Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Professor Chaves goes to China: a cultural and enriching experience

I spent two months of my spring sabbatical, 2011 (April, May) in China. A grant from the Sigur Center for Asian Studies of the Elliott School helped make this possible.

I was invited by Shanghai University School of Liberal Arts to deliver three lectures there in the capacity of Visiting Scholar. Speaking in Chinese, I addressed audiences of highly attentive graduate students, as well as administrators, colleagues, and undergraduates. The first lecture, with Power Point slides, was on the early Qing-Dynasty painter, Wu Li 吳歷(1632-1718), one of the first ordained Chinese Catholic priests, and his remarkable poetry based on Christian theology. The second was on the challenges involved in the translation of Chinese poetry into English, with an emphasis on the question of rhyme. And the third was a general survey of recent studies in Chinese literature in the West (USA and Canada especially). Questions were many, and of considerable interest in that they revealed a new generation of young scholars seriously committed to a revival of scholarship in classical Chinese literature.

As my recent research has been on early Qing-Dynasty (17th-18th century) travel writings about the Yellow Mountains (Huangshan 黃山) of Anhui 安徽Province, and their connection to the Anhui School of Chinese landscape painting, I next spent a full week exploring the Yellow Mountains, in the company of one of China's (and indeed, the world's) finest landscape photographers, Wang Wusheng 汪蕪生. Wang, an Anhui native, has become internationally famous for his spectacular photos of the Yellow Mountains, with one-man shows of his work in Vienna, New York, and Tokyo.

After the Yellow Mountains, I visited various other points in Anhui, especially the cities of Xuancheng 宣城and Hefei 合肥, the provincial capital. The libraries and museums of these cities promised to be treasure-troves of previously unknown poetry and prose about the Yellow Mountains, as indeed proved to be the case. And Xuancheng was particularly meaningful to me personally as being the hometown of one of my favorite poets, Mei Yaochen 梅堯臣(1002-1060), the subject of my PhD dissertation at Columbia University, and my first book. I was very happy to see that a statue commemorating Mei has just been erected in what will be a theme park dedicated to the Mei clan.

Visiting Xuancheng also made it possible for me to spend time in the remote village of Shuanglingkeng 雙嶺坑("Twin-Peak Gulley"), where the legendary Xuan-style paper is still made by hand, from scratch. I was able to observe the process by which the stripped bark of the wingceltis tree is boiled down into a paste, which is in turn spread out on fine-mesh bamboo screening, where it dries into what is considered the finest paper for calligraphy, painting, and woodblock printing.

From my perspective, the most inspiring aspect of this trip was the realization that there is, unmistakably, a renewed interest in China's glorious past among the younger generations there, while the usual assumption seems to be that it has been forgotten in the rush towards economic growth.



(1) and (2), Professor Chaves lecturing at Shanghai University

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(3), at the Yellow Mountains, with photographic artist Wang Wusheng
(4) and (5), at the Yellow Mountains
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(6), in the Anhui Provincial Library (Hefei), finding rare travel writings about the Yellow Mountains

(7) and (8), at the newly erected bronze statue of Mei Yaochen, Xuancheng
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(9), (10), (11), at the workshop where Xuan paper is made from scratch, Shuanglingkeng Village
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