Interview with LRCCS Faculty Yi-Li Wu

Yi-Li Wu   Professor Women’s Studies

Yi-Li Wu

Women’s Studies

For this interview we sat down with Professor Yi-Li Wu, one of LRCCS’ newest faculty members, a long-time LRCCS affiliate who has just been hired as a faculty member in Women's Studies and History and will start teaching at UM in Fall 2019. In this interview, Professor Wu talks about her first experience with Chinese medicine, the relation between Chinese martial arts and medicine, and her current project on wound medicine.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

LRCCS: Let’s start from the beginning – where did you grow up?

Prof Wu: I grew up in Southern California. I was actually born in Virginia, though. My parents came to the States to do PhDs in chemistry, and they both ended up at the University of Virginia. My dad then got a post-doc at USC, so we moved to L.A. when I was one.

I then went to UC Berkeley for undergrad, which I just loved. I thought about becoming a linguistics major, but ended up in political science. When I graduated, I got an internship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But I soon realized that politics in Washington, DC, wasn’t for me. So I moved back to California where I got a job as a researcher for a corporate intelligence firm. I worked in their San Francisco and then New York offices before deciding to go back to grad school.

LRCCS: When did Chinese Studies come into the picture?

Prof Wu: I had this general idea that I wanted to find a career in some kind of international organization, so I decided to get a masters in international relations. Happily, I got into Yale. It was an interdisciplinary masters, where you take classes with the grad students in regular departments. That’s how I got hooked in with the Chinese history folks. I had actually thought initially about being a Europeanist. I had done study abroad in France as an undergrad—poli sci in Bordeaux--and assumed I’d continue that trajectory in grad school. But because many of my M.A. classmates were European, I felt that I might not be able to compete. So I decided to focus on China and ended up deciding to stay and do a PhD in some aspect of Chinese studies. I picked history over poli sci in large part because I really couldn’t pass up the chance to work with Jonathan Spence ( It was his work that had gotten me interested in China back when I was an undergrad. And he was a terrific adviser.

LRCCS: Did you spend a lot of time in China growing up?

Prof Wu: Actually, no. I didn’t even go to Asia until I was 9, when my mom took me and my siblings to visit my dad’s family in Taiwan. But I have a ton of relatives there. My father was the oldest of 13 kids, and they all stayed in Taiwan except for his brother in Canada. My mom is the youngest of 9 and her older siblings stayed in the mainland while she and her mom and two younger siblings went to Taiwan during the civil war. I didn’t meet my relatives in the mainland until I was in grad school, but I got to spend time with some of them when I was there doing dissertation research.

LRCCS: When did Chinese medicine enter the picture?

Prof Wu: I was hunting around for a dissertation topic and decided to do something on women’s history. This was when Chinese women’s history was really taking off. We’d had a conference on it at Yale and that inspired me. I then found out that there was this huge body of texts on women’s medicine and that hardly anyone was working on this subject, so I thought it would be a good area to get into. My rationale was that if you want to understand women’s lives, you need to understand the material conditions that they’re living under, and medicine is part of that. I was also incredibly lucky to meet Charlotte Furth, who was the pioneer in this area. She was so generous and supportive.

When people ask me why I like working on the history of medicine, I say, it’s the same reason why there are all these popular TV shows about hospitals and doctors. There’s something very compelling and fundamentally human about dealing with illness—how you figure out what is wrong, how you try to fix it, all the competing beliefs and personalities involved. There’s also a technical side to medicine that I’ve always felt comfortable with – my parents were both chemists, and we had a lab in our kitchen when I was growing up.

LRCCS: Do you currently focus entirely on women’s medicine?

Prof Wu: So my first book was on women’s medicine, but I’ve branched out from there. When I was working on the book, I became interested in pushing back on stereotypes about Chinese medicine. The popular understandings tend to be simplistic-- tradition vs. modernity, science vs. superstition, timeless ancient wisdom, monolithic Confucianism, etc. A lot of innovative work has already been done in our field to break down these stereotypes. And I have been trying to contribute to that effort.

As you know, Chinese medicine is now an important form of alternative medicine. But this alternative medicine is historically rooted in certain stereotypes about Chinese views of the body. One of the big ones is that “Chinese medicine isn’t interested in the structure of the body, it’s only interested in vitalistic function.” There’s a great book by Sean Lei which explains how this stereotype arose during the early 20th century. Reformers were criticizing Chinese medicine by saying that its beliefs about the body were ridiculous in the light of modern anatomy. So the defenders of Chinese medicine responded by essentially saying, “We’re not talking about anatomy, we’re talking about transformations of qi.” This then colored the kinds of questions that scholars asked.

So, for example, when I was writing this book about women’s medicine, I initially followed the conventional wisdom that Chinese medicine didn’t care about the uterus. But I found that this is not historically accurate. If your question is, “How did Chinese medicine think about gender difference,” then yes, it’s true the uterus was insignificant. But if you want to know how they thought about women’s fertility, the health of the uterus is actually quite important. So I started to wonder, how else are body parts important in Chinese medicine?

And the book I’m working on now is an attempt to get at that question by looking at the history of medicine for wounds and injuries – basically that area of medicine that is concerned with broken body parts, managing weapon wounds, internal bleeding, broken bones, etc.

LRCCS: So there’s a distinction about looking at the body as vitalistic function vs anatomical parts. What’s important to you about that distinction?

Prof Wu: What I really want to do is problematize that distinction. It’s often used as a shorthand way for talking about the supposed differences between Chinese and Western medicine, and I think it’s artificial. And it also implies that the correct model is the Western anatomical model. Then Chinese medicine at various points in history is always being judged according to how close it does or doesn’t come to European thought. So I’m saying, let’s ask the question differently. And what I’m interested in is: how do doctors’ experiences with the material and structural aspects of the body shape their views of the body’s functions, and vice versa? This is a universal question. And I’m hoping this will allow me to decenter the Euro-centric model and give a more historically sensitive view of the Chinese body “on its own terms,” to borrow a phrase from Benjamin Elman.

LRCCS: Do you practice Chinese medicine, or get practiced on?

Prof Wu: No, I’m not a practitioner, but some important scholars in the field are. My first experience with Chinese medicine was when I was 9. I was in Taiwan and running a huge fever. My relatives gave me some powdered medicine to drink, but it tasted so horrible that the moment it went in my mouth I spit it out. My mom was not happy.

My parents were both chemists and big believers in science, so they never put any stock in Chinese medicine until my father got sick. He had a heart attack at age 47 and just degenerated from there. The doctors said there wasn’t anything they could do. My mom says they told him to just go to home and prepare to die. Then my parents saw a sign for a Chinese doctor one day in Chinatown and figured they didn’t have anything to lose. It definitely helped him.

People ask me if I “believe in” Chinese medicine. My short answer is that Chinese medicine does contain some effective techniques. But you need to find a good practitioner.

LRCCS: One thing I’m curious about – and this might be one of the stereotypes you mentioned – but in my mind, there’s a definite link between Chinese medicine and Chinese martial arts.

Prof Wu: Oh yeah, definitely. This is absolutely real. One of the chapters in my book is about military medicine, and I also talk about martial arts. Dealing with injuries from martial arts is definitely one of the things that contributes to medical knowledge overall. They’re dealing with contusions, sprains, dislocations, broken bones. In fact, there’s a whole tradition of injury medicine associated with the Shaolin monks. Meir Shahar has written about the history of this. Another connection is how you strengthen your body for fighting. There is also the belief that you can kill someone by hitting certain points of the body at certain times of day. And these points are related to acupuncture points. So yes, there are definitely many links.

LRCCS: So what are you working on right now?

Prof Wu: I’m finishing a new book called The Injured Body. It’s basically a social history of medicine for wounds in China up through the early 19th century. Each chapter is looking at a particular social context where the healing of wounds was important. So you have the military, but also law-and-order, because corporal punishment and torture were routine parts of the Chinese judicial system. I also have a chapter on forensics, because part of a magistrate’s job was to inspect the wounds of people who had been assaulted. The attacker would have to provide medical care to his victim for a certain amount of time, and if the victim died during that time, he would be charged with murder. The last chapter is on accidents in daily life. I’m mentally calling it “The Perils of the Populace”. It’s amazing how people have the same kinds of accidents no matter where you go--slipping and falling, horsing around, doing stupid things. I just read a historical medical case that I joke should be filed under “people never change.” This farmer goes into town and buys a fish hook. On his way home, he has an itch inside his nose. He decides it’d be really funny to use the fish hook to scratch it, but of course the hook gets stuck.

LRCCS: Haha, oh boy. What else is going on that you’re excited about right now?

Prof Wu: I’d like to give a shout out to the UM program in Gender and Health. It’s a relatively new major, but already extremely popular on campus. I’ve just been hired as a faculty member to teach in the program starting in the fall . It’s exciting because it’s thoroughly interdisciplinary: it brings together people from the humanities and social sciences with people from the medical school. I’m really looking forward to being part of it.

I’m also excited that I’ll get to work more closely with UM people in Chinese studies. We now have amazing scholarship constantly coming out on the Chinese medical humanities, and lots of people around the world are working on related issues. It’d be great to see more people at UM take an interest, and I’m hoping I can become a point person to facilitate those types of conversations.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more interviews with new LRCCS faculty and Postdocs

Interview with Stan Lai

Professor Stan Lai   LRCCS Distinguished Visitor

Professor Stan Lai

LRCCS Distinguished Visitor

LRCCS had the honor to host Professor Stan Lai 赖声川 as our distinguished visitor for the last week of March. Stan Lai is one of the most acclaimed playwrights and directors in Asia, whose work includes over 30 original plays as well as feature films and operas. In this interview, Prof Lai talks about his views on creativity, and its link to wisdom and spirituality.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

LRCCS: The first thing I want to ask you about is your book, 《赖声川的创意学》 (Stan Lai’s Studies in Creativity). What inspired you to write it?

Prof Lai: I'd practiced and taught for many years, but never thought that creativity ITSELF could be taught. On a trip to India I had a breakthrough. I think of creativity as having two facets – method and wisdom. But we only concentrate on method, and that is a problem. You need to have both, and you need to learn both in separate domains, the domains of art and life. For example, a guitar player can’t learn wisdom through the fingerboard of their instrument. You can learn method there, but the wisdom comes from somewhere else. Which is life.

Is it possible to learn wisdom? During my stay in India, I realized it MUST be, but it is something that is seldom addressed today. I wrote this book to address that gap.

Before that breakthrough, I saw that everyone was looking at all this teaching about “thinking outside the box,” brainstorming, that sort of thing, but I still see those as method approaches to creativity. I was unsatisfied with the books I saw about this side of creativity, so I think my approach is unique and want to get it out in English as soon as possible. The Chinese book has been a best seller for over 12 years now.

LRCCS: It seems like creativity is a very spiritual thing for you.

Prof Lai: No; it can happen in mysterious ways, but it is very practical. People think artists just have inspiration and write things, but no – it’s very nuts and bolts.

LRCCS: What are some of the most important nuts and bolts?

Prof Lai: When I’m writing a play, there’s so many nuts and bolts. Just writing out the dialogue and stage directions of a full length play is an enormous practical undertaking that includes formatting etc. More important is, why is this scene first and that scene second? What are the scenes building to? How is the arc of one character's journey affecting the arc of the whole story? How can you make dialogue more effective? All these things are nuts and bolts. It’s an incredible puzzle that requires wisdom and experience.

LRCCS: One of the reviews I read of your book compared it to a Buddhist sutra, and you’ve also got a diagram in the book which you describe as a kind of mandala. Tell me more about that link, from your perspective.

Prof Lai: I’ve been a practicing Tibetan Buddhist for over 40 years. I’ve had the good fortune to meet with many great masters – but that’s not to say I have good practice, because I don’t.

I remember when I was doing my PhD there were all sorts of new concepts coming in, like semiotics, existentialism, etc. All these –isms come and go like fashion. But what’s the –ism that’s so comprehensive that it stays around? To me, that’s Buddhism. And I don't see it as a religion in that there is nothing that must be believed in. It is more a path that must be proved as one tries to find the Truth of existence.

To me it makes so much sense when we talk about cause and effect, impermanence, the training of your own mind. These are the aspects of wisdom I write about in my book that are based on Buddhist practice.

LRCCS: What do you most hope readers will get out of your book?

Prof Lai: Depends who’s reading it. If you’re an artist, I hope you find a clear and more effective path to do your work. If you’re in other fields like business, I hope you find a path to be more creative and therefore more effective.

The problems of creativity are not totally solvable in your work. They spill into your life. It forces you to think about your life and to conceive of it differently – your life, the way you think, the habits you have to store experience and conceptualize it, have to change in order to become creative.

LRCCS: You mention some specific techniques to help you get there. Is it possible to describe one briefly?

Prof Lai: We can observe the hell out of life. But how are we processing what we observe? First, be mindful – know how you’re using your mind. For example, where are the words I’m speaking coming from right now? Mindfulness helps bring you into the present moment, which is what a lot of Buddhist practice is about. When we know where things come from in our minds, it is easier to train our minds to be creative.

Another very important thing is to check your motivation for everything. If you meditate, why do you do it? Because someone said it was good for you? That’s an OK motivation, but it’s not very deep. Same goes for all creative endeavors. Your motivation will play a big part in what you eventually accomplish (or fail to).

Whenever you go to hear a Tibetan Buddhist teaching, the first thing they’ll do is ask you to make sure you have the right motivation to receive the teaching. When I heard that for the first time I was a little offended – why are you questioning my motivation for coming to listen to you? But then I realized, yes, we should do this. Otherwise we’re unaware of all the incorrect motivations we can have.

LRCCS: What is the correct motivation?

Prof Lai: Basically, the answer is that any selfish motivation is ultimately not productive, though it may seem to be in the short run. The altruistic motivation is the more beneficial -- to others, and ultimately to yourself. You’re listening to the teaching for the sake of others – not for your own personal gain.

That’s very radical if you think about it. Everything people do, particularly in the West, is all about me. Why am I at this talk? Of course I’m coming to gain something for ME.

But the paradoxical truth is that once you get rid of that egoistic motivator, you actually learn much faster.

LRCCS: I’m wanting to unpack this a little bit. Because sometimes wanting to help other people can actually be an insidious form of selfishness.

Prof Lai: Totally – that’s the trap. For example, people who do charitable work but need to be recognized for it.

LRCCS: What do you think helps people take ego out of the equation?

Prof Lai: It’s really hard for people to actually see that their egos are often in their way. We feel too empowered. Everything should be for us. Altruism is really a radical way of thinking about the world.

Prof Lai at the Ross School of Business, March 2019

Prof Lai at the Ross School of Business, March 2019

LRCCS: Do you take your artistic work as a spiritual practice?

Prof Lai: I talk about that in the book. I once thought that art was spiritual practice – but I slowly realized that there’s no art without life. Life is the domain of wisdom, art is the domain of method. You don't do spiritual practice on the method side. You do it on the wisdom side, and that wisdom informs your method.

In other words, it's easier to do spiritual practice in your life, and then when you create art that spiritual practice is the backbone of your work. The other way around is harder to make work -- to make your art a spiritual path that becomes the backbone for your life. The wisdom you attain through art may be the wisdom of art and not life, and may not be applicable to your life.

LRCCS: Is there an altruistic vision for your work?

Prof Lai: I aspire to be altruistic, but I don't believe it is easy these days to be 100% altruistic. Now I have a theatre of my own – Theatre Above, in Shanghai, and also help run the Wuzhen Theatre Festival. I look at these as windows through which audiences, by seeing work, have the opportunity to be transformed. Transformed into what? I guess that depends on my wisdom. For now, I can only hope that my art can help people become larger, more open, more aware, more connected, gentler, and more tolerant.

Thanks for reading! Stan Lai’s Studies in Creativity should be available in English soon – stay tuned!




二零一九年二月二日到五月二十六日,王庆松的摄影将在密西根大学UMMA美术馆展出。为了更好理解王庆松的作品,及部奈津博士(Natsu Oyobe),UMMA的亚洲美术馆长,代表美术馆,采访了王老师。在这个采访中,王老师讲到,为什么选择底特律?还有更多关于创造这个作品的背景消息

Click here for the English translation



UMMA: 这件作品怎么解读底特律和高地公园?对中国有什么现实意义?观众群是谁?





王庆松: 我想底特律地区曾经很像现在的北京,高速发展,节奏快捷,现在整个大底特律地区你会发现它相对来说平和一些,但是呢,它同时又是一个重新启动的过程,整个城市在变化中,你可以看到一些在建设中的东西,比如说我们拍摄地点,头一天看很破烂,后面发现它已经开始简单的清理,我想将来以后这个地方也许不会存在,也有可能建成一个新的厂房、新的建筑,我们也不可想象未来北京会是什么样,也许未来北京也会在高速发展的过程中最后走入衰败,


王庆松:当然我之前确实在北京找到类似的场地,跟原创中的场景非常相似,当然我之前确实在北京找到类似的场地,跟原创中的场景非常相似,当然它有山,后面有山。北京选的场地更像素描的原稿,原型它有山,但我找到的场景中的山是一个假的,这里曾经拍《红楼梦》大观园的牌楼,所以北京的场景本身可能会更像作品本身。如果在北京拍摄,选择人物方面 ,服装会更注重中国式服装,包括这种土改(土地改革)时期的服装。在北京拍摄,我可能更希望还原素描原稿本身,更近一些,在底特律的寒冬,在高地公园拍,服装和演员就不一样了。








王庆松: 血衣作品中主人公的服装其实是我从大概一千五百件旧衣服中拆下来的商标做成的,造型是一件很传统的中国的长褂衫,这也是素描原稿《血衣》中地主的形象。我想他穿的这件衣服带有世界各地的服装商标,即可以象征它的昂贵,也可以象征各式各样的企业负载在他的身上。你也可以说他是一个大公司老板,也可以说他是个地主。他代表了一个形象,不是代表具体的某一个品牌。这些商标背后代表一个综合的矛盾体。



UMMA: 为什么在拍摄中要包括底特律社区百姓?可否谈谈和百姓进行第二次交流的愿望?

王庆松: 其实在底特律整个大地区中,我当时最早决定在这个场地拍摄的时候,就考虑到了当地的志愿者,因为密西根大学中国文化研究中心和孔子学院的支持,参与到作品拍摄中的最主要的人群是来自密大的师生。第二我希望找到底特律当地的人群来参与,使作品更有当地性,最初去的时候看到附近有两个养老院,但是跟养老院合作比价复杂,牵扯法律条款的问题,所以不容易办到,慢慢去想办法解决这个当地人参与的,最终发现对面有个NANDI'S酒吧,她给我们很大的支持,希望通过她的组织做一个更有当地性、参与性的作品。因为我觉得一个作品在当地拍,这种参与性是很重要的,希望作品中有与当地人的交流,这种交流对我的作品有一种提升意义。

UMMA: 一件艺术项目对当地和百姓所做的贡献是什么?

王庆松: 这个项目做完之后,我突然发现慢慢地对底特律地区有一种新的感受和认识,发现它跟最初对底特律地区的印象有一些改变,因为我最早要做这个作品的时候,跟中国的一些艺术家朋友聊,他们都说:“啊!那个地方很危险,那个地方的人如果不高兴的时候会拿枪出来”。所以当时看场地的时候非常谨慎,一看到人来,就非常谨慎小心,怕引起冲突。通过拍摄这件作品,我发现他们是非常友善的,不是我们过去在中国听到、了解到和想象的样子,和过去网上一些拍摄过底特律地区的摄影师所描述的遭遇不一样。底特律的百姓非常友善, 他们很多人非常积极地配合,在那么冷的天气中坚持到底。非常感谢那些当地人,因为天气太冷了,我自己都受不了,他们在寒冷的雪地中能坚持三个小时去完成这个作品,这完全是让我对整个大底特律地区的人的一个新的认识。非常感谢他们的参与,能够帮我把这个作品实施出来,这是让我非常高兴的。

UMMA interview with Wang Qingsong

Wang Qingsong,  The Bloodstained Shirt

Wang Qingsong, The Bloodstained Shirt

From February 2nd until May 26, Wang Qingsong’s work The Bloodstained Shirt will be on display at UMMA’s Irving Stenn, Jr. Family Gallery. To learn more about Wang’s work, Dr. Natsu Oyober, Curator of Asian Art at UMMA, sat down with Wang for an interview. In this interview, Wang discusses why Detroit? And other background information on the creation of his newest work.

Interview conducted by UMMA staff, transcribed and translated by Zhang Fang and Wang Gerui, and edited by Eric Couillard. Click here to read the original interview in Chinese: 中文版

UMMA: Please tell us about your choice of Highland Park and the location; my understanding is that your original idea was to shoot in Beijing - what made you interested in Detroit?

WQS: The original idea was to choose the metro area of Greater Detroit. For Chinese people, Detroit seems quite big and impressive, representing the production industry and its glory in US history. I traveled to the downtown area and surrounding locations a couple of times in 2017. I just wanted to find a building that was comparatively far-out and dilapidated. This Highland Park location was perfect for that. So it was decided to be the shooting location.

UMMA: What does the piece say about Detroit and Highland Park? What does the piece say about China? And who is it speaking to?

WQS: Since 1997, I have been thinking about making this photo. I did check upon locations in Beijing. I had been considering this work. I also looked for locations in Beijing. As the time changed, I decided to find another locale instead of Beijing which might be more interesting. Detroit metro-area seemed to be more appropriate to tell the story between the U.S. and China.

UMMA:: Why did you choose Highland Park to represent Detroit? Does it give a good impression of the city of Detroit?

WQS: Firstly, this scenario in Highland Park was much like the scene in the original drawing of “Blood-stained Shirt.*” Physically it has such different structures and varieties. Some locations are at higher and lower places, some far some close. These are all good things for taking this photograph. I chose this location mostly because of the scenario necessity rather than the real location. Here by chance they overlapped.

*Editor’s note - Wang’s photograph is based off a drawing by a Chinese artist in the 1950s, also called “The Bloodstained Shirt” - keep reading for details

UMMA: What parallels do you see between the two cities, Beijing and Detroit area?

WQS: Detroit was quite similar to Beijing, experiencing drastic development and fast tempo. It was much like Beijing. Now Greater Detroit Area endures a slow recovery. It is reactivated with something in the making with urban movement. For example, the first day we saw an old factory where we planned to shoot which was fenced up a few months later. I believe this location will not be replaced by a new factory or a new building. In the future, this location might disappear or a new building might appear here. We cannot imagine what Beijing will be like in the future. Probably Beijing might go into decay after aggressive development, like Detroit. All these are unexpected. The whole world is like this. From the early industrial revolution onwards, many countries and cities result in decay, up to this current made-in-China epoch transgression. I think this is a process. The idea of made in China is obsolete. Factories are moving towards south-east Asia, even far out to South America. I estimate such an unpredictable future cannot be clear-cut.

UMMA: Why did you like/choose this specific site

WQS: The pursuit for the right location was complicated. We looked at factories in some locations which were much bigger and dilapidated. But their structures were not that ideal. Also, Detroit metro-area is recovering slowly but surely. Some of the locations we scouted might have been demolished. Finally Highland Park was discovered, not only because of its immensity, but also its similarity of location outlook and structure to the drawing “Blood-stained Shirt”. Moreover, it did not seem to be demolished within a short time. Its outlook was quite similar to the one requested for my photo shoot. We wanted to find something interesting but also similar to the scene.

As for the actors, we wanted to find people related to Detroit area. We needed a lot of support in looking for the people. Luckily, the University of Michigan (U-M) helped out which made it possible. After some selections, we had people from U-M, local people provided by Nandi’s Knowledge Cafe, bypassing people during the shoot, as well as my own children and some friends.

UMMA: What would an equivalent photo look like with the locations reversed?

WQS: I had found some locations similar to this one in Beijing. One had fake mountains behind. It had an archway too. Here people shot “Dream of Red Mansion”. That location was much closer to the scenario in the original drawing. Also in choosing actors, if shot in Beijing, I might look for more actors who looked like typical Chinese farmers and the costumes of more of Chinese traditional style around Land Reform period. I would consider more proximity to the original drawing. However, shooting in Highland Park, I needed to adjust the costumes and actors.

Wang Shikuo, “The Bloodstained Shirt”

Wang Shikuo, “The Bloodstained Shirt”

UMMA: Tell us about the choice of the drawing, “Bloodstained Shirt”

WQS: The drawing “Blood-stained Shirt” was done by Professor Wang Shikuo in 1950s. Originally he did not mean to create a drawing. Instead, it was meant to make a bigger oil work. Once this drawing was finished, he had always wanted to finish the oil work. As he constantly changed sections on the oil work, he just completed a couple of small oil works only. None of them were finalized.

UMMA: How does the Blood-stained Shirt relate to your photograph?

WQS: The reason I wanted to recreate a piece of photography based on this work was to express my tribute to the deep feelings of Chinese people towards land reform, and to represent that scene in the current social setting. There are many interpretations to land reform. To this day, we still face all kinds of problems because of land reform policies and demolition/relocation projects. Moreover, my photo work not only talks about land reform, but also discussed the problems of the manufacturing industry in the world. These issues are mixed up to expose the multidimensional social issues and their connections. So through the original drawing, I want to expose similar issues that China must face and handle after so many years of economic reconstruction and modernization drive. So that was my intention.

UMMA: Is the “landlord” in the photo wearing a jacket of labels because we have become so focused on consumerism - that the major companies have become our landlords?

WQS: In my photo, the robe I put on was made out of many logos I removed from over 1,500 used clothes. In the original drawing, it was an old-fashioned Chinese-style long robe, worn by the landlord. This new robe with world-wide fashion icons and logos can represent this new landlord’s richness as well as different industries and businesses. So this robe has loads of labels symbolic of many ideas and enterprises. You can say he is a big business CEO or a landlord. He represents an image which does not refer to any particular brand. It is a complete whole. Overall, the image of landlord represents conflicts and contradictions.

UMMA: How did your thoughts about the project change/evolve as you worked on it, over these two trips?

WQS: In the course of recreating this work, I was supported intensively by friends like Eric Couillard and John DeRuiter who took me to scout the locations multiple times. Due to constant demolitions and cleaning-up, we needed some backup locations in case they would be demolished. Most of the locations we chose have been cleaned up by now. Maybe these properties and lands were purchased by new owners and turned into new plazas or blocks. Hence locations created constant challenges. Moreover, I had to consider the shooting time. We estimated to take the photo around 3pm in February 2018. So I needed to figure out the direction of the sun for lighting. We also had to consider the direction of the building as well as lighting effect on the building structure and people. So going to the location four or five times helped me to find the best time.

UMMA: Why did you want to include this community in this project. Can you talk about the decision to include a second opportunity for dialogues?

WQS: Actually when I thought of shooting this photo in Detroit metro area, I decided to work with students, volunteers, local community people, including institutions such as U-M, U-M Confucius Institute and Center for Chinese Studies, and etc. Secondly, we wanted to involve the local community to make this work more relevant. We went to the neighborhoods and found two care centers. However, it was really complicated as it involved a lot of legal issues to work with seniors. We had to resolve this local people issue. Then we found Nandi’s Knowledge Cafe across the street from the location. This cafe served as the best comfortable and warm space for the actors. Lucy, the owner of Nandi’s cafe, gave us a lot of welcome and support. We invited her to work as a liaison to connect with the local community so that this work could be more positive, participatory and relevant to the local people. I believe this work will engage with more local people in the community and such communication helps my work to elevate its implications.

UMMA: What does an art project owe to the people and place it is made?

WQS: After this work was completed, we found new discoveries. We gradually had a new sense of feeling and understanding about Detroit. We changed our impressions about Detroit. When I discussed with my Chinese friends about making this piece, they all thought that Detroit was dangerous. People there might pull out a gun if they were not in the good mood. Hence I was really careful when I scouted locations. Whenever someone showed up around us, I was super cautious not to cause any conflicts.

However through working with local people face to face, I realized they are really very nice, friendly and good-tempered people. They were not what we heard, thought, or imagined, like any stories that other photographers experienced in Detroit. I only have fond memories of working with them, their friendship and amenity. They were very cooperative and good-hearted. Think about it! Shooting a photo in such a cold weather in February! Without these local people and their understanding, this work would not have been finished. The weather was really fiercely cold. I could not tolerate the freezing weather. They stood there for more than three hours to help me finish this work. I really appreciate these people’s generosity in helping me and really it changed my overall impression of Detroit and its people. I am very thankful to their contribution. It is an amazing experience! I am so happy that this work was realized there.

Revolutionary Bodies: Book Interview with Prof Emily Wilcox

Wilcox book cover.jpg

We sat down with LRCCS Faculty Emily Wilcox to talk about her new book Revolutionary Bodies: Chinese Dance and the Socialist Legacy. In this interview, she tells the story of the book - from the impetus to create it to giving book talks to some of the same people she cited in her research.

LRCCS: How did this book come about?

Prof Wilcox: About ten years ago, when I was conducting the research for my PhD, I spent a year and a half studying Chinese dance at the Beijing Dance Academy 北京舞蹈学院, China’s most prestigious dance conservatory. I also spent time travelling around China seeing performances and conducting interviews with professional dancers of various ages and backgrounds.

Through this research, I gained a huge appreciation for Chinese dance. I also learned that Chinese dance was by far the most widely practiced concert dance form in contemporary China. However, at the time most existing English-language scholarship about dance in China focused on dance styles that originated in Europe and North America, such as ballet, modern or contemporary dance, and ballroom dance, not Chinese dance. As a result, there was a great deal of misunderstanding about Chinese dance in the English-speaking world. I wanted to rectify this problem by writing a history of this art form that would be accessible to average readers but also academically rigorous in terms of its research methods.

I collected historical materials such as dance films, magazines, programs, photographs, and dancer memoirs. With the help of UM Chinese studies librarian Liangyu Fu, many of these materials have now become part of the UM Chinese Dance Collection, now the largest special collection on Chinese dance history outside China. I used the materials in this and other collections as the basis for my book.

LRCCS: So the book came out in November; now that it’s been out for a while, do you feel it’s been sparking the kind of dialogue you were hoping for?

Prof Wilcox: Yes, absolutely. I can already tell that people’s understanding of Chinese dance is changing and the field is expanding. Graduate students doing MAs and PhDs on Chinese dance in other countries are starting to contact me for guidance and to serve on their advisory committees. There is a sense now that Chinese dance is an important field of study, not only for dance scholars but also for scholars in Chinese studies. There is a sense of a growing community of scholars interested in this subject and sharing our ideas and research.

LRCCS: You’ve also been doing a lot of international book talks – how have those been going?

Prof Wilcox: Yes, I recently gave book talks in Beijing, Nanjing, Hong Kong, and Singapore, both in Chinese and English. It was amazing to present my book in China, because many of the people in the audience were either my former teachers at BDA or leading scholars publishing in Chinese whose work I cite in my book. After one of the talks, an influential Chinese dance scholar I respect immensely, Liu Qingyi, told me she was grateful because my book would create a wider visibility for the research she and others were doing in China. That was really moving. It’s also very meaningful to me that Chinese dance practitioners are starting to read the book and have a new understanding of their own art form.

LRCCS: What did you most enjoy about writing this book?

Prof Wilcox: I really enjoyed the sense of discovery and being able to connect history with things I had seen and experienced personally. I had already met many of the choreographers and dancers I write about in the book in person and had seen many of the works performed live during my field research. So, finding documentation of these people and dances in the archives was really exciting. I also enjoyed having the opportunity to decide who and what should be remembered. I like changing the established narratives to foreground people who have been unfairly written out of history and telling their stories.

LRCCS: I loved all the links to videos I saw in the book – how did you work that out?

Prof Wilcox: I love that element of the book too! It’s the first book I’ve seen that embeds the videos directly into the e-book, and that makes the experience really seamless for the reader. Getting permission for those videos varied depending on the source. Some were already in the public domain, while others required copyright access. In the end, I was fortunate because everyone I contacted agreed to have their work included in the book. Another amazing feature is that because of grants from LRCCS and UM’s open access grant program, I was able to make the book freely downloadable as an open access publication. Readers can also access the videos from the physical book using QR codes or web links.

LRCCS: What do you want people to know about your new book that’s not already out there?

Choe Seung-hui in “Hourglass Drum Dance.” Photographer: Studio Iris, Paris. Reproduced with permission from the private collection of Siqintariha

Choe Seung-hui in “Hourglass Drum Dance.” Photographer: Studio Iris, Paris. Reproduced with permission from the private collection of Siqintariha

Prof Wilcox: The book emphasizes the contributions of women, diasporic, ethnic minority, and immigrant artists to contemporary Chinese culture. In this sense, I think it expands much of the existing scholarship to emphasize formerly marginalized communities. Many people are surprised to learn that one of the most important contributors to the creation of Chinese dance, Choe Seung-hui, is nationally and ethnically Korean.

LRCCS: What’s the ideal impact you’d like for this book to have?

Prof Wilcox: I’d love for Chinese dance to be included more frequently in classes on dance studies and Chinese studies. I’d also like to change some of the narratives about socialist culture. My book shows that socialism inspired an enormous amount of creativity in China’s dance field, with Chinese dance being a major example. This is something we can still learn from today. Most importantly, I’d like to see continued international dialogue happening through the arts.

Thanks for reading! You can read the entire book online or purchase a hard copy here:

China and England: Book Interview with Prof Martin Powers


In this interview we sat down with LRCCS Faculty (and soon-to-be Emeritus) Professor Martin Powers to talk about his new book, China and England: The Preindustrial Struggle for Justice in Word and Image. In the interview, Professor Powers explains some of the book’s most important arguments, and how he hopes they can contribute to undermining hyper-nationalism.

LRCCS: You told us a little bit about this book in an interview we did about two years ago when you had just finished your manuscript. What was your motivation for writing it? How did it get started?

Prof Powers: Well, when I was an undergrad I majored in the Great Books, and we read essays by Weber, Marx, Rousseau, etc. After I began reading Chinese classics, I discovered that some writers in China had developed similar arguments on similar topics. So this has been on my mind since the beginning of my career. The core idea was summarized wonderfully in Prof Tim Brook’s comments, namely, that liberty is not a uniquely Western project.

LRCCS: In the introduction to the book, you mention China’s forgotten role in the history of social justice. What are some of China’s most important contributions in that regard?

Prof Powers: If you look at the evidence, many of the core enlightenment values are more readily described as global rather than the unique expression of “Western genius.” For example, in his Letter on Toleration Locke reveals that the “Turks” (Muslims) already were practicing toleration. A few decades later, Samuel Johnson, after reading Chinese policy documents, argued that merit should be the standard for distributing political authority rather than birth, because in fact this had been the institutional norm in China.

LRCCS: Would you say that China influenced the rise of ideas like equality in the West?

Prof Powers: I never use the word influence to describe this relationship. “Influence” tends to imply that all agency for historical change lies on one side, while the other side passively gets influenced. I don’t think it’s that simple. I do not doubt that radical thinkers in England made use of ideas, policies, or institutions they found in translations of Chinese documents, but they did so because they faced many of the same injustices that those policies had been designed to resist.

Arguably there are three levels to the shared human condition. The first level is structural constraints – to borrow Charles Tilly’s notion, authority is either distributed according to individual expertise or according to group membership. The former is based on merit and facts, the latter is based on privilege and fantasy. The privileged elite in all times and places need to create fictional narratives to legitimize their rule because the facts would not support their claims. Both Mozi and Thomas More recognized as much.

The second level is shared aspirations. Privilege permits the destructive exploitation of unprivileged groups. Sooner or later this leads some to resist those institutions that support privilege. This dynamic can be found both in China and in England in preindustrial times.

The last level is shared logic. Jefferson had never read Zhuangzi, and yet the two men came to similar conclusions, namely the idea that, once we take God out of politics, no one has such a right to property as to deprive another person of the right to survive. The human capacity for logic is shared across cultures, as can be seen from Chapter 12, which examines multiple arguments arrived at independently within both traditions.

LRCCS: What’s important about the arguments you’re making in this book?

Prof Powers: The core point is that liberty and equality are not unique, Western projects. This seriously undermines white nationalist claims, or even certain common views within the academy. The book also makes it easier to defend liberal values currently under attack. For instance, some have suggested that equality and privacy are flukes of Enlightenment thought, fleeting oddities unique to the West, and now we’re simply heading back toward a more normal society where a few get to dominate the many. Well, what if equality is not just an Enlightenment fluke, but a perennial aspiration which has been debated on and off in and outside of Europe for thousands of years? In that case, the whole game changes. In short, it would be difficult to read this book and still walk away thinking, “You see! We white folks did everything.” The world is bigger and better than that.

In all historical periods, East and West, you had but two choices: fact-based systems focused on individuals, or fantasy-based systems focused on groups. We know from history what results from these two options – overall, life is better for more people in reality-based societies.

LRCCS: I’ve heard many people refer to China and the East as a ‘collectivist’ society and the West as an ‘individualistic’ society. What are your thoughts on those labels?

Prof Powers: Well, that way of thinking of course is group-based thinking, and supports group-based policies. But if you look at history, that idea becomes difficult to sustain. In multiple times and places, when group membership ceases to be the basis for distributing authority, then individuals automatically emerge because the laws more and more take individuals as their object, rather than ranked, lineage-based groups. This process took place in late imperial China, in England, and in the U.S., imperfectly yet unmistakably in each case.

LRCCS: So would you say that the notion of Western individualism is a part of colonialism?

Prof Powers: I would say it’s a function of those fantasies necessarily generated by group-based ideologies such as nationalism or racism. Montesquieu appropriated Chinese ideas yet insisted that they were his own. At the same time he took the French institution of absolute monarchy and projected it onto China. This stratagem, moreover, has been repeated over and over up until the present. I am hardly the first to have noticed it.

Note, however, I’m not trying to replace the Hegelian legacy of hyper-nationalism with the idea that “China did all the cool stuff first.” That would still be a group-based argument, which is the real problem. You don’t solve that problem by substituting one group for another. The object of the historian’s gaze is always humanity’s shared condition; not the ranking of races.

Interview conducted by Eric Couillard