Portraits: Vivien Lu and Chinese language at Yale University

Vivien Lu

I decided to study Chinese my freshman year at Yale rather abruptly after taking a course in French literature for three weeks and then promptly dropping the course. Although I had done well in French, and thought that perhaps a major in French literature would be a good way to go at Yale, I found that I was simply not inspired by the books we read. I fell asleep in the library within a few minutes trying to read the plays of Moliere.

I spent a few days thinking about what I wanted to do next and decided that Chinese literature was the most intriguing opportunity for me among the classes listed for Fall, 1983. I quickly made up my mind that I wanted to learn Chinese, and learn it as quickly as possible.

It was an odd process that I went through, one that I do not fully understand myself. I started out thinking I would focus on French and German culture in college and within a few months I was dashing around trying to learn as much Chinese as possible, feeling it was a crisis of sorts that I did not know the language better. From my perspective, it seemed that Americans needed to learn Chinese well, to operate at a high level. Yet students around me were simply not taking China very seriously.

It was far too late in the semester at that point to enroll in the Chinese language course. So I started trying to teach myself Chinese characters, painfully, one by one, in my spare time, between classes, late at night, whenever I could find time. I bought several books on the Chinese characters that explained their etymologies, including one book that included all of the zhuanzi(篆字) archaic forms for the major Chinese characters. I spent many hours trying to learn these old versions as well, thinking it would help me to understand the essence of the Chinese language. That aspect of my approach is quite different from most students of Chinese. I was trying to dig into the archaic past of China from the very beginning. I also needed to learn how to speak Chinese, but that was not my only priority. In a sense, Chinese for me was not just a way of communicating with people, the Chinese language itself was a way of thinking, a powerful medium that could transform how one sees the world. I still feel that way about China: it is a powerful cultural tradition that can transform its recipients.

But I had to learn to speak Chinese. I had a Chinese visiting scholar I was meeting with, and Professor Parker Huang, an aged Chinese scholar who wrote Chinese poetry, had befriended me and was teaching me the essentials of the great tradition. Clearly it was not sufficient to merely learn the Chinese characters.

I paid a special visit to the woman responsible for all Chinese language instruction at Yale, a thoughtful and highly educated woman by the name of Vivien Lu. A tall and very formal woman, she stood up straight in her chair in the well-lighted offices of the language program for Chinese. She had a certain dignity about her that impressed me from the very start. The program was housed in 19th century wooden house with grey walls. You approached her elegant office by going up a narrow staircase.

Ms. Lu was always carefully dressed and spoke in a highly respectful and warm manner to me. I told her that I wanted to learn to read, write and speak Chinese, but that it was too late to enroll in classes. She was a daughter of a Chinese scholar and from being with her I imbibed something of a tremendous tradition directly.

Ms. Lu looked at me quite intently. “Why do you want to learn Chinese so desperately?” She inquired.

“I love the Chinese characters,” I replied. “I have already taught myself around 400 and I think that I can learn more if I have a chance.”

“Do you have time to do that on top of your busy schedule?” she questioned.

“I can make the time.” I replied with confidence. “Learning Chinese is that important to me.”

“Well, you look like a scholar of sorts. Perhaps you were a Chinese scholar yourself in a previous life,” she remarked. “Please come back tomorrow morning.”

And so began my lessons in Chinese at Yale. Ms. Lu 陆袆老师 grew up reading the classics with her father in an old row house in the 1930s. She had something about her of Chinese classical culture, what she saw as a child of the books piled up around her father’s study. Because she had come directly to the United States in the 1940s, much of the old Chinese tradition was preserved in her, to a degree not to be found any more on the mainland.

Our classes were not practice in business Chinese or ordering at Chinese restaurants. We looked at classical poems and bits of the classics Confucius, Mengzi and Zhuangzi. She would teach me useful bits of conversational Chinese, but always in the context of learning the classical tradition.

For me the Chinese scholars whom I learned about from Ms. Lu became models of sorts for me. They were examples of individuals who had obtained great learning, but felt a deep responsibility to society and who maintained very simple and decent lifestyles.

I met with Mrs. Lu for Chinese lessons three times a week for one hour in the morning. The course was in part about learning the  pronunciation of the Chinese language and practicing Chinese dialogs, but for the most part it consisted of reading Chinese characters (汉字) and discussing their meaning. The Chinese characters are what drew me into the study of Chinese so deeply. I spent hours and hours studying them, even when I couldn’t pronounce them.

I purchased a book entitled “Chinese Characters: Their Origin, history, classification and signification” by L. Wieger, a book that included the ancient along with the modern forms. This book I read day and night. Trying to understand what the Chinese characters meant in their original context forms, trying to guess how their meanings were tied to images and symbols. I spent my time imagining early China and the process by which symbols became language and felt that there was great depth in these simple symbols that I was learning.

Mrs. Lu sat with me for hours and as we read through the Chinese characters, she helped me with the pronunciation and also with the writing the characters. Although it might seem that her encouraging me with such an approach was somewhat unnatural, far away from the actual study of spoken Chinese, it was in fact the best way to learn for me. I was inspired in me an interest in the Chinese culture that would last for many years. In those conversations with Mrs. Lu I gained some sense of what exactly was at the core of Chinese culture and what gave it such power.

The following year I was finally able to study Chinese language properly. I already knew many characters and expressions at that point as a result of my previous readings with Mrs. Lu and my readings over the summer.

I made up hundreds of paper note cards with various Chinese characters scribbled on them and spent my hours memorizing them. Mrs. Lu was no longer engaged in the one-on-one teaching with me, but she continued to meet with me for lunch regularly.

Mrs. Lu became more of a close friend, calling me up frequently at my dormitory and giving me very concrete advice not only about how to study Chinese, but also about life in general and the challenges that we face in deciding our careers. I think that because she had lived through the chaos of China in the 1940s, and then settled into life in the United States, she had a special understanding of what it means to go from one culture to another. She was inculcating in me above all a sense of responsibility. Here I had received such a good education at Yale College, and so I was obliged to go out into the world and do something of significance. I learned something about the unique Confucian concept of responsibility, the long tradition of scholars drenched in the classics but committed to issues of the current day.

Mrs. Lu seemed to have no doubt about what I might achieve. She felt that I was a product of Yale with all the skill and support to do something great. I am not sure why she believed so much in me. I certainly did not have that sort of confidence. But while studying Chinese at Yale, I became quite aware of the deep intellectual tradition that lay behind my studies. Since the 19th century, Yale maintained excellent programs in Chinese language, and experts who had learned the classics in great depth.

The Yale-China Association was founded in 1901 as a private, nonprofit organization contributing to the development of education in and about China and to the furtherance of understanding and knowledge between Chinese and American people. Yale-China’s work is characterized by sustained, long-term relationships designed to build Chinese institutional capacity. Current programs include the fields of public health and nursing, legal education, English language instruction, American Studies, and cultural exchange for Chinese and American students. Much of the early work involved missionary activities and the introduction of modern medicine.

During World War II, Yale had become a center for the concentrated study of Chinese, and had even developed the Yale system for Romanization, commonly used before the 1980s, and still around at Yale when I started.

While I was studying in Taiwan, Mrs. Lu wrote me thoughtful letters to encourage me, suggesting new approaches to my studies.

Much later, in 1992, I returned to the United States after more than five years in Japan to start the PH.D. Program at Harvard, I stopped in New Haven to see Ms. Lu. She took me to a local café and we talked at great length about the future of Chinese studies. She again encouraged me to continue my life-long engagement with China into the future.

It was the last time that I saw Mrs. Lu. I tried to contact her through various means in the following years, but it seemed that she had pretty much disappeared. I am told that she had withdrawn from the Yale community after her husband, a professor at Yale, passed away, and was not very interested in exchanges. I have no idea what really happened, although I did write several letters to the address for her that I still had, and received no response.

mrs lu

A letter that Mrs. Vivien Lu sent me soon after I arrived in Taiwan in 1985.

3 responses to “Portraits: Vivien Lu and Chinese language at Yale University

  1. Marie December 12, 2011 at 10:03 am

    I came across your blog while searching up about KAIST and read a few of your entries. I am really inspired by how you decided to follow your heart and pursue study in the Chinese language. Learning the characters is quite difficult, let alone analyzing great works! Although I am in my senior year of study, I am still trying to discover what I am truly passionate about (there are so many factors to consider!), but hopefully a conclusion will be reached soon🙂

  2. Sam Myrick June 9, 2014 at 3:04 am

    I had a similarly profound inspirational experience with Mrs. Lu. She gave real life lessons and awesome Chinese lessions in one. She was the real deal. I may be mistaken, but I seem to think she had at lease one son.

    Just an idea

  3. Jim Levy April 7, 2016 at 7:26 pm

    Vivien Lu graciously permitted me to audit 1st-year Chinese when I was a graduate student in an unrelated department looking for a reason to get up each morning other than to face my lack of progress on a dissertation topic. I finished the dissertation and degree, but ended up spending most of my career in China thanks to her faith and investment in me. One anecdote: Yes, she was extraordinarily dignified — everyone inevitably reaches for that word to describe her. But she wasn’t above exploiting her students’ respect for her. At a restaurant, after a lunch a friend and I had invited her too to thank her for her support, she grabbed the bill from me and placed it indelicately under her bottom, knowing there was no way we would go that far to retrieve it.

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