On the Importance of Introductions

Say you’re about to teach a class or enter something into an Arts and Sciences competition or fair.

Can you safely assume that anyone coming to your class or reading your documentation knows anything at all about the culture, region, and time period that provide the context for whatever you are presenting?

Don’t answer quickly. Think about it. Sure, someone might be able to recognize the thing and its context by reading the class title or just looking at your entry, but what about folks for whom that isn’t their focus? What about people who are attending their first (or third) event?

Now, imagine if the topic/thing you’re working on is from a culture/region outside of Western Europe. Does your answer change?

Regardless of where your culture/region is, you should include a brief 150-400 word introduction either in your class handout or documentation that provides this necessary context. Do not assume that is known. Doing so implies that there is a “default” in our game, and while I enjoy my 14th century English fitted gown and bycocket on occasion, there is no default in the SCA. We are a glorious smorgasbord of interests.

So what do you say in this kind of introduction? Here are a couple of mine, to serve as examples.

The Tang Dynasty (唐朝, tăng) lasted from 618 to 907 CE and is widely considered the “golden age” of imperial China. The People’s Republic of China currently recognizes 56 different ethnic groups. The culture discussed here is that of the Han Chinese during the Tang Dynasty, but China has never been a monolith in terms of culture. During the Tang Dynasty, the Han majority’s tolerance for foreign influence created a cosmopolitan culture which included a stream of Chinese and Indian Buddhist monks, Turks from the northern steppes and Central Asia, Koreans, Japanese, Arabs, Persians, Malaysians, and other Southeast Asian cultures. Tang Dynasty China had cultural contact with Europe – via the Roman/Byzantine Empire. There are written as well as archaeological sources that show that China had contact with the Roman Empire from as early as the third century C.E. Unfortunately, there are elements in modern Han Chinese society that seek to oppress other Chinese ethnic groups, sometimes violently –  such as the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

This is the introduction from my Poetry of the Tang Dynasty class. It’s 168 words, and was one of the first slides in my deck. Key elements here are 1) what time period we’re talking about (618-907 CE), 2) what region (China), 3) and what culture (Han Chinese, while recognizing the variety of cultures present both in period and presently, as well as acknowledging the modern treatment of minorities by the Han Chinese).

In my Easy, Breezy, Beautiful: Tang Ladies Fashion for your Summer Needs handout, my introduction was a bit longer.

The Tang Dynasty (唐朝, tăng) lasted from 618 to 907 CE and is widely considered the “golden age” of imperial China. China today covers 9.596 million square miles and a variety of climates. Summer temperatures ranged from 115 degrees in Turpan, east of the Taklamakan Desert, 77 degrees on the Tibetan plateaus, 98 degrees in the southeast, and 95 degrees in the northeast and southwest. The People’s Republic of China currently recognizes 56 different ethnic groups. The majority ethnic group is the Han Chinese (91.10% in 2010) – a dominance that has been true throughout Chinese history so much that written accounts can really be read as a history of this ethnic group. The clothing and associated culture discussed here are those of the Han Chinese during the Tang Dynasty, but China has never been a monolith in terms of culture. During the Tang Dynasty, the Han majority’s tolerance for foreign influence created a cosmopolitan culture which included a stream of Chinese and Indian Buddhist monks, Turks from the northern steppes and central Asia, Koreans, Japanese, Arabs, Persians, Malaysians, and other Southeast Asian cultures. Buddhism grew in popularity during the Tang Dynasty, but foreign exchange and influence brought small pockets of Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism.

This is 209 words, and has all the same basic information as the Poetry introduction. I included geographic and weather information to point out not only how large China is but also the varied climates and therefore, responses to said climates in terms of clothing. I also noted the Han Chinese’s current dominance in China, though this was written before their oppression of the Uighurs had come to light. (This introduction has quite a number of references attached to it, which were scrubbed when I pulled it into this post – always cite your sources!)

In addition to the three basic points – when, where, who – include any other information that would provide additional context. For example, if I were to teach a class on the lives of women during the Tang Dynasty, I would likely note that the modern Hanfu movement has a history of supporting discrimination based on sex and other misogynistic and Han-supremacist ideas. The idea isn’t to go into a long discussion about these modern issues – that’s not the focus of the class or entry, or even our game – only to acknowledge that they exist and to bring some awareness to them. This is a culture that is living and breathing today – and understanding how the past links to the present is worth the 200 words or 5 minutes it takes to address it.

For example, if you’re presenting something to do with the Crusades, you would give some context as to the when, where, and who that is relevant to your specific topic. You might also also point out that extreme right political factions have co-opted this history in order to promote an ethnocentric and religiocentric agenda with violent rhetoric.

I encourage you to write your own introductory “boilerplate” that you can use in your handouts and documentation, tweaking as needed in order to provide the necessary amount of context for whatever you’re presenting. When, where, who will guide you well, as well as any additional what’s or why’s that you may deem necessary.

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