The Year of China at the University of Kentucky

Denise Ho, who published a piece on Shanghai’s Fangua Lane at China Beat earlier in 2011, approached us with an idea that we’ve never tried here before: a series of co-authored articles resulting from collaboration between Denise and two of her undergraduate students at the University of Kentucky. During the 2011-2012 academic year, UK will be celebrating the “Year of China,” bringing a number of speakers and events to campus to increase knowledge about China among the university community. Here, the first of four planned “Letters from Lexington” describing the Year of China’s inaugural event—which just happened to involve China Beat consulting editor Jeff Wasserstrom, who has his own history at UK.

By Denise Ho

Many cultural encounters begin with generalizations and limited knowledge of the other. When I tell friends in China that I teach at the University of Kentucky, I am first asked whether I mean the Kentucky of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then, when I mention that UK is located in Lexington, a flash of recognition is followed by, “That is where your American Revolution began, right? ‘The shot heard ‘round the world?’” Though I tell them that actually took place in Lexington, Massachusetts, my friends are gratified to hear that our fair city was named after the contemporary event, and they feel satisfied that they’ve remembered their American history.

My students at UK also begin their study of China or Asia with similar generalizations. Coming of age in a time when everything seems to be “Made in China,” they nonetheless arrive in my classes with prior knowledge largely limited to China’s rise as portrayed in local news media and the Olympics of three years ago. Of course, they might also be familiar with the Chinese dining options available in our college town of almost 300,000: Panda Express and Panda Cuisine. Their cultural background is very different from that which I encountered growing up in California or at school in New England; there, Chinese-Americans formed a significant part of the student body, the universities had a long history of engagement with China, and studying Chinese went from popular to mainstream. In contrast to my Chinese history course at MIT, where 90% of my students were of Chinese extraction, in my three years in Kentucky I have taught only one Chinese-American student.

And yet my students’ views of China are rapidly changing. The University of Kentucky, a public land-grant university in the American South, has recently hired new China studies faculty. We have a Confucius Institute that offers Chinese language and culture classes to the wider community. For the first time this year, our students can major and minor in Chinese, and they can now study abroad at our partner institution in Shanghai. Local schools are beginning to teach Chinese, and Kentucky’s view of Asia—long trained on Japan because of its automotive manufacturing presence—is beginning to shift. This year, the UK College of Arts and Sciences is hosting a “Year of China,” a two-semester program of events that includes an introductory course, special events, films, and guest lecturers in fields as far-ranging as education and culture, literature and film, human rights and religion. The premise for this article, one of a planned four-part series written with my students, begins with a question: what is it like to introduce the study of China to a large public university in the United States, in a place where interest in China is novel?

Of course, teaching and learning about China in Kentucky is not entirely new. Our keynote speaker to kick-off the “Year of China” was China Beat’s Jeff Wasserstrom, who began his own teaching career at UK in 1989. Although he arrived at UK in the wake of Tiananmen Square and the images of student protests were still fresh in Americans’ minds, his UK undergrads at the time were more interested in talking about Japan. As he recalled with my students last month, people in the UK community were more curious about Japan and economics, as Toyota was (and still is) one of the largest international businesses in the Bluegrass. Questions about China were primarily political: Was the Communist Party in China going to fall? What about the repression of Christians in “Red China”? By contrast the questions that UK students asked Wasserstrom over twenty years later seemed to have accepted the political reality of CCP rule, wondering instead about China as an economic threat or about China’s military buildup. Another striking difference, Wasserstrom remarked, was the presence of Chinese and Chinese-American students.

The shift in student interests that Wasserstrom observed is one of degree, one that has changed in focus from politics to economics, and one that has taken place in a world linked by information technology largely unimaginable in 1989. Yet the potential and challenges for cultural understanding remain largely the same. Real understanding will require, as Wasserstrom suggested in his public lecture, seeing Chinese tradition as a “multi-stranded” one, an understanding that culture is not unitary but marked by complexity and tension. To expand on his point, I believe that real exchange will entail moving from basic shared interests like food and basketball (though both important traditions!) and realizing that we have common problems: energy based on coal, a reliance on manufacturing jobs that are moving elsewhere, an urban-rural divide with consequences for health and education, a growing divide between rich and poor (Kentucky ranks 14th among US states for income inequality), and continued use of the death penalty. No less than twenty years ago, meaningful understanding and exchange will start from contact between students, students who recognize that our local issues are also global ones.

By Jared Flanery

The official “Year of China” logo is a single red star against a yellow back drop, with just a few of its red dots missing.

One possible interpretation of this logo is that China is becoming “less red,” turning away from its Communist past while remaining a stable state. There is also an inverted version of the logo, with an equally weak yellow star framed by a red background. “Awaken the past, discover the future” serves as the Year of China tagline, featured on lecture programs and semi-popular (free) t-shirts. Although the University of Kentucky attracts significantly fewer international students than many other large colleges, they do exist. While the “Year of China” is the first time the entire campus has focused its attention on this country, the opening of Panda Express at the Student Center marks the primary Asia-related economic event of the year. Still, there appears growing recognition that both Chinese tradition and the contemporary cultural milieu deserve study.

Professor Wasserstrom’s keynote lecture reflected that shift. The public seminar, titled “China and the American Imagination: From the Days of the Boxer Rising to the Age of the Internet,” traced a modern Chinese narrative recounted through a distinctly American perspective. Wasserstrom tended to emphasize difference in his remarks, differences within the interchange of American and global pop culture and the Chinese experience. Chinese people may appropriate from the West, he acknowledged, but they do so with originality and over an uneven geographical distribution. So a popular Chinese social media site, Renren, is at least a little different than the banned Facebook. Pointedly, Wasserstrom noted that Renren makes a request for information that the American version does not: blood type. Apparently blood type indicates dating compatibility, in a cultural tradition Wasserstrom said derives from Japan and Korea. This is a clear example of difference between cultures existing within familiar social media sites. As in Student Protests in Twentieth Century China, Wasserstrom also referenced similarity within multi-stranded experience. He concluded with the approach of both the Chinese and American states to public protest. Similarity, not sameness, best describes the state reactions to the inklings of a “Jasmine Revolution” and, say, Occupy Wall Street.

As there is more than one version of the “Year of China” logo, there might also be more than one aesthetic interpretation. On campus, I posit the “Year of China” logo might reflect a residual suspicion of “Red China,” projecting measured cheerfulness that China could become more like us. It certainly would not represent the first time UK turned a jaundiced eye towards the expansion of cultural knowledge. But its disintegrating and pointillist red star could invite another interpretation. While questioning China’s commitment to full-scale “Communism” is more than understandable today, the disappearance of the red dots might suggest something other than disunity or trending towards market capitalism. Red in Chinese culture also signifies wealth, happiness, and fecundity, as Professor Wasserstrom indicated. University public relations officials likely do not mean to imply Chinese depression through their graphic design. But for interest in China to be meaningful, spreading knowledge of the various cultural back stories must become part of the project. For now, the inclination toward study in middle America serves as source of a guarded optimism.

Denise Ho is assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky. Jared Flanery is a junior at the University of Kentucky. This article is the first of a four-part series on teaching and learning about China at the University of Kentucky, a public land-grant institution founded in 1865. More information about the “Year of China” can be found here.

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