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) .
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) 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:
ii. books which you have obtained but not yet consulted, and
iii. books which you have identified, but have not yet obtained or consulted.
ii. a draft of your introductory paragraph, setting forth your thesis -- i.e., a proposed answer to your "animating question"
iv. a working bibliography (unlike the bibliography for your topic, by now your bibliography should be presented as a single list, alphabetized by author)
v. all of your previous Topic submissions and my comments,
your prospectus; this helps me keep track of your progress
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.