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Grounds for deepening dialogue: Interview with Peking University alumna Vera Schwarcz

MAR . 26 2021
Peking University, March 26, 2021: Leading China historian lauds optimism of cultural exchange amid CPC centenary celebrations. Many people from overseas have made a contribution to China's development over the years. As China celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, China Daily looks at the lives and contributions of these friends from afar, who've not only witnessed, but also participated in, the country's transformation over the years.

The site lies within Peking University, in a quiet spot that points to its beginnings as a personal sanctuary of a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Manchu prince.

The garden fell into ruins following the looting by invading foreign armies in the late 19th century, but a groundbreaking ceremony in 1986 began its transformation into the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology, marking restorative East-West cultural exchange away from turbulent times.


The Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology at Peking University is one of the cultural sites featured in Vera Schwarcz's book. Schwarcz conducted research at the university from 1979 to 1980.

In her book, Place and Memory in the Singing Crane Garden, leading China historian and poet Vera Schwarcz illuminated this fascinating corner of China's cultural landscape, with her study lauded for revealing "how the garden becomes a vehicle for reflection about history and language".

Schwarcz believes that dialogue at home and abroad continues to be an important part of China's legacy of culture, with ample reason for optimism amid the country's unprecedented development.

"Without doubt, China has progressed hugely beyond anything that anyone could have imagined in the last hundred years," she says.

"China is unified. China is powerful. China has a huge economic presence in the world."

Schwarcz is Mansfield Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies, Emerita, at Wesleyan University in the United States. From 1979 to 1980, she conducted research at Peking University as part of the first group of US students admitted after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and China. Her highly acclaimed works include books about Chinese intellectual history and poems about cultural remembrance.


Vera Schwarcz at the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University. The US scholar has written many books about Chinese intellectual history and poems about cultural remembrance.

The university has also recorded the experiences of Schwarcz and its other luminaries under a major oral history book project.

Home and abroad

"Chinese intellectuals, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, had asked 'what are our shortcomings as a people?' ... These questions about Chinese character that they raised have helped the accomplishments that you see today. They are part of an introspective voice, carried throughout the 20th century which allows for the 21st century's accomplishments," she says.

"Chinese students who went abroad in the '20s and '30s and those who are studying abroad today-many have been my own students in the last 30 years-were questioning intellectuals. I started as a historian for laowai (foreigners) and over the last 30 years, most of my students have been Chinese who come to the West. Their interest, about who they are, what they can contribute-these are the things that make China truly great."

Self-reflection is an important part of the cultural dialogue that will help take the country forward under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, Schwarcz says.

"Dialogue, as I've discovered over 50 years of China work and of dancing between East and West, has to occur more quietly. It's not only a matter of policy, but it has to occur more deeply. At its best, cross-cultural dialogue is not only what you learn about the West and what I learn about China. That's the easy part and I've been privileged to be part of that dialogue.

"It's by asking questions about yourself that cross-cultural conversation allows us to return to our own traditions and to see afresh with questioning eyes. That's the deepest, most meaningful part of cultural dialogue. That is a marvelous opportunity which I hope will take place in the 21st century," she says.

"In terms of a legacy of culture, of course there are reasons for optimism. My students who have returned to China are poised to make many extraordinary contributions."

The optimism must occur, amid the rapid development that China finds itself in, in a cultural context that builds upon the past meaningfully, Schwarcz says.

"When I was at Beida (Peking University), the cultural legacy was amply evident, in calligraphy, in art. There's a difference, however, between public display of culture and genuine cultural revival, and the ongoing critical development of cultural legacies. That's true for every culture, including America," she says.

"Just celebrating the past is not enough. How to build upon the past in an open-minded, vigorous fashion, every culture is struggling with that.

"In China, public celebration, public codification of what traditional culture means, may restrict the possibilities for cultural contributions.

"But there's no question that there's reason for optimism. The material well-being which many people in China are enjoying is not in itself enough for cultural vibrancy. You could be rich and be prejudiced and backward. Being rich is not the same thing as being genuinely forward-looking," Schwarcz says.

The optimism must be within a cultural context "in which genuine pluralism can survive ... which I think China is poised for", she says.

East-West exchange

The dialogue that is occurring between China and the rest of the world offers "a very meaningful opportunity for mutual compassion and empathy", Schwarcz says.

During her time at Peking University, she met major intellectual figures such as Feng Youlan, Zhu Guangqian, Yue Daiyun and Tang Yijie. This led to seminal work on New China.

"It was my time at Beida and these interviews, walking that beautiful campus ... everything for me happened in that little corner of Haidian," she says.

"I am forever indebted to Beida for opening up my eyes when I arrived. I really learned Chinese history by listening to people and to the actual terrain.

"When Beida did the book of interviews with me, I was very eager to acknowledge my indebtedness to this university that has witnessed so much in the last 50 years ... I'm extremely grateful to the university and to its officials. They opened their archives when they were still severely restricted. I arrived at a time when reform and opening-up was just beginning. To pick up the phone and to say to the archivists at the library who were keeping everything locked, 'please let this foreign scholar in', was a huge risk and favor. For this I am greatly indebted."

Overcoming obstacles

There are challenges to the dialogue as the country continues on its development journey, Schwarcz says, such as the "hasty use of knowledge for material gain".

Students, for example, may return from top institutions in the West, armed with educational credentials, "and you come home to China and you get a great position at some company and get yourself a great house ... and everything is good", she says.

"That haste and materialism is one obstacle to deepening of cross-cultural dialogue, because it's so easy to buy credentials, to pretend to engage in dialogue, which is different from actually engaging in dialogue.

"You need a little more time, both abroad and when you come home, to deepen the impact of what you gained and what you saw."

Any "codification" of optimism and of dialogue may also be impediments, Schwarcz says.

"The Party has positioned itself as a great unifier, which is hugely important for pride and for cultural development."

Source: China Daily