Reflections on Teaching in China

Reflections on Teaching in China

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Jean-Marc DeCrop, director of a Paris art gallery, was recently in Shanghai for an international show. He was surprised by the interest of the Chinese in the paintings he brought and especially by their demand for explanations. He was quoted recently in the New York Times: "It's clear that for some people it's absolutely, completely new. . . . They said: 'Please explain to me. What is the meaning? What does the artist want to represent?' They did that for my abstract painting, which is all right. But they even did that for the Renoir, which is just a still life of a plum and peach. They said: 'Explain. What is the meaning of the fruit?'" DeCrop added that "I didn't think it was necessary because Renoir is the most important Impressionist. There are so many books about him. But still they're asking, 'Who is this guy?'"(1) DeCrop's experience mirrors my own. During three semesters of teaching in China as a Fulbright lecturer from 1995 until just a year ago, I was constantly brought up short by the realization that ideas I assumed could be taken for granted could not. They were either unknown or, far more problematical, incorrectly understood by my well-educated, sophisticated, and highly-motivated Chinese students. That experience compelled me to think long and hard about hermeneutic issues in situations where two cultures encounter one another and resulted in an invitation for me to share some of my experiences and judgments regarding those experiences with you.

For more than thirty years I had taught in the history department at Southern Illinois University when I was fortunate to receive a Fulbright award to teach in the People's Republic of China. Assigned to an American Studies Research Institute in Northeast China, I was delighted to receive from the Institute an invitation to teach the history of religion in America, my specialization here, as well as American intellectual history and a general introduction to the history of colonial and early national America.

For any American academic, the most challenging aspects of teaching history in China are those concerned with teacher-student and teacher-colleague relationships, divergent historiographical assumptions and pedagogical styles, and communication difficulties. Because of my focus on religious and intellectual history, areas generally neglected in China until very recently, these challenges frequently became acute.

Westerners are generally aware of the greater intensity that characterizes teacher-student relationships in East Asia and in China specifically.(2) Yet what surprised me was the speed and extent to which I was drawn into a new type of relationship with my students. Working for my first year in China with about a dozen graduate students seeking A.M. or Ph.D. degrees in American history, each of whom had her or his own dissertation or thesis adviser, I quickly came to relate to each of them very much as an American faculty member might relate to one or two dissertation advisees. Even in a second assignment to the Foreign Affairs College where I was teaching more than a hundred undergraduate seniors or students seeking second baccalaureate degrees, I found that students sought and valued my advice on matters that are rarely addressed by American faculty members.

This experience frequently seemed perplexing to me as students moved beyond questions about my courses to questions about their dissertations or about career choices, questions regarding which I felt uncomfortable in doing much more than posing a variety of alternatives and helping students examine these alternatives critically. It was particularly troubling when there appeared to be potential political implications to the decision they were seeking to make or the ideas we were discussing. I was frequently embarrassed by what I learned from and about my students, information about their family backgrounds and political ideas which might be of no great moment in the West but which might compromise my students if carelessly revealed to others in China.

A Chinese colleague has pointed out to me that this type of relationship develops naturally and quickly, especially on campuses in the north of China. He added that "the Chinese are naturalized to this and have little awareness of the impact such community ties may pose on a westerner." The same colleague insists that there are significant regional differences with respect to faculty-student relationships and that Cantonese, in particular, are likely to be more individualistic and less comfortable with this type of intense relationship. Another colleague at Northeast Normal University reassured me that students' expectations tend to become more modest and realistic as their communication with foreign teachers develops. Perhaps this is so; and, in any event, I do not regard the intensity of faculty-student relationships as wholly negative but only as posing new problems for a Western teacher unaccustomed to it.

I found myself profoundly ambivalent about this new role and about my ability to fulfill my students' expectations. In the West university faculty characteristically define our role in a far more circumscribed manner. Yet the reserve that I experienced in relationships with my own teachers both in undergraduate and graduate school and that I had maintained in most student relationships over a period of thirty-five years quickly became attenuated in China. Furthermore, the relationships established with students in China survived my move from one university and city to another and even my return to America. I had some premonition of this when students began to request use of my e-mail access to contact American teachers who had preceded me. Having left China only twelve months ago, I can report that I have already received more letters and e-mail messages from students whom I taught over an eighteen month period in China than I have received from American students taught over a period of thirty-five years. These contacts continue and involve requests for help in getting early access to GRE scores, in providing letters of reference for graduate study, and in assessing the pros and cons of study in one or another Western university. Occasionally they extend to requests for advice on acceptance or rejection of job offers in China, a topic on which I feel particularly incompetent to comment.

Cynics might suggest that students are simply attempting to use this relationship to further their own ambitions, particularly if these involve study abroad. Certainly this is a factor in some instances, but it seems far from a general pattern. Chinese colleagues confirm that, in most instances, students come to the foreign teacher because of admiration and respect and because they, far more than American students, regard such teachers as fountains of wisdom. What I have found more troubling in the intense student-teacher relationship is the difficulty it creates for the teacher in honestly evaluating student work. I would never have permitted one of my sons to enroll in my class in America, and the concerns that dictate such policy seemed well-founded as I struggled with grading students whom I had come to know so well and for whom I felt enormous affection as well as respect. Insofar as this intense student-teacher relationship mirrors the relationship of advisor and advisee in American graduate study, it establishes the basis for more effective teaching and learning. However, the authority of the teacher is still so great, at least in the classroom, that students are frequently unwilling to question or even to seek clarification. Thus the intensity of the student-teacher relationship does not guarantee real communication or optimal learning conditions. It may, to the contrary, increase the intellectual dependency of the student on the teacher at the very moment when the student most needs to be developing an independent judgment.

While I personally find much to commend in the traditional Chinese pattern, it does appear to limit the ability of students to move beyond the expertise and theoretical assumptions of their faculty mentors. Even at the doctoral level this limitation is apparent, and there seems to be little of the concern for classroom creativity throughout higher education that has marked recent American discussion.(3)

If my relationships with students were characterized by intensity, those with faculty colleagues generally were not. I count myself extremely fortunate to have spent a year at the American Studies Institute at Northeast Normal University, for that small academic unit provided opportunity for the sort of faculty dialogue and off-campus relationship that an American academic comes to expect and to cherish. Yet, beyond that unit in the larger university and in the other college in which I worked, relationships with faculty colleagues were correct and sometimes cordial in a social sense; but few opportunities were found for discussion of research and teaching. Nor was I aware of other foreign faculty, American, European, or Japanese, experiencing significantly different relationships. I observed a similar lack of dialogue among Chinese academics, a situation that one of them explained on the basis that every academic considers herself or himself a specialist in a narrow field concerning which colleagues are believed to have little to offer. I was amazed to learn in casual conversations with colleagues that they seldom talked with and frequently did not even know other faculty members teaching in the same general field but in different departments or units of the university.(4)

Though in America as in China historians place inordinate reliance on textbooks in teaching introductory level courses, scholarly monographs and primary source materials have become the preferred materials for use in advanced history teaching. Yet, for my subject--American history--at least, such materials are still very limited in China, even in the libraries of universities granting the Ph.D. degree in the field. This unfortunate lack of materials limits the quality and scope of dissertations; but, far more significantly, it imposes limits on the teaching of historical method to China's next generation of historians.

In addition to a shortage of monographic and source materials for the study of American history in China, a significant gulf exists between the dominant historiographical assumptions of academics in China and in the West. I assumed that my students would come to me with a Marxist understanding of history, but I was not prepared for the extent to which their understanding appeared almost to caricature Marxist scholarship. As Arthur Marwick has observed, Marxist historical scholarship in the west has become "so subtle and penetrating . . . that it is hard to see that [Marxist historians] differ greatly from the style of historical study fostered by the Annales school, or indeed from that of many other historians concerned with the totality of historical experience."(5) Marwick, writing from a British perspective, is describing the work of historians such as Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawn. These leftist historians clearly deviate from the older Marxist tradition. Yet events in China did not, at least until the past decade, precipitate the kind of reassessment that was forced on Europe during the 1950s. It is hardly surprising that their revisionism has yet to reach China. A colleague in China insists that students are taught to "regard Marxism more as a principle than as a scholarship," and that interest in Marxist historical scholarship remains quite limited. I concur in this observation and believe that change will occur slowly as another colleague insisted.

An important element in the tension between Marxist and non-Marxist historiography is the divide that has opened in the West between objectivist and anti-objectivist historiography. Peter Novick observes with respect to the younger leftist historians of Britain and America that "there was very little that was new or unorthodox about the epistemological posture of the radical historians; it was, as Marxism had traditionally been, overwhelmingly objectivist."(6) But twentieth century Western historiography has been profoundly influenced by philosophers of history such as Benedetto Croce and Robin Collingwood who insisted on the necessary engagement of the historian with the materials being studied so as to render all viable history a response to the interests of the present.(7) This perspective clearly qualifies any objectivist stance by including the historian in his or her work. Furthermore, the inundation of Western historians by seemingly inexhaustible resources has fostered its own kind of historical relativism. Traditionally historians have believed that knowing more leads to greater understanding, but we may have reached a point of diminishing returns in our mastery of information. Frequently the more we learn the more likely we become to find our generalizations qualified and to be led to admit the plausibility of alternative interpretations. While American undergraduates frequently come to the discipline of history with a quite different conception of the subject, those who pursue graduate study in the field accept and work with this more relativist and less objectivist view of their discipline.

Many of my Chinese students appeared to approach the discipline with a very different understanding of past and contemporary and the relationship of the two to one another. Assuming a scientific and objectivist history, some seemed convinced that the role of the historian was to get the story right so that the book could be closed and the task declared completed, an attitude that I attribute less to the kind of naivete I find among American undergraduates than to a historiographical assumption that history is directional and progressive and that, with proper attention to the science of the discipline, the bits and pieces of the story will fall into a coherent whole.(8)

Related to their definition of history and probably explaining it, at least in large measure, was my Chinese students' preference, at least as I interpret it, for unicausal explanations in their study of history.(9) I first became acutely aware of the extent of divergence between our historiographical assumptions regarding cause and effect when I asked my students to read Jonathan C. D. Clark's The Language of Liberty in connection with my lectures on the American Revolution. Clark, a British historian, places the American Revolution in the broader context of developments in the English-speaking world from Stuart Restoration to the English Reform Bill of 1832. Within that context, Clark describes the American Revolution both as a civil war which profoundly divided people on both sides of the Atlantic and as the last great European war of religion.(10) Chinese students, accustomed to reading the American Revolution as a capitalist overthrow of feudalism, were troubled by Clark's arguments and scarcely mollified by my willingness to grant that their, Clark's, and various other interpretations of the separation of the American Colonies from Britain might in some measure be true.(11)

Certainly historiographical styles come and go and vary from place to place. Though the focus of Chinese historiography on class struggle and economic issues is distinctively Marxist, there is much in its general approach that is reminiscent of nineteenth century European historiography with its quest for certainty and scientific objectivity. While most Western historians no longer think or speak of history as a science, there was a time when they did; and some still do though with substantial qualifications.(12) It would seem to me to be inappropriate for a Westerner to criticize the approach here except to insist on the need for persons who will become professional historians to be aware of the relativity of all such interpretations and of the historiographical styles in vogue elsewhere. The director of the program in which I taught alluded to the importance of such instruction at the end of my year when he indicated that my students had learned to read Western books. As we discussed this, it became apparent that my students had begun the year trying to place Western history into a familiar Chinese historiographical framework and had begun to deal with these materials on their own terms only after these initial efforts at interpretation proved futile.

However, on related historiographical matters I do believe that American historians have something significant to contribute to our Chinese colleagues. The definition of history offered by Croce and cited above appears to me to have enriched the study and teaching of history in the West and to offer the potential of similarly enlivening the discipline in China. History in America and the West "has at last escaped from a state of pupilage to natural science."(13) A similar escape is essential to the full flowering of history in contemporary China.

American historians also have broadened the subject matter of history to include not simply elite thinking about ordinary people but ordinary people themselves, an extension that is transforming the discipline and classroom instruction. For example, the study and teaching of intellectual history has undergone significant methodological change in twentieth century America. Most of us who labor in this discipline believe that the critical distinction between intellectual history on the one hand and the history of philosophy or of literature on the other lies in the historian's concern with the ideas of larger and less elite communities as well as the historian's profound concern for social context.

In the past half century this has led American intellectual historians to greater and greater concern with the ideas of women and men who may not have been intellectual or political leaders but who nonetheless may have significantly shaped their societies as well as with those of persons who, by virtue of being representative of a given place and time, may provide us greater insight into the ways of thinking that were characteristic of an age. An excellent illustration of this type of historical writing is provided by Daniel Boorstin's trilogy entitled The Americans in which the ideas of non-intellectuals such as Davy Crockett and Gail Borden are given the prominence they deserve based upon the impact these ideas have had on American society.(14)

John Higham, a distinguished American historian, defends this approach in arguing that "intellectual history differs from other varieties simply because it has a distinctive subject-matter. It concentrates on experiences occurring inside men's heads. It centers on man's inner experiences, the experiences which he has in thinking." Yet, Higham adds, it may "embrace simple attitudes in simple or complicated people as well as systematic knowledge and speculation. . . ."(15) The significance of this shift in the methodology of intellectual history in America becomes apparent if you contrast Boorstin's trilogy as an example of American intellectual history with An Intellectual History of China, a volume written here in the 1970s by members of the Institute of History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and published in 1991 by the Foreign Languages Press. This volume describes the "characteristic features of the main currents of thought in each [Chinese] historical era" and indicates the "chief contributions of the most outstanding thinkers." Much more traditional in its approach, it eschews what Higham describes as the "simple attitudes" of "simple people." In this volume the reader meets Lao Zi, Mo Zi, Kong Fu Zi, Meng Zi, and the other great thinkers of Chinese antiquity early on. In the final chapter, intellectuals of the Republican era are discussed, and the reader meets Lu Xun. However, there is no Ah Q. Even in the People's Republic, intellectual history remains today focused on the ideas of elites.(16)

I found the contemporary American approach to intellectual history a bit unsettling to Chinese students who came to the discipline expecting to study the ideas of the most renowned intellectuals of a period, but it seems to me to be the only legitimate approach to the historical study of ideas in any modern society where the masses of people are more than pawns in the hands of elites. Granting all of the problems presented for such an approach for a society as traditional and elitist as China has long been, contemporary China, at least, is changing. It would seem to me to be time for the historians of the People's Republic to give due attention to ideas of the people, and on this issue they can learn from Americans. I am assured by several Chinese colleagues that, even though I failed to observe it, an interest in the study of popular culture is developing in China today. I can only encourage such development.

Communication sometimes proved difficult because of profound cultural differences. My students, even those most familiar with American history, were most comfortable with diplomatic and economic history. My fields are religious and intellectual history. Thus I was engaged in an effort to explain ideas, and many of these ideas either have no obvious Chinese counterparts or were subject to misunderstanding because of the history of Sino-American cultural and religious contacts. This problem was especially acute when I addressed American religious ideas and institutions. The presence of numerous English teacher-missionaries in contemporary China and the fact that all of my students were more or less proficient in English meant that most of them had encountered one or more persons claiming to represent American religion. One of my tasks was therefore to explain the diversity and complexity of religious ideas in America, only a small segment of which are reflected by the views of teacher-missionaries in today's China. The centuries-old argument about the proper translation of the Western term "God" into Chinese illustrates the nature of the problem. Over and over again I found my students seeming to understand something and assuring me that they did understand it only to learn later that considerable misunderstanding had occurred. A Chinese colleague reminded me that this is the essence of the communication problem. As he wrote, "When students say they understand something, they mean it though what they come to understand is not what they are supposed to know. . . ." That, I think, neatly summarizes the problem.

Again, in the field of intellectual history, I assigned readings by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey in an effort to explain both the nature and the importance of pragmatism in American thought. My students, almost without exception, viewed American pragmatic philosophy through the prism of contemporary China and declared Deng Xiaoping the quintessential pragmatist. I must have read about black and white cats catching mice in a hundred different student papers and examinations. Though there were unquestionably pragmatic elements in the economic views of Deng, to make him an American pragmatist appeared to me to do a disservice both to Deng and to the American pragmatists as well as to deny pragmatism as a philosophic school its concrete historic relationship to turn-of-the-century American life. Thus, to reiterate, even when communication appeared to be taking place, misunderstanding was commonplace.

I have sketched some of the major challenges encountered by an American historian teaching in contemporary China and have suggested implications of my experiences for Chinese higher education in the twenty-first century. I should not close, however, without emphasizing the profoundly positive nature of my work in China. I profited enormously from the daily challenge to communicate across formidable cultural barriers, of sharing ideas and building new relationships, and I am convinced that my students learned and grew as a result of our encounter. We shall all be better historians as a consequence.



1. Sarah Joy, "For Western Paintings, Chinese Curiosity (and Yawns)," The New York Times, November 27, 1997.

2. Anne F. Thurston with Karen Turner-Gottschang and Linda A. Reed for the Committee on Scholarly Communication with China (ACLS, NAS, SSRC), China Bound: A Guide to Academic Life and Work in the PRC (Washington: National Academy Press, 1994), pp. 115-29; Rebecca Weiner, Margaret Murphy, and Albert Li, Living in China: A Guide to Teaching and Studying in China Including Taiwan (San Francisco: China Books & Periodicals, Inc., 1991), pp. 87-88.

3. See, for example, an argument for introduction of more creative methods in the undergraduate classroom in Ernest L. Boyer for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987), pp. 140-59.

4. At Northeast Normal University, for example, in addition to the History Department which offers B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in history, the latter in the three fields of modern and contemporary world history, ancient history, and American history, there are also two historical institutes. The American Studies Institute shares with the department operation of the American history graduate program while it remains independent in its research and exchange programs. A similar relationship exists between the department and the Institute for the History of Ancient Cultures which shares with the department the operation of undergraduate and graduate degree programs in ancient history. The History Department faculty offers courses in American and in ancient history, but departmental specialists in these fields do not appear to me to have close working relationships with faculty in the institutes; they seem not to be involved in the research programs of the institutes. The director of the American Studies Institute explains that the University is attempting to reduce the compartmentalization of departments and units.

5. Arthur Marwick, The Nature of History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), p. 271.

6. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 422. Novick appears to me to be correct in his insistence that Marxist historiography is essentially objectivist. He notes that "Marx and Engels, particularly the latter, and even more their subsequent interpreters, emphasized the objective and scientific character of Marxism. Trotsky was at one with his enemy Stalin when he declared history to be 'a science no less objective than physiology.'"

7. Benedetto Croce, for example, writes that "'Contemporary history' is wont to be called the history of a passage of time, looked upon as a most recent past, whether it be that of the last fifty years, a decade, a year, a month, a day, or indeed of the last hour or of the last minute. But if we think and speak rigorously, the term 'contemporaneous' can be applied only to that history which comes into being immediately after the act which is being accomplished, as consciousness of that act. . . . 'Non-contemporary history,' 'past history,' would, on the other hand, be that which finds itself in the presence of a history already formed, and which thus comes into being as a criticism of that history, whether it be thousands of years or hardly an hour old.

"But if we look more closely, we perceive that this history already formed, which is called or which we would like to call 'non-contemporary' or 'past' history, if it really is history, that is to say, if it mean something and is not an empty echo, is also contemporary, and does not in any way differ from the other. As in the former case, the condition of its existence is that the deed of which the history is told must vibrate in the soul of the historian, or (to employ the expression of professed historians) that the documents are before the historian and that they are intelligible. . . . Thus if contemporary history springs straight from life, so too does that history which is called non-contemporary, for it is evident that only an interest in the life of the present can move one to investigate past fact. Therefore this past fact does not answer to a past interest, but to a present interest, in so far as it is unified with an interest of the present life." History: Its Theory and Practice, trans. Douglas Ainslie (New York: Russell & Russell, 1960), pp. 11-12.

8. An extensive discussion of this issue is found in Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992). Though Fukuyama appears at points to endorse a directional philosophy of history as is suggested by the title of his monograph, his final chapters appear to me to place him within the mainstream of twentieth century Western thought. Fukuyama observes that "The notion that history is directional, meaningful, progressive, or even comprehensible is very foreign to the main currents of thought in our time," p. 69.

9. A Chinese colleague who read an earlier draft of this paper insisted that the students were simply attempting "to classify causes into main reasons, minor reasons and other reasons somewhere between. . . . [They] strongly want to know which interpretation should come first." My response would be that the question defies a simple answer and that its pursuit may blind students to some of the complexities of history.

10. J. C. D. Clark, The Language of Liberty, 1660-1832: Political Discourse and Social Dynamics in the Anglo-American World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

11. I gained insight into the students' expectations about American history from an interesting article in the Beijing Review. There Professor Yang Yusheng of Beijing University summarized schools of thought among Chinese historians regarding U. S. history specifically with respect to the issues of an appropriate beginning date, the role of Alexander Hamilton, Lincoln's relationship to abolitionism, Reconstruction, and American foreign policy as reflected in the Monroe Doctrine and the Open Door policy. While Yang described a diversity of views among Chinese historians on each of these issues, he also seemed to suggest that one interpretation is or might be expected to become dominant, i.e., the authoritative interpretation. Interpretations were sometimes described as superseding one another and therefore constituting former and present-day interpretations. This approach seems to me to be a fundamentally different way of looking at historical explanation from that currently prevalent in the West. Yang Yusheng, "Major Controversies in China's US History Research," Beijing Review, XXXII, 46 (November 13-19, 1989), 32-34.

12. As eminent an authority as R. G. Collingwood observes that "history, then, is a science, but a science of a special kind. It is a science whose business is to study events not accessible to our observation, and to study these events inferentially, arguing to them from something else which is accessible to our observation, and which the historian calls 'evidence' for the events in which he is interested." The Idea of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), pp. 251-52.

13. Collingwood, p. 315.

14. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Colonial Experience (New York: Random House, 1958); The Americans: The National Experience (New York: Random House, 1965); The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1973). These volumes have been translated into Chinese.

15. John Higham, "Intellectual History and Its Neighbors," Journal of the History of Ideas, XV, 3 (June 1954), 340.

16. He Zhaowu, Bu Jinzhi, Tang Yuyuan, and Sun Kaitai for the Institute of History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, An Intellectual History of China, revised and trans. He Zhaowu (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1991). A colleague who read an earlier draft of this paper suggested that I should not, however, accept this volume as characteristic of contemporary Chinese scholarship in the field. His point is well taken, but the volume was given to me by a superb student in one of China's most selective schools. I can only conclude that, dated though it may be, it is still shaping historical thought.

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Samuel C. Pearson
Professor of Historical Studies, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville
Visiting Professor, Northeast Normal University, Changchun, PRC

This paper was read to a graduate student group at the University of Chicago, February 2, 1998.
copyright 1998 Samuel C. Pearson