Rutgers Center for Chinese Studies solicits contents for its blog from the communities it serves. The center’s blog is primarily used to promote the works of Rutgers faculty, advanced graduate students and visiting scholars, with a focus on the intellectual life of scholars. We are interested in why scholars get into their fields, what motivates them, what some of the most-talked about topics in their fields are, what they see where their fields are heading toward, etc. If you have an interesting item pertaining to Chinese Studies at Rutgers and would like us to post it on our blog, please feel free to contact us. If it is adopted, the post will be properly credited.
We are delighted to have Junjie Mu, a senior who majors in Economics and Human Resources Management, share with us his experience at Rutgers, especially the detailed amount of his trip back to China during the global pandemic (posted on August 12, 2020).
What attracted you to Rutgers?
When I was a junior high school student, I began to develop a strong yearning for a multicultural environment. I wanted to broaden my horizon at the critical time of growth, to understand a society with very diverse cultures and peoples, and to be able to interact with people from very different backgrounds. Those were the main factors that motivated me to study in the United States. Thanks to my parents who could afford to send me to study abroad, I decided to pursue my college education in America.
I spent my high school years in an international school in Chengdu, the capital city of the spicy Sichuan Province in China's southwest that had an American consulate office till very recently. The international school emphasized English and a more internationally oriented curriculum. I successfully passed TOEFL and ACT, and was excited to get the admission letter from Rutgers University at the beginning of 2017. I also received offers from eight other universities, including Michigan State, Purdue, and Australian National University, etc. In the end, I chose Rutgers over others. It was Rutgers’ academic reputation, its high degree of cultural diversity, and its respect for different cultures that attracted me. Its location is also important: New Brunswick is about 40 miles (less than an hour’s drive) from New York City, one of the world's greatest cities. Even now, if someone asks me what I think of Rutgers, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to them because of these unique features.
In the face of the global pandemic this year, Rutgers has shown itself to be better at handling emergency situations than the federal government. In the early days of the outbreak, the school hospital not only helped Rutgers’ staff and students, but also helped patients throughout New Jersey. The school was updating us the development of the epidemic everyday, so that we could be kept abreast of the latest information. The most moving part for me was what happened after the Trump administration’s surprise announcement in July that it would require international students not taking any in-person classes to return to their home countries. The news was met with strong condemnation from universities across the US, including Rutgers. In an email to international students, President Holloway said that he wanted to give Rutgers international students the strongest possible support. We really appreciate such a powerful message of support from our new president.
How have you coped with the pandemic?
I think back to the middle of last semester, when the epidemic started in the US. The virus and the anxiety about it were starting to spread throughout the country. Around March, several of my friends booked their flights to return to China. They asked me several times if I wanted to go home with them, but I refused. The decision I made was to wait until the end of the semester before going back. Many international students were in the same boat as I was. The spread of the coronavirus in the US was just beginning, and in China it was not yet under control. International students, caught between a rock and a hard place, found it very difficult to make the “right decision.”
For whatever reasons, a lot of people in the US did not pay enough attention to COVID-19 in the early days of the epidemic, in March and April. No face masks, no alcohol-based hand sanitizer, no protective gears, life went on as if everything was normal. But Chinese students studying in America were aware of the seriousness and the almost inevitable nature of the epidemic as early as March because we learned about it from our families and friends back home who were dealing with it earlier. So, all my friends around me were fully prepared. When masks and hand sanitizers were in short supply, families in China sent them to us. Many Chinese students began living in self-imposed home quarantine around March, when Rutgers announced that all classes would move online after the spring break. We avoided going out as much as possible; we wore masks, gloves and protective goggles, and we sterilized the whole body and goods before entering the house. Thanks to those efforts and some luck, we made it through the end of the semester without catching the dreadful virus.
After all the final exams of the spring semester were finished, I began to plan my trip back to China, but there was a problem: flights from the United States to China were reduced to just three direct flights a week and the one-way economy fare on all three routes was more than $15,000. So, I looked for shortest alternatives with connecting flights. Although flights with connections were about half the price of direct flights, they were still about seven times their normal prices. The only route available was from New York, through Europe or Africa or South Korea, and on to China. After many tedious steps, i.e., scrambling for tickets, putting down a deposit, and waiting for the result, I finally managed to get a plane ticket from Newark to Shanghai via Ethiopia.
What was your trip back to China like?
On May 24th, after packing my bags, I arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport for what would turn out to be my longest flight home. Before arriving at the airport, I put on a full-body suit, goggles, rubber gloves, and two medical masks. If you want to ask me how I felt at that time, I would tell you it was stuffy and irritating. I had to get to the airport four hours early to prevent the airlines from bumping me off the flight due to possible overbooking, and late arrivals were more likely to miss their flights. After waiting for nearly two hours, I got my boarding pass and checked my luggage.
Newark airport was no longer a sea of people, and the empty departure hall added a sense of dread. Going through the security, I didn’t even have to wait in line. The waiting area at the terminal was basically full of Chinese students on the same flight, all wearing the same style of protective gears. People who didn't know might have thought it was an American medical team on a mission to Africa. After another seemingly endless wait, the plane began boarding. When I got on the plane and sat down, I was impressed by Ethiopian Airlines' considerate way of isolating passengers with an empty seat between every two passengers.
During the flight, I could feel everyone struggling with hunger. I had not eaten for nearly 10 hours from the time I arrived at the airport to the time I boarded the plane. Shortly after the plane reached its cruising altitude, the crew began handing out meals. Although I was afraid of the spread of the virus in the confined space of the cabin, I could not resist the lure of food. So I ordered a beef meal. To avoid taking in too much cabin air, I put my mask on after each bite. It took me half an hour to finish the meal I normally do in ten minutes. As for drinking water, I had straws ready in advance. So, I could drink without taking off my masks. I couldn't fall asleep on the plane due to the cabin environment and the dryness brought by the double mask and protective gears.
After about 16 hours of flying in a daze, half asleep and half awake, I arrived at Addis Ababa International Airport in Ethiopia. I followed the tired crowd through airport security to the terminal to wait for the next plane. I had always wanted to visit Africa to experience the nature and the people there. Unexpectedly, the pandemic gave me an opportunity to set foot on the African continent through a connecting flight. I found a bathroom, took a second suit out of my carry-on and changed into it, along with my face mask and gloves. I walked around the terminal, which was the only place for travelers to move. After nearly three hours of waiting, passengers heading to Shanghai Pudong International Airport were finally told to board our plane.
When I got on the plane, I found that the cabin was full of Chinese returning home. There were students, engineers, employees of various companies working in Ethiopia, and others. We all just wanted to get home. The flight was six hours shorter than the one from Newark to Ethiopia, but a 10-hour flight wasn’t exactly a cake-walk. Yet somehow I felt the plane was flying so smoothly that I was able to sleep soundly. Maybe I was just too tired. When I woke up, the plane already landed safely in Shanghai. I did a quick calculation in my head and realized that 40 hours had passed from the time I walked into Newark Airport and the time I got out of Pudong International.
From many friends who went back to China earlier than me I have learned about the rigorous screening and testing for those returning to the country. It took almost three hours from the time the plane landed to getting on a bus to the quarantine hotel. This included many complex and tedious steps, such as customs tracking, reagents collection, nucleic acid testing, and bus assignment.
We were assigned randomly to a bus which took us to a quarantined hotel where we would spend the next 14 days quarantined in our own room. According to China’s epidemic prevention regulations, people returning from abroad must be quarantined for 14 days. You can’t leave your hotel room until 14 days later. The long isolation was a once in a lifetime experience. It was isolating and distressing. Whenever I think about the isolation by myself in the Shanghai hotel near the airport, I become emotional. Had I stayed in isolation for a few more days, I would have developed mental problems. I survived but lost more than 10 lbs.
After returning to Chengdu, I started a one-week quarantine at home. Although I still couldn't go out during those seven days, with the company of my family, home isolation was not nearly as bad as hotel isolation in Shanghai. Seven days passed in the blink of an eye.
My life right now is free from masks and mostly back to normal. Public places such as supermarkets, shopping malls, entertainment venues, and hospitals in China have returned to normal. The grayness of my life in the last several months is finally replaced by more vibrant colors. At the moment I am in the middle of the annual road trip with my family.
What is your plan for future?
Since Rutgers announced in July that we'd have a mostly online semester in the fall of 2020, I will stay in China to take all the courses during the first semester of my fourth undergraduate year. I will try to return to the United States in the spring of 2021 to finish the rest of my studies. By that time, I hope this pandemic will have eased up and a new world will be waiting for us with all its possibilities.
We are delighted to have Xingming Wang share with us his experience at Rutgers and in America at this particular moment in our history. Mr. Wang is a 2nd-year doctoral student in the Comparative Literature Program at Rutgers (posted on July 11, 2020).
What is your field?
As a second-year Ph.D. student, I do not yet have specific fields of research except for some broader research interests. I hope to explore modern and contemporary Chinese literature, with attention to new directions in humanities such as animal studies and environmental humanities. With the COVID-19 looming large, I am also interested in a re-imagination of human-animal relationships as well as a reexamination of the discourse of sacrifice in the Chinese context, especially intergenerational sacrifice in face of environmental destruction and the promotion of individual sacrifice when dealing with public health issues. At the same time, I want to keep an eye on the effects the pandemic generates and think about how language, literature, and humanities can help us address this unprecedented crisis.
Why did you choose Rutgers for your doctoral studies?
I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in the U.S. when I set out to study in a master's program in English Language and Literature at Nanjing University in China. I was idealistic and hoping to get better academic training. I became aware that my studies of “English literature” in China were already framed in a value system indicative of the confusion of national self-positioning in its relationship to the West after a century of absorbing, while simultaneously rejecting, "foreign influence." In other words, when studying English literature in China, I was already implicated in a comparative context. From the benefit of hindsight, I think my decision also had to do with the academic culture in China. I could not help but notice that various academic positions opened up by universities in China were targeting scholars with overseas Ph.D. degrees. This is perhaps a bit ironic since it conjures up an old binary between tu 土 and yang 洋, a pair of concepts with quasi-colonial overtone, within what is supposed to be a self-reflective academic setting.
In any case, with my growing interest in modern Chinese literature, I thought, why not study comparative literature in the U.S.? I was incredibly fortunate to be admitted to Rutgers Comparative Literature Program, which is a very selective program and really difficult to get in, in case people do not already know about this (I felt I had to brag just a little :). Here I can carry out environmental research with Professor Jorge Marcone, while exploring modern and contemporary Chinese literature with Professor Xiaojue Wang and Professor Weijie Song. I owe them my gratitude.
What has your experience at Rutgers been like?
My experience at Rutgers has been both fulfilling and rewarding. I take courses from the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and the Comparative Literature Program, and am impressed by the professors’ expertise and their generous care for students. I also enjoy attending wonderful lectures and seminars offered by Rutgers Center for Chinese Studies (RCCS), where I make friends, get in touch with professors, and extend my horizon by learning scholarship outside my field. Apart from my study, I also live a colorful life in New Jersey. On weekends, I can take a short trip to pick up strawberries, visit the beach, or just drive around and take in the landscape. Rutgers’s geographical location also offers me the opportunity to visit New York City and Philadelphia in about an hour’s ride.
What has your experience been like in the quarantine?
Since March 12 when Rutgers declared that all courses would be moved online, I have spent four months in the dormitory. But the trouble actually started earlier when the coronavirus broke out in China, as I was worried about my family and friends over there. However, three months later, they became increasingly anxious about my situation in New Jersey, one of the most affected areas in the U.S. It is hard to fully articulate the anxiety, loneliness, frustration, and sense of vulnerability during the quarantine. Yet what makes things worse is perhaps the constant tension between China and the U.S., generating troubling nationalist (sometimes even racist) sentiments and mutual restrictions that affect our travel plans and visa status, let alone the psychological damage it is inflicting. For a period of time, I had to shut down social media, when it became too toxic, so as to concentrate on my coursework. But it is also the difficult time that proves once again the importance of interpersonal relationships, despite the fact that our connection with people is limited to interactions on computer screens, phones, images, and voices at the moment. I have nothing but heartfelt thanks to those who care for me. Hope that the pandemic will be over soon.
Recently, we invited one of our distinguished colleagues, Professor Kuang Yu Chen, to contribute a blog post, reflecting on his life and profession. Professor Chen is a distinguished professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. Given his rather unusual professional interest in both chemistry and oracle bone inscriptions (OBI 甲骨文), we asked him to share with us his story (posted on May 28, 2020).
Can you tell us your intellectual background?
During my high school and college years I was interested in the origin of life so I majored in chemistry in order to understand how the small molecules like nucleotides, amino acids, lipids and carbohydrates can be eventually turned into life. I was also interested in the origin of civilization so I audited many courses in humanities departments at National Taiwan University. I was fortunate to study oracle bone inscriptions (OBI) with Professor Jin Xiang-heng (金祥恒), who was trained by Dong Zuobin (董作賓), one of the founding figures of the OBI field. I also took courses with Professors Qu Wan-Li (屈萬里) and Li Xiao-ding (李孝定), all prominent scholars in ancient classics and Chinese epigraphy. At Yale University I did my Ph.D. work with Professor Jui H. Wang, studying the mechanism of oxygen evolution in photosynthesis. I did my post-doctoral work at Yale Medical School with Professor Evangelo Canellakis on cancer cell growth and polyamines. I was again fortunate enough to continue my pursuit of interest in the humanities with some prominent scholars at Yale. I took courses on Shang archaeology with Professor Chang Kwang-chih (張光直), pre-Qin Literature and Classics with Professor Jao Tsung-I (饒宗頤), and Egyptology with Prof. William Kelly Simpson. I continued my fruitful interactions with most of them after I started my academic career at Rutgers. The last time I saw Professor Jao was in Hong Kong, two months before he passed away at 101 years old.
How did you get into your field?
Academic career can be demanding. One has to constantly deal with grant application, publish or perish, students and postdocs. So my interest in the humanities was put on the back burner for a while. Fortunately Professor Ching-I Tu, the then Chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures accepted my request to be an adjunct faculty at his department, giving me an opportunity to offer a course on OBI (165:424 Origin and Development of Chinese Writing). The teaching not only rekindled my interest and quest in ancient civilization, but also provided me the impetus to start doing more serious research in the field. Based on my teaching materials, I published the book《商代甲骨中英讀本》(Readings of Shang Inscriptions). The French and Korean translations of the book are in progress.
What led to your interest in OBI?
Oracle bone inscriptions, OBI, refers to scripts engraved on animal bones and turtle shells in the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600-1100 BCE), mostly for divination and record-keeping purposes. The inscriptions represent not only the earliest known Chinese writing system but also the oldest extant documents concerning various aspects of the Shang royal house, from sacrificial rituals to war and hunting. In short, OBI brought the legendary Shang Dynasty from foggy mist into vivid historical reality. The discovery of OBI was a watershed and pivotal event in the study of the origin of the Chinese civilization, as it not only validates the existence of the Shang Dynasty, but also helps us to realize that the dynasties earlier than Shang, as recorded by Sima Qian (about 145-86 BCE) in the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), might have existed as well. This realization provides a great impetus for pushing the archaeological work all over China. Furthermore, what we learned from OBI about the Shang civilization helps us understand how the Zhou Dynasty (about 1100-256 BCE) inherited the legacy of Shang, and how the stage was set for the unification by Qin Shihuang in 221 BCE. Since OBI is already a mature writing system that contains all essential ingredients of modern Chinese, its discovery provided a great motivation for us to search, archaeologically and theoretically, for even earlier Chinese writing.
What are you working on right now?
Archaeology is a booming field in China. Hundreds and thousands of excavated materials, from oracle bones, bronze vessels, bamboo slips, and silk scripts, provided a huge amount of raw textual data for studying not only paleography but also other aspects of ancient China, from Shang to Qin and Han Dynasties. With all kinds of database and AI technology, it is indeed an exciting time to do research on early China. Currently my research projects include: (i) Chemical analysis of red pigments on OBI (with Dr. Hwang Ming-chorng , Academia Sinica, Taipei); (ii) Functional analysis of the significance of the use cinnabar and ochre in mortuary practice (with He Yuling, Director, Anyang Archaeological Station); (iii) Writing a book on bamboo and silk scripts of Qin Dynasty following the format of Readings of Shang Inscriptions (with Dr. Zhao Yan from Northeast Normal University, Changchun, a visiting scholar at Rutgers); (iv) Comparative study on the mechanism and process of the genesis of the four pristine writing systems, including Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian, Mayan, and Shang OBI.
Our first blog post for 2018-2019 academic year is by Professor Lei Lei who recently came to Rutgers as an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology. In her post, Professor Lei answers questions about her intellectual background, the state of affairs in her fields and her current research (posted August 30, 2018).
Can you tell us your intellectual background?
I started working as an Assistant Professor in Sociology at Rutgers in fall 2018. I received a Ph.D. degree in sociology from SUNY-Albany in 2016. In graduate school, I specialized in demography, urban sociology, and family. Much of my work focuses on family behaviors in different societies, the relationship between neighborhood and health, and labor migration and the impact on family members. While pursuing my Ph.D. degree in sociology, I obtained a master’s degree in Biostatistics. The advanced statistical techniques that I learned in the Biostatics courses become useful tools for me to explore sociological issues.
How did you get into your field?
While studying at Zhejiang University in China, I was attracted to sociology after taking the Introduction to Sociology as a freshman in college. I enjoyed reading classical social theories, especially the works of Max Weber. Reading his explanations of the rise of capitalism and modernity opened up a new world for me. This made me to choose sociology as my major. Later, I became interested in labor relations and studied the labor rights of migrant workers and unions in China for my undergraduate thesis. After graduating from Zhejiang University, I went to the Netherlands to pursue a master’s degree in Human Resource Studies. Although I enjoyed learning HR management, corporate culture, and business strategies, I was more fascinated by the fundamental organization theories developed by social scientists, rather than how to apply these theories to increase the profit of companies. Then, I decided to return to the field of sociology and pursue an academic career.
What are you working on right now?
One of my current research projects examines the impact of male out-migration on the health of wives and children left behind in India. The labor migration in India is dominated by males and sending a migrant is a common strategy adopted by families to diversify income sources. Sending a migrant is believed to improve the economic condition of the families, but the social and psychological consequences for family members are unclear. In my research, I use nation-wide survey data to explore how the absence of males influence the health of left-behind wives and children and whether the impact varies by the level of remittances, the duration of migration, and the frequency of home visit. For children's outcomes, I would also like to examine how the potential adverse effects of the father’s absence can be compensated by the support from grandparents and the resources in the community.
Another line of my research focuses on the influence of residential communities on individual health and well-being in China. My previous papers have examined how neighborhood socioeconomic status affects children's health and academic achievement in both urban and rural China. Currently, I am investigating how living in different types of neighborhoods in China leads to different health consequences for adults in urban China. This study examines various kinds of urban neighborhoods in China, including traditional communities in old districts, work-unit compounds, commercial-housing communities, and migrant enclaves, which were formed in dramatically different ways during different historical periods. I am particularly curious about whether the newly-developed commercial-housing communities provide a healthier residential environment than the traditional forms of neighborhoods.
What is the status of sociological research on the Chinese society? What do you see as the major trends in your field?
Sociological research in mainland China has been thriving in the past two decades. There has emerged a wealth of literature on families, education, population (fertility, mortality, health, and migration), aging, work and occupation, and social stratification in China. Many large-scale social surveys have been carried out since the early 2000s, and several national-scale longitudinal surveys have been launched sometime around the year of 2010, aiming to collect rich data about individuals, families, and communities, in many aspects of social life. These data allow researchers to understand contemporary China better and to trace the changes in the characteristics of these social entities. These data collection efforts create lots of opportunities for social scientists and researchers who are interested in China.
Along with the increasing availability of data, researchers in my area also become more capable of utilizing innovative quantitative skills to analyze data and to answer various research questions. The topics that Chinese sociological researchers are concerned with become broader and also evolve as new social problems arise. For example, scholars of social stratification in China have a long tradition in studying the causes and consequences of inequalities in education, employment, income, and housing. However, although the space in Chinese cities become more diverse and unequal, not much attention has been paid to “spatial inequality.” Nowadays, researchers, including myself, start to consider how severe the spatial stratification or segregation is in China and how the place of residence matters for people’s socioeconomic attainment and well-being.
Our first blog post is by Professor Xian HUANG who is an assistant professor in the Political Science Department. In her post, Professor Huang answers a series of questions about her background and current research (posted on Jan. 17, 2018).
How long have you been at Rutgers? What is your intellectual background?
I came to Rutgers in the fall of 2016. I studied political science in college and when I finished undergraduate and masters studies at Peking University in 2008 I decided to pursue a career in academia. I was very lucky to get a fellowship to start a doctoral study in political science at Columbia University. Since the beginning of my study at Columbia, I have been very interested in political economy and Chinese politics. They have become the main perspectives through which I approach political science and other broad issues.
How did you get into your field?
In high school, I found and developed interest in social science books, especially politics, world history, international and public affairs. I guess it must have had something to do with my father who also studied social science. At home, we have some collection of books in those fields and I am grateful that my parents gave me the freedom to read books that I liked and some money to buy them. So I read many books in my family’s collection and even increased the book collection quite a bit. Still I had no idea what political science was until I studied it in college.
So why did I choose to major in political science in college? As a high-school student, I couldn’t tell the difference among social science fields such as economics, law, and political science (in China during the early 2000s, political science was often lumped together with public administration in categorization and called “politics and public administration”). But my parents hoped that I would become a civil servant after college – a stable and respectable career in China – so they suggested that I choose “politics and public administration” over other social science fields as it sounded more relevant for a civil servant career. That’s how I got into the field. During college, I found myself not interested in the civil servant career at all; still, I am grateful that I chose political science as my major because I was really interested in the field itself and enjoyed doing research.
What motivates you in your research and teaching?
I was born and raised in China. As a large and complex country, China fascinates me and I always want to understand it better. After I came to the United States, I feel the contrasts and differences between the two countries are even more striking. As a scholar, I want to contribute to the theories and literature of political science by studying the China case and including China in the ongoing debates and inquiries of political science; as a Chinese in the US, I want to help Americans understand China better. These motivate my research.
As for motivation in teaching, my personal experiences told me how important a good teacher means to students. I was very lucky and grateful to have several wonderful teachers and mentors when I was a student; they not only gave me knowledge but, more importantly, they inspired me in many ways. With the help of a great teacher, students can find their true interest and pursue them with passion and vigor. These motivate me as a teacher – I try to be a knowledgeable, inspiring and helpful teacher to my students as those great teachers were to me.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on two research projects now. First is a book manuscript on Chinese social welfare. Who gets what, when and how from China’s authoritarian welfare state? This is the core question that motivates this book. In the book, I employ quantitative analysis along with extensive fieldwork and qualitative research to understand the nuances of social welfare policy and to explain the political rationale for the policy design, implementation, and distributional pattern of social health insurance under Chinese authoritarianism in contemporary periods.
Second is a research project about the politics and policies of social health insurance integration in China. Integration of social health insurance, that is, merging various social health insurance programs across social strata and geographic regions, is an emerging trend in recent Chinese social development. It provides a rare opportunity to pool risks and redistribute income among social groups and subnational regions. As such, it can be considered a political issue or process with important distributional implications and outcomes. In this project, I address specific questions like what shapes local leaders’ decisions on the scope and level of social health insurance integration within their jurisdictions; how social health insurance integration affects Chinese citizens’ economic behaviors (e.g., medical spending, utilization of medical services) and political behaviors (e.g., corruption/bribery, resolving medical disputes).
What are some of the hottest topics in your field? What do you see as the major trends in your field?
Studies of Chinese politics has become a diverse and fruitful field in the last decade. Scholars are eager to explore and explain the durability, institutions, political strategies and policies of the Chinese authoritarian regime. This field has also become more open and integrated to the conventional political science subfields such as comparative politics, political economy, and international politics. Similar to many other social science researches, the research on Chinese politics is moving in the direction of being data-intensive, interdisciplinary and collaborative.