SOAS University of London

Department of History, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Knowledge and Power in Early Modern China

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
Taught in:
Term 1

This course covers China’s early modern history (focusing on the three centuries from around 1600 to the turn of the twentieth century) by highlighting different aspects of the politics of power and knowledge. Power relations and the maintenance of social order are intrinsically linked to the production, control, and communication of knowledge. We can observe this in a number of different spheres of life: Emperors gather and distribute information in order to maintain social order and political control, supported in diverse forms by the educated elite; preachers, teachers, and officials communicate religious beliefs, social values, and state orthodoxies to the people, thus enhancing social cohesion; people strive for education in order to improve their social standing, to be more successful in their profession, to play a leading role in their communities, or, at the highest level, to be able to participate in the political process. In addition, the early modern period saw also a huge expansion of scientific knowledge, including geographic and ethnographic knowledge that eventually changed the perception of China herself as a political and cultural entity. In brief, the changing practices of communication and the politics of knowledge tell us much about the nature of societies and states, and the examination of these changes provides an ideal case to study not only China but the early modern world, and thus it is indispensable for a better understanding of our own world.

Topics will include: the imperial information order, orthodoxy and its counter-currents, the examination system and the (re)production of knowledge, printing, the dissemination of knowledge, and the commercialization of culture, knowledge about the frontier regions and the changing idea of China, and social activism in the late Ming and the late Qing periods.

This half unit course will be complemented by another half unit course on China’s 20th century history.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course, a student should be able to demonstrate …

  • that he/she has acquired a solid knowledge of the major issues and events in the late imperial and modern history of China via a focused study of the production,  acquisition, and communication of knowledge and its relationship with social and political power, and to situate these within a broader regional and global context;
  • that he/she can differentiate between different approaches to the study of Chinese history and to critically evaluate scholarly literature on the subject of the course;
  • that he/she has acquired the skills needed to formulate a historical argument, to assemble the material necessary to support it, and to organize it in a coherent and persuasive way;
  • the ability to develop a small research project and present its findings in written and oral form.


2 hours of seminars a week.

Method of assessment

Essay of 3,000 words worth 80% of the final mark, Reaction paper/book review of 1,000 words worth 20% of the final mark


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules