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Listening to history

Chu Guofei | 2013-08-29 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Vera Schwarcz is Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University. She is a well-known scholar of Chinese history, and holds a Master’s degree from Yale University, where she studied with Jonathan Spence, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University.  From 1979 to 1980, she studied at Peking University as part the first group of American students admitted after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China. In addition to works of history, Schwarcz writes poetry and novellas. She is the author of eight books, including the prize-winning Bridge Across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory (Yale University Press, 1999) as well as Time for Telling Truth Is Running Out: Conversations with Zhang Shenfu (Yale, 1986), The Chinese Enlightenment (Berkeley, 1984) and most recently Place and Memory in Singing Crane Garden (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). She is also the author of four books of poetry: In the Garden of Memory, Brief Rest in the Garden of Flourishing Grace, Chisel of Remembrance, and Ancestral Intelligence: Improvisations and Logographs (forthcoming).

Vera Schwarcz is a wise scholar and an emotional poet. She is also a listener, listening to silence, to words beyond heard. In 1979, while studying at Peking University, she interviewed many survivors of the May-Fourth Movement, listening not just to the events they related, but to their voices. It is her gift as a listener that imbues her study of the “May-Fourth Movement” with a unique style.  During her interview, she told WAN that for 30 years, she has continually borne in mind the moment when the May Fourth generation fell into silence—this moment was stronger than words.


CSST: What drew you to the study of the May Fourth Movement?


Vera Schwarcz : I began to study the May Fourth in the late 1960s. As an immigrant to the U.S. from communist Romania, I remained attracted to the revolutionary potential of intellectuals. At that time, in my youthful naivety, the May Fourth seemed to  “prove” all the leftist theories of Jean Paul Sartre and Antonio Gramsci. My Ph.D. thesis in Chinese history from Stanford University was full of theory and textual quotations from radical intellectuals.


CSST: Ten years later, you came to the Chinese Mainland. How did your personal experiences in China take you beyond looking at the May Fourth from the distance of the U.S.? What impact did it have on your future research?


Vera Schwarcz: When I finally came to study at Beida in 1978-79 (already as a “professor of Chinese history”—although my knowledge was painfully abstract since I had been to China only once, for 2 weeks in 1977) I began to conduct interviews with survivors of the May Fourth period. These intellectuals were, of course, also aged survivors of the Cultural Revolution. From thinkers such as Zhang Shenfu, Liang Shuming, Ye Shengtao, Yu Pingbo, Feng Youlan, Zhou Yang and others—I gained firsthand accounts of the connection between ideas, intellectuals and the painfully violent unfolding of the “enlightenment movement” in China during war and revolution. The book I published about the May Fourth Movement was more sober, more balanced.


I also realized that these aged Chinese intellectual-survivors spoke with me with unusual warmth and openness. This was not simply because I could converse fluently in the Chinese language. It was also because I had grown up in a communist country and understood the value of silence.


A decade after The Chinese Enlightenment, I wrote Bridge Across Broken Time—to fill out the personal and historical links between Jewish and Chinese cultural memory, to build on what Professor  Zhang Dainian taught me.


The subject of memory—both personal and cultural—kept coming up in my research. Even in the last book, Place and Memory in Singing Crane Garden I came back to this theme, as I found myself at the gate of a 19th century garden, which had also been the entrance to the courtyard of Professor Wang Yao, who was my friend and mentor in 1978-79, when we spent long hours discussing Lu Xun and the Cultural Revolution.


CSST: Memory is a dominant theme in your scholarship. For these precious years for which memories are dim or extinguished, how do “unlocked the locked gate”, salvaging and rekindling what has been lost?


Vera Schwarcz :From 1979 to 1985, the May 4th generation remained central to my research. After that, I wanted to move on to other subjects, but my Chinese friends kept insisting that there is more and more urgent concern for the unfinished legacy of May 4th. So I went back to China again and again for commemorations of May4th in 1989, 1999 and 2009. When I began my interviews about this movement in 1979, the event of 1919 was still a sensitive subject, connected with careful re-evaluations of Hu Shi, Chen Duxiu, Fu Sinian, etc. Now, it has become less “sensitive” but still urgently important because today’s Chinese intellectuals continue to thirst for enlightenment.


CSST: How do you view the May Fourth Movement in relation to the European Enlightenment?


Vera Schwarcz : There are huge and important difference between the European and the Chinese enlightenments. The most important, I think, is the violent condensation of history in China. From Renaissance to Enlightenment and to Revolution took more than 200 years in France, Italy, England and Germany. In China, Chinese intellectuals swallowed new ideas, dreams, and visions with great rapidity and then had to engage in social revolution within a few short decades. And yet, those ideas and ideals remain vital today, whereas in Europe intellectuals have much less sense of a social mission. In the West, unlike in China, what scholars think (and how they act) does not matter to the population as whole.


CSST: As a scholar of the May Fourth Movement, how do you view the relation between history and poetry—how do they complement each other?


Vera Schwarcz: Poetry and history are, for me part of a continuum. I practice and teach both. Of course, in traditional Chinese culture there is also one continuum and so I feel I am following (clumsily!) in the footsteps of great Chinese scholars. I also discovered, especially when I served as Chairman of History Department of Wesleyan University during the 9/11 events, that poetry is a more meaningful reaction to historical trauma than much of the journalistic and academic chatter I heard all around me.


CSST: What research and writing are you working on currently?


Vera Schwarcz: I have just finished two new books, which need revision: One is a collection of poems entitled Ancestral Intelligence—which is divided into two sections: The first half is based on the life and work of Chen Yinque, a historian and poet who has inspired me for many years. The second half is comprised of poems based on individual Chinese characters (which I call logographs) and which represent my personal mediations on the importance of nuanced language in times of historical trauma.


Language as a life raft is also central to my other new book called: Colors of Veracity: A Quest for Truth in China and Beyond. Although this is a work that focuses on the importance of truth in times of historical trauma, I consciously tried to write it differently than other books on the philosophy of history. I wanted a short work that is lively, personal, and artful. It also combines my Chinese studies with much new learning about Jewish definitions of truth.


CSST: At Wesleyan you have been highly acclaimed by your peers, serving for many years as the chair of the East Asian Studies Program, and training many young scholars of China Studies. How do you view this emerging generation of U.S.-educated China scholars?


Vera Schwarcz : I have been teaching at Wesleyan for nearly 40 years. I started by developing a curriculum for Western students who are interested in China. Now, many of my best students come from Asia, especially China and Singapore. They are brilliant, sophisticated and are seeking a new perspective upon subjects and events that they had studied as youngsters back home. Their thirst for truth has inspired and guided my own work.


Chu Guofei is a reporter from Chinese Social Sciences Today.

Revised by Charles Horne