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January 19, 2011

University launches East Asian studies initiative

Mazin Melegy ’11 has always been connected to the world beyond the United States. The son of Egyptian immigrants, he grew up navigating two cultures—one at school, the other at home—and in college, he concentrated on both Russia and the Middle East and studied abroad.

So when a new Modern East Asia class was offered this fall, the internationally oriented history major eagerly enrolled. With China’s growing political and economic influence, says Melegy, hardly a day goes by that East Asia is not in the news. “Every day I went to class, we learned insights that brought the world in focus,” he says.

Ho Osburg Schaefer Zhang
China experts (from left to right) Daphon Ho, John Osburg, William Schaefer, and Elya Zhang bolster the East Asian Studies focus on the emerging importance of China.

Modern East Asia is one of a plethora of new courses in East Asian studies offered by a new cadre of China experts at the University. This fall, as part of the strategic plan to increase Rochester’s international focus, the University added four Chinese specialists: two in history, one in anthropology, and one in modern languages and cultures. The search for a fifth specialist, in religion, is currently under way.

“We’ve had individual faculty who specialize in East Asia,” says Joanna Olmsted, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, “but this cluster hire of additional experts in China will provide the depth and breath of courses and expertise needed to support an East Asian or Chinese studies major at the University.”

“In today’s world,” says Thomas DiPiero, senior associate dean of humanities, “China holds increasing economic, cultural, and political importance, and our academic studies need to reflect its growing influence.”

The new scholars examine East Asia’s growing power through a variety of academic lenses. Anthropologist John Osburg, for example, spent three and a half years interviewing, shadowing, and studying China’s emerging entrepreneurial class. His research focuses on “the newly rich in China and their search for meaning,” and some of his findings fly in the face of established developmental theories from the West, he explains.

“Most Western social scientists have assumed that as the middle class grows, citizens will demand more political freedoms and that economic growth inevitably leads to the democratization of politics,” Osburg says.

What his anthropological research shows, however, is that economic growth in China has been largely controlled and orchestrated by the government. “Wealthy entrepreneurs are heavily dependent on the Communist Party,” says Osburg. In fact, he says, businessmen spend a lot of time “wining and dining government officials. Government corruption is taken for granted.”

Elya Zhang is equally interested in the economics, but from a historian’s perspective. Guided by financial historian Niall Ferguson’s axiom that “behind each great historical phenomenon there lies a financial secret,” Zhang has focused on the nature of foreign debt in China. Although today China is flush with foreign reserves, Zhang points out that the country was plagued by debt during the first half of the 20th century and, in fact, defaulted on its loans three times by 1949.

Her research, which focuses on why and how the country fell into such destructive spending patterns, has implications for understanding contemporary China. Zhang speculates that China’s current leaders were influenced by the trauma of those earlier defaults and that those experiences underlie the country’s ongoing “obsession with storing up huge foreign reserves.”
Dahpon Ho, also a historian, brings to the University wide-ranging interests in Chinese history: “anything from the 17th to the 20th century is fair game,” notes his faculty web page. Sealords Live in Vain, his first book under preparation for publication, explores 17th-century piracy, Chinese seafarers, and the Qing state’s policies.

As a teacher, Ho seeks to engage students using a variety of tools, including literature, documentary and feature films, and video games. Computer games like “Age of Empires” are a valuable teaching tool, says Ho. They help students understand some fundamental principles like the fact that history is not inevitable, but rather driven by technological developments, chance, and continuous change. Video games help students contemplate the “what ifs” in history, says Ho.

William Schaefer also draws on China’s visual culture and literature to help students develop a deeper understanding of the country. A scholar of Chinese photography, Schaefer has published widely on the history and theories of the art and recently finished the manuscript of the book: Shadow Modernism: Photography, Writing, and Space in Shanghai, 1925–1935. In his work and classes, Schaefer explores how Asian art and literature allow “different ways of thinking.” Schaefer, who has taught at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Minnesota, was attracted by the opportunities for interdisciplinary work offered by Rochester’s Department of Modern Languages and Cultures and the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies.

Although the new scholars’ research spans several fields, “their work dovetails in interests and they all work in the modern period,” says DiPiero. The new faculty members and administrators alike are excited about the chance to build a program from the ground up. 

Students are already reaping the benefits of the richer offerings. For Melegy, his introductory course in East Asia studies was so compelling that he plans to continue with a course on the political economy of China in the spring, and is considering learning Mandarin Chinese. Melegy, who eventually hopes to work in development in northern Africa, says that China’s rise from colonization to economic prosperity may hold important lessons for other developing countries.

Mazin Melegy ’11 has always been connected to the world beyond the United States. The son of Egyptian immigrants, he grew up navigating two cultures—one at school, the other at home—and in college, he concentrated on both Russia and the Middle East and studied abroad.
So when a new Modern East Asia class was offered this fall, the internationally oriented history major eagerly enrolled. With China’s growing political and economic influence, says Melegy, hardly a day goes by that East Asia is not in the news. “Every day I went to class, we learned insights that brought the world in focus,” he says.
Modern East Asia is one of a plethora of new courses in East Asian studies offered by a new cadre of China experts at the University. This fall, as part of the strategic plan to increase Rochester’s international focus, the University added four Chinese specialists: two in history, one in anthropology, and one in modern languages and cultures. The search for a fifth specialist, in religion, is currently under way.
“We’ve had individual faculty who specialize in East Asia,” says Joanna Olmsted, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, “but this cluster hire of additional experts in China will provide the depth and breath of courses and expertise needed to support an East Asian or Chinese studies major at the University.”
“In today’s world,” says Thomas DiPiero, senior associate dean of humanities, “China holds increasing economic, cultural, and political importance, and our academic studies need to reflect its growing influence.”
The new scholars examine East Asia’s growing power through a variety of academic lenses. Anthropologist John Osburg, for example, spent three and a half years interviewing, shadowing, and studying China’s emerging entrepreneurial class. His research focuses on “the newly rich in China and their search for meaning,” and some of his findings fly in the face of established developmental theories from the West, he explains.
“Most Western social scientists have assumed that as the middle class grows, citizens will demand more political freedoms and that economic growth inevitably leads to the democratization of politics,” Osburg says.
What his anthropological research shows, however, is that economic growth in China has been largely controlled and orchestrated by the government. “Wealthy entrepreneurs are heavily dependent on the Communist Party,” says Osburg. In fact, he says, businessmen spend a lot of time “wining and dining government officials. Government corruption is taken for granted.”
Elya Zhang is equally interested in the economics, but from a historian’s perspective. Guided by financial historian Niall Ferguson’s axiom that “behind each great historical phenomenon there lies a financial secret,” Zhang has focused on the nature of foreign debt in China. Although today China is flush with foreign reserves, Zhang points out that the country was plagued by debt during the first half of the 20th century and, in fact, defaulted on its loans three times by 1949.
Her research, which focuses on why and how the country fell into such destructive spending patterns, has implications for understanding contemporary China. Zhang speculates that China’s current leaders were influenced by the trauma of those earlier defaults and that those experiences underlie the country’s ongoing “obsession with storing up huge foreign reserves.”
Dahpon Ho, also a historian, brings to the University wide-ranging interests in Chinese history: “anything from the 17th to the 20th century is fair game,” notes his faculty web page. Sealords Live in Vain, his first book under preparation for publication, explores 17th-century piracy, Chinese seafarers, and the Qing state’s policies.
As a teacher, Ho seeks to engage students using a variety of tools, including literature, documentary and feature films, and video games. Computer games like “Age of Empires” are a valuable teaching tool, says Ho. They help students understand some fundamental principles like the fact that history is not inevitable, but rather driven by technological developments, chance, and continuous change. Video games help students contemplate the “what ifs” in history, says Ho.
William Schaefer also draws on China’s visual culture and literature to help students develop a deeper understanding of the country. A scholar of Chinese photography, Schaefer has published widely on the history and theories of the art and recently finished the manuscript of the book: Shadow Modernism: Photography, Writing, and Space in Shanghai, 1925–1935. In his work and classes, Schaefer explores how Asian art and literature allow “different ways of thinking.” Schaefer, who has taught at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Minnesota, was attracted by the opportunities for interdisciplinary work offered by Rochester’s Department of Modern Languages and Cultures and the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies.
Although the new scholars’ research spans several fields, “their work dovetails in interests and they all work in the modern period,” says DiPiero. The new faculty members and administrators alike are excited about the chance to build a program from the ground up. 
Students are already reaping the benefits of the richer offerings. For Melegy, his introductory course in East Asia studies was so compelling that he plans to continue with a course on the political economy of China in the spring, and is considering learning Mandarin Chinese. Melegy, who eventually hopes to work in development in northern Africa, says that China’s rise from colonization to economic prosperity may hold important lessons for other developing countries.

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