2019-2020 Williams Prize Award Winners

Yoojin Han and Tiana Wang
May 26, 2020

Yoojin Han (Berkeley ‘20) and Tiana Wang (Ezra Stiles ‘20) are the winners of the 2020 Williams Prize in East Asian Studies.  Yoojin, for her essay submitted to the Department of History, “Redefining through Remembering: China’s Political Objectives as Reflected in Chinese State Commemoration of the Korean War, 1950 - 2010,” and Tiana for her essay submitted to the Department of Sociology, “A Changing Tea Culture, A Changing China: Variations in Conceptions of Gift Tea Among Tea Sellers.”

The Council on East Asian Studies had a chance to catch up with Yoojin and Tiana shortly before graduation and they kindly answered a few of our questions about their essays.

Yoojin Han

To begin, could you please provide an abstract or brief summary of your essay entitled “Redefining through Remembering: China’s Political Objectives as Reflected in Chinese State Commemoration of the Korean War, 1950 - 2010”?

This essay analyzes the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Korean War commemoration from the year 1950 to 2010, to examine the party’s domestic and international use of the historical narrative of the Korean War. It argues that the CCP used its Korean War narrative as a propaganda tool for rallying domestic political support and signaling the CCP’s perception of its relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Republic of Korea (ROK), the United States, and the Soviet Union. The Korean War narrative had always responded to domestic needs, initially focused on consolidating the home front, and later on legitimizing the CCP’s political rule. Since 1954, the narrative additionally served as an international signaling tool for trumpeting China-North Korea relations. This DPRK-oriented message, however, decreased in fervor during the Cultural Revolution and later from 1972 with PRC-U.S. rapprochement, and from the 1990s the narrative’s international message expanded to accommodate differing historical narratives of China’s new partners, such as the ROK.

Despite these changes, the CCP maintained its portrayal of the United States as China’s opponent, intentional ambivalence on who started the war, justification of China’s intervention as protecting China’s national interests, and emphasis on the “correct leadership” by the CCP. These consistencies suggest that these messages’ underlying political objectives are still relevant today: namely, its perception of rivalry with the United States, conciliatory approach to North Korea, the CCP’s political correctness and legitimacy, and importance of buffer states in national security.

How did you first get interested in your topic of research?

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when or how I became interested in this topic. I think it developed naturally over time from my three key academic interests: international relations of Northeast Asia, historical narrative as the result and influence of these relations, and my native country, Korea.

If pressed, though, I would say that the latter half of 2017 was the key turning point. This was when U.S.-DPRK relations reached an all-time low, and everyone was interested in speculating the future of the Korean peninsula. One thing that everyone seemed to agree upon was that China would play a key role in what will come next in the Korean peninsula, but there seemed to be no consensus on what exactly China would do. Existing articles on China’s goals toward North Korea focused primarily on the beginning of the two countries’ relations from the Korean War in 1950, then shifted directly to contemporary relations of the 2000s, with almost no explanation on PRC-DPRK relations between those years. This gap prompted my curiosity—how did PRC-DPRK relations change over time during that period?

At the time, I was taking a course on how the CCP actively uses historical narratives to fit its political goals, so I wrote my final paper for that course on China’s historical narrative on the Korean War, the event credited to have founded the modern PRC-DPRK relationship, to see how the CCP has crafted its historical narrative about North Korea to meet its political needs. It turned out to be a fascinating topic and I only got to scratch the surface of it with my term paper, so I decided to continue my research through my senior essay.

What would you say was the most interesting finding of your research?  Were there any surprises?

The biggest surprise was not how the narrative changed over time, but the parts that didn’t change. If the Korean War narrative was indeed crafted by the CCP’s political goals, then its consistencies can be seen as reflecting the CCP’s objectives that remained constant over the past six decades.

I was particularly interested in two of these consistencies: how the United States was clearly labeled as China’s war opponent, and the CCP’s intentional ambivalence in who started the war. The first part is noteworthy in that the Chinese narrative has portrayed the “Korean War” as, at times in openly accusatory language, a conflict mainly between China and the United States, with other players—even the two Koreas—given only marginal attention compared to these two “protagonists” of the war. Even PRC-U.S. rapprochement did not dampen this narrative of rivalry, suggesting that the CCP may be genuinely seeing its relationship with the United States as a competition. If true, this perception has significant implications on the prospects of future U.S.-China relations and U.S. strategy toward China.

The second part is equally significant in that it suggests China’s reluctance to label North Korea as the starter of the war and refute North Korea’s (false) narrative that the war started as an invasion from the U.S.-led south. This reluctance in turn signals China’s willingness to remain attentive to North Korea’s needs and demands, even as it balances competing demands from its new diplomatic partners such as South Korea and the United States. In the light of speculations on how far China will push North Korea on issues such as abandoning its nuclear arsenal, this revelation of China’s conciliatory approach suggests that China, at least as of now, is not willing to pressure North Korea too far.

What was the most challenging part of your research?

The biggest struggle was compiling a sufficient collection of primary sources on the CCP’s changing Korean War narrative. There were a lot of sources on the historical memory of the Korean War, but most of them were constricted time-wise, either primarily from wartime years and the immediate aftermath, or from 2000 onwards. Thankfully, I came across Chinese news reports on Korean War commemoration events, which provided reliable coverage of the 60 years of interest with decent continuity.

Another challenge was the dearth of studies on the historical development of PRC-DPRK relations. Considering the contemporary importance, I was expecting a lot of existing literature on the topic, but I was surprised to find the contrary, especially for the years after Mao Zedong. It was daunting to do research on a topic with so few existing studies to guide me, but it did make my findings all the more exciting!

The last struggle was to reach a level of Chinese proficiency where I can digest hundreds of pages of reports and speeches with relative ease. I was fortunately able to squeeze in a full year of Chinese language studies before I started my senior year, which provided me with solid groundwork to push forward with my thesis research when I came back to Yale.

What resources at Yale were the most helpful for your research?

It’s difficult to pick the single most helpful resource—I consulted so many!

The advice from my professors, mainly Professor Denise Ho and Professor Fabian Drixler, was absolutely irreplaceable. They were willing to spend hours of their time advising me on finding an exciting but manageable topic, planning my research, and guiding me to relevant resources. The vast collections of the Yale Library, the guidance that Mr. Michael Meng, Librarian for Chinese Studies, provided me in using those collections, and Yale’s support for my language studies, were also equally significant in making this research possible.

Were you able to travel to Asia during your time at Yale?  If so, where and when, and what type of program?  Did you go on a Light Fellowship?

Yes! Thanks to the Richard U. Light Fellowship, I had the opportunity to study Chinese for a summer (2016) and full academic year (2018-19) in Beijing, where I attended Harvard Beijing Academy and Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies, respectively. Less relevant to my thesis but equally memorable, I also spent a summer (2019) in Yokohama attending the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies. Lastly, in 2017, I took summer courses on Korean history and foreign affairs at Seoul National University.

How important would you say your language study at Yale was to your research?

Absolutely critical. Since the vast majority of my primary sources (and a large part of my secondary sources too) were in Chinese, my research would have been impossible without my language studies and improvement in my Chinese language proficiency during my time at Yale. For that, I am more than grateful for all my language instructors, from Yale and beyond, as well as the Richard U. Light Fellowship that enabled my terms abroad.

When you had some downtime on campus, what did you like to do for fun?  Any particular interests or hobbies related to East Asia?

My biggest involvement during my time at Yale was with the Yale International Relations Association (YIRA), where during the year 2016-2017 I served as the Secretary-General of its annual Model United Nations conference in Seoul, South Korea. I also edited for the Yale Review of International Studies, where I was primarily in charge of papers on East Asia.

As a huge foodie, I loved trying out new food spots in New Haven and, once I moved off-campus, cooking food myself. One of my favorite pastimes is watching cooking videos from Korea, Japan, and China, and some of my most memorable moments at Yale include cooking Korean food with my friends!

What advice would you offer to rising seniors about how to tackle their senior theses?

Start early, plan in advance, and make full use of the resources Yale has to offer! I encourage all my friends in their junior year to start thinking about their thesis topics at least by spring semester, so that they can start looking for sources over the summer. I’d also say don’t be shy about reaching out to professors for advice; my professors’ advice was critical in helping me brainstorm and finding really useful resources. You might get a head start in finding your thesis advisor that way, too!

What will you be doing after graduation?

I will be working in Washington, D.C., as a consultant at McKinsey and Company. Through this opportunity, I hope to broaden my perspective by working with clients from industries I am unfamiliar with, while staying engaged with government and social sectors, through both work and the local D.C. community.

Tiana Wang

To begin, could you please provide an abstract or brief summary of your essay entitled “A Changing Tea Culture, A Changing China: Variations in Conceptions of Gift Tea Among Tea Sellers”?

Tea is not only a beverage for personal consumption in China, but it also functions as a gift object in guanxi social relations. Although guanxi relations—which are historically rooted in notions of Confucian reciprocity—exist between family members and friends, a vertical form between those of lower rank and their superiors is present within government and company bureaucracies as well. My paper draws on interviews and observations with 20 tea sellers in Beijing, Shanghai, and Jinan to examine how the cultural and economic meanings of tea in guanxi relations have changed in reaction to 1) a demographic transition in the buyers and sellers in the tea industry and 2) the 2013 anti-corruption campaign, which specifically targeted luxury gift-giving within vertical guanxi relations.

Even before the 2013 anti-corruption campaign, the meanings of tea for sellers were changing in response to the demands of a growing group of younger middle-class tea consumers, who have been influenced by ideas of individualism and connoisseurship. Whereas the value of the guanxi tea previously relied upon its social or public image, its worth as a gift object is increasingly becoming dependent on its value as a consumer good. When the campaign cracked down on the giving of luxury gift teas, the shift in the values associated with gift tea accelerated. Today, guanxi gift tea generally conveys a combination of social, public values and hedonic, consumer values. Differences in perceptions of the values associated with gift teas vary along educational and generational lines for the tea sellers. Geography, too, affected the extent to which tea sellers approached and reacted to changes in the industry.

How did you first get interested in your topic of research?

I’ve been fascinated with tea since I was eleven or twelve. I really got into it because it was a way to bond with my dad—we would sit around the kitchen table and talk about the brew that we were drinking, and when we were making jasmine tea, he drove me around to nurseries to find the perfect jasmine flower bush. Somewhere along the line, this personal interest turned more academic and artistic. I wrote a thirty-page research paper on tea in middle school. In high school, I wrote essays and poems about tea. When I got the chance to go to China in college, I knew that I wanted to do research related to tea for my senior thesis.

What would you say was the most interesting finding of your research?  Were there any surprises?

The truly wonderful thing about tea—to a sociology major, at least—is that it is intertwined with social rituals and customs. I began my research expecting tea sellers to only talk to me about tea ceremonies and consumer values (which earlier researchers of tea culture had investigated). I was thus very surprised when the sellers in Beijing kept on bringing up anti-corruption policies. As I explored this topic further, I realized how tea was instrumental in certain kinds of social structures (specifically vertical guanxi relations in bureaucracies and companies), and how that social structure was targeted by the anti-corruption policies. This led to a corresponding shift in rhetoric in how the tea sellers presented their teas. Before, the merchants could make one-time sales by saying a tea was valuable as a gift tea. Now, however, more sellers touch on consumer values of health and connoisseurship when marketing the tea to their customer base.

The importance of the anti-corruption policies to the tea market was the first surprising thing; the second was the difference in the tea sellers’ experiences. From my conversations with the sellers in Beijing, it sounded like the market essentially collapsed because so much of the sellers’ revenue came from these one-time big spenders, who would buy teas as gifts to give during Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

But when I spoke to merchants outside of Beijing, they told me that their businesses were not only largely unaffected by the anti-corruption policies, but some were even expanding. Why was the scale of financial devastation for these tea markets so different compared to that for the tea markets within Beijing? This perplexed me until I realized the extent to which geography influenced these tea sellers’ experiences: the impact of the anti-corruption campaign on tea sellers was not uniform because in Beijing, the political center of China, the market served more clients who purchased teas for vertical gift giving.

What was the most challenging part of your research?

The biggest challenge at first was building my knowledge base about tea in China. I spent hours upon hours drinking tea with tea sellers, attending tea events on campus, and visiting tea exhibitions to gain a more comprehensive understanding of tea in China. My interviews with the tea sellers improved in terms of depth and complexity as I learned more about tea; for example, the tea merchants often discussed growing conditions, but, as someone from Los Angeles, I didn’t know what they meant by the “mists and high mountains” until I had visited a tea plantation in Hangzhou in person.

Synthesizing all of the research was also challenging. My interview subjects had provided a lot of information on a lot of different things, and incorporating their contributions into a single cohesive, strong argument was very difficult. This was made harder by the timeline of my project. Nine months passed between when I had finished my last interview and when I started really analyzing the data; in those nine months I had worked on my literature review and waffled over the focus of my thesis. Once I had all the transcriptions in front of me in March 2020, I realized that my initial idea of writing on tea culture in China at large would have made for a disjointed, unsatisfying paper. I committed instead to concentrating on changes in perceptions of guanxi gift teas. With incisive feedback from my adviser, I basically rewrote my paper the week before it was due—two days to read two crucial books, and then deleting, writing, and restructuring around sixty pages in four days. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I don’t regret the process: the work that I had put in took my paper to where it needed to be, even though the road had quite a few twists and turns.

What resources at Yale were the most helpful for your research?

The Human Subjects Committee and Brandy Lagner were immensely helpful when I was getting IRB approval for my research in China. My thesis adviser, Jeffrey Alexander, offered invaluable encouragement and feedback throughout the project. I am grateful, too, for my former supervisors at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, Glen Davenport and Meghan Bathgate. Glen and Meghan trained me in qualitative coding and taught me so much about the research process. Under their generous guidance, I became a more critical thinker and researcher. The final draft of my paper benefited greatly from the stylistic suggestions offered by the Residential College Writing Tutors, and Cathy Shufro in particular.

Were you able to travel to Asia during your time at Yale?  If so, where and when, and what type of program?  Did you go on a Light Fellowship?

The Light Fellowship allowed my research to be possible. In spring 2019, I enrolled in the Inter-University Program, a language study program at Tsinghua University in Beijing. It was my first time in China since I had immigrated with my parents to the U.S. in 2004. I think I was able to make the most of the incredible opportunity because I was returning to the country after fifteen years. At Yale, I usually spent the weekends holed up in my room, reading. In China, I explored a new park, museum, or marketplace every weekend. A few times a month, after classes ended in the afternoon, I would bike to the station to catch the subway to Maliandao and drink tea with the sellers until the market closed.

How important would you say your language study at Yale was to your research?

All of my interviews were conducted in Mandarin, so my language study at Yale was very helpful. Like a lot of people who speak Chinese at home, I had more chances to practice speaking than reading and writing. I was fairly confident in my ability to ask questions and keep the conversation flowing, but the classes that I had taken at Yale proved to be essential to the transcription and translation process, developing my vocabulary to the point where I felt comfortable working with written Chinese materials.

When you had some downtime on campus, what did you like to do for fun?  Any particular interests or hobbies related to East Asia?

My time in China provided so much artistic inspiration! One of my two forthcoming poems in Poetry is a reinterpretation of Cui Hao’s “Yellow Crane Tower”; the idea for the other emerged out of meditations on the tonal nature of Mandarin. Besides writing poetry, I love taking photographs—a virtual exhibit of my photos from China and England can be found at https://jackadam.cc/tianatime/.

Perusing Panjiayuan Antique Market in Beijing sparked my interest in antiques. I’ve found so many kinds of exciting antiques at estate sales in New Haven and surrounding areas, from Hitchcock furniture to mid-century brass duck head bookends. One of my favorite finds was a vintage Thonet-style bentwood rocking chair—I had to go down to Bridgeport to pick that up.

Since returning to Yale, I’ve also started weaving scarves down in the Stiles/Morse fiber arts studio with the amazing Barbara Hurley. The repetition of motion is so relaxing! Learning overshot weaving has been one of my proudest achievements this year.

In my downtime from my downtime, I drink and blend tea (no surprise there!). I adore puer and Tieguanyin, and recently discovered some exquisite Taiping Houkui that is faintly sweet and ends on a note of orchid. Last semester, I hosted a tea-blending workshop in my residential college, which over 50 people attended. It was wonderful to see everyone being creative as they made their own tea.

What advice would you offer to rising seniors about how to tackle their senior theses?

Try to start as early as possible, but be patient. The process of conducting research is not linear; you are not given a story with a single set narrative, nor are you expected to tell one. At times, it will seem like every piece of your data is equally indispensable. At other times, the data may seem uniformly irrelevant. It will feel like the argument can proceed in a thousand different directions, or that there are a thousand strands of argument to pursue. In these moments, I recommend that you take a break from overthinking. Return to the existing literature and reduce the arguments to the simplest terms. Do those keywords align with your findings? Is there something that does not fit? Embrace changes in the conceptualization of your thesis topic and overarching argument; conversely, be wary of an argument in stasis, one that does not advance as you incorporate more information into the paper.

As you develop your thesis, you will find yourself growing not only as a student, thinker, and researcher, but also as a person in the world. There will be growing pains, so before you start, I think it is important that you deliberate over your long-term goals and aspirations. Where does your project fit in the life that you see for yourself? What kind of person do you hope this research can help you become, one year or one semester later? Avoid the myopic view of the senior thesis as simply an academic requirement, and approach it as a thrilling opportunity to engage deeply and thoughtfully with a topic that you would like to talk about with passion and care years down the line. Ideally, pick a topic that you can enjoy researching, so that even if the writing stage does not go the way that you anticipate, you will have no regrets—buoyed, hopefully, by your fond memories of doing research.

For those who are working with primary research (specifically interviews), I highly recommend keeping detailed logs. Note demographic information. Unless you are working exclusively with interviewees who have been introduced by a mutual acquaintance, you will find that not everyone is willing to talk to you. This is a completely natural part of the research experience! Do not be discouraged. Try to gauge subjects’ willingness to participate early on; you do not want to be in a situation where it is too late to submit a revised IRB, if necessary.

My final piece of advice actually comes from a close friend: “Your undergraduate thesis doesn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things, but you only get to write one. Make sure you know that you did the best you could.”

What will you be doing after graduation?

I will write poetry full-time for a year with the support of a fellowship from Yale. I had originally planned to visit places in different regions of the U.S., such as Maine, Alaska, and New Mexico, studying the material culture of these states. With my ability to travel now limited due to the pandemic, I want to take the chance to pick up my studies in Chinese language and poetry again. After this year-long poetry project, I intend to go to law school. I’ve always been passionate about creators’ rights, and collaborating with other artists has made me realize how difficult but crucial it is for legislation to protect these rights while preserving the open exchange of ideas in society.