Center in Beijing Serves East Asian Civilizations Class as Base for Exploring China

November 5, 2010

On November 19, Paola Iovene, Assistant Professor in Modern Chinese Literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, took the students to the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition Center on Qianmen Street. Students looked at the impressive miniature models of the city, sat through 3D and interactive “4D” movie screenings, and discussed the various images through which the museum presents Beijing’s urban transformations over the past centuries along with its future prospects.

On the afternoon of the same day, students met with Mr.  Xiao Fuxing, a writer and expert on Beijing urban history. Together they walked past the first Beijing Railway Station and down Qianmen Street, finally immersing themselves in the maze of alleys called Dazhalan. A famous commercial and entertainment district in late Imperial and Republican times, the area was partly torn down and rebuilt before the 2008 Olympics. Mr. Xiao, who grew up in Dazhalan and wrote two books on the history of its famous shops, opera houses, and brothels, took the students to such landmark places as Qianshi hutong, the narrowest lane in Beijing (only 16 inches in its narrowest point), which was once the center of Beijing’s monetary exchange with more than twenty coin mints.

The East Asian Civilizations course taught by Professor Iovene dealt with the urban transformations that Beijing has undergone in the last century. Through the study of literary texts, artworks, films, historical and autobiographical accounts, the course sought to understand how the changes in urban space have affected those who live and work in the city. The visits to the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition Center and to Dazhalan aimed at providing students with a concrete sense of the ways in which urban space is being reshaped in contemporary Beijing.

The history of rural-urban migration and the often conflictual relationships between locals (bendiren) and outsiders/strangers (waidiren) has been a central theme in Professor Iovene’s class. In the last week of the course, the students visited the Culture and Art Museum of Migrant Workers in Picun, close to the Capital Airport in the northeastern suburbs of Beijing. Picun used to be a small village of 1,000 inhabitants, but it has grown to become the home of about 10,000 migrant workers over the last ten years. The Culture and Art Museum of Migrant Workers illustrates the legal norms, ideas, and practices that affect the lives of migrants and their families. Several students engaged with Beijing migrant neighborhoods in their final projects, which were based on field trips and interviews at sites of their choice.

Traditional Chinese medicine is an important arena of health services in today's China, popular far beyond the hospitals and clinics where it is practiced with government support and regulation.  It finds its roots in the metaphysical and naturalistic writings of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and earlier.  As part of its study of systematic thought about nature in the Chinese tradition, the 2010 Asian Civilizations in Beijing class taught by Professor Judith Farquhar (Anthropology, M.A. 1975, 1979, Ph.D. 1986) spent several class days discussing the conceptual basis of Chinese medicine as well as historical continuities and innovations in this complex field.  One afternoon the class visited the newly-established Yikang Hospital on Beijing's north side.  Privately established and eligible for health insurance, Yikang offers both traditional Chinese and contemporary biomedical services. Members of the senior staff welcomed the Chicago group very warmly, demonstrating diagnosis and treatment techniques and explaining the special characteristics of their field. There was much that resonated both with the classic readings undertaken by the class and with the understanding it developed of demands on health care in very modern Beijing.

University of Chicago students studying in the East Asian Civilizations program at the Center in Beijing on October 27 attended the Asian Premiere of “Madame White Snake,” an opera created by Cerise Lim Jacobs (librettist) and Zhou Long (composer). The opera tells the classical Chinese story of a snake demon who transforms into a woman after a thousand years of meditation. As a woman she falls in love with a young scholar-doctor. Their great love is disrupted by the revelations of a traveling Abbott, who is able to see through Madame White’s human form to her snake-demon essence. Acting on Abbott Fahai’s advice, and concerned about the human or snake nature of the child Madame White is now expecting, husband Xuxian uses a magical potion to reveal his wife’s snake nature. Thus betrayed, Madame White Snake re-emerges as a demon and devastates the town in a flood.

The Asian Civilizations course taught by Professor Farquhar centers on the history of science and systematic knowledge in China. Materials being studied in class at the time of the opera focus on the metaphysical foundations of early Chinese cosmology. Arguing that the natural world known to writers in the last few centuries before the common era was one of constant change and paradoxical surprises, these readings made it easy to see that transformations among snake, human, and demon are almost plausible. It might take a thousand years of meditation, or a particularly powerful elixir, to effect such a radical change, but anything can happen when love is the goal!

The attendance of students in the East Asian Civilizations Program at the Center in Beijing to “Madame White Snake” was made possible with the help of Cerise Lim Jacobs, to whom the whole group was very grateful.

Professor Tamara Chin, Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature, and several staff led students on an excursion of three packed days in Xi'an, as part of their study of the ancient Silk Road.  The aim of the class was to teach students about China’s relations with the outside world during the Han and Tang dynasty, when Xi'an (then Chang’an) was the largest cosmopolitan capital of the ancient world.

Students had examined early literary, political, and religious debates about the value and circulation of material objects, and their visits to the famous mausoleums of the Qin and Han dynasty emperors, two new museum exhibitions on the Silk Road, and two Tang dynasty Buddhist pagodas enriched their understanding of material life during these periods.

Tamara Chin  and several staff members took the class on a day-long trip to a portion of the Great Wall at Mutianyu, about 70 kilometers northeast of Beijing.

Professor Chin's course "Silk Road Fictions" includes an examination of the historical function and social meanings of the Great Wall, especially during the early empires of the Qin and Han. Students were assigned readings on the early builders of the “long walls” and what the walls meant to their contemporaries and to later generations.  The trip was designed to equip students with a more tangible understanding of the physical environment and size of the Wall, and of its competing symbolic meanings over time.

Judith FARQUHAR, Max Palevsky Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the College

Tamara CHIN, Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and in the College; Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Comparative Literature

Paola IOVENE, Assistant Professor in East Asian Language and Civilization; Director of Undergraduate Studies in East Asian Language and Civilization