Stone Town. Source: Wikipedia


The Specialist Literature

Much of the specialist literature on the region debates how much Swahili culture is borrowed from the wider Islamic world and how much is indigenous. This debate was extremely heated in the mid-20th century, when nationalist scholars challenged older imperial narratives that described the Swahili as Arab colonists. This was important at the time, but it led to an opposite overreaction which tended to minimize any borrowed cultural elements. Scholars and textbooks are now in general agreement that the Swahili borrowed extensively from Africans, Indians, and Arabs alike.3

The more vibrant debate today surrounds the significance of Islam. World history textbooks often seek to explain the rapid expansion of the Islamic world, but it is very interesting that the faith rarely spread more than a few miles from the Swahili coast before 1500. While Islam is a global religion, it did not necessarily sweep away the faiths of people living inland. Dave Bresnahan’s research on Swahili linguistics suggests an alternative past – kusoma, for example, means “to read” today, but its original Bantu root likely meant “to stutter.” Muslims were not held in awe, even though they brought powerful new technologies like writing with them.4

This topic became a challenge when I started trying to teach more historical skills. Classes about trade can become a list of items changing hands, and that is rarely interesting. Fortunately, there is another debate on the Swahili coast that may be more intriguing to students. This involves the ongoing efforts to integrate archaeological, linguistic, and even genetic data into the historical record.5  In a region where historians have only a fragmentary written record, how do we know what we know?

I find this a fascinating entry point to studying the Swahili coast. What can linguistics tell us about the origins of the Swahili? How do we know that Islam arrived in Shanga in 780 CE? How can we piece together the relationships between the urban centers and hinterlands? How do we reconstruct daily life in the towns during this time period? All of these are questions that help students learn how history is made, and give them a better understanding of how historians use evidence. The following exercises are meant to foster this approach while teaching the Swahili coast.

Suggested Classroom Exercises

Exercise on the Swahili Language – Assign the chapter “A Grand Smorgasbord of Borrowings and Adaptations” from Mugane, The Story of Swahili. Have the students read this chapter while keeping an eye out for several key words; these could include mabati and mayai (from original Bantu languages), maziwa and ngonzi (borrowed from Cushitic speakers), rangi and kufuli (borrowed from Hindi), duka and dirisha (borrowed from Persian), chai and kanisa (borrowed from multiple languages), madaftari and dawa (borrowed from Arabic), and bendera and gereza (borrowed from Portuguese). In class, have the students discuss what historians can take from these examples of linguistic borrowing. What do they tell us about the history of the Swahili? What might be some challenges historians face in using this kind of evidence? Be sure to emphasize how languages often borrow new words for things or ideas that they do not have themselves.

Historical Skills = Evaluating Evidence, Historical Significance

Global Themes = Cultural Contact

Image of the Shanga Lion Retouched

Exercise on the Shanga Lion – Divide the class into groups of two. Give one person a drawing of the Shanga lion (pictured above) and give the other Gilbert and Reynolds’ analysis of it. Have the student with the image of the Shanga lion act as an archaeologist discovering the item for the first time. Ask them to come up with a list of questions about the lion, which they can then ask their partner. After getting a response, have the first student come up with a meaning for the Shanga lion. The students should be given a chance to compare their ideas with those of the experts, with a focus placed on how experts come up educated guesses but how these are far from certainties.

Historical Skills = Evaluating Evidence

Global Themes = Making History, Cultural Contact

Exercise on the city of Kilwa – Divide the class into groups of 4 or 5 and give each group access to the key written sources on the Swahili coast. These could include Ibn Battuta’s account, an excerpt from Gilbert and Reynolds6 that summarizes the Arabic history of Kilwa, and one of the Portuguese sources from the 1500s.7 Ask the students to analyze these documents as a group and create a picture of life in the city of Kilwa. Once the students are done ask them what they know a lot about from the written sources. Make sure you point out how little these sources tell us about the day to day life of people living in the city. Then give each group a copy of MacGregor’s “Kilwa Pot Sherds” and an excerpt from Fleisher and Wynne-Jones’ article on “Finding Meaning in Swahili Spatial Practices.” This article includes a full report on a recent excavation at Songo Mnara, a small town located adjacent to Kilwa. Have each group finish their report using these new sources. Conclude by asking the class how archaeologists improve our understanding of the past.

Historical Skills = Evaluating Evidence

Global Themes = Making History

Kilwa Pot Sherds

Kilwa Pot Sherds. Source: British Museum


  1. Erik Gilbert and Jonathan Reynolds, Africa in World History, 2ed (New York: Pearson, 2008), 132
  2. Gilbert and Reynolds, Africa in World History, 117-135
  3. Nicely addressed by Mapunda in MacGregor, “Kilwa Pot Sherds,” from A History of the World in 100 Objects, (New York: Viking, 2010), 389
  4. Dave Bresnahan, “To Read, To Write, To Ridicule: Knowledge and expression in early Swahili history, c.1000-1500 CE,” presented at Early Maritime Cultures on the East African Coast, Madison WI, October 23-24, 2015
  5. Jeffrey Fleisher and Stephanie Wynne-Jones, “Finding Meaning in Ancient Swahili Spatial Practices,” African Archaeological Review (2012) 29: 171-207
  6. Gilbert and Reynolds, Africa in World History, 130-131
  7. A good option is Duarte Barbosa’s account, taken from McKay et al, Understanding World Societies, 1ed, (New York: St. Martin’s, 2012), 504-505

More Conferencing!

For those of you in the Madison area, I will be attending two conferences there this weekend. The first is the Costume Society of America Midwest Symposium, where I will be assisting my wife as she presents on the All-American Girl’s Baseball League! And the second is “Early Maritime Cultures on the East African Coast,” hosted by the famous African Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Stop by and say hi if you’re around!

Presenting at the Great Lakes History Conference

For those of you in the Grand Rapids area, I (Dave) will be part of a panel discussing world history at the Great Lakes History Conference – the subject is Africa and Latin America in Michigan’s world history curriculum. We will be out at the Kirkhof Center on GVSU’s Allendale Campus. Our panel is at 10:15 am on Saturday but lots of other events going on Friday as well; a full schedule is here. Feel free to stop by and say hi!

Teaching Easter Island

Map of Easter Island Source: Google Maps

  • Author’s note: This is the second of a series of subject guides aimed at world history instructors. We have recorded a podcast on the subject which will be available in a few weeks.

Getting Started

Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui) is located 2,250 miles from Chile and over 1,300 miles from the nearest Polynesian settlement. A mere 14 miles across at its widest point, Easter Island is a speck of land in the vast Pacific Ocean. And yet, when Europeans first arrived on its shores they encountered a complex society which had not only survived but flourished, as evidenced by the massive monolithic heads (moai) dotting its shores. How had island been settled? How had they managed to build the moai without modern tools?

The moai of Easter Island Source: Wikipedia

The moai of Easter Island
Source: Wikipedia

World history textbooks approach Easter Island in a variety of different ways. Patterns of World History includes a full page on Thor Heyerdahl, a famous Norwegian archaeologist who sought to prove that Easter Island was settled from Peru.1 In 1947 he sailed across the Pacific from South America to Polynesia in a balsa-wood raft called Kon-Tiki, demonstrating that such voyages were possible. Voyages in World History focuses on the navigational techniques of the Polynesians, and suggests they were able to reach South America. They also mention the moai, but note that construction ceased around 1600 CE, when an environmental crisis triggered by deforestation led to widespread conflict. Traditions and Encounters provides a more detailed account of this collapse, suggesting that rapid population growth from 1100-1500 led to the exhaustion of the island’s resources. The results were social divisions, violence, and eventually cannibalism. This narrative has become part of the big history curriculum, which includes Easter Island under the subtitle “overconsumption.” While the textbooks are careful to acknowledge the skill of Polynesian navigators, Easter Island is generally treated as a cautionary tale of environmental collapse.

My Original Lesson Plan

Reed Chart from Marshall Islands Source: Library of Congress

Reed Chart from Marshall Islands
Source: Library of Congress

I taught Easter Island in my earliest HST 101 course. While prepping for the course I became fascinated by the navigational skills of the Polynesians. Their double outrigger canoes could travel 100-150 miles each day, carry 18,000 pounds of cargo, and relied on the stars for navigation. I briefly mentioned Easter Island as the furthest eastern extent of Polynesian exploration. Several years later, I added a “Reed Chart from the Marshall Islands” from the Patterns of World History source book to show students how aware Polynesian navigators were of things like prevailing winds and ocean currents. I made a point of calling the Polynesians “bad-ass” for their exploratory voyages into the unknown, but I left it at that and moved on to more pressing topics like the Babylonians and Mycenaeans which I covered in the same lecture.

The Specialist Literature

I began to delve into the specialist literature on the Polynesians while putting together a summer reading list. After pulling a number of African history books from the chapter bibliographies of an early edition of Worlds Together Worlds Apart, I decided to include a few other monographs. One of these was Patrick Kirch’s On the Road of the Winds. This fascinating overview of the archaeological and linguistic evidence on the early Polynesians piqued my interest in the subject, especially a map of the “arcs of exploration.” The map made it into my powerpoint, and it led me to include the “Against the Grain” text on Heyerdahl in my newest version of HST 101. Easter Island thus became the focal point for an entire 50 minute class.

Map of Polynesian Exploration Source: Kirch, On the Road of the Winds

Map of Polynesian Exploration
Source: Kirch, On the Road of the Winds

Although Heyerdahl’s 1947 voyage receives most of the attention, he energetically sought to prove that Easter Island had been home to South Americans who brought plants and artistic traditions with them. He even argued that Polynesians may have been captured and brought to Easter Island to work for these South American lords (now called Hanau Eepe or “long ears”). According to Heyerdahl, the Polynesian “short-ears” (Hanau Momoko) rebelled and massacred their overlords at the battle of the Poike ditch in the 17th century. No convincing evidence for these events has emerged, and Kirch dismissed Heyerdahl as someone who “was never taken seriously by scholars…”2 But Heyerdahl forced researchers to question some of their assumptions about the settlement of Easter Island. This led to Flenley and Bahn’s The Enigmas of Easter Island, which was explicitly written to counter Heyerdahl as well as the more unconventional thinking of Erich von Däniken. Flenley and Bahn sought to balance an appreciation for the ingenuity of the Polynesians with a more sobering account of environmental destruction. They used a combination of pollen records and radiocarbon dating to show Easter Island was settled around 400 CE by a small Polynesian population which lived in harmony with the environment for several centuries. Around 1100 the moai were constructed and the population expanded. Gradually the forests that covered the island were stripped bare, leading to complete ecological collapse by 1650.

Ahu Tongariki Source: Wikipedia

Ahu Tongariki
Source: Wikipedia

Flenley and Bahn’s major contribution was to contend that Easter Island was “a microcosm, a miniature model of the planet Earth.”3 This bleak insight was taken further by Jared Diamond. In his book Collapse, he suggested that the massive labor required to build the moai was the cause of Easter Island’s environmental crisis. Like Flenley and Bahn, he placed the blame squarely on the Polynesian inhabitants, asking “what did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?”4 To Diamond, Easter Island was a society that refused to make the cultural changes needed to preserve its resources. The parallels to the modern world, he writes, are “chillingly obvious.”

This grim picture, however, has not gone unchallenged. Flenley and Bahn published the original edition of their book in 1992, and a great deal of research had taken place since then. It is summarized in Hunt and Lipo’s The Statues That Walked. They use new radiocarbon dating to demonstrate Easter Island was settled hundreds of years later than originally assumed, likely around 1200 CE.5 Errors also persist with regards to the cause of deforestation, which was far more likely to have been caused by a massive influx of Polynesian rats (rattus exulans) eating palm nuts than human activity.6 Hunt and Lipo painstakingly describe the numerous ways the island’s inhabitants adapted to survive as the forests shrunk, including protected gardens (manavai) and lithic mulching which enabled a small population of about 3,000 people to survive.7 Even the violence triggered by the ecological crisis remains elusive – the archaeological record contains no purpose-built weapons prior to the arrival of Europeans, only the all-purpose obsidian “flakes” call mata’a. While these are certainly sharp, they are also asymmetric, heavy, and far better at cutting and scraping fibrous plants than killing other human beings.8 Hunt and Lipo paint a very different picture of Easter Island. If it truly is a metaphor for planet Earth, they suggest the people living there possess a remarkable capacity for cooperation, ingenuity, and survival.

Hunt and Lipo contend that the “collapse” Diamond describes took place after Europeans reached the region. They argue that a desire for Western goods began to replace worship of the ancestors, that sexual encounters with Europeans started an epidemic of venereal diseases, and that the rumors of cannibalism were used by Christian missionaries to demonize the islanders ‘heathen’ past. Ranchers who brought in thousands of sheep and forced the Polynesians to work for them completed the devastation of the environment.9 In effect, Hunt and Lipo suggest that Diamond, Flenley, and Bahn are guilty of blaming the victims of Western imperialism for its consequences. This is a crucial insight, but sadly it has not found its way into the majority of world history classrooms.

Anakena Beach Source: Wikipedia

Anakena Beach
Source: Wikipedia

Suggested Classroom Exercises

Contrasting Arguments – Have half of the class read Diamond’s “Twilight at Easter” and the other half read Hunt and Lipo’s “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of ‘Ecocide’ on Rapa Nui” as homework. The first group should provide a summary of Diamond’s argument, and identify the key pieces of evidence he uses to make his case. The second group should examine how Hunt and Lipo critique Diamond’s argument. The focus should be on how arguments are constructed and whether Hunt and Lipo make a convincing case that Diamond’s interpretation is wrong.

Historical Skill = Assessing Progress and Decline

Global Theme = Environmental History, Making History

Creative Thinking – Have the students get into small groups and read Lizzie Wade’s article on the origins of sweet potatoes. Ask them what Polynesian navigators would have needed to know in order to reach South America. The idea is to get the students thinking about winds, currents, stars, sea birds, and ocean swells. Let them be creative – the goal is to give them an appreciation for how resourceful and brave these explorers were.

Historical Skill = Historical Empathy

Global Themes = Exploration

Hoa Hakananai'a Source: British Museum

Hoa Hakananai’a
Source: British Museum

Hoa Hakananai’a – Have the class read MacGregor’s “Hoa Hakananai’a” or listen to it as a podcast. They should be asked what this statue reveals about the history of Easter Island. The students will note that the island was settled from 700-900 CE, that the small population constructed numerous statues without the aid of modern tools, and that this statue-building ended around 1600 due to a major ecological crisis. They should also note that this ecological change was etched into the statue in the form of carved Birdman figures, which were placed on the statue after it was moved to a new location. This could be used as the starting point for a larger discussion on the ecological changes which took place on Easter Island. Have the students use their laptops/smartphones/textbooks to learn what they can about the ecological crisis. If they discover that the Easter Islanders are held responsible, introduce them to Hunt and Lipo’s explanation which focuses on the role of Polynesian rats as well as the ingenious forms of cultivation created by Easter Islanders. Also, be sure to draw the student’s attention to the very end of MacGregor’s chapter, which briefly describes the arrival of the HMS Topaze in 1868. Make sure the students learn about the arrival of Europeans after 1722, who spread disease, destroyed the remaining indigenous flora and fauna, and engaged in blackbirding (slave raiding).

Historical Skills = Evaluating Evidence, Establishing Significance

Global Themes = World Religions, Imperialism

Doves vs Hawks – This exercise is based on chapter 6 (pp.93-107) from The Statues That Walked. Make cards for each student with equal numbers marked “hawk” or “dove.” The student should keep this card hidden. With a pen and pencil, they should walk around the room and encounter other students – each encounter is worth 10 points that represent the benefits of cooperation. If a “dove” meets a “dove” both gain 5 points and move on. If a “hawk” meets a “dove” the “hawk” intimidates the latter and gains all 10 points. But if a “hawk” meets a “hawk,” a fight happens. Using rock/paper/scissors or a flipped coin, the “hawks” determine the winner. He or she gains the full 10 points. However, as a cost of combat, the loser suffers injuries that result in a net -30 points. After a limited number of encounters (around 10 or 15) call an end to the game and have each side total up their points. It is likely that the majority of the top scores will belong to doves as opposed to hawks. The idea is to encourage the students to look beyond the Hobbesian scenario outlined by Diamond and think more about the benefits of long-term cooperation.

Historical Skills = Historical Empathy

Global Theme = Violence


  1. von Sivers et al, Patterns of World History, 2ed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 146
  2. Patrick Kirch, On the Road of the Winds, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 238
  3. John Flenley and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island, 2ed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 201
  4. Jared Diamond, Collapse, (New York: Penguin, 2011), 117
  5. Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, The Statues That Walked, (New York: Free Press, 2011), 22-23
  6. Hunt and Lipo, The Statues, 27
  7. Hunt and Lipo, The Statues, 53
  8. Hunt and Lipo, The Statues, 98
  9. Hunt and Lipo, The Statues, 147-175

Teaching the Tang Dynasty


Tang Dynasty Map

Map of the Tang Dynasty c.700

Image Source: Wikipedia

  • Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of subject guides aimed at world history instructors. These will start with a look at what popular textbooks have to say on the subject and describe a past lesson plan we have used in the classroom. The guide will then examine more specialized writing and offer some exercises aimed at “unpacking the textbook” or making the topic more engaging.

Getting Started

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) receives a great deal of attention in world history textbooks. Its “cosmopolitan culture”  is the main reason for this focus.1 However, there are significant disagreements over what aspects of this dynasty are most significant. Patterns of World History uses the Tang Dynasty as the first Chinese example of what it calls an “overtly religious civilization,” defined as a world region whose states are united by a shared monotheistic or monist faith.2 For this reason they look at connections between the Tang and the wider Buddhist world, primarily via the Silk Road. Traditions and Encounters focuses more on economic changes within China itself, primarily the impact of the Grand Canal (built earlier under the Sui), fast-ripening Champa rice, the equal-field system, and the growth of new industries. However, they start the chapter with a section on Xuanzang’s remarkable journey to India (from 629 to 645) to gather Buddhist relics and scriptures, an approach mirrored in Voyages in World History. Voyages in World History as well as Traditions and Encounters have excellent sections on changes to Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty, particularly the growth of the indigenous Pure Land and Chan forms. Voyages in World History also includes a document comparing the original Sanskrit story of Maudgalyayana with the translated Chinese form.

I would argue the best account of the Tang comes from Worlds Together Worlds Apart. It combines an excellent socio-economic summary with detailed looks at the exam system, Empress Wu, and the eventual resistance to Buddhism inspired by essayists like Han Yu. Worlds Together Worlds Apart suggests that the revised exam system, open to people from all backgrounds, ushered in a more egalitarian social order. It also states that Wuzong’s persecutions of Buddhism in 845 ultimately enabled the “triumph of homegrown ideologies (Confucianism and Daoism) over universalizing religion (Buddhism).”3

My Original Lesson Plan

I taught this subject during my first year as an assistant professor, and I was completely overwhelmed. Having neglected to prepare a formal lecture, I divided the class into groups and gave each a list of key terms. They were instructed to find them in “Chapter 10: New Empires and Common Cultures” of Worlds Together Worlds Apart, identify their significance, and then present these key terms to the rest of the class. Three of the eight total key terms dealt with the Tang Dynasty, and they were “The Battle of Talas River,” “Empress Wu,” and “Han Yu.” These key terms were accompanied by a question that the group had to answer as well – for Empress Wu this question read “Why did Empress Wu make civil examinations so crucial to career advancement? What impact did this have on China?” and for Han Yu I asked “Why is Han Yu significant to the history of the late Tang Dynasty?” That was it. These classes were always fun to teach, since I could spend my time circulating between the groups and responding to questions. The lesson also encouraged the students to rapidly analyze secondary sources and explain the historical significance of particular people or events, a useful historical skill. However, the class was entirely dependent on the textbook, and given my lack of knowledge of East Asian history prior to the 19th century, I could add little to what my students were reading. I understood that the Tang Dynasty was important, but I knew very little about what was happening beneath the surface.

Small Wild Goose Pagoda

Small Wild Goose Pagoda, built c.709 in Chang’an

Image Source: Wikipedia

The Specialist Literature

To get a better sense of the scholarly debates on the Tang Dynasty, I read China’s Cosmopolitan Empire by M.E. Lewis. This book is part of a series focused on imperial China, and reinforces the textbooks on a number of crucial points. First, he confirms that Empress Wu, as the first female Chinese ruler to rule in her own name, is badly misrepresented by the Confucian historians of the period. Second, he argues that Tang China was part of a larger Sinicized world linked by both a non-alphabetic script and Mahayana Buddhism. And third, he notes that Buddhism became an integral part of Chinese spirituality at this time, even among people who may not have seen themselves as Buddhists. As the title of the book indicates, he supports the general portrayal of the Tang as a thoroughly global and cosmopolitan society.

However, he diverged from the textbook accounts on several key points. Lewis contends that “the examination system cannot account for the decline of the great families in the Tang…” which is a significant departure from the textbooks cited above.4 He also demonstrates in real terms what Buddhism meant to ordinary people and how they reshaped (or indigenized) the religion. Like Voyages in World History and Traditions and Encounters, he argues the Chan and Pure Land schools “represented a new willingness to discover Buddhism’s truths and ultimate ends in personal experiences…rather than in the textual legacy of an alien land.”5 However, Lewis accompanies this with a detailed account of The Scripture on the Ten Kings, a set of rituals which developed during the Tang. These incorporated Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian elements into a form of purgatory where the souls of the deceased are judged before being reborn.6 The final aspect of the Tang Dynasty that Lewis analyzes more effectively than the textbooks is the architecture of the imperial capitals Chang’an and Luoyang. Lewis includes numerous maps to provide a real sense of what life in the city would have been like, the most impressive of which is a map of major religious establishments of Chang’an which places Buddhist, Daoist, Zoroastrian, and Nestorian Christian sites all across the city.7

Other scholars have addressed the artistic contributions of the Tang Dynasty. MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects contains a chapter on figurines from the tomb of a Tang-era official named Liu Tingxun. He uses these to demonstrate how materials and trade wealth from all around the world reached China along the Silk Road, but he also mentions Chinese conceptions of an underworld where bureaucrats would present a “case” for the deceased to supernatural judges. This can be linked to The Scriptures on the Ten Kings and religious changes set in motion by the arrival of Buddhism along the Silk Road.

A final aspect of the Tang Dynasty of interest to world historians is the controversial rise to power of Wu Zetian.8 There is general agreement between Lewis and the textbooks that despite the hatred evident in many Tang-era sources, she was a capable and fair ruler.9 However, an additional source which reveals the continuing ambiguity of her legacy in China is Dash’s article for the Smithsonian Magazine. He notes that her tomb, erected during her life, contains a giant stone memorial upon which she expected a magnificent epitaph to be carved. However, after her death it was left blank, and remains so today. As with many powerful women, it is a struggle for historians to find the real person underneath the layers of hostility in the sources.

Empress Wu

Empress Wu Zetian (624-705)

Image Source: Wikipedia

Suggested Classroom Exercises

Exercise on Chang’an and Luoyang – Divide the students into small groups and then give each group a set of seven maps from Lewis.10 Ask the students what these maps can tell us about the Tang Dynasty, and then give them some time to discuss possible answers. They will likely mention the numerous and diverse religious institutions, the highly restricted market areas, the grid pattern in Chang’an, and the waterways bisecting Luoyang. Use these answers as a starting point for a brief lecture on the origins of Chang’an, the Sui construction of the Grand Canal, the establishment of the Tang, the growth of long-distance trade (with other parts of China as well as along the Silk Road), and the presence of an effective administration (which was able to force people to live in walled neighborhoods within the city itself).

Historical Skill11 = Evaluating Evidence

Global Theme = The Significance of Architecture

Lewis Map Chang'an

Map of major religious establishments of Chang’an

Image Source: Lewis, China’s Cosmopolitan Empire, 93

The Tang Tomb Figures and Buddhism – Have the class discuss their homework, which is episode 55 of A History of the World in 100 Objects (available as a podcast). They should be asked to determine what the tomb figures tell them about the Tang Dynasty. They will likely mention the influence of the Silk Road and the great wealth on display, but may not pick up on the theme of the underworld. Use this to start a brief lecture about the arrival of Buddhism in China, including a description of Xuanzang’s journey to Nalanda to obtain original Sanskrit Buddhist texts for translation. However, note that the closing of the Silk Road in the later Tang as well as the encounter of Buddhism with other Chinese forms of spirituality (especially Confucian rituals and Daoism) led to unique patterns of spiritual development. In order to demonstrate this religious syncretism, explain how the underworld was a combination of Buddhist ideas of rebirth with Chinese ideas of judging the deceased, and how these were combined in new ways in The Scripture on the Ten Kings

Historical Skill = Identifying Continuity and Change

Global Theme = World Religions

Tang Tomb Figures

Tang Tomb Figures, c.728 AD

Image Source: British Museum

The Tang Tomb Figures and the Examination System

Note the presence of bureaucrats among the tomb figures, and explain that Tang China had a far more sophisticated system of administration than anywhere else on earth. After describing the selection process via exams, provide the students with a brief primary source describing (in humorous terms!) the stresses of the exam system.12 Ask the students whether they think impartial, standardized exams enable social mobility. Using the textbook, they will probably say that they do, but be sure to caution them that Lewis and other scholars feel the impact of these exams was minimal. primarily because the best prep schools only accepted the children of high-ranking officials, papers were not presented anonymously, students often had powerful patrons who lobbied for them, and the most important section of the exam was lyrical poetry (an art-form extremely popular among the Tang elite). It might be possible to use this section to start a discussion on how well standardized tests like the SAT and ACT encourage social mobility.

Historical Skill = Establishing Significance, Historical Empathy

Global Theme = Class Conflict

The Rise of Wu Zetian – Mention Empress Wu greatly expanded the exam system, primarily because she was reviled by most Confucian scholars as both a powerful woman and a major Buddhist patron – have them read Dash’s article in class and ask them to work in groups to write the missing epitaph on her tomb. Be sure to limit them to a relatively small word count so they have to think hard about what to include, and finish with a discussion of ways historians can try to piece together a representative account when the sources are so obviously biased.

Historical Skill = Evaluating Evidence, Assessing Progress and Decline

Global Theme = Gender and Society

Empress Wu Tomb

The “Uncharactered Stele” at the Qianlong Mausoleum, built to honor Wu Zetian

Image Source: Wikipedia


  1. Tignor et al, Worlds Together Worlds Apart, 3ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 340
  2. von Sivers et al, Patterns of World History, 2ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 352
  3. Tignor et al, WTWA 3ed, 348
  4. M.E. Lewis, China’s Cosmopolitan Empire, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009), 202
  5. Lewis, China’s, 223
  6. Lewis, China’s, 191-194
  7. Lewis, China’s, 86-101
  8. Dora Shu-Fang Dien, Empress Wu Zetian in Fiction and in History, (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2003) covers this issue in great detail.
  9. Lewis, China’s, 35-38
  10. Lewis, China’s, 87, 89, 93, 96, 98, 99, 100
  11. These skills are based on Stephane Levesque, Thinking Historically, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009) and include evidence, continuity and change, progress and decline, historical empathy, and significance. These will be described in further depth in a future post.
  12. Tignor et al, WTWA, 3ed, 393 has an excellent example that I have used in several versions of my HST 101 class.  It reads “In the Southern Court they posted the list. (The Southern Court was where the Board of Rites ran the administration and accepted documents. All prescribed forms together with stipulations for each degree category were posted here.) The wall for hanging the list was by the eastern wall of the Southern Court. In a separate building a screen was erected which stood over ten feet tall, and it was surrounded with a fence. Before dawn they took the list from the Northern Court to the Southern Court where it was hung for display. In the sixth year of Yuanhe (AD 811) a student at the University, Guo Dongli, broke through the thorn hedge. (The thorn hedge was below the fence. There was another outside the main gate of the Southern Court.) He then ripped up the ornamental list (wenbang). It was because of this that afterwards they often came out of the gateway of the Department (of State Affairs) with a mock list. The real list was displayed a little later.” Other examples can be found in Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, ed. P.B. Ebrey, (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 128-131.