All posts by shabbycheek

Reviewing “Ladybird” (Cultural study activities autumn-winter 2019-20)

Dear Students,

we’re going to talk about the film Lady Bird today. First though, a quick review of the concept of culture and few words about movie reviewing.


  • A variety of cultural artworks and activities (like movies, going to the movies). Not high or low culture, but artworks and activities we can judge on their own merits.
  • A way of life
  • A society’s values

Movie reviewing

  • Title, topic, release date, country of production.
  • Story, plot, characters.
  • Genre (type of movie, see definition below), style.
  • Creative craft elements including, for example, quality of script, direction and performances, visual design and cinematography,  lighting, set design, costume, hair, make-up, special effects, sound, music, editing.
  • Social, historical, cultural, political themes and significance. 
  • Your relationship to/perspective on the film.

Small group discussion 1: Hometowns and high schools

“Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento” Joan Didion
  • What kind of a hometown is Sacramento for the character Lady Bird/Christine?
  • Where does she want to go? What kind of a place is that?
  • What is your hometown? Where is it? What is it like? How does it compare to big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin?
  • What was your high school like? Do you miss anything about it? If so, what or who? How does it compare to the high school in Lady Bird?
  • If/when you were to go to America to study what kind of a city would you like to go and live in while studying?

Group discussion 2: Lady Bird characters

Marion and Christine McPherson
lb friends
Lady Bird and Julie
Larry McPherson
Manuel & Shelly
Father Leviatch
Sister Sarah Joan

1.Who are they and what are they like?

2. What are the main relationships in Lady Bird. What is the story of those relationships (what happens)?

3. What do you think of the way the film shows the different romantic relationships and gender identities (male, female, gay)?

4. How do the relationships in the film compare to your experience of or ideas about Chinese relationships?

Craft elements of the film.

  1. Genre and style.

Genre is the term for any category of literature or other forms of art or entertainment, e.g. music, whether written or spoken, audio or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria, particular forms and particular kinds of content.

Genres are formed by conventions (ways of doing things/showing or expressing things) that change over time as new genres are invented and the use of old ones are discontinued.

Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions.

Discussion questions:

  1. What kinds of genre(s) does Lady Bird use?
  2. Can you talk about parts of the film where you thought the visual design and cinematography was especially interesting or good?
  3. What other craft elements did you think were interesting or particularly good in the film? (reminder, craft elements include quality of script, direction and performances,  lighting, set design, costume, hair, make-up, special effects, sound, music, editing.

Questions for bookworms.

These lines are recited at the beginning of the film.

Her hand moved behind his head and supported it

Her fingers moved gently in his hair

She looked up and across the barn

And her lips came together

And smiled mysteriously.

Q: What novel do they come from, who is the author and where in the novel do they come?

Lady Bird and the different concepts of Culture

1. We’ve discussed aspects of Lady Bird as an artwork, as a filmic text with various artistic qualities.

2. We’ve also discussed Lady Bird in terms of various forms of the American (teenage, family, working/middle class, urban) way of life.

3. What about Lady Bird and culture in terms of values. What American values can you see in the movie?

Time for a Change

Dear students,

for this week’s lesson we will do some of the readings and exercises from F2F chapter 2 (upper intermediate).

Small group discussions

1. First, let’s use an adapted version of their quick review small group discussion.

Tell each other what you did during the National Holidays. Ask each other questions and keep the conversation going for a few minutes.

2. How is your life different now from five years ago in terms of:

  • Sleeping habits
  • Free time (leisure) activities
  • Time with friends
  • Time with Family
  • Sport and exercise
  • Study
  • Music you listen to
  • Places you travel to

Take a minute to think about the above how your life has changed (or not changed) in terms of the aspects above. Then tell each other about each aspect in your small groups.

After that we’ll have a talk all together.



Questions about the reading (we’ll do these together)

What does Peter say about these things?

a. his job

b. the rush hour

c. Mexican drivers

d. traffic lights

e. the distance between cars

f. walking in the city

Questions about the readings (discuss in your small groups)

a. How does the traffic in Mexico city compare to the traffic in Tianjin? How does it compare to the traffic in Beijing?

b. Do you drive in the city very often? Do you enjoy it? If so, why or why not?

c. Have you ever driven in another country? If so, where? What was it like?

Let’s do the following reading together (repeat after me, sentence by sentence)

If you want to listen to it first, it is recording 2.2 from F2F Upper Intermediate. First, let’s look at the meaning of ‘be used to’ and ‘get used to

Be used to: we use this phrase to talk about things that are familiar and no longer strange or difficult for us

Get used to: we use this phrase to talk about things that become familiar, less strange or less difficult over a period of time

Read after me:

  • I’m used to getting up at 5am every day.
  • I’m slowly getting used to it.
  • It takes a while or a foreigner to get used to them.
  • I wasn’t used to people driving so close to me.
  • I still haven’t got used to being a pedestrian here.
  • I’ll never get used to doing that.

Peter’s Colleagues


Fill in the gaps

Look at the photos of Peter’s colleagues and the places where they work. Let’s fill in the gaps in the sentences below with the correct positive or negative form of:

  • be used to


  • get used to.

Sometimes there is more than one possible answer.

  1. I’m not used to all their customs yet – like its rude to blow your nose in public.
  2. It was hard …………………… just eating rice for breakfast.
  3. I ……………………….. sleeping in daylight, so I find it difficult in the summer when it never gets dark.
  4. I don’t think I’ll ever ………………………………… the written language — it has three alphabets.
  5. The summers here aren’t very warm and I …………………………………. temperatures of about 30C in the summer.
  6. I ………………………………. finding my way around new places using a map, but I can’t read the maps here.

Question (let’s do it together).

Who is speaking in sentences 1-6 above?

Group discussion

  1. Tell each other two sentences about your family using be used to or get used to.
  2. Tell each other about something you will have to get used to in the future.
  3. Tell each other about something you weren’t used to doing before, but are used to doing now.
  4. Tell each other about something you could never get used to doing.

Class discussion

Tell us two thing you learned about your friend.

Lesson 4: Critically Thinking about Art and Myths

Dear Students,

let’s start today’s lesson with some group work.

Artwork group exercises (A and B)


  1. Select one of your friend’s artworks

1.Tell them what you see.

2.Tell them what you think.

3.Tell them what you wonder.

Did your friends see what you saw/think what you think/wonder what you wonder?


  1. Select one of your own artworks to show to and explain to your group.
  2. Tell them what’s going on

Others in the group should then:

  1. Ask what makes them say that?

Follow up by discussing each other’s interpretation and reasoning.

Critical thinking standards and dispositions

Now, let’s look at those thinking dispositions (Ritchhart et al.,) and standards (Paul & Elder). First let’s talk about the standards a little, then we’ll talk about how they (dispositions and standards) relate to each other.


If a statement is unclear (or not clear enough), we cannot tell anything about it because we don’t yet know what it is saying. That also means we cannot determine whether it is accurate or relevant.

For example, the question What can be done about the education system in America? is unclear.

In order to adequately address the question, we would need to have a clearer understanding of what the person asking the question is considering the “problem” to be.

Discussion Question:

Let’s suppose we want to frame an essay title about American education, and we started with this unclear question:

What can be done about the education system in America?

How could we make it clear enough to form a useful essay topic?

Professors Paul and Elder came up with this clear question “What can educators do to ensure that students learn the skills and abilities which help them function successfully on the job and in their daily decision-making?”

When a question is too broad, you might do what Richard Paul and Linda Elder did with the above question. They might have used the following questions to refine the unclear question What can be done about the education system in America?

  • Could you specify the actor/s?
  • Could you limit the range of actions?
  • Could you specify the subject’s characteristics?
  • Could you refine/include a goal or purpose?

Questions that help clarify an unclear statement or question or proposition:

  • Could you elaborate further on that point?
  • Could you express that point in another way?
  • Could you give me an illustration?
  • Could you give me an example?

We can ask ourselves these kinds of questions when formulating our own points, questions, statements, arguments for essays.


A statement can be clear but not accurate, as in:

When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists … (Donald Trump, 2016)

Global warming is fake news (Donald Trump talking about climate change, 2016).

Questions that support greater accuracy include:

  • Is that really true?
  • How could we check that?
  • How could we find out if that is true (or to what extent it is true)?
  • What if the evidence is mixed? How can we represent mixed evidence in a fair/balanced way?


A statement can be both clear and accurate, but not precise, as in “Jack is overweight.”

(We don’t know how overweight Jack is, one pound or 500 pounds.)

Or, “America is an inequitable society”. We don’t know how unequal, or whether the inequality applies to particular groups, nor how inequality is being measured.

We might aid precision by asking …

  • Could you give me more details?
  • Could you be more specific?
  • Could you give some context?


A statement can be clear, accurate, and precise, but not relevant to the question at issue.

Let’s look at Professor Paul and Elders’ example:

Students often think that the amount of effort they put into a course should be used in raising their grade in a course. Often, however, “effort” does not measure the quality of student learning, and when that is so, effort is irrelevant to their appropriate grade.

Questions that help us identify what is relevant include:

  • How is that connected to the question?
  • How does that bear on the issue?


A statement can be clear, accurate, precise, and relevant, but superficial (that is, lack depth).

Let’s look at the professor’s (American) example.


The statement “Just Say No”, which is often used to discourage children and teens from using drugs, is clear, accurate, precise, and relevant. Nevertheless, it lacks depth because it treats an extremely complex issue, the pervasive problem of drug use among young people, superficially. It fails to deal with the complexities of the issue.

Questions that help us engage with matters in depth include:

  • How does your answer address the complexities in the question?
  • How are you taking into account the problems in the question?
  • Are you dealing with the most significant factors?


A line of reasoning may be clear, accurate, precise, relevant, and deep, but lack breadth (as in an argument from either an authoritarian or democratic standpoints which gets deeply into an issue, but only recognizes the insights of one side of the question).


For example:

Cantonese youth rioting about police brutality and political repression are only hurting themselves and their cause, as their vandalism and  violence upsets other citizens and their illegal actions must result in punishment.

This is what we might call a logically expressed authoritarian point of view. However, it does not engage with other perspectives (obviously, the democratic perspective), so it lacks breadth.

[optional: follow up reading for context]

Questions that encourage breadth include:

  • Is there another way to look at this question? Do we need to consider another point of view?
  • What would this look like from the point of view of…?
  • What would this look like from a democratic standpoint?


When we think, we bring a variety of thoughts together into some order.

When the combination of thoughts are mutually supporting and make sense in combination, the thinking is “logical.”

When the combination is not mutually supporting, is contradictory in some sense, or does not “make sense,” the combination is “not logical.”

Questions that support logic include:

  • Does this really make sense?
  • Does that follow from what you said?
  • How does that follow?
  • Before you implied this and now you are saying that, I don’t see how both can be true.


Significance means attending to central concerns, and not allowing ourselves to be distracted or digress, giving to much attention to peripheral issues.

For example, in a seminar we might be discussing regional inequality in China, and focus on the marginalisation of the north-east.

If I then contribute to the discussion by talking about how Beijinren think all Tianjinren are Baozi, and go onto describe how my family are really fit healthy people, I might be saying something that is accurate, but not really significant.

In comparison, the difficulty people from Harbin experience in the job market in other first tier cities, and their lack of access to hukou would be a significant theme of discussion.

Questions that help us keep our focus on what is significant include:

  • Is this the most important problem to consider?
  • Is this the central idea to focus on? Is that focus maintained?
  • Which of these facts are most important?
  • Have we gotten to the heart of the matter?


We naturally think from our own perspective, from a point of view which tends to privilege our position.

Fairness implies the treating of all relevant viewpoints alike without reference to one’s own feelings or interests. Because we tend to be biased in favor of our own viewpoint, it is important to keep the standard of fairness at the forefront of our thinking. This is especially important when the situation may call on us to see things we don’t want to see, or give something up that we want to hold onto.

Questions that help us maintain fairness in our thinking include:

  • Are we considering all relevant viewpoints in good faith?
  • Are we distorting some information to maintain our biased perspective?
  • Are we more concerned about our vested interests than the common good?

Thinking Dispositions and Standards: how do they relate?

Which dispositions relate to which standards? Why/how?


Dispositions   Standards      
Observing and describing   Clarity      
reasoning   Accuracy Precision Relevance  
Questioning +investigating   Depth      
Comparing + Connecting   Breadth      
Exploring Viewpoints   logic      
Finding Complexity   significance      


Thinking about artworks (again)

Class discussion: The mythology of chairman Mao.

Zeng Fangzhi

Xie Qi

Let’s have a look at these artworks together, use it to practice the what’s routine, and see how many of the dispositions and standards we can engage in doing so.

Group discussion: In your small groups:

  1. As a group, select two artworks from your group’s images
  2. compare and/or connect them.
  3. If asked, share them with the class and tell us about them (give us a brief critical comparison, discussion of how they connect)

A little on the reading Cal Jillson reading (The American Dream in History, Politics and Fiction, 1-8).

The American Creed is closely related to the American Dream. They are not the same thing, but are closely related. 


Readings.  Paul & Elder, 4-6, 11; Colombo et al., 652-662; Putnam, R.D. ‘The American Dream: Myths & Realities’.

While reading, apply Paul & Elder’s checklist (points 1 to 8) to your reading of Putnam’s chapter.

Civilization, social development, east-west geography

Dear students,

in a recent lesson I talked a little about the ways that historians understand the idea of civilization (see also this week’s reading).

The archeologist and historian Ian Morris argues that we can compare societies in terms of the extent of their social development (we might think in terms of developing complexity).

Social development—basically, a group’s ability to master its physical and intellectual environment to get things done.* Putting it more formally, social development is the bundle of technological, subsistence, organizational, and cultural accomplishments through which people feed, clothe, house, and reproduce themselves, explain the world around them, resolve disputes within their communities, extend their power at the expense of other communities, and defend themselves against others’ attempts to extend power. Social development, we might say, measures a community’s ability to get things done, which, in principle, can be compared across time and space.

Measuring and comparing social development is not a method for passing moral judgment on different communities. For example, twenty-first-century Japan is a land of air-conditioning, computerized factories, and bustling cities. It has cars and planes, libraries and museums, high-tech healthcare and a literate population. The contemporary Japanese have mastered their physical and intellectual environment far more thoroughly than their ancestors a thousand years ago, who had none of these things. It therefore makes sense to say that modern Japan is more developed than medieval Japan. Yet this implies nothing about whether the people of modern Japan are smarter, worthier, or luckier (let alone happier) than the Japanese of the Middle Ages. Nor does it imply anything about the moral, environmental, or other costs of social development. Social development is a neutral analytical category. Measuring it is one thing; praising or blaming it is another altogether.

Jeffrey Sachs describes 7 drivers of change and development

  1. Technology
  2. Physical environment
  3. Demography
  4. War
  5. Ideology
  6. Political institutions
  7. Cultural institutions

He argues that societies develop through different combinations of some or all of these drivers via innovation and/or diffusion (spreading). We can see that these driver scan be used to make sense of historians indicators of civilization (complex societies).

These ways of understanding social change can be applied to our understanding of the development of western civilization (and also to eastern civilization).

Ian Morris argues that the idea of ‘the west’ has been problematic for historians, as it has involved picking on some supposedly uniquely “Western” values such as freedom, rationality, or tolerance, and then arguing about where these values came from and which parts of the world have them. That ‘picking’ potentially involves discriminatory judgements about different societies.

Instead, he proposes that social development can be thought of in terms of geography (combined with biology and sociology). In his approach “the West” is simply a geographical term, referring to those societies that descended from the westernmost Eurasian core of domestication at the end of the Ice Age, in the Hilly Flanks.

Hilly Flanks

“The East,” means those societies that descended from the easternmost core of domestication that began developing in China by 7500 BCE.


e-w shifting cores figure3.2

“The West” emerged as a distinctive region before about 11,000 BCE, when cultivation began making the Hilly Flanks unusual. The core areas have shifted and changed across time. The Western core was geographically actually very stable from 11,000 BCE until about 1400 CE, remaining firmly at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea except for the five hundred years between about 250 BCE and 250 CE, when the Roman Empire drew it westward to include Italy. Otherwise, it always lay within a triangle formed by what are now Iraq, Egypt, and Greece.

Since 1400 CE it has moved relentlessly north and west, first to northern Italy, then to Spain and France, then broadening to include Britain, Belgium, Holland, and Germany.

By 1900 it straddled the Atlantic and by 2000 was firmly planted in North America.

In the East the core that began around 7500BCE remained in the original Yellow-Yangzi zone right up until 1800 CE, although its center of gravity shifted northward toward the Yellow River’s central plain after about 4000 BCE, back south to the Yangzi Valley after 500 CE, and gradually north again after 1400. It expanded to include Japan by 1900 and southeast China by 2000 (Figure 3.2)

Other cores developed in the New World, South Asia, New Guinean, and Africa. But it is the east-west cores and the relationships between them that are most useful for thinking about the origins and development of western complex societies/civilizations.

Part of the reason for this is geographical. The western and eastern cores emerged along the lucky latitudes of Eurasia where knowledge diffused from west to east and east to west.

lucky latitudes

This … map that has roughly defined the so-called lucky latitudes, because an enormous amount of human history, population, and technological innovation has occurred in those lucky latitudes. It is in those lucky latitudes that ideas have not only been innovated, but have been able to diffuse within a band that shares enough commonality of climate zone, of transport conditions, of disease burden and other characteristics to make it similar enough to be not a homogeneous region by any means, but a region that can share ideas and that has exchanged ideas for millennia (Sachs, ‘Eurasia’)

The historians Dennis Sherman and Joyce Salisbury (2014, 4) note that

one of the hallmarks of Western civilization was that it never developed in isolation. Throughout its recorded history, the peoples of the Mediterranean basin traded with other societies, and the resulting cultural diffusion strengthened all the cultures involved. For example, crops from the ancient Middle East spread westward as far as Britain as early as about 4000 B.C.E., and by the second millennium B.C.E., wheat, barley, and horses from the Middle East reached as far east as China. In fact, the trade routes from the Middle East to India and China, and west and south to Africa and Europe, have a permanence that dwarfs the accomplishments of conquerors and empire builders. These constant and fruitful interactions with other cultures perhaps gave Western civilization its greatest advantage.

One example is the diffusion of technology from Song Dynasty China to Europe (Sachs, video, the Chinese Medieval Miracle, 6-11mins).

perhaps one of the most remarkable periods of human history, technological innovation, and technological diffusion, in a way forgotten now in our common discussion, but one of the pinnacles of civilization was the period of the Chinese Song Dynasty from 970 A.D. till 1279 A.D., until the Song Dynasty fell to the Mongol conquest. And what makes this period of Chinese history, the Song Dynasty so remarkable is that it was in its way an apogee of global technological innovation and the diffusion of those technologies, which took centuries in many cases, was absolutely fundamental to the rise of Europe that would follow. (Sachs)

Professor Sachs is suggesting the some of the origins of key components of Western civilization are Chinese. We are currently looking further west than that, at the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean (which Professor Morris identifies as the sometimes core of the West), where we can also find some of the origins of Western civilization.


The Mediterranean turned into a new frontier, rising social development changed what geography meant. In the fourth millennium BCE the rise of irrigation and cities had made the great river valleys in Egypt and Mesopotamia into more valuable real estate than the old core in the Hilly Flanks.

By 2230 BCE the twin Western cores in Sumer and Egypt had massively eclipsed the original core in the Hilly Flanks. Responding to ecological problems, people had created cities; responding to competition between cities, they had created million-strong states, ruled by gods or godlike kings and managed by bureaucracies. As struggles in the core drove social development upward, a network of cities spread over the simpler farming villages of Syria and the Levant and through Iran to the borders of modern Turkmenistan.

In the second millennium the explosion of long-distance trade made access to the Mediterranean’s broad waterways more valuable still, and after 1500 BCE the turbulent Western core entered a whole new age of expansion. On Crete people would soon start building palaces too; imposing stone temples rose upward on Malta; and fortified towns began dotting the southeastern coast of Spain. Farther north and west farmers had filled every ecologically viable niche, and on the farthest fringe of the Western world … the most enigmatic monument of all … Stonehenge.


Dennis Sherman and Joyce Salisbury (2014), The West in the World. A History of Western Civilization.

Morris, Ian, (2010), Why the West Rules for Now: The Patterns of History and What they Reveal about the Future, Profile and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, London.

Sachs, J. Globalization, EDX (online course).




Civilization definitions (AHE)


Cristian Violatti
Ancient History Encyclopedia, published on 04 December 2014
The meaning of the term civilization has changed several times during its history, and even today it is used in several ways. It is commonly used to describe human societies “with a high level of cultural and technological development”, as opposed to what many consider to be less “advanced” societies. This definition, however, is unclear, subjective, and it carries with it assumptions no longer accepted by modern scholarship on how human societies have changed during their long past.Etymologically, the word civilization relates to the Latin term civitas, or city”, which is why it sometimes refers to urban state-level societies, setting aside the nomadic people who lack a permanent settlement and those who live in settlements that are not considered urban or do not have a state-level organization. Sometimes it can be used as a label for human societies which have attained a specific degree of complexity.
In a wide sense, civilization often means nearly the same thing as culture or even regional traditions including one or more separate states. In this sense, we sometimes speak of the “Aegean civilization”, “Chinese civilization”, “Egyptian civilization”, or “Mesoamerican civilization”, but each of these may include several cities or regions, for example: “Mesoamerican civilization” includes groups such as the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Aztec, and others; “Aegean civilization” includes the Minoan, Mycenaean, and other societies of the Cycladic islands and western Anatolia.

A behaviour considered “civilized”by a particular culture may be judged senseless or even seen with horror by another culture.

Development of the term “Civilization”

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries CE, it was widely believed among European scholars that all human communities were involved in a process of straightforward progression by which the conditions of a society were gradually improving. As part of these changes, it was believed, societies experienced different stages: savagery, barbarism and, finally, civilization. Civilization, in this context, was understood as the last stop in the long journey of human society. The different stages of this social evolution were equated to specific human communities: Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherer communities were considered part of the savagery stage, Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers as part of the barbarism stage, and finally Bronze Age urban communities (particularly those in the Near East) were considered an early phase of the civilized world. Today, this approach is no longer valid since it is linked to an attitude of cultural superiority, by which human communities which are not yet “civilized” are seen as somehow inferior.

Roman Aqueduct of Pont du Gard

Ethnocentric views

In everyday conversation, there is a tendency to use the word “civilization” to refer to a type of society that displays a set of moral values, such as respect for human rights or a compassionate attitude for the sick and the elderly. This can be problematic, since moral values are inevitably one-sided and ethnocentric.

A behaviour considered “civilized” by a particular culture may be judged senseless or even seen with horror by another culture. History records an abundant number of examples of this issue. A famous one is reported by Herodotus, who describes the conflicting funerary practices of a group of Greeks, who cremated their dead, and the Indians known as the Kallatiai, who ate their dead:

During his reign, Darius summoned the Hellenes at his court and asked them how much money they would accept for eating the bodies of their dead fathers. They answered that they would not do that for any amount of money. Later Darius summoned some Indians called Kallatiai, who do eat their parents. […], he [Darius] asked the Indians how much money they would accept to burn the bodies of their dead fathers. They responded with an outcry, ordering him to shut his mouth lest he offended the gods. Well, then, that is how people think, and so it seems to me that Pindar was right when he said in his poetry that custom is king of all (Herodotus 3.38.3-4).

xiuhtecuhtli1400 1521CE
Xiuhtecuhtli 1400-1521CE

Attributes of a Civilization

An influential scholar named Gordon Childe identified a list of ten attributes that distinguish a civilization from other kind of societies; his list was reviewed and rewritten many times. What follows is the version of Charles Redman, an American archaeologist:

Primary characteristics

1. Urban settlements
2. Full-time specialists not involved in agricultural activities
3. Concentration of surplus production
4. Class structure
5. State-level organization (government)

Secondary characteristics

6. Monumental public building
7. Extensive trading networks
8. Standardized monumental artwork
9. Writing
10. Development of exact sciences

Today it is acknowledged that these criteria can be problematic for a number of reasons, mainly because the archaeological criteria used to define a civilization are not always clear-cut: reality is indifferent to our intellectual distinctions. We know of complex civilizations, like the Incas, who did not have a writing system; we know of societies which produced monumental buildings, like in the Eastern Islands or Stonehenge, where neither state-level organization nor writing existed; and we even know urban centres, like the Preceramic Civilization in the Andes (c. 3000-1800 BCE) long before the time of the Incas, which were established before the development of extensive agriculture.

This list, however, offers a framework by which the attributes of any society can be objectively compared. If a society displays most of these attributes (or even all of them), it will enable us to refer to it as a civilization no matter how alien, unpleasant, or archaic we might find its way of life and values.


Up until 1970’s CE, the explanations accounting for how civilizations developed tended to be monocausal, and civilizations were considered an inevitable end product of social or political evolution. Today, it is acknowledged that multi-causal explanations are likely to better explain the development of civilizations: we know that many of the social forces that in the past were believed to inevitably lead to the development of cities and states (such as long distance trade, irrigation systems, or population increase) do not always lead to that result. The diversity of human experience seems too complex and vast for our concepts to fit reality perfectly. It might be wiser, and perhaps closer to the truth, to realize that each human society is shaped by its own unique set of circumstances, and that universal explanations or general concepts do not always make perfect sense. Only if we keep these limitations in mind, the concept of civilization gains strength and becomes a useful conceptual tool.

Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.

About the Author

Cristian Violatti

Cristian is a public speaker and independent author with a strong passion for the human past. Inspired by the rich lessons of history, Cristian’s goal is to stimulate ideas and to spark the intellectual curiosity of his audience

Extract from the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Cristian Violatti, 2014.

Extract shared privately with students for educational purposes only. Please see the Ancient History Encyclopedia website above for membership details.

Phoenician Alphabet

Dear students,

please read the brief extracts below on the origins of the Greek alphabet. Keep in mind the importance of writing as one of the key elements of complex societies/civilizations.


1. Phoenician alphabet.

The Phoenician’s most enduring achievement was a technology that transformed the ancient world: the alphabet. The oldest surviving example of an alphabet can be found on an inscription that runs round the top of the sarcophagus of Ahiram, the Phoenician king of Byblos sometime around 1100 BC. Ominously enough it is a curse against anyone who dares to disturb the tomb, but the development of an alphabet by the Phoenicians was a blessing that we are still benefiting from today.

The written alphabet was probably not a purely Phoenician invention; it seems most likely to have developed in Mesopotamia around the fifteenth century BC. But it was the Phoenicians who adapted the letters to make it simpler to use and did the most to disseminate it across the eastern Mediterranean. Earlier writing systems, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics or Akkadian cuneiform, were, broadly speaking, representational. This meant that they consisted of an array of symbols, sometimes hundreds of them, which stood for the things described. They were a kind of bureaucratic code and the skills required were usually restricted to a class of trained specialists known as scribes.

An alphabet works differently; it is more like a speech-recording device. Each letter indicates the sound of a spoken word, or part of it, so if you can pronounce the alphabet correctly you can sound out a word even if you do not know what it means (this is how children read to learn phonetically). Quicker and easier to use, the alphabet made literacy more widespread, and it also allowed literature to become more expressive and inventive, echoing the music and rhythms of speech. (Richard Miles, Ancient Worlds: The Search for the Origins of Western Civilization, 66)

2. Greek illiteracy

Our first surviving inscription in Greek characters is on a jug of about 750 BC. It shows how much the renewal of Aegean civilization owed to Asia. The inscription is written in an adaptation of Phoenician script; Greeks were illiterate until their traders brought home this alphabet. (Roberts and Westad, (2013) The Penguin History of the World.)


Map and extracts shared privately with students for educational purposes only. Please see the relevant booksellers for copies of the books and consult the website for the map and related materials.

Lesson 3a: Ancient civilizations and their West-East Mediterranean networks

Dear Students,

welcome to lesson 3, where we will start looking West of the Mediterranean, and at the networks of information, people and goods that tied parts of ancient Western society to the complex eastern societies of the fertile crescent and the Nile.

Ancient Minoa

By the middle of the third millennium BC (during the Bronze age), a cosmopolitan world had developed in the Mediterranean region, connected by trade routes that stretched from Mesopotamia in the east to Greece and Crete in the West. Its centres of operations were the Phoenician cities in what is now Lebanon and the Syrian city of Ugarit, which rapidly came to be the Venice of the ancient Near East, an open port where merchants from an array of different places lived and traded with one another.

Within this cosmopolitan world, Minoan Crete emerged as the first complex society (or, first ‘civilization’) in the Western Mediterranean, and it dominated Aegean trade from roughly 2000 to 1400BCE.

The Minoan order consisted of small-scale political units ruled by local royalty. The royalty were house in monumental palaces where provision was made for the extensive storage of produce and the manufacture of luxury goods, often made from materials imported from afar. Extensive records were kept, written in the Linear A script, a writing system that has still to be deciphered.

Minoan Crete’s position on important sea routes to Egypt and the Levant suggests that it was deeply influenced by the Near East. The Mesopotamian states, in particular, had long been interested in the Mediterranean region and the Minoans were heavily involved in trade in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.

minoantrade routes
Minoan Crete’s trade routes (National Geographic)

At the height of their power and influence, the Minoans traded north to the Aegean islands, west to the Greek mainland, Sicily, and Sardinia, east to Cyprus, Asia Minor, and the Levant, and south to Libya and Egypt. Paine

Some of the historical evidence of their interactions include:

  • Goods from Egypt and the Near East found in Minoan tombs and in the ruins of their palaces.
  • Large amounts of mass-produced Minoan pottery found in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.
  • The influence of the more naturalistic style of Minoan art on its Egyptian, Syrian and Greek counterparts.
  • The borrowing of common Near Eastern motifs in Minoan art.

Unusually, women held a far more prominent position in Minoan culture than they did in other Bronze Age societies, with female priests and queens portrayed on the palace frescoes as often as their male counterparts.

It also appeared that, unlike in the violent Near East, warfare played a far lesser role in Minoan Crete. Minoan influence on the Aegean region was the result of trade rather than conquest. Crete had no defensive forts, perhaps in part because  it existed during a period when there is no evidence of any seafaring power capable of launching an overseas invasion against such a remote target.

The decline of Minoan civilization was once linked directly to the explosion of Thera, but Minoan society survived another two centuries. When the end came, it was at the hands of the Mycenaeans, to whom the Minoans had introduced writing and a host of other cultural refinements (Paine). The Mycenaens, of course, later became the stuff of classical Greek myth and legend.

Mycenaean Greece


Mycenaean Greece developed under the influence of Minoan civilization, and eventually superseded it; the Mycenaeans flourished between 1600 and 1100 B.C.E., conquered Crete by around 1450 BCE, Minoan Crete having possibly been weakened by the eruption of the volcanic island of Thera (Santorini).

Both Minoan and Mycenaean societies were strongly influenced by their geography. We’ve already noted that Crete was ideally positioned as a trading node for the west and east of the Mediterranean.

The sea also influenced the evolution of Greek society. Greece had a long seacoast, dotted by bays and inlets that provided numerous harbors. The Greeks also inhabited a number of islands to the west, the south, and particularly the east of the Greek mainland. It is no accident that the Greeks became seafarers who sailed out into the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas (Spielvogel).

The Mycenaeans established a trading network that encompassed the Aegean, coastal Asia Minor, Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt and that would survive until the twelfth century BCE.

Geography drove Mycenaeans to the sea, but also had other effects for their culture (culture here meaning ‘way of life’).

Unlike the landmasses of Mesopotamia and Egypt, Greece occupied a small area, a mountainous peninsula that encompassed only 45,000 square miles of territory. Much of Greece consists of small plains and river valleys surrounded by mountain ranges 8,000 to 10,000 feet high. The mountainous terrain had the effect of isolating Greeks from one another. Consequently, Greek communities tended to follow their own separate paths and develop their own way of life.

Over a period of time, these communities became attached to their independence and were only too willing to fight one another to gain advantage. No doubt the small size of these independent Greek communities fostered participation in political affairs and unique cultural expressions, but the rivalry among these communities also led to the bitter warfare that ultimately devastated Greek society. (Spielvogel)

The Mycenaean Greeks were part of the Indo-European family of peoples who spread from their original Central Asian location into southern and western Europe, India, and Iran. They take their name from the Peloponnesian city of Mycenae. Their society developed as a patchwork of states, each centred on heavily fortified citadel-palaces: Athens, Thebes and Pylos.

Unlike in Minoan Crete, there were no cities or even towns in the Mycenaean world: most of the population lived either in small settlements based around the palace or in scattered villages. The temples, key institutions in the Near East, carried little influence in Mycenaean Greece. There is also little sign of one central political authority; none of the Mycenaean palatial centres appears to have been powerful enough to dominate.

That only some of the rudiments of complex statehood that had been perfected in the Near East and Egypt reached Mycenae maybe one reason for this difference. Another was the central role played by war within Mycenaean elite culture. Mycenae was evidently heavily imbued with a warrior culture very similar to the one described by Homer with a patchwork of kingdoms ruled over by warrior kings who enjoyed a lifestyle of feasting, hunting and, most popular of all, war.

Mycenaean Greece was the source of later Hellenic legends about the founding of Greek civilization. Even if Homer’s tales of Agamemnon, Menelaus and their great siege of Troy do not represent cast-iron historical fact they do at least seem to contain vague memories of real world events and civilizations that had once existed. Many of the gods which the Mycenaeans worshipped would become important members of the Greek divine pantheon. The Mycenaean language, which was written with the Linear B script, was an early precursor to ancient Greek.

The structure of Mycenaean society was almost feudal society with the Wanax (king) at its head, assisted by an elite warrior caste, the heqetai. At the bottom of this socio-economic pyramid were the doeroi, a class of serfs who performed the agricultural labour.



Minoans and Mycanaean were western Mediterranean societies. On the eastern side, another society that made important contributions to what we think of as Western civilization were the Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians, along with the Greeks, were the first peoples to create sea-based colonial empires, two-way traffic in commodities, people, and culture, as distinct from one-way migrations or trade in prestige goods intended principally for elite consumers.

Over the course of five hundred years, Phoenician and Greek mariners founded or nurtured ports many of which still pulse with trade almost three thousand years later: Tyre and Sidon; Carthage (now a suburb of Tunis), Cádiz, and Cartagena; Piraeus, Corinth, and Byzantium (now Istanbul); and Marseille. They were the first people to build ships specifically for war and develop strategies for their use; to erect port complexes dedicated to facilitating commerce; and to systematically explore the waters beyond the Mediterranean.


They charted new routes, not only in the Mediterranean but also in the Atlantic Ocean, where they sailed south along the west coast of Africa. The goods they traded with included purple dye (their name comes from the Greek word phoinix, meaning ‘purple’), jewellery, glass, wine, olive oil and lumber from the famous cedars of Lebanon. They also traded in Egyptian papyrus from their city of Byblos (from which the Greek word biblos, meaning ‘book’ is derived).

Phoenicians simplified and disseminated an alphabet that historians believe to have been invented in Mesopotamia, sometime after 1500BCE. That alphabet became the basis of Greek, latin (Roman) language and ultimately forms the basis of English (see the reading on wechat).

Other Middle Eastern Societies


Along with the connecting Phoenicians, the Hittites, Israelites, Assyrians and Babylonians all  contributed to the making of not just the Middle East, but also Western Civilization.

Some of the innovations and dissemination that these societies produced occurred through conflict. In fact warfare has been one of the major arenas of progress. Consider for example the technological advancements made by the stirrup, the wheel (enabling  and gunpowder, and the social contribution made by organization and accounting to warfare and the power of states.

Conflict also involved the migration and settlement of diverse peoples, and this enabled a cross-pollination of culture and science (the dissemination of ideas and practices and beliefs).

The ancient Israelis (circa 1200-1000BCE) were one of those conflict-driven migratory people, and they are important not least because their spiritual heritage—the Judeo-Christian values—is one of the basic pillars of Western civilization (Spielvogel).

The ancient  Mediterranean: home of dissemination and innovation

“Geography is central to the story of civilization” (Richard Miles”).

The very first cities on earth sprang up on the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys, valleys that were fertile and abundant, fed by rivers that were easily navigated, enabling the spread of people, goods and ideas. It was from these great river ways that civilization would flow towards the Mediterranean, the next great theatre for its emergence.

The Mediterranean possessed the same essential combination of geographical factors. The Mediterranean might be classed as a sea but it is almost completely enclosed by heavily populated land, meaning that it served as an information superhighway par excellence.

The Mediterranean has always managed to be both one sea and a collection of many different seas: Aegean, Adriatic, Tyrrhenian and Ionian. It was out of this strange combination of inter-connectivity and isolation that the city-state grew; physically isolated enough for a sense of independent identity to be fostered, whilst benefiting from the skills, ideas and goods that were borne on the sea from one community to another.

 Greeks, Romans, Etruscans, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians …. communicated with each other, spreading ideas and exchanging vital information about the different ways in which societies could be organized.

Trade in goods, people and ideas was the great engine of progress and it was the trade routes across the deserts and mountains of the Middle East and around the Mediterranean that made it possible to spread ideas throughout the region. (Miles, R., Ancient Worlds)

Already by the eighteenth century BC, the Near East, Anatolia and the eastern Mediterranean had begun to resemble a joined up, cosmopolitan world in which innovations in one society were rapidly disseminated to others. By 800 BC the coasts of the western Mediterranean were experiencing fairly continuous intercourse with the East. South of the olive-line an Iron Age people of central Italy had already during the eighth century BC established trading contacts with Greeks further south in Italy and with Phoenicia. These “Villanovans” adopted Greek characters for writing their language. Subsequently, Etruscan society developed in the form of city-states, producing art of high quality. One of their city-states would one day be known as Rome.

One consequence for our thinking is to note some of the particular and multiple roots of and routes to Western civilization.


Miles, R. Ancient Worlds: The Search for the Origins of Western Civilization, Penguin.

Jackson J. Spielvogel, (2015) Western Civilization, Cengage Learning

Paine, L. (2013), The Sea and Civilization: a Maritime History of the Mediterranean.


America vs China: the Movies (Cultural study Activities Autumn Winter 2019-20)

 Dear students,

welcome to the course.

We’re going learn about American culture by watching and discussing American movies and comparing them with Chinese movies. To inform our discussions, we’ll draw on the some of the key categories of cultural studies analysis, equality, ‘race’, class, and gender, as well as rural/urban divisions.

So, we will be learning and practicing  a little bit of the craft of movie reviewing, and a little bit of theory and method of cultural studies.

Each week I will give several movies to watch (you can copy them week by week). So, next week, can some of you bring your usbs? Then maybe the class can share on qq.

Some weeks I will give you some short readings and we will have in class quizzes on these, and on your knowledge of the films.

So I can share the lessons and materials with you, let’s make a wechat group.

Course aims:

The main purpose of this course is to strengthen your cultural, language communication and thinking competence.

The core of this course will contain a lot of practical work which will require you to speak thoughtfully, to use cultural study concepts in discussions [like culture, gender, race], and demonstrate your knowledge and understanding. 

Learning process:

The main objectives of the course are to facilitate the students in gaining further language-and-cultural knowledge thought a series of linked activities including English language (American) movie watching, class and group discussions, quizzes and tests etc.

You will learn to make informed and reasonable spoken word comparisons between Chinese and American cultural texts. In doing so, you will have the opportunity to speak more fluently and accurately, expressing your  ideas and opinions in a culturally informed and thoughtful manner.

Study Materials:

[1] American and Chinese film texts relating to issues of gender, race and rural/urban divisions.

[2] select readings


This course will focus on careful viewing of the films, small group and class discussions, and demonstration of understanding via quizzes and tests. Students are expected to come to class prepared to talk. To succeed in this class, you will be expected to do the following things:

  • Participate actively in speaking activities including group and class discussion.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the film texts and short conceptual readings.
  • Develop their ability to speak thoughtfully, demonstrating sound observation and reasoning skills.

Grade Breakdown

Full score 100%

  • Class participation 10%
  • First assignment                                  45%
  • Final Assignment                                 45%

There will be two tests that will examine your knowledge and understanding of the films we have watched and the concepts we have used to understand them. Each test will be worth 45%.

There will be assessment for attendance and participation as well (10%)

Note. Students are expected to attend all classes unless there are exceptional circumstances, to inform the teacher of the reasons for any absences and provide documentation when required. Failure to do so will result penalties against the grade.


The course will have five parts.

Part 1. Introduction: Culture and film, American college

An introduction to the concept of culture, and the craft of movie reviewing.

Lady Bird

Part 2. American and Chinese Heroes and Gender

The Wandering Earth, Hero, Wolf Warrior 1, Wolf Warrior 2Captain Marvel, Superman, the Movie, and other superhero movies

Part 3. American Race/racism.

12 Years a Slave, Do the Right Thing,

On Beale Street, The Hate You Give

Part 4. America and immigrants

Crazy Rich Asians, Roma, The Immigrant, The Farewell

Part 5. Chinese and American rural/urban culture

Blind Mountain, An Elephant Sitting Still.

(Note, films subject to change)


Brief readings on the cultural studies concepts (for example, racism, gender) will be given as homework throughout the semester.

Defining Culture

‘Culture’ is one of the most difficult concepts in the human and social sciences
and there are many different ways of defining it.

In more traditional definitions of the term, culture is said to embody the ‘best that has been thought and said’ in a society. It is the sum of the great ideas, as represented in the classic works of literature, painting, music and philosophy- the ‘high culture· of an age.

Belonging to the same frame of reference, but more ‘modern’ in its associations, is the use of ‘culture’ to refer to the widely distributed forms of popular music, publishing, art, design and literature, or the activities of leisure-time and entertainment. which make up the everyday lives of the majority of ‘ordinary people’- what is called the ‘mass culture’ or the ‘popular culture’ of an age.

High culture versus popular culture was, for many years, the classic way of framing the debate about culture- the terms carrying a powerfully evaluative charge (roughly, high= good: popular= debased).

Quick Discussion question

Can you think of some examples of high culture?

What about low/popular culture?

In a more ·social science’ context, the word ‘culture’ is used to refer to whatever is distinctive about the ‘way of life’ of a people, community, nation or social group) – the ‘anthropological’ definition.

Alternatively. the word can be used to describe the ‘shared values’ of a group or of society (like the anthropological definition. only with a more sociological emphasis).

We can think of Culture as a set of things – novels and paintings or
TV programmes and comics.

But we can also speak of culture as a process. a set of practices and beliefs. In this sense, culture is concerned with the production and the exchange of meanings – the ‘giving and taking of meaning’- between the members of a society or group.

Quick discussion question

What are some common Chinese cultural practices?

What are some common American cultural practices?

Things ‘in themselves’ rarely have any one, single, fixed and unchanging meaning. Even something as obvious as a stone can be a stone, a boundary marker or a piece of sculpture, depending on what it means within a certain context of use.

It is participants in a culture who give meaning to people, objects and events. It is by our use of things, and what we say, think and feel about them – how we represent them – that we give them a meaning. In part, we give objects, people and events meaning by the frameworks of interpretation which we bring to them.

Members of the same culture must share sets of concepts, images and ideas which enable them to think and feel about the world, and thus to interpret the world, in roughly similar ways. They must share, broadly speaking, the same ‘cultural codes.

In this sense, thinking and feeling are ‘systems of representation’, in which our concepts, images and emotions ‘stand for’ or represent, in our mental life, things which are or may be ‘out there’ in the world.

How things/people are represented

  • To represent something is to show it, to portray it, to communicate it, through some kind of “language” (there are many kinds of languages).
  • To talk about how something is represented is to talk about how it is shown, portrayed, or communicated.

Lets have a quick look at a few examples …

  1. Traffic commands represented by traffic lights.

Traffic commands like stop, wait, get ready, go, slow down are basically represented by three colored lights (red, green, amber).

There are more commands than lights, but the three lights are sufficient to communicate the commands because of the way they are used (the how of their representation).

If we were to talk about how the lights represent a range of traffic commands, we could explain that their organization on the basis of the principles of difference and sequence makes their commands intelligible.

For example,

  • red represents stop because it is different from green and amber.
  • amber following green is a sequence indicating it is time to slow down.

Altogether we can say that the lights have been coded by the logic of traffic management which requires that people obey a range of commands. The way they have been coded is through the principles of difference and sequence.

If we wanted to take this example further, we could argue that the representation of traffic commands has become increasingly helpful. In China, many traffic lights now provide a numbered countdown (from ninety to zero), so people know how long they have to wait, and can prepare to get ready. This extra sequence feels very helpful if you are waiting at the lights (if you just had a red light instead, you wouldn’t know how long you have to wait).

Shenzhen traffic offense display screen

But we might also talk about the way that representations related to traffic commands have also become more punitive and inescapable. For example, in some cities there are now large video screens showing images of people who have broken the traffic rules. This kind of representation works to shame people into obeying the commands.

2. Foreigners and national selves represented by political discourse (for example, the words of Donald Trump).

We might talk about the way that discourse (way of talking) of Donald Trump is full of negative representations of foreigners and positive representations of Americans.

In Trump’s political discourse, bad foreigners are represented as posing a serious threat to good American citizens.

His dichotomy between bad foreigners and good Americans works to associate particular characteristics as negative threats to an imagined American way of life.


This political discourse is coded by the principle of difference. The kind of difference being used to organize the opposite terms is cultural racism.

So if Donald Trump’s discourse was the subject of one of our discussions, we could first describe what the discourse is and how it works (as above).

Then, if we were to discuss this discourse further, we could talk about its effects. We might discuss policy effects, including nationalist and protectionist policies like migrant-exclusion and trade wars.

Or we might talk about social effects like the rise of racist discrimination and violence, including the great increase in the number of hate crimes. We might talk about the way that racist coding has become part of popular talking among some American social groups, and how this is being opposed by different forms of counter-discourse.

We might talk about why (or even whether) it matters:

Q. Why would we, as English major students, do any of this (analyzing Trump’s culturally racist representations)?

A. Well, one answer would be to argue that language does not exist independently of the culture it is used in, and if we are studying American English, for example, we can’t claim to understand the language if we don’t understand the culture it is embedded in, and the way that culture is contested and changing over time.


Betty Page, American pin-up
Tai hao le.

3. American femininity represented by barbie dolls, pin ups, and advertising photos of good housewives

Children’s toys, pin-up photos and pictures, and adverts featuring housewives have all been key representations of femininity in popular American culture.

Barbie dolls represent womanhood as something associated with the colour pink, with prettiness, something like a present, something ‘princessy’. Feminists argue that the dolls are representations that encourage little girls to aspire to a model of womanhood in which they are pretty, a present for their man, and a princess towards their father figure. Pin-ups are representations encouraging people (men and women) to value women to the extent that they are desirable sex objects. Housewife adverts are representations that reinforce the idea that a woman’s place is in the home, where she should be happily subservient.

Each of these forms of representation was key to 20th century American popular culture, and together they worked to reinforce particular ideals of what femininity or womanhood should mean or be.These representations are coded according to sexist and sexualizing principles.

So, if this was a topic for discussion, we would start with something like this description of what the representations of femininity are, and how they work (the principles they are organized/coded by).

If we were to talk about this further, we could discuss the way the representations related to social practices, the way they have been contested by feminists, and then how those contests have in turn been contested again (for example, by modern misogynists, or by post-feminists).

We could do that by looking at their representations in, for example, political discourse, or art, or movies, fiction etc.Think, for example, of the more recent (21st century) representations of women given in the movie Atomic Blonde, or Captain Marvel and other recent superhero movies.

We are amateur movie reviewers


Movie discussion elements

  • title, topic, release date
  • Story, plot, genre, style.
  • Social themes and significance; historical context
  • Creative craft elements (including, for example, quality of script, direction and performances, visual design and cinematography,  lighting, set design, costume, hair, make-up, special effects, sound, music, editing.

When we think and talk about movies:

  • Reasoning with evidence. You will have given your opinions and reasons throughout, try to make sure you talk logically with enough and appropriate evidence to support your point of view.