Ex­pand­ing large class­room study of China BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By QI­DONG ZHANG in San Fran­cisco kel­lyzhang@chi­nadai­lyusa. com

In Ron­ald Egan’s gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion un­der­grad­u­ate class on Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture and his­tory at Stan­ford Univer­sity, he likes to ask his stu­dents to raise their hands if they have ever heard of or read the Chi­nese Qing Dy­nasty clas­sic novel Dream of the Red Man­sion.

“Usu­ally there is none from among the Amer­i­can stu­dents. So I tell them it’s bet­ter that they learn of it now than later. And I also tell them that they are go­ing to en­ter a world that they don’t even know ex­ists. And they will find this world ab­so­lutely fas­ci­nat­ing and thrilling,” said Egan.

A si­nol­o­gist spe­cial­iz­ing in Tang po­etry and Song dy­nasty lyrics, Egan is in his sec­ond year of teach­ing Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture and his­tory at Stan­ford’s East Asian lan­guage and cul­ture depart­ment, af­ter 25 years of teach­ing at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Santa Bar­bara (UCSB) and eight years at Har­vard.

“I like to think of my­self as a fac­ulty mem­ber at Stan­ford ful­fill­ing an im­por­tant role in in­tro­duc­ing Chi­nese cul­ture and tra­di­tion to Amer­i­can stu­dents who do not know about it,” said Egan.

Egan’s in­ter­est in China de­vel­oped “ac­ci­den­tally” at 19, when he took a gen­eral Chi­nese lan­guage class “for fun” as a sopho­more at UCSB, hav­ing no idea what he was go­ing to learn.

Orig­i­nal ly in­tend­ing to ma­jor in English lit­er­a­ture, his pro­fes­sor at the class changed his des­tiny. That pro­fes­sor was Kenneth Hsien-yung Pai, a writer who has been de­scribed as a “melan­choly pioneer” in Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture, and is ap­pre­ci­ated for so­phis­ti­cated nar­ra­tives that in­tro­duce con­tro­ver­sial and ground­break­ing per­spec­tives in Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture.

He was also known for his ef­forts to save kunqu, one of the old­est ex­tant forms of Chi­nese opera from the 16th to the 18th cen­turies and get­ting it listed as a mas­ter­piece of Oral and In­tan­gi­ble Her­itage of Hu­man­ity by UNESCO in 2001.

“I only re­al­ized years later who my teacher was,” Egan said. “He was very good to me, very en­cour­ag­ing, and taught me to love Tang po­etry and Song lyrics, among the most in­flu­en­tial com­po­nents of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture and his­tory.

“He also took me back to Tai­wan when I was a se­nior, found me a fam­ily to live with and a tu­tor to teach me Man­darin. That re­ally changed my life path, and it was my great good for­tune to en­counter such a per­son.”

Grow­ing up in Con­necti­cut in a mu­si­cal fam­ily, Egan had no prior ex­po­sure to Chi­nese lan­guage and cul­ture. Af­ter ex­haust­ing all avail­able cour­ses at UCSB, he trans­ferred to Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton in Seat­tle to study un­der Hell­mut Wil­helm, an in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed scholar of Chi­nese his­tory, lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy. Wil­helm’s fa­ther Richard was a mis­sion­ary in Shan­dong in 1920s and the first trans­la­tor of the I Ching, one of the old­est Chi­nese clas­si­cal texts.

Egan at­tributes his flaw­less Man­darin to the two years he spent liv­ing with a Chi­nese fam­ily dur­ing his stud­ies in Seat­tle. Is­abella Yen, who was in charge of the Chi­nese pro­gram at the univer­sity, was the grand­daugh­ter of Yan Fu (18541921), a Chi­nese scholar and trans­la­tor most fa­mous for in­tro­duc­ing Western ideas, in­clud­ing Dar­win’s “nat­u­ral se­lec­tion”, to China in the late 19th century.

Egan con­tin­ued his doc­toral stud­ies at Har­vard in 1976 and started his teach­ing ca­reer there, be­fore go­ing to UCSB and Stan­ford.

Af­ter pub­lish­ing The Lit­er­ary Works of Ouyang Hsiu (2009) and Word, Im­age and Deed in the Life of Su Shi (1994), his most re­cent book was The Bur­den of Fe­male Talent: The Poet Li Qingzhao and Her His­tory in China (2013), which re­ceived wide at­ten­tion from schol­ars.

“The book on Li Qingzhao is an at­tempt to pro­vide a new in­ter­pre­ta­tion on this ex­tremely gifted Chi­nese fe­male poet whose ac­tual talent has been dis­torted by the tra­di­tion which in­sists on view­ing her as a de­voted wife, and a for­lorn widow af­ter her hus­band died,” said Egan.

Li was ac­tu­ally ex­tremely com­pet­i­tive and am­bi­tious, vy­ing with her fel­low male poets and ea­ger to prove her­self.

Egan also takes up the con­tro­ver­sia l ar­gu­ment among Chi­nese schol­ars as to whether she re­mar­ried or not. Egan be­lieves that Li not only re­mar­ried, but also di­vorced her sec­ond hus­band only 100 days af­ter the wed­ding. She was put into jail for fil­ing a law­suit against him for cor­rup­tion, some­thing no woman was al­lowed to do at the time.

“It was con­sid­ered a dis­grace in an­cient Chi­nese so­ci­ety for a woman to re­marry, let along the fact that she ini­ti­ated di­vorc­ing her hus­band and fil­ing a law suit against him and was put in jail. That was how the big dis­pute be­gan on her be­ing such a great poet, but also a ‘dis­graced’ woman.”

Egan’s aca­demic path also had an­other for­tu­nate en­counter with Qian Zhong­shu (1910-1998), a highly ac­claimed Chi­nese writer best known for his satir­i­cal novel Fortress Be­sieged.

“I met him in 1979 right af­ter the ‘cul­tural revo­lu­tion’ (1967-77). He came to lec­ture at Har­vard and I talked to him about his schol­arly in­ter­est in tra­di­tional Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture,” Egan said.

Stim­u­lated by Qian’s works, Egan trans­lated his Guanzhui Bian — Limited Views: Es­says on Ideas and Letters. This trans­la­tion of 65 es­says makes avail­able for the first time in English a rep­re­sen­ta­tive se­lec­tion from Qian’s mas­sive four-vol­ume collection of es­says and read­ing notes on the clas­sics of early Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture.

Go­ing to China sev­eral times a year to at­tend con­fer­ences, give lec­tures and meet with schol­ars, Egan said there is much more com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween schol­ars in his field now and the aca­demic en­vi­ron­ment is en­cour­ag­ing. He said he would, how­ever, love to see more Amer­i­can stu­dents hav­ing grad­u­ate-level in­ter­ests in China stud­ies to bal­ance things out.

“Amer­i­cans in gen­eral are


Fac­ulty, Stan­ford Univer­sity Age: 66 PhD, East Asian Lan­guages and Civ­i­liza­tions, Har­vard Univer­sity (1976) AM, East Asian Lan­guage and Civ­i­liza­tions, Har­vard Univer­sity (1974) BA, Far East­ern Lan­guages and Lit­er­a­ture, Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton (1970) Pro­fes­sor of Si­nol­ogy, Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute, Stan­ford Univer­sity (2012-present) Pro­fes­sor, Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Bar­bara (1987-2012) Ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor, Har­vard Jour­nal of Asi­atic Stud­ies (1983-1987) As­sis­tant pro­fes­sor, Har­vard Univer­sity (1976-1983) in­cred­i­bly ig­no­rant about China,” Egan said. “If you talk to Amer­i­can col­lege stu­dents, they mostly know noth­ing about Chi­nese his­tory, cul­ture and lit­er­a­ture.

“In con­trast, if you ini­ti­ate any con­ver­sa­tion with Chi­nese stu­dents, they have at least 10 times more knowl­edge about Western cul­ture, lit­er­a­ture, his­tory, and that is re­ally a shame. I take my un­der­grad teach­ing very se­ri­ously and be­lieve the top pri­or­ity to­day is to ex­pand large class­room teach­ing at uni­ver­si­ties about Chi­nese lan­guage, his­tory and lit­er­a­ture,” said Egan.


Ron­ald Egan, Stan­ford si­nol­o­gist on Chi­nese Tang po­etry and Song lyrics, brings al­ter­na­tive find­ings in his new book, TheBur­de­nofFe­maleTa­lent about Chi­nese poet Li Qingzhao.

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