Monsoon Asia

Philip F. Williams


Great Books programs and Western civilization courses have understandably emphasized the Greco-Roman and Hebraic origins of Western civilization, while moving on to a European focus, with some material relating to the Western Hemisphere usually brought in for good measure. After all, we have the ancient Greeks to thank for such landmark inventions as democratic thought and Euclidean geometry, while the ancient Romans have inspired much of our law and architecture. Yet we have done this in a context in which we rely every day upon the decimal system in mathematics that was first developed in India and a paper and printing technology invented in China.1 This article suggests how the two leading civilizations in Monsoon Asia—India and China—may be smoothly incorporated into a Great Books or world civilization program, and moves on to propose how a two-semester course on Chinese civilization might be optimally organized.

Monsoon Asia consists of the densely populated and relatively ancient cultures of the southeastern corner of the Eurasian land mass and its nearby islands, namely the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and East Asia.2 These regions have benefited from annual monsoon rain patterns and a favorable geographical position on the continent where human civilization and the city life that characterizes it first arose to the west in Mesopotamia. It has thus been no accident that this area produced the world’s two civilizations with the longest continuous history, India and China.3 Throughout the course of human civilization’s history, including up to the present day, at least half of the world’s population has lived in Monsoon Asia. This means that at least half of human cultural knowledge has been concentrated within this part of the world—and probably well more than half, given the relative antiquity and highly literate nature of civilization in Monsoon Asia.4 The rising economic and geopolitical clout of China and India over the past few decades is but a recent reminder that we and our students overlook the foundations of these key world civilizations at our own peril.

Learning from Asia

One thing we see from the study of Asian civilization is that well-established cultures can maintain their identity amidst large waves of immigration from far-flung sources. Most Monsoon Asian civilizations have managed to maintain their cultural identity and thrive even under the adverse conditions of centuries-long foreign conquest and rule. All of China was ruled by foreign nationalities such as the Mongols (1279–1368) and the Manchus (1644–1911), while huge expanses of north China were ruled by other non-Chinese conquerors during many earlier dynasties. In similar fashion, most of India came under the rule of the Afghanistan-based Mughal Empire (1526–1739) and subsequently the British Raj until the country finally gained its independence from foreign rule in 1947. Earlier, the northern half of India had been conquered and ruled by the Turco-Afghan Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526). Yet none of these conquests was able to destroy or even efface the host Monsoon Asian civilization in the way that the more ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations succumbed to foreign invasions and were eventually replaced by a qualitatively distinct Arabian civilization.

In addition to their resiliency and staying power, Chinese and Indian civilization both manifest a common reverence for education, social hierarchy, a solid work ethic, and group-based ritual observances. Both civilizations have long prescribed education as a key path to bettering an individual’s personal fortune as well as cultivating the moral or spiritual self. The elite class in each society has generally been well-versed in the canonical or sacred texts in each cultural tradition, be it the Vedic tradition of India’s Brahmin caste or the Confucian classics of China’s traditional scholar-official literati. In scholarship, India long led the world in fields such as the descriptive linguistics exemplified by Pāṇini’s grammar of Sanskrit (ca. fourth century BCE). Chinese historical treatises boast a similarly ancient pedigree, and taken together are second to none as a national corpus of history. The immensity of the body of Buddhist scriptures and commentaries also dwarfs that of any other religious tradition in the world, defying the ability of any individual scholar to acquire something resembling a comprehensive grasp of the Buddhist scriptural tradition over a lifetime of reading. And it is not merely the educated elite who treasure learning and education in Monsoon Asia. Even illiterate and impoverished members of such Asian societies tend to share their social betters’ respect for learning, and often sacrifice personal comforts to save every spare dime and thereby provide their children with better educational opportunities than they themselves experienced.

While the dignity of manual labor has been widely respected in Monsoon Asia, the social hierarchy of these cultures has clearly favored officials and scholars or priests who labor with their minds for a living over farmers and artisans who labor with their muscles. India’s caste system may at first glance seem an unnecessarily rigid form of social stratification, yet it has been possible to transcend the caste into which you were born through such means as becoming a religious mendicant (sadhu) or rising through the ranks in the military. Throughout much of China’s history, even the son of a humble farmer or street peddler could rise to the status of the scholar-official elite as long as he studied diligently for the government civil service exam and earned a degree by passing it. Most Asians have accepted a pronounced hierarchy in society even when they have not benefited from it, for they have typically been socialized to societal harmony and deference to authority from an early age. Although the results of such an approach to socializing Asian children have sometimes retarded the growth of an awareness of individual human rights and a consensus for protecting them, social stability has been enhanced—a trade-off that many people have been willing to accept.

The work ethic in most Monsoon Asian cultures that are not under political regimes noted for harsh restrictions on commercial activity (such as North Korea’s Kim family dynasty) can be seen in high personal savings rates and Gross Domestic Product growth rates approaching 10 percent per annum at various stages of development in contemporary times. In the field of education, the work ethic often makes its presence felt through the pressure that Asian parents typically place on their children for strong academic performance, particularly in subjects associated with good-paying jobs such as math, science, engineering, and business studies. Moreover, for a number of centuries, much of the mercantile elite in Southeast Asia has been of Chinese ancestry, while merchants of Indian background have played a crucial role in economies as far-flung in the Asia-Pacific region as Burma and Fiji. Recent economic dynamism in China was clearly foreshadowed by earlier decades of “economic miracles” from Japan and other major players in the Confucian cultural area of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Group-based ritual observances can strengthen a sense of cultural and national identity, and have been a common feature of Monsoon Asian societies. Probably the largest annual human migration on earth takes place during the Chinese Lunar New Year or Spring Festival holiday, when at least several tens of millions of migrant workers leave their urban factory dormitories to travel back to their ancestral homes in the countryside to reconnect with relatives and friends at feasts as well as outdoor festivities. Hindus regularly take part in mass rituals of collective purification and worship at sacred sites such as the banks of the Ganges River, while their Muslim counterparts with the means to make the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca typically do so at least once in a lifetime.5 Aside from providing a break from the routine of everyday work, these festivals or pilgrimages also serve to reaffirm family and social ties that may have weakened over time, and have contributed to furthering societal integration across generational lines.

Another cultural factor that has enhanced the national unity of China has been its logographic writing system. This system resembles India’s decimal numeric system in being able to accommodate many different pronunciations for a given logograph or character, depending on which language the speaker is utilizing. The various pronunciations of the half-dozen different languages in the Chinese family of languages are often as distinct from one another as Spanish is from Italian, especially when one ventures south of the Yangzi River. For example, spoken Cantonese and spoken Mandarin, the main or “standard” variant in the Chinese language family, are mutually unintelligible, yet share exactly the same writing system. In other words, the same sentence in Chinese script will sound so different when read in Mandarin instead of Cantonese that a non-bilingual speaker of Cantonese would not be able to understand what was being said unless he had a copy of the written text in front of him. This unity of China’s writing system amidst a wide diversity of regional spoken languages has helped enable China’s time-honored mode of centralized bureaucratic authoritarian rule to continue for roughly twenty-two hundred years since China emerged from earlier centuries of decentralized feudal rule (prior to its unification as a truly large-scale empire).

For the reasons mentioned above, a North American student who studies one or more Monsoon Asian culture or language can gain cultural insights into a civilization that contrasts with Western civilization in some central ways, and yet also shares some fundamental human characteristics such as a reliance on ritual and hierarchy to help maintain order and continuity in society. As trans-Pacific ties in trade and cultural interchange come to loom even larger than their trans-Atlantic counterparts during the twenty-first century, each university in the West owes it to its students to provide some sort of introductory or core course in Monsoon Asian civilization to complement its core course or sequence in Western civilization.

India and China in a Global Curriculum

Instead of requiring students to purchase a small bookshelf of individual titles such as the Hindu Upanishads and the Confucian Analects, the instructor can cover a broader range of such seminal books by utilizing collections of source readings with introductory commentary by the editor(s). Two especially commendable volumes available in affordable paperback are Ainslee T. Embree’s Sources of Indian Tradition: Volume One: From the Beginning to 1800 and William Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom’s Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume One: From Earliest Times to 1600 (both are second editions).6 These two volumes can be utilized as stand-alone textbooks for instructors who are themselves able to provide sufficient historical background to the various readings. Alternatively, both volumes can supply a body of primary-source readings under the umbrella of a textbook providing a narrative history of Monsoon Asian civilization—or of Chinese and Indian civilization.7

Readings on Indian Civilization

Since Hinduism is the oldest of the world’s major religions that continue to have a large number of believers today, the unit on Indian civilization should begin with a sample of readings from the Brahmanical tradition of the Vedic period (ca.1500–600 BCE). The most ancient writings from the Vedas by the Aryan conquerors of India are found in the Rig Veda (ca.1500–1200 BCE), and include a poetic creation myth, along with narrative hymns to the chief Vedic god Indra as well as to lesser deities such as Agni, the god of fire.8 Readings in the Vedic period should conclude with selections from the speculative philosophical treatises of the Upanishads (ca. 600 BCE), which put forward such influential concepts as ahimsa or “nonviolence,” one of the five essential virtues, as well as atman or the higher “Self” or soul (SIT, 29–39).

The doctrine of ahimsa was developed further by Jains, who look to Vardhamana Mahavira (ca. 540–468 BCE) as their founder. Unlike Buddhism, Jainism did not eventually get reabsorbed by Hinduism or practically disappear in its land of origin, but has remained a vital part of India’s mix of philosophy, religion, and statecraft to the present day. The instructor may wish to include selections of Jain tracts on space and time, on skepticism about the notion of a Creator of the universe, and on statecraft and politics (SIT, 78–82, 84–89).

Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha (ca. 563–483 BCE), was a contemporary of Mahavira and the founder of Buddhism. After a few centuries, this religious and philosophical tradition split into two major varieties. The original variety with a strongly monastic orientation is Theravada Buddhism and is most influential in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. The later variety, which has greater appeal to lay followers and more emphasis on the salvation-minded figure of the bodhisattva, is called Mahayana Buddhism and is most influential in East Asian cultures such as China, Japan, and Korea. Most instructors will wish to include a selection of writings from both traditions to include the Theravada branch’s basic teachings of the Buddha and about the role of the monk, and the Mahayana branch’s discussions of the role of the bodhisattva (SIT, 100–18, 160–70).

Hinduism has been just as much a mainstream way of life in India as it has been that country’s major religion. Hinduism’s four main goals, or ends, in human life are dharma or duty and virtue, artha or wealth and power, kama or love and pleasure, and moksha or spiritual awakening and enlightenment. Readings on dharma come from many sources, including excerpts from Vedic epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and touch on a variety of topics such as the caste system and the stages of life available to a person, including the optional final stage as a sadhu (SIT, 217–31). Materials on artha combine excerpts from the above-mentioned epics with an Indian version of Machiavellian realpolitik discourse, the Artha Sastra (SIT, 238–51). Readings on kama derive from famous treatises on love and eroticism such as Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra (“Aphorisms of Love”), as well as works in the areas of art and aesthetics, such as Kalidasa’s play Sakuntala (SIT, 256–59, 270–72). Excerpts related to moksha are taken mostly from the portion of the epic Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad Gita, as well as from the tradition of Vedanta, the mainstream philosophy of modern-day India best represented by writings of the ninth-century philosopher Shankara (SIT, 276–96, 308–19).

Since Muslims have constituted India’s largest minority group for roughly a millennium, as well as the overwhelming majority of the population in modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, some excerpts from texts relating to the basics of Muslim rule in India should be included. Aside from background material on such Islamic conquest dynasties in India as the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire, particular attention should be given to writings on sharia (Islamic law based on the Koran) and other issues of jurisprudence by Indian Muslims (SIT, 383–93, 399–407). This unit would conclude the section of readings on early and medieval Indian civilization.

Readings on Chinese Civilization

Although Shang dynasty (1766?–1154 BCE) divination inscriptions on oracle bones do not necessarily make for fascinating reading, no writings other than such inscriptions engraved on bone or bronze are extant from this period. Therefore, after perusing a couple of pages of introductory material on the legacy of the Shang dynasty, it is best to turn to excerpts of Zhou dynasty (1154–256 BCE) readings from two of the five main Confucian classics that date from that period.9 Readings from the Book of Documents focus upon achievements of exemplary rulers of the legendary past, while the small number of poems included from the Book of Odes range from a paean to a sage king to a satire of official corruption (SCT, 24–37, 37–40).

The Confucian Analects based on the sayings of Confucius, or Kong Qiu (551–479 BCE), amount to an axial text of moral philosophy and sociopolitical thought in Chinese culture (SCT, 41–63). The only school almost as central to traditional Chinese thought as socially engaged Confucianism has been the relatively contemplative school of Daoism, for which excerpts from the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi are included (SCT, 77–111). Selections from the relatively extended arguments of later Confucian philosophers such as Mencius (385?–312? BCE) and Xunzi (310?–219? BCE) indicate how Confucians could hold widely differing views on human nature and other issues (SCT, 112–34, 159–70, 179–83).

The other key school of thought that joined with Confucianism to produce the blend known as Imperial Confucianism beginning from the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) was Legalism. Legalism was highly authoritarian and militaristic, and emphasized the use of law in the ruler’s interest to concentrate power in the central bureaucracy, obliterate heterodox thought, and mobilize society in gigantic public works projects. Only practiced in its pure and most extreme form during the short-lived but crucially foundational Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), which unified China for the first time by means of ultra-centralized bureaucratic authoritarian rule, Legalists were known for burning the books of rival philosophical schools and torching the historical annals of every regional state but their own—as well as for executing intellectuals who dared to champion or even publicly discuss rival schools of thought (SCT, 190–212). It is not surprising that as a modern exponent of totalitarian one-party rule and a harshly punitive orthodoxy, Mao Zedong looked upon the first Qin emperor as a kindred soul and forerunner. Both Mao and the first Qin emperor were careful students of Sunzi’s Art of War, which deserves inclusion as East Asia’s most influential text on military strategy through the ages (SCT, 213–23).

Some of the greatest writers during the four-century-long Han dynasty may well have been its historians such as Sima Qian (145?–86? BCE) and Ban Gu (32–93 CE). Excerpts from the voluminous works of both historians provide some insight into the importance Chinese civilization has long placed on recording the past, especially in comparison with Indian civilization, where historical records were not esteemed until more recent times (SCT, 367–74).10

Unlike Daoism and Confucianism, Legalism made no contribution whatsoever to China’s religious heritage. To round out our study of the three most important religious traditions of traditional China, we must turn to Buddhism, which was by far the strongest foreign influence on Chinese culture from its introduction there in the first century CE to the rather traumatic influx of Western culture in nineteenth- and twentieth-century China (SCT, 415–32). In contrast with the ascendancy of Theravada Buddhism in most of mainland Southeast Asia, China and the rest of East Asia adopted the rival school of Mahayana Buddhism, which places less emphasis on monasticism than on emulation of one or more bodhisattvas—icons of compassion who defer nirvana in order to remain in the world and help others achieve Buddhist religious awakening and wisdom (SCT, 433–76).

The next great Chinese dynasty after the fall of the Han in 220 and the ensuing spread of Mahayana Buddhism through China was the Tang dynasty (618–906). Readings from what may have been China’s most self-confident and cosmopolitan dynasty should begin with selections from a Confucian work in the genre of family instruction, House Instructions of Mr. Yan, and move on to excerpts from the Tang legal code, which set the standard for China’s future dynastic legal codes (SCT, 539–46, 546–53). Students should also read Liu Zongyuan’s (773–819) excellent essay on why bureaucratic authoritarian centralism superseded decentralized feudalism by the third century BCE, Han Yu’s (768–824) impassioned Confucian polemics against Buddhism, and a selection of verse by Li Bo (701–762) and Du Fu (712–770), China’s two top poets (SCT, 559–73, 583–86).

The Song dynasty (960–1279) was founded approximately half a century after the eclipse of the Tang, and is famous for its vibrant society and for having achieved new heights in Confucian thought that set the standard for the rest of China’s dynasties. Although a number of Song thinkers deserve commendation, the chief synthesizer of what has come to be called Neo-Confucianism was Zhu Xi (1130–1200), a sample of whose essays are required reading (SCT, 697–714).

Few Confucian thinkers after the Song challenged Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucian synthesis. An exception during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was Wang Yangming (1472–1529). He insisted upon focusing upon the innate knowledge of the human being, as opposed to the other-directed knowledge emphasized by the mainstream thought of Zhu Xi (SCT, 841–47). The dynamism within the thought of Wang Yangming and his school disproves the sweeping claims by Hegel, Marx, and their followers about China’s alleged stagnation of thought and society in the late Imperial period. This reading would conclude the set of readings on key texts in Chinese civilization up to 1600.

A Two-Semester Course Sequence on Chinese Civilization

For a Great Books or global history curriculum that can accommodate a two-semester course sequence on Chinese civilization, the readings in the above section on Chinese civilization through 1600 would need to be complemented by two textbooks. The first is William Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano’s Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 2: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century (second edition).11 The second textbook is Patricia Buckley Ebrey’s Cambridge Illustrated History of China, which provides the thread of narrative history from ancient times through the end of the twentieth century to link together the various primary-source readings from each of the two de Bary volumes.12

Essentially, professors would assign the entirety of Ebrey’s narrative account, which is lavishly illustrated with maps and photographs of works of art, while concurrently assigning the selections outlined above from de Bary’s first volume as well as judicious selections from his second volume.13 A student taking such a two-semester course sequence in Chinese civilization would develop a basic foundation in Chinese philosophy, religion, history, art, and literature—and might even be inspired to embark upon the study of the Chinese language, which is the gateway to a truly in-depth study of this civilization.


This article maintains that general courses on Monsoon Asian civilization are entirely feasible for a Great Books or global history curriculum, and has outlined the contours of a few such courses with options for individualization: a one-semester course on either India or China, along with a two-semester course on China. Alternatively, the readings on both India and China could be condensed and abridged to the extent of fitting into a single semester course if the instructor so desires. Moreover, there is no need for professors interested in offering such a course to compile a custom set of course readings; the textbooks mentioned above are available in affordable paperback editions by mainstream academic publishers. By expanding our curricula to make room for a region with the world’s most populous and ancient civilizations that still exist today, we will better prepare our students to navigate the increasingly multi-polar and interconnected world of the twenty-first century.

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