Professor Kang-i Sun Chang
There was one other Chinese at Yale who had immense impact on me and led me to strive for excellence in the field of Chinese, Professor Kang-i Sun Chang (孙康宜教授). An extremely enthusiastic teacher and scholar trained in Taiwan, she had an all encompassing view of the potential of Chinese literature to be meaningful to everyone. She was also the one who encouraged me to learn Japanese and to study in Japan for my graduate work. Her father had studied in Japan in a previous era and she felt that I should take an equally broad perspective. An extremely well-read scholar, who wished to talk with anyone willing to engage her in a serious conversation, Professor Zhang constantly shared with me poems and stories when we sat at the desk in her office.
For example, I found the translation of this Chinese poem, “Emotions inspired by the polished mirror” (感镜) by Bo Juyi (白居易) in a translation anthology and asked her to help me find the original text. She was able to locate it, although it took her quite a bit of time, and we sat down for two hours to read it through carefully.
The poem deeply moved me, particularly in the manner in which it describes the linkage of two moments in time: the meeting with a beloved one years ago and the remembrance of that moment when the mirror exchanged at the time is viewed again, through the medium of a physical object. As Professor Chang went through the poem with me line by line, explaining what in detail the connotations of the laconic lines, the poem was deeply engraved in my memory, and I remember it vividly today. Not only did I like the poem, I started collecting little objects from various friends on my own that would serve to remind me of them in the future of those days. In a sense, from the moment I read that poem, I started to live my life in reverse, imagining the present as something I was remembering as an old man at a future date. That experience, looking at an object and recalling the past, became an essential part of my personal experience.
In class, Professor Chang was also extremely enthusiastic and supportive of all her students. She had each student present as part of every class discussion, encouraging a debate. I later ran my own classes at University of Illinois very much based on her model. What is unique about her approach, in my opinion, is her commitment to including everyone within the Chinese tradition. Whereas many scholars of Chinese assume that someone who does not read Chinese cannot understand the true meaning of the text, Professor Sun did not think so. She felt that even through the most imperfect translation the original meaning can be conveyed. She assumed in class that anyone who was interested could derive great meaning from the Chinese tradition, even texts which they were encountering for the very first time.
As I progressed in my studies, Professor Chang set out to find a way for me to study in China for my junior (3rd) year. The process was not simple by any means. I had not been able to start my Chinese study until my sophomore year in university and so my level in Chinese was not sufficient for most programs abroad. If I just stayed with the standard program for learning Chinese, it was rather doubtful that I would be able to go abroad even for a semester before I graduated. But Professor Sun believed in me, and she believed that if I devoted myself to the effort, I would be able to learn Chinese on my own. I started to believe that she was correct.
She asked a close friend, Professor Ke Qingming of National Taiwan University(柯慶明 在國立台灣大學) if he could make a space for me as an exchange student in the department of Chinese (中文系) to study for a year. The problems I faced were considerable. After all, if I went to Taiwan, there would be no language program in which I could learn the language. I would be thrown into courses taught entirely in Chinese after just a year of Chinese language instruction. The rest I just would have to teach myself. Moreover, I would be expected to take courses in Chinese taught for Chinese undergraduates. Such work would include courses requiring me to write essays in Chinese on classical Chinese texts. But Professor Chang believed that I was capable of living up to such a challenge and she encouraged me to ask Professor Ke, who was just returning from a year at Harvard, for his help in this project. It may seem like a ridiculous effort, and I did not completely succeed, but that challenge pushed me to a higher level that could possibly been possible.
Without Professor Chang’s without her infinite confidence in my ability, it would have been rather difficult for me to have the confidence to embark on such a trip. In general it was assumed that a Westerner with no Chinese background would take many years to be able to actually understand a class in Chinese. I was going to try and do that in a very short period of time, and Professor Chang believed in me completely.
I continue to correspond with Professor Chang today. I had lunch with her in New Haven in February of 2011. We went to the famed Yale club Mory’s. Her enthusiasm remains for life, literature and for me. I had a sense that even now she hopes for my future success. Although I was a bit distracted from literary studies for about six years, I am making efforts to get back into that work again today.