THE BLOG

Inside the Classroom: Vera Schwarcz

05/26/2014 01:32 am ET | Updated Jul 25, 2014

An interview with Vera Schwarcz of Wesleyan University on her course, "The Jewish Experience in China from Kaifeng through the Holocaust."

As a scholar, educator, and poet, Professor Vera Schwarcz is no stranger to adding her own spin to the classroom. At Wesleyan, students have fallen in love with her class "The Jewish Experience in China from Kaifeng through the Holocaust," citing its engaging material and forum for discussion as their primary reasons for nominating the course. In my conversation with Schwarcz earlier this year, I ask her what her thought process was for starting such a class.

According to Schwarcz, she launched the course after she had researched the subject area for many years. As an academic and board member of Points East Sino-Judaic Institute, she was acutely aware of how expansive the literature on Jewish communities in China had become. Yet while the scholarly field flourished, she remarks that nobody had tried to put together what she considered to be a "no-brainer": a class for undergraduates.

"I have a good mix of students," says Schwarcz. "Some are from Bangladesh and India, while others are Chinese or American. This course has been transformed because questions of ethnicity are always on the table."

Schwarcz elaborates using the example of the Chinese word 故乡(gu4 xiang4). She notes that although 故乡 can be roughly translated as "home" or "native land," it is a Chinese word whose meaning the English language cannot fully capture. Schwarcz explains that when she raised questions about the meaning of 故乡 to the first Jewish immigrants in China, her students enlivened the term by introducing their own personal understandings of identity and home.

When I ask Schwarcz how she first came across Chinese studies, Schwarcz attributes her initial interest in China to her East European roots. After growing up in Romania, she arrived in the US as a young teenager confused about the ideals of capitalism and communism. "At the time it seemed like China was right and America was wrong," she chuckles, citing China's Maoist visions.

Yet her political infatuation with China would eventually fade. After laughing about her first Mandarin class at Yale (she was taught by a novice-level Italian man), Schwarcz explains she delved deeper into China's culture and history when she studied abroad in Taiwan in 1973. Schwarcz would also be sponsored as an official exchange scholar to China's mainland only five years later. While there, she was introduced to several survivors of China's Cultural Revolution, and became deeply inspired by their narratives. "I learned to not assume theories, and that we should never pursue knowledge without the personal context of individuals," says Schwarcz.

As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Schwarcz what advice she has for young students aspiring to become more involved with China. She replies, "We cannot just look at business or politics. Our 'now' is colored by the history of the past, so it really pays to understand [Chinese] society from cultural and linguistic perspectives. So if you're able to quote some Chinese poetry or discuss Chinese thinkers of the late 19th century like Kang Youwei, you might be able to close a business or diplomatic deal even more effectively. Genuine cultural knowledge has an immediate payoff in practical life."

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Vera Schwarcz is the Mansfield Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University. She currently chairs Wesleyan's East Asian Studies Program and has written several prize-winning books, including Bridge Across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory, and Time for Telling Truth Is Running Out: Conversations with Zhang Shenfu. A full list of her work can be found at between2walls.com.

Erwin Li is a sophomore at Yale University and an associate editor of the magazine. Contact him at erwin.li@yale.edu.

This article also appears in China Hands.