To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Interviews with Brandeis University’s academic leadership: the East Asian Studies program

The chair of Brandeis University’s East Asian Studies program, Professor Xing Hang, sat down for an interview with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the East Asian Studies program, its future and himself. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.


Why did you choose to come to Brandeis?


I interviewed for many positions and ultimately I just felt that Brandeis was a really good choice because of the connection between different departments. I think that the programs are great arenas where different departments can interact with one another. For students, you can have majors and minors in these programs. For faculty, people from different disciplines and specialties get together to exchange ideas and work together to design a curriculum for undergraduates. The interchange and interdisciplinary nature of Brandeis [is what drew me here].


How does the East Asian Studies program’s integration into the GRALL (German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature) department help the program?


I’m not really familiar with how GRALL works, but I think that all of us agree that it’s a very strange creature. It essentially lumps together all of the non-Romance languages, … and puts them under an umbrella program. By talking to faculty in GRALL, [I can tell that] they have a very collegial relationship with one another. There’s a lot of other things that tie faculty together besides teaching languages, because many of them also have a comparative literature background. Someone who does Russian or German literature, for instance, mixes with a specialist in Chinese literature and that can allow for some very meaningful interactions.


What do you think that the East Asian Studies program does right?


I think East Asian Studies allows for transnational kinds of interactions to occur, in that students get exposed to [more than] one part of east Asia. You can specialize in China or Japan or Korea, but you’re also able to take courses that give you an overview of [the others]. I feel that it’s just a one-stop shop for all of these things. What’s interesting is that even the students who come from East Asia and major in East Asian Studies, they don’t usually specialize in the place that they came from. For instance, you might have an international student from China very interested in Japanese and Korean history, or you might have Korean-Americans learning Chinese. I think that East Asian Studies allows for these kinds of interactions, and it’s also possible to pick up more than one language [in the program]. I also know some ambitious people in East Asian Studies who try to learn all three languages (Chinese, Japanese and Korean).


Is there anything that you think the East Asian Studies program could do better?


I think our key problem is a shortage of faculty. We have a committed group of people … from economics, from politics and from art history. A lot of the disciplines are well represented, but one of the issues that was raised by East Asian Studies majors is that the courses are a little bit too skewed towards China and Japan. There’s been a lot of effort to get Korea integrated [more often]. We’re also trying to find more full-time faculty who can teach Japanese and Korean history. That’s one of the shortcomings of programs, because programs cannot do faculty searches. We [as programs] cannot hire faculty that reside in our departments, [and] … our departments have other priorities. That’s a structural issue that’s very hard to overcome.


Do students who are studying one nation take classes that focus on a different nation while studying in the department?


That’s the charm of this program! You don’t need to take … courses [on one language or culture], you can take any course that you want from the East Asian studies curriculum. And, if there are courses that are offered outside of the approved East Asian Studies courses, you can petition to have them count towards your major [or minor].


What is your favorite class to teach?


I think one of my favorite courses has to do with East Asian pirates because it straddles the frontiers of so many different things. They’re on the margins of academic disciplines, they’re on the margins of society and they’re also on the margins of East Asia. Yet, they play a big role in the formation of East Asian civilization and how countries in the region interact with each other. Plus, we do a lot of role playing games in the class for an extra bit of fun.


What initially drew you to focus on Chinese maritime history?


I think it’s because of the fluidity of it. … The maritime regions of East Asia have had a very turbulent history. It’s a conduit for trade and it’s also very ethnically diverse. Communities of people from all around the world are trading and warring in these spaces. It makes research challenging because you have to deal with so many different sources in different languages from different peoples. Piecing them together into a narrative has been very, very fun. 


What is the focus of your current research?


Currently I’m studying an 18th century overseas Chinese community on the Vietnam-Cambodia border. They did a lot of trade with China, with Japan, with the Dutch East India Company and with the English. … I initially thought [that documentation on this community may be lacking], but what I’m facing now is an inundation of documents from many different sources. The other problem is I need to focus more clearly on what I write about because otherwise I’m gonna lose control [of the narrative thread]. It’s a good problem to have, compared to having no documentation and not knowing what to write, but having too much to write about creates headaches of its own.


How has your Bachelor of Business Administration degree helped you in your career?


I never intended to become a historian initially. When I went to college, I wanted to do a very classical track: get a finance degree and go out into the business world. Sometime during my third year of college, I became really interested in history and I decided I wanted to take more history classes and write a thesis. Eventually, I went all in with a PhD and went into academia. Can I say that [my business] degree has no use? Not at all, actually. What I have learned through that business program I’ve applied in my own research, mostly in terms of economic history. [It has helped me with] figuring out trading values, profit margins, … those kinds of things. So it has definitely impacted me and will continue to do so.

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