Department of History
History of China 中國歷史  (HIST 122/123-01)
Guidelines for term papers:  Approaches and Topics
updated: 11 Feb 13



There are two purposes in assigning a paper: first, to lead you to an understanding in your own mind of some problem in the history of Chinese politics, economy, art, philosophy, etc.; and second, to develop skills in expressing that understanding, through your own words, in a succinct and lucid essay.

Thus, your assignment has two facets:  First, you have to identify and analyze a problem (not just narrate some episode) -- usually by formulating a testable hypothesis. Second, you must present your analysis in a logical, concise, and persuasive manner.

Generally, the most successful papers deal with an explicitly-defined subject and try to resolve some apparent contradiction, rather than attempting a comprehensive narrative history (such as "Buddhism in China" or "the Opium War"). In other words, try to focus in on some very narrowly-defined event or decision and use that to illuminate larger issues. Exercises in "counterfactual" history (i.e., what if X had —or had not —happened...?) almost invariably fall flat. Also, avoid "straw-man" arguments (i.e., stating a position in an extreme or unrealistic form, solely for the purpose of demolishing it).

Your paper should be focused in a manner you have designed yourself, and you have a good deal of latitude in deciding the scope which its content will encompass.  The subjects suggested at the end of this hand-out are by no means exclusive and are meant only to provoke your imagination; each of them is stated in "topic" form and must be focused much more narrowly onto a specific problem.  Also, most of these suggestions pose "what"-type questions; having answered that question through your initial reading, you should go on to analyze the underlying "why."  Finally, while many of these subjects are expressed in a way intended to integrate China in its global context, your topic should adopt an explicitly Sinocentric focus.

As an example of narrowing your focus, for the fall term, rather than write a general treatise on the obligations of the Confucian "gentleman" to society, you might illuminate that question through an analysis of the political career of Zhu Xi [Chu Hsi].  Similarly, for the spring term, rather than write a general treatise on the Warlord Period (c. 1916-1928), you might undertake an analysis of specific problems faced by one particular leader or in one particular locality, showing how those problems were resolved. Of course, you are also welcome to develop a focus completely of your own choosing.

The only restriction (other than your own imagination) is that your subject must take China as its basic focal point and must fall within the timeframe covered during the current semester—i.e., for the fall up through the late Ming / early Qing  period; for the spring, from wherever we start the semester until the beginning of the post-Mao reforms in the 1980s.  Specifically, if you want to write about Deng Xiaoping you can look at any part of his career up until but not after August 1977. Please leave all subjects concerning Sino-Western interaction for the spring semester (except for the Jesuits, who can be covered in either semester) .

Research Approaches:

At this introductory level, I do not expect you to be doing original research.  Especially given the difficulties of reading Chinese, I expect that you will be working mostly with English-language sources.  But don't handicap yourself any further by using only books that rely completely on English sources; instead, check the notes and bibliography of your readings to see if the author has gone back to original Chinese documents.  In this sense, you will be highly dependent on others to dig up data.  Likewise, your conclusions do not have to be completely original, but they should be stated in your own words.  More than likely, you will find that an author has assembled a pile of data in order to support a particular argument; you can use the same data to support a different argument.


Part of the challenge of doing effective research lies in making the best use of finite resources. At Georgetown, that means dealing with the limitations of the Lauinger Library. Lauinger should be your first stop, particularly as you use basic introductory works to familiarize yourself with a topic and then begin the effort to compile a working bibliography. However, a research project that is restricted to the resources of Lauinger is likely to be severely handicapped. The sooner you form the habit of making use of all the resources available in the D.C. area, the better off you will be.

There are several ways of using Lauinger effectively and also transcending its limits:

  1. The Reference Desk has a series of pamphlets detailing Lauinger's special resources for Area Studies. Ask for them, and take advantage of the Reference Desk staff's eagerness to help you navigate the latest on-line search-engines.

  3. The stacks: just looking at the books shelved next to a specific one you are searching for can give you an idea of what else is available on related subjects.

  5. Shelf-lists: a shelf-list is a book which lists all books in the library according to call-number order. Using such a list is the equivalent of browsing in the stacks, except it also lets you see those works which are temporarily off the shelves. While Lauinger does not publish a printed shelf-list, you can use the computer to search for items next to the book you have on your screen.

  7. Other libraries: the most accessible and valuable libraries are the Gelman Library at George Washington University and the Library of Congress (DLC) on Capital Hill. As a student at Georgetown, you can get access to the stacks at Gelman, although you do not have borrowing privileges. American tax money has already paid for the Library of Congress: use it! Any student who does not take advantage of the tremendous range of resources which the DLC offers is simply not being serious about doing research.
Deadlines and Requirements:

(1) Due dates for all three parts of your paper assignment are indicated on your syllabus. Also, note well the section on "due dates" in the Class Protocols.

(2) Statement of Topic: This should give a tentative title for your paper and a few lines describing the problem, or "animating question", you want to investigate.  (Simply copying out one of the items from the "Suggested Areas for Paper Topics" does not constitute an adequate response.)  Then, list your preliminary bibliography (in standard format). This list should make a clear distinction among:

(3) The prospectus: (4) The completed paper should follow the guidelines for footnoting, formats, and other technical matters contained in a separate hand-out called "Stylesheet for Term Papers."

Your instructor/s is/are available for consultation, guidance, explication, and encouragement whenever you need it.  In particular, although you are not required to get your subject pre-approved before turning in your Statement of Topic, you may want to get some preliminary feed-back on the feasibility of your chosen focus.  For help in organizing your research and polishing your writing-style, you should also feel free to take advantage of the services offered by the Georgetown Writing Center in Lauinger 217 (687-4246).

Some Suggested Areas for Research:

Follow the links to a separate page of topic-areas related to the Fall Semester and the Spring Semester.