In DeVane Lectures, China scholar to offer deep context on modern conflict

Photo by Allie Barton
October 31, 2022

Susan Gonzales | YaleNews

Jing Tsu, a cultural historian and literary scholar at Yale, will explore reasons behind the increasing friction between China and the United States in a semester-long lecture series in which members of the public will learn alongside Yale students.

The 2023 DeVane Lectures course, “China in Six Keys” — which opens for registration on Nov. 11 and begins in January — will also offer a “deep dive” into China’s rich cultural and historical background.

“In ‘China in Six Keys,’ I will take six contemporary controversies and headlines about the nation and look at them in deep historical context,” said Tsu, the John M. Schiff Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures and of Comparative Literature in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “The idea is to go beyond the evening news soundbites about China and to root an understanding of this complex country and culture in the long view.

“My hope with the course is to arrive at an enlarged perspective: to understand how China came to be the way it is, how the Chinese think from the inside, and how outsiders have interpreted it, often mistakenly.”

Members of the Yale and New Haven communities are invited to attend the lecture series for free. Yale students can enroll in the course for credit.

Each of the course’s six “keys” correspond to a prominent contemporary issue related to China, such as artificial intelligence and technology, environmentalism, the Chinese diaspora, the Chinese language revolution, and other projections of global cultural power, said Tsu, who also holds a faculty appointment at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and is a senior research fellow at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.

Through that modern lens, she will bring her students and community participants back through time, presenting an in-depth view “that draws lessons from the past in order to understand the choices we make in the present and what those choices might mean for the future.” Course materials include historical records of Chinese coolie labor, science fiction, official documents, government white papers, diaries and memoirs, and film.

Tsu said she is offering the course because an understanding of China by those outside the country requires a historical perspective.

“If we think of China as the U.S.’s greatest competitor for the foreseeable future, we need to have a better understanding of who our counterpart is, apart from what’s happened in the last 20 or 40 years,” she said. “We need to understand what led China to become what it is, because certainly China has spent a lot more time trying to understand and learn Western ways than we have in return.”

The DeVane Lecture series was established in 1969 to honor William Clyde DeVane, dean of Yale College from 1939 to 1963. The last DeVane Lecture course was “Power and Politics in Today’s World,” taught by Ian Shapiro, Sterling Professor of Political Science, in 2019. The lecture series was suspended during 2020 and 2021 due the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Tsu, who was born in Taiwan to mainland Chinese parents but came to the United States as a young girl and has had to “straddle the conflicted history between Taiwan and China, and China and the United States,” the subject of the course has deep personal resonance.

A former chair and now member of the Council on East Asian Studies at Yale, she has devoted her scholarly career to an understanding of China. Her books include “Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution that Made China Modern” (2022), which tells the story of how China and its language entered the information age dominated by the western alphabet, “Failure, Nationalism and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895-1937” (2005), and “Sound and Script in Chinese Diaspora” (2010).

During the DeVane course, she will explore what China wants on the world stage and how it has transformed “from a minor, sort of understudy role” in the late 19th-century to its current role as a world power.

Tsu, who is widely known for her interdisciplinary approach to a study of China, says the idea for her DeVane lectures developed out of a course she has been teaching at Yale called “China in the World.” The new course will incorporate topics and themes that reflect the wide span of her own scholarly interests: language and literature, the environment, science and technology, indigenous beliefs and superstitions, artificial intelligence, science fiction, foreign exploration (including of Antarctica and the Arctic), sports, and the Chinese diaspora, among others.

For each of the six units or “keys,” she will host a guest speaker from a different field or discipline — among them a linguist who will discuss the power of language; a Chinese artist who has defied state ideology; a journalist who writes about China through an American lens; a Chinese science fiction writer; an expert on artificial intelligence; and the director of a museum dedicated to Chinese Americans. (The slate of speakers will be announced next semester.)

The topic of language, particularly the way in which China has “tried to make itself and its language understood and user-friendly in order to integrate with and influence the world” will be a central theme, Tsu said.

“China’s quest for modernity, strength, power, and rejuvenation has driven its current forays into energy, the global economy, science and technology, and, of course, soft power,” Tsu said. “I’m very excited to bring in guest speakers because I think it’s quite important that people don’t just get my perspective alone but hear diverse views. They may differ from me, argue with me, or deepen and further discussion in ways or directions I haven’t thought of. What comes of these discussions will be a surprise for me as well as for my students and public participants.”

During the Olympic Winter Games earlier this year, Tsu served as cultural commentator about China for NBC. The recipient of numerous fellowships and honors for her scholarship, she said she feels an urgency to share her own knowledge and that of her class guests with the community at and beyond Yale.

“It’s very humbling when we are in a historical moment where what we study, what we have researched and taught, is actually critical to what is happening in the world,” she said.

“I do feel some responsibility, because these issues are related to two countries that I care very much about, two cultures that I have inhabited. And frankly, I’ve never felt them at greater risk of conflict and clash,” Tsu added. “I also feel a sense of urgency to bring a greater understanding because as China is a global force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future, and the country and the conflicts that arise from its presence very much has to do with our everyday lives.

“China and the United States are deeply linked economically and politically. I hope students and community members will leave my course with curiosity and knowledge that will help them better navigate this complex relationship and what it promises for the future.”

Members of the general public must register for the DeVane Lectures on the course website. Registration begins on Nov. 11. The class will meet Mondays and Wednesdays, 2:30 to 3:20 p.m., from Jan. 18 to April 26, 2023 in Room 114 of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, located at 1 Prospect Street in New Haven.