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Journey to the East: Interview with PKU's American scholar Donald Stone

JAN . 07 2019
Peking University, Jan. 7, 2019: Peking University's American scholar Donald Stone summarized his life as "BC" and "AC": before he came to China and after it.

Donald Stone introduces his collections
at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology, Peking University 

Year one in his journey to the East was 1982, and Stone arrived in a country that began its historic reform and opening up just four years prior. Now at age 76 and a professor at Peking University, Stone stood witness to the sea change China has taken since the early 1980s, just as it had been a "transformative experience" for him personally.

"In 20 years China advanced 200 years," Stone said as he recalled stories of his travels and those of his students. "It is the single most remarkable miracle in human history of how China pulled itself up by ingenuity and cleverness."

Stone has been teaching at Peking University one semester every year since 2006. Whenever he comes to Beijing, he would be welcomed with visits from his former students, with whom he has formed lifelong friendships.

Many of them have become "somebody of importance," Stone said with pride. But they all had to overcome tremendous hardships, down to the very basic needs such as food.

In his early years teaching English literature at Beijing Teacher's College (now Capital Normal University) and other schools around China, Stone remembers that the students only had rice, and "a hard-boiled egg or a little bit of pork on one or two days a week" would be a treat for the palate.

In spite of this, students worked hard and kept aiming higher. Stone taught the famous class of 77, with students who took China's first college entrance exams since colleges reopened after the Cultural Revolution. The students were "extraordinary," Stone said. They had to teach themselves in order to be admitted into colleges, and their English reading abilities were "first-rate."

"I can remember as they took notes in class, perspiration would drip off their faces. They didn't want to miss a single word that the teacher was saying."

The students are now prominent officials, teachers at elite universities, and even a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Success was the result of persistence and hard work, but also of always reaching for more.

The professor said that in the early 1980s, a married couple in China would want "four big things" in their lives. "If you have a sewing machine, a radio, a wrist watch, and a good bicycle, that was the summit of human happiness."

But each year as he returned, Stone found the "four big things" would always change. "It would become a color television, then it would become this, it would become that." Stone said this was not "vulgar materialism" as some of his friends suggested, but simply a product of what had become available to people in China as the country prospered following its reform and opening up policy.

"To suddenly have all these things available and to take them for granted," Stone said understandingly, mentioning that it was not only everyday comfort like home appliances, but also items of basic need such as educational resources and medical services.

Through all the changes in circumstance, Stone said the Chinese people had maintained their hospitality, and his students their love of learning.

Despite their meager means in 1982, Stone's Chinese hosts went all out to accommodate the American professor. Stone said he was embarrassed when he received 300 yuan in cash from the school every month while the monthly salary for Chinese teachers was only one-tenth of it.

When he and a group of other foreigners took a trip out of the city to Qufu and Mount Tai, a famous scenic spot and cultural heritage site in Shandong province, the car broke down on the road. To his surprise, nearby farmers came out of their cottages and brought cups of tea and sweet potatoes.

"There may have been a certain kind of lack of certain means, but the Chinese were by no means lacking in hospitality. What they had, they shared to extraordinary degrees."

When it was time to go home to the U.S., Stone said he "cried all the way to the plane," and carried six suitcases of rugs, porcelain and tea in an attempt of "bringing as much of the country" with him.

Some of his acquaintances in America said he was "brainwashed," as he did not shy away from pouring praises about the country. "I absolutely fell in love with the country. You know, you can say you fall in love with a woman, you have an obsession that dominates your entire being. In my case, it was an obsession with China that has only intensified over the years."

Stone's second visit to China came nine years later in 1991, and then he began teaching regularly in China. He eventually became a professor at Peking University after retiring from the City University of New York in 2006.

His love for China crystallized at Peking University, where he teaches the fall semester every year. Having taught at Harvard and some other elite universities before his retirement in the U.S., Stone frequently called the students at Peking University "best on the planet" — they in turn call him "grandpa Stone" — as the students were "very responsive" to the great literature works introduced in his class and genuinely appreciated the classic arts and movies he showed them.

His love for Peking University and his students went beyond the class. In 2006 when he found that neither Peking University nor any other regular Chinese museum had a Western art collection, he decided to organize exhibitions and donated many of his prints of masterpieces to the university. This year, he set up his 12th exhibition, and has over the years donated more than 500 pieces to the university's Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology, which he serves as the Honorary Advisor.

Despite his nearly four decades in China, Stone is modest in any attempt of characterizing the country. "There is a kind of cliché in the West of a kind of monolithic Chinese identity and a lack of inventiveness and a kind of group mentality or conformism, but there are figures in the Chinese culture that certainly defy that."

He said he had read the classic Chinese novel "Journey to the West" before he came to China. After coming to Beijing, he saw the Peking Opera adaptation of the novel and began to associate the all-defying Monkey King with the Chinese culture and his own traveling around the country.

"Chinese culture is full of these figures like the Monkey King who are really anarchic. He is the impudent figure who defies authority and the public responds to that, in the sense that he represents for them a certain kind of eccentrics. China has had always its great eccentrics," he said.

"Every generalization about China can be immediately rebutted by another set of circumstances... It is a country that defies definition."

Edited by: Huang Weijian
The State Council Information Office