Poets, Politics, and Paintings:
The Significance of Rivers in Chinese History
Lesson 1: Ancient River Valley Civilizations
AIM: Describe how the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers led to the
first agricultural societies in China.
· Students will identify the sources and mouths of the Yellow
and Yangtze Rivers on a topographical map of China.
· Students will explain how silt is produced and how it fertilizes
the banks of a river.
· Students will describe the major crops and flooding cycles
of the Yellow River
· Students will imagine what it would be like to be a rice
farmer in ancient China, dependent on the waters of the Yellow River.
· Topographical map of ancient China, photocopied handouts
· One large topographical map of ancient China for the blackboard
· Reading on
the crops and flood cycle of the Yellow River
· Excerpt from
National Geographic Magazine
MOTIVATION: List at least five ways in which we, as modern
New Yorkers, are dependent on the Hudson River?
1. In pairs, students will examine a topographical map of China
and write down five observations that they have about the geography
2. The teacher will ask students to come up to the big map and present
3. Students will complete readings on the silt, crops, and flood
cycles of the Yellow River.
4. The teacher will lead a discussion relating to the article:
A. How is silt produced?
B. Why is the Yellow River named such?
C. List two advantages and two disadvantages of silt.
D. Describe the major crops of the Yellow River. What
types of diets did the early Chinese farmers have? How do these
diets compare to ours?
5. Students will read the short excerpt from National Geographic
You are a Chinese rice farmer living on the Yellow River in the
year 2500 B.C.E. Describe:
1) how you feed your family;
2) how you spend your days;
3) your greatest fears;
4) your greatest joys; and
5) your religious beliefs.
Lesson 2: Rivers and Water
in Taoist Thought
AIM: Describe how Lao-Tzu understood the role of water and
rivers in the Tao te Ching.
· Students will identify the historical background of Taoism
(the political state of China at the time, the Confucian tradition,
· Students will explain the basic philosophy behind Taoism:
the concepts of Li, Wu Wei, Yin Yang. Students will interpret how
Taoist philosophy understood the relationship between man and nature.
· Students will compare Taoist ideals with other ancient belief
The following are suggested readings on Taoism which explain the
concepts of Tao te Ching, Li, Tzu-jan, Wu wei, and Yin Yang. Students
will find it helpful to have some background materials distributed
prior to the class discussion.
· "Lao Tzu: Tao te Ching." Reading About the World,
Volume 1. Ed. Paul Brians et al. Pullman, WA: Washington State University,
1999. Online: http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_1/lao_tzu.html
· Taoism/Daoism. Yakrider. Online: http://www.yakrider.com/Tao/Taoism_Daoism.htm
MOTIVATION: The year is 580 B.C.E. China is experiencing
constant feudal warfare, physical disaster, and consequently, starvation.
You are the town scholar and sage. The people of the town come to
you and ask you why so much tragedy and suffering have befallen
China. How would you answer them?
1. The teacher will introduce the basic historical background to
Lao Tzu based on readings from the textbook.
2. Students will divide up into pairs and will read the selections
from "Tao te Ching" (enclosed). Each pair must answer
the questions: How did Lao Tzu understand the relationship between
man and nature? Define the concepts of Li, Wu Wei, Yin Yang.
3. The teacher will lead a class discussion on the understanding
of water and nature's role in the Tao te Ching.
4. (If time allows) The class will be divided into three groups:
the Ancient Egyptians, the Hebrews, and the Taoists (assuming that
the former have been taught; if not, feel free to substitute two
other early civilizations such as the Mesopotamians, Indians, etc).
Each team must create their own Ten Commandments or a set of rules
that will govern society.
Students will write 2-3 paragraphs comparing Taoist philosophy with
Judaism (or Hinduism, depending on what has already been taught).
Lesson 3: Rivers in Chinese Landscape
AIM: How are the ideas of Taoism and the theme of water
manifested in traditional Chinese landscape paintings?
· Students will identify the basic elements of Chinese landscape
· Students will analyze Chinese landscape paintings as manifestations
of the Taoist ideal of nature.
· Students will paint or draw their own interpretations of
Pictures of Guilin : Picture1,
4-5 copies of landscape paintings that include water scenery;
Reading from the previous lesson on Tao te Ching;
Refer to the China Project Lesson on Scroll Paintings at: http://www.globaled.org/curriculum/china/leslie/handouts.htm
Students will examine the real-life photos of Guilin's unique karst
rock formations and will write down at least three separate observations.
1. Place Chinese landscapes all over the room and tell the students
that they will be in a museum, and have 5-10 minutes to observe
the paintings. At the end of the quiet museum time, students should
each compile a list of five traits common to all landscape paintings.
2. Using handouts from the lesson on scroll paintings, ask the students
to identify each of the parts of the painting. Ask students what
feelings, ideals, and values the images evoke. Compare these ideals
with other types of art that students have already studied (pyramids,
Hindu gods, Renaissance sculpture, modern art, etc.).
(Refer to http://www.globaled.org/curriculum/china/leslie/handouts.htm)
3. Ask students to choose one passage from Taoism that is particularly
inspiring to them and to create their own landscape sketch corresponding
to the content of the passage.
Student will complete their landscape sketches for homework.
Lesson 4: Contemporary Chinese Rivers:
The Three Gorges Dam
AIM: Describe the arguments in favor and against building
the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. How is the Dam project
proposal similar to or different from other uses of rivers in Chinese
· Students will identify the major components of the
proposal to build the Three Gorges Dam.
· Students will analyze the pros and cons of the Dam proposal.
· Students will take a position on the Dam proposal.
· Students will analyze how the Dam proposal is similar to
or different from other uses of rivers in Chinese history.
DO NOW: List three functions of a dam.
READING: Any material on the Three Gorges Dam is appropriate.
A variety of information is available at www.cnn.com,
Kennedy, Bruce. "China's Three Gorges Dam." 1999. Online:
Strieker, Gary. "As Yangtze River Dam Rises, Questions Arise."
May 8, 1998. Online: http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/asiapcf/9805/08/china.doomed.river/index.html
1. Students will read the assigned article/reading. Each student
should list as many pros and cons of the proposed Three Gorges Dam
2. The teacher will divide the class into five groups:
A. Chinese Communist Part Officials;
B. Green Peace International;
C. Chinese Archaeological Association;
D. Farmers of Fenjie;
E. Merchants in Beijing.
3. Each group must prepare a three-minute oral statement with their
position on the dam. After each group presents, the rest will be
allowed to prepare a one-minute rebuttal.
4. Ask the students: How does our understanding of the role of rivers
and nature in Chinese history help us in our deliberation of the
Three Gorges Dam project?
Students will write an essay comparing the various uses of rivers
in Chinese history.