Learning without thought is labor lost, thought without learning is perilous.
Heritage can be defined as what past generations choose to leave behind as history: stories of glory, tomes of traditions, epics of grandeur and heroes of yore.
If so, what are the things that are not passed down? How does it clash with what we currently know about our own heritage? Does it even matter?
The focus of this unit on ancient Chinese way of life is for students to unlearn aspects of heritage they think they know, and to rediscover the truths behind ancient China: essentially, a tripartite dialogue between one’s thoughts, unlearnings and relearnings about ancient China and the heritage left behind.
Firstly, students displayed their extensive knowledge (or at least they think it so) of ancient China through ‘Show & Tell’ items with perspectives consolidating into a statement: “Ancient China was an extremely powerful and mighty country.”
That’s when things got fun…
Through a “See, Think, Wonder” thinking routine, students analysed and provided explanations of a Tang dynasty painting. Mostly, students converged unto the interpretation of a “humble foreign ambassador of a different ethnic wear paying tribute to a mighty Chinese emperor”.
Correct, if it wasn’t so wrong.
Querying into the painter’s purpose behind the painting revealed an otherwise elusive truth: that China was not always the “extremely powerful and mighty country” it was, even during its zenith, the Tang dynasty.
Students questioned into the possibility of the painting being propaganda – connecting their prior knowledge of analysing WWII propaganda posters – painted to promote a false impression of the situation to one’s advantage.
Perhaps they were right.
As seen from the map, the Tibetan Empire during the Tang dynasty was a military juggernaut that even eclipsed the Chinese at times. In fact, they could make a ‘request’ (in fact a demand) for a Chinese princess; occupy the Tang capital Chang’an in 763, and even have the capacity to ‘request’ for Chinese state secrets: paper and silk technology (Twitchett, 2000).
Hence, students unlearnt the hegemony that was ancient China, and learnt that history really is, written by the victors.
Next, students explored the entrenched idea that China was the Emperor and the Emperor was China; the leader is the nation, and the nation is the leader: a story that has been ingrained into the masses by popular media nowadays.
The result was a dissonant dive into the “history from below”:
With their new perspectives of history as not only “a story of great men”, students paid tribute to the different social groups that contributed to the ancient Chinese civilisation.
Hence, students learnt that a rise of a civilisation does not depend on one sole man, but a chorus of collective contribution by every section within the orchestra called society.
To wrap up the unlearnings, more unlearnings!
Students dug deeper, and compared ancient Chinese social structure and family life to modern China’s.
Students discovered that unlike the modern society where businessmen are on the high parapets of society, ancient Chinese merchants were considered to be the scum of society because they do not produce anything, but merely make a living off others’ produce! How much you had in your wallet didn’t count as much as how much your farm yielded for the country!
Also unlike modern China, girls were looked down upon in ancient times, even murdered at birth (the girls in class went berserk at this point!) due to the high priority ancient Chinese placed on male predecessors!
Nefarious! Or just… different? Are we to judge?
At the end of the day, after the labor of learning and the toil of thought, it was the things that made one go “hmmm…” that shone through the students’ eyes and furrowed brows. It showed that heritage had been indeed unlearnt, and relearnt. Students will never see ‘heritage’ the same again, or ever take it for granted, for they have rediscovered their own.
How would you rediscover yours?
Twitchett, Denis (2000). “Tibet in Tang’s grand strategy”. In Van Derven, H. J. Warfare in Chinese History. BRILL. pp. 106–179.