Agreeing to Disagree
David Schaberg and Yunxiang Yan bring vastly different perspectives to their co-directorship of the Center for Chinese Studies.
I think, hopefully, by the end of this term, we will leave our mark by not leaving our mark.
David Schaberg and Yunxiang Yan, at first read, seem like they've had very similar academic upbringings.
Schaberg got his PhD from Harvard in 1996 for his work on early Chinese, Greek, and Latin literature; Yan earned his PhD from Harvard in social anthropology just three years earlier. Schaberg joined the UCLA Department of Asian Languages and Cultures in 1996; Yan joined the Anthropology Department that same year. Yan was this year's recipient of the 2005 Joseph Levenson Prize from the Association for Asian Studies; Schaberg won it in 2003. Now, these two promising scholars are co-directors of the Center for Chinese Studies, taking over from Richard Baum, a professor of political science who led the Center for six years.
In truth, though, Schaberg and Yan bring vastly different ideas to the table. Schaberg's focus is on early Chinese thought and literature, such as the origins of Confucianism, while Yan studies contemporary societies, ordinary people and everyday life. Schaberg did his undergraduate studies at Stanford University, and chose to learn Chinese "almost on a whim." Yan grew up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. At 12, he was forced to move into a village and did not have any more formal education until the death of Mao Zedong, when he was accepted to Peking University to study Chinese literature and folklore.
Schaberg became entranced by Chinese classics and the early reaches of Chinese traditions. He was thrilled by the idea of being able to connect with narratives across 2,000 years. The quality of the prose and the way these influential texts could give everyday actions meaning absorbed his studies. The texts show how simple actions can change history, giving increased significance to the things people do. "How did a group of thinkers convince people that overt behaviors have this much meaning?" Schaberg asks.
At Peking University, Yan began to feel disconnected with the village life he knew. He discovered anthropology as a way to bridge this gap and, at 30, learned English so that he could come to the United States and study in that discipline. "I feel very closely related to rural society in general, far away from the elite life," says Yan.
Their differences make for creative friction; their interactions "tend to create a lot of sparks," Yan says. Those sparks ultimately give Schaberg and Yan new ideas for the Center. The two directors are planning many new events for the Center this quarter -- from weekly pizza and discussion sessions to a more formal lecture series dedicated to research on the cutting edge of Chinese studies.
Schaberg and Yan's plans are built on straightforward goals: 1) they hope to create a more integrated community of China graduate students and faculty at UCLA, and 2) they want to create stronger ties with the larger community.
UCLA has tremendous resources -- over 20 faculty members and hundreds of graduate students who study and teach about China -- that Yan says, if organized well, can be used to give the larger public a deeper understanding of the region. "The Chinese public understands American better than America understands China," he says. "Faculty should be more active in engaging the Western media."
Yan and Schaberg agree that they do not want to focus on their own areas of study. Instead, they want to create an institution that encompasses a wide range of disciplines. While Schaberg says he would love to have a flourishing program focused on early China, for the Center he would like to create a strong interdisciplinary foundation before focusing on more specific areas.
"I think, hopefully, by the end of this term, we will leave our mark by not leaving our mark," Yan explains. Schaberg nods in agreement.
Published: Friday, October 21, 2005