Using “Reacting to the Past” to teach Neo-Confucian politics

This past semester I decided to include a modified version of the Reacting to the Past module “Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wanli Emperor, 1587” in my course on Neo-Confucianism.Reacting to the Past is a pedagogical approach that enables students to engage in sophisticated role-playing based on moments of historical crisis. In the “1587” module, students play roles of the Wanli Emperor, his First Grand Secretary, and various other Grand Secretaries. I found that it was a splendid way for students to learn about Neo-Confucian political theories and to put into practice what they had learned throughout the course. Intrigued by the prospect of witnessing impassioned student debates over the relevance of Yao’s decision to abdicate to Shun (instead of Yao’s own son), about the problems of factionalism, or about the comparative importance of reforming institutions versus reforming the leader’s character? Then read on.

The full “1587” module as envisioned by its authors (Daniel Gardner and Mark Carnes) is designed for 9 class sessions, including two devoted to the Analects at the beginning. Because I was fitting this in to an already full syllabus looking at all aspects of Neo-Confucian philosophy, and because by the time we got to this my students already had a great deal of background on Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism, I decided to dramatically shorten this, down to two and a half sessions. I imagine that a longer version would be great, but I was quite satisfied with my compromise.

If you’d like to look into this, start out by buying a copy of the student book and registering (for free) with the RttP Consortium. Once you have registered, you’ll be able to access the Instructor Materials for the module. This will tell you about the other recommended student book orders:

  • Confucius, The Analects. Trans. by D.C. Lau. New York: Penguin Classics, 1979.
  • Huang, Ray. 1587, A Year of No Significance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.

and also let you download the Instructor’s Manual, the Role Descriptions, and some other materials. (In my case, I made the decision to do this very much at the last minute, with no time to order additional books. I was saved by the fact that Wesleyan’s library had access to Ray Huang’s book electronically, so I was able to assign a few chapters that way; and I provided the students key parts of the student book as PDFs.)

We proceeded as follows. Session One took up about 20 minutes towards the end of a class otherwise devoted to discussion of the “Governance and Institutions” chapter of Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction. The key points of this session were:

  • Go over the rules to the game.
  • Assign roles. I did this randomly, passing out printed Role Descriptions to each student. These Role Sheets are marvels: from two to six (or in two cases even longer) single-spaced pages long, they explain the exact background, motivations, goals, and factional affiliation of this specific role. Every student gets a distinct role. The Emperor and First Grand Secretary have specific responsibilities, and I made sure to meet with them after class to go over these.
  • Explain that at the beginning of the next class, the Emperor would be responsible for a short (max 3 minutes) verbal Rescript.
  • Explain that each Grand Secretary was responsible for preparing a max. 3-minute speech to be presented to the Emperor at one of the next two class sessions. They may address the succession crisis directly, or else speak to other issues facing the empire. (Both the book 1587 and the student book provide considerable background here.) I expect them to draw on Confucian texts and/or Neo-Confucian reasoning as appropriate. Each student is to give his or her speech a short title and send the title to the First Grand Secretary, who will then be in charge of deciding who speaks when.

Between the first and second sessions, as well as between the second and third sessions, students had the option of endeavoring to meet with like-minded Grand Secretaries to plan strategies. The rules actually have provision for the “Purist,” anti-Emperor faction to use code words to identify one another, and I set up an anonymous on-line forum to further assist them.

Sessions Two and Three were essentially the same, with speeches, debate, and high drama. The Emperor has the power to imprison, banish, or even execute, as well as to make policy pronouncements; without going into detail, I can say that I was on the edge of my seat observing and taking notes, watching it all play out. The nuance that the students brought to the game – drawing on their role sheets, the other readings, and other aspects of the class – was really fantastic. The pros and cons of different Neo-Confucian approaches to politics were starkly illustrated.

Towards the end of Session Three, when everyone had spoken, I declared the game over and we went into a post-mortem discussion of what we had learned, as well as a vote to see whether degree of support the Emperor had earned. All in all, it was a fabulous learning opportunity for all of us!

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