Life of the Mind

Living with the happiness of simplicity and profundity

Teaching with honesty and passion to dispel misconceptions

by Zhansui Yu, Ph.D.

Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China, shown at Jinshanling, is one of the most recognizable symbols of China and its history.

“Dr. Yu, many people say Chinese is an extremely difficult language to learn, but I find it quite easy. Am I wrong?”

More than a decade has passed, but I still remember the afternoon during my first year at Nazareth when a student from my CHN101 class asked me that in the fourth-floor hallway of Golisano Academic Center. Over the years, many students have come to me with the same question. On such occasions, I always answer with a smile. “Yes, you are right. The language is not hard at all.” Then, I patiently explain what makes the language easy to learn for native English speakers.

That moment frequently returns to me as an allegorical enlightenment. As a native Chinese speaker who received academic training in Chinese literature and culture and Chinese intellectual and political history in both China and North America, teaching Chinese language and culture seems to be a “simple” job for me. But the meaning of my job is anything but simple. Throughout all these years at Nazareth, I have always considered my teaching as an opportunity to eliminate students’ misconceptions about Chinese language and culture, and lead them as close as possible to the truth about contemporary China — with the expectation that they can use China as a reference point to reflect on life here in the United States and in the rest of the world.

Unlike many colleagues in my department who teach other languages and cultures, I have to face a unique challenge: promoting the language and culture of a country now dominated by a dictatorial regime. My approach is also simple: to tell students the truth. In my teaching, I have always simultaneously pointed to the darkness of the so-called Chinese model on one hand and the greatness and wisdom of Chinese culture on the other to give students a complete picture of China.

One major reason I love my job here at Nazareth is that it provides me a precious opportunity to conduct research on academic topics that truly interest me. My passion for scholarly inquiry makes research, a seemingly tedious and time-consuming task, enjoyable and “simple.” All my research projects conducted so far revolve around one fundamental question: How do the new trends or elements in Chinese literature undermine, subvert, or even deconstruct mainstream Chinese literary discourse and state ideology?

My first book, Chinese Avant-garde Fiction: Quest for Historicity and Transcendent Truth, explores how three major Chinese avant-garde writers construct a “counterhistory” through fiction to subvert the Maoist revolutionary ideology and aesthetics. My second book, Questioning the Chinese Model: Oppositional Political Novels in Early 21st Century China, demonstrates how oppositional Chinese political novels produced in the new century question the fundamental principles and intrinsic logic of the Chinese model. My third book project, tentatively titled Valorizing Pettiness: Individualistic Literature in 1990s China, examines how 1990s Chinese individualistic literature, through presentation of the mundane and the everyday, deconstructs the “grand narratives” created according to mainstream Chinese literary discourse and state ideology. After completing these three projects on Chinese literature, I will turn to contemporary Chinese intellectual history and the Chinese intelligentsia.

I was born and raised in a poor rural village in east China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and it has been a long and sometimes grueling journey for me to reach where I am now, geographically, emotionally, and intellectually. Along the way, I have found gratitude, joy, and profound meaning in leading a simple life. My happiness derives from the dialect of simplicity and profundity, which also crystalizes my experience here as a teacher at Nazareth.

Dr. Zhansui Yu is an associate professor of Chinese in the World Languages and Cultures Department.