Born and raised in Minneapolis, my alma mater is the University of Minnesota, where I majored in Chinese Language and Literature, including a summer and an academic year of study abroad at Nankai University in Tianjin, China. I originally got interested in Asia as a teenager due to a variety of random influences, and by the time I got to college, I wanted to learn how to write Chinese characters with a brush and read works of Chinese religion and philosophy such as the Dao de jing, the Zhuang zi, and Buddhist scriptures in the original because the English translations seemed so opaque. But the study abroad experience combined with interests I developed in college (cultural criticism, the philosophy of literature, and the era of rapid change taking place in China) turned my attention toward literature and modern China, and so I decided to pursue a PhD in Chinese literature at Columbia University, working under C.T. Hsia and then David Wang. There I was able to read through as many classic and modern works as I could, and continued to develop my intellectual interests, which converged on literary renditions of reality (which correspond generally to the English term "non-fiction"), including reportage (报告文学), essays (broadly speaking 散文 and more specifically 小品文), and now more recently independent documentary film-making. My dissertation, which led to my first book, was on reportage literature from the Republican period to the eve of the Cultural Revolution (1919-1966), and in that project I also developed an ongoing interest in how revolutionary and socialist literature depicts and channels enthusiasm and desires.
My first teaching job was at Yale University, where I taught modern Chinese literature to undergraduates and graduate students (mostly PhD students in Chinese literature) for ten years, from 1996-2006. During that time I finished my second book, inspired in part lively discussions about modern essay writing in my graduate seminars. I also had the opportunity to co-teach a fifth-year Chinese language class, "Readings in Modern Chinese Literature," with the renowned poet Zheng Chouyu (Cheng Ch'ou-yu) for three years.
Another important part of my journey has been my growing involvement with language learning through study abroad. I had the unusual opportunity at Yale to take charge of the superb and pioneering Richard U. Light Fellowships for East Asian Language Study for many years. The Light Fellowships both identified the best programs in China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, and selected students to attend those programs, all expenses paid. To date, nearly 1,000 Yale students have received Light Fellowships, and a number of them are already building impressive careers related to East Asia.
In 2006 I traveled to Beijing University, where I became the first director of the PKU-Yale Joint Undergraduate Program, in which Yale and Beijing University undergraduates share rooms and take classes together for one semester. Then in 2007 I moved across the street to Qinghua (Tsinghua) University to serve as the director of the Inter-University Program for Chinese Langauge Studies, one of the best advanced Chinese training programs in the world, for 2 1/2 years. During those last two years in Beijing I was also selected to participate in the second cohort of the National Committee on US-China Relations' Public Intellectuals Program, which brings younger professors of Chinese studies together with Chinese and American professionals in media, government, military, and the private sector for two years of substantive interaction and networking. This and my experience at IUP gave me a new understanding of the changing importance of the Chinese language in today's world, and the importance of outreach in making the growing body of academic knowledge about China more available to the broader American public.
I am delighted to have joined the University of Virginia in January of 2010 where I can put all of this experience to great use at an institution with a strong tradition of Chinese studies, now experiencing significant growth and expansion. It is a great pleasure to be able to return to teaching, not only to share my own knowledge and perspectives, but to also learn a great deal more from students and colleagues here!