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Stories for College Teaching

DKJ in 2014

Many anthropology and humanities courses benefit from including thoughtful analysis of popular literature associated with particular cultural traditions, whether classic works of fixed form (like stories from the Bible) or folk tales of uncertain origin that evolve through generations of retellings (like Cinderella or the tale of the matchmaker in the moonlight).

It seems clear that a story popular enough to be told and retold both (1) reflects and (2) propagates important cultural understandings.

It follows that such stories can easily generate provocative student insights and discussions. (What does it tell us that Chinese war stories are about strategy rather than valor? Or that ancient Egyptians put so much stress on language? Or that brahmins come across so badly in Buddhist stories? Or that European girls need saving by handsome princes?)

This web site includes many stories, both those with and those without definitive versions, as well as severely shortened retellings of some epic works (like The Ramayana and The Romance of Canonizations). All have stimulated student interest and discussion in various classes.

Far and away the largest group consists of Chinese stories, usually retold as they might appear in late dynastic operas, puppet shows, or roadside storytelling (or as they appear in films and children's books or on TV today). When I have retold them, I have not restrained myself, any more than traditional storytellers do, from occasional nods and winks and insinuating language. That has always been part of storytelling. When significant variations have turned up, I have tried to incorporate the alternatives.

Abridgements. Some of our colleagues argue that when a more or less definitive edition exists, even if it is long, students benefit by reading the whole thing. I would counter that (1) the greater variety possible with shorter works encourages provocative comparison, at least if the number of individual items is not ridiculous, (2) a feather is more stimulating than a club, and (3) most students correctly agree with Callimachus of Libya that “A big book is a great evil” (“Μέγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν”).

Some also argue that even folkloric material demands a “close reading” of the text, but such an expectation is ridiculous when there is no definitive version of the text, and it is very weak in any case when the text is being examined only in translation.

In some cases drawing pictures has proved an appealing alternative for college students wearied by too many writing assignments, and I have encouraged them to illustrate stories with simple artwork accompanied by a page justifying the aesthetic decisions they have made. (“The Life of the Buddha” is an example.) At exam time it usually turns out that students who drew pictures for stories had internalized them extremely well. After the dust has settled on final grades, I have often asked permission to use some of these on the web site, and when I have received their permission, those pictures are included here. (Naturally, I would be delighted to consider new pictures from your students as well, if accompanied by their permission.)

Here is a cross indexing of what is available here. All the stories have been (re)formatted for optimal reader-friendliness on computer screens, most are accompanied by introductions and dramatis personae lists, and all are freely available for educational use. Each link on this page goes to the section of the site index that provides links directly to individual stories.

For a master index of all teaching materials available on this site, click here for China and here for non-China materials.

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