A Multitude of People

October 24th, 2013 by Smithsonian Journeys

Robert W. Foster has been fascinated by Chinese culture since he first read a translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching in high school. Since that early encounter with a strikingly unfamiliar worldview, he has spent his academic career developing a better understanding of the history of one of the world’s great civilizations. After receiving a B.A. in History from Kenyon College in Ohio, Foster pursued graduate work at Harvard University, where he earned his Master’s degree in East Asia Studies (1990) and his Ph.D. in Chinese History (1997), during which time he was an exchange student at Peking University (1990-1991). Since 1997, he has been a member of the faculty of the Department of History at Berea College, where he created the Asian Studies program. Although his courses at Berea focus on Chinese and Japanese history, Foster has also developed a broader understanding of the cultural interactions throughout East Asia and between China and Central Asia. Foster has been a participant in National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institutes on the Silk Road sponsored by the East-West Center in Hawaii and seminars on modern China at the Salzburg Seminar in Austria. Foster has worked to make Chinese culture more accessible to a Western audience. He has translated key Classical Chinese texts, has written on China’s relation to the Silk Road, on Confucian philosophy, and on the modern use of Confucian imagery in the PRC and Japan. Recognizing the value of directly engaging Asian cultures, he has taken student and faculty groups to the Peoples’ Republic of China and Japan. He has served as Smithsonian Lecturer in China and has led workshops on Asia with organizations as diverse as the U.S. military and secondary school educators in Kentucky.

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Smithsonian Tour on the Bund, Shanghai

Smithsonian Tour on the Bund, Shanghai

People. No matter how often I visit China, I am always struck by the number and variety of people. Standing in Tiananmen Square, outside the Forbidden City in Beijing, one finds all kinds of people at the symbolic heart of China. Foreign tourists, Beijing locals taking the air, and Chinese tourists visiting the capital all mingle in the Square. Eventually, all visitors forge ahead into the Forbidden City in a good-natured crowd funneling through the massive Gate of Heavenly Peace. We all find each other interesting. Every so often, a Chinese tourist shyly approaches me and gestures a request to take a photograph with me. When I respond positively in Chinese, we strike up a conversation about our various travels. Usually the photographer is from a part of China where foreigners are less common. After the snap, we smile, offer best wishes, and return to viewing the architectural splendors of the Forbidden City.

Artist’s studio, Beijing

Artist’s studio, Beijing

These encounters happen regularly on our trip: at the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army, in villages along the Yangtze, and on the Bund in Shanghai. Some people surreptitiously take pictures, some make polite requests. All are happy to have a memento of their travels. I imagine them going back to their hometowns, showing their photos and pointing at the one with the tall, bearded foreigner who could speak some Chinese. “Amazing!” say their friends. I, too, regale my friends and family with vignettes of the people I have met: the northeastern farmers on the Great Wall, the family of artists who welcomed us into their Beijing hutong courtyard house, the groundskeeper in the Great Mosque in Xi’an, or the elderly gentleman sketching a copy of a landscape painting in the Shanghai Museum. Each of those encounters breathes life into my visits to China. Each connects me to China’s past and present.

Copying a landscape, Shanghai Museum

Copying a landscape, Shanghai Museum

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To learn more about our Imperial China and the Yangtze tour, click here.





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