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A Q&A with Expert Hugh Shapiro

By | April 5, 2014

Q: How did you first develop an interest in Chinese languages, history, and culture?

A: Serendipity at age 14. At a Magnet High School in Minneapolis, merely by chance I took Chinese language from Margaret Wong, a pedagogic genius who convinced many of us that learning Chinese was urgently necessary, and easy. Teacher Wong's father had fought on the losing side of China's civil war in the 1940s, as a high-ranking Nationalist general close to Chiang Kai-shek. Her war stories from the 1940s mesmerized me, as did her anecdotes about growing up in a powerful household of wartime China, cosmopolitan Shanghai, and political Beijing. Despite Teacher Wong's Nationalist background, she developed strong ties with the new PRC, and thus our Chinese class managed to visit China in 1978, as guests of the Chinese government, six months before the US and China normalized relations in 1979. The only photo I have from that trip is following a basketball game we played with a school team in a mountain village. Our overnight in the mountains was unplanned; that day the military needed our hotel due to the eruption of tensions on the Sino-Soviet border.

Following this 1978 trip, I stayed on in Hong Kong, studying language and history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. My subsequent education at Stanford and Harvard was driven by an obsession with China and learning Chinese. I've been lucky, studying with some of the leading China scholars in the world, and studying intensive Chinese at the preeminent language centers in China and Taiwan. I've also enjoyed non-academic experiences in East Asia, such as acting in movies, helping produce the first Chinese-Japanese TV series, living in a village, on a farmer's roof next to his pigeon coop, and working as a runway model.

Q: How long would it take to traverse the entire 3,600 miles of the Yangtze? What would one see of note upstream of the Three Gorges?

A: Well, it could take months, as it did for the several million people who walked up the Yangtze from Shanghai to Chongqing, to escape the fighting during World War II.

Regarding the historical significance of the Three Gorges and the Yangtze River, bear in mind that China's history, unlike Western history, occurred in a concentrated geographic area. The history of the west is spread out across half the globe, from Mesopotamia, the Mideast, the Mediterranean, Europe, and then North America. By contrast, China's historical experience occurred largely within the area of today's China. This means that China's equivalent of Abraham, Odysseus, Hippocrates, Cleopatra, Caesar, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Napoleon, George Washington, and Teddy Roosevelt all lived within a relatively restricted geographical space, especially along China's great river systems. (This is also why the remarkable Terra Cotta warriors of the First Emperor were discovered by chance, by farmers digging a well). The earth is brimming with archeological riches and places such as the Three Gorges are bursting with historical memory and cultural significance. And the lessons of this area continue to excite the modern imagination. Take for example the classic novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi), which describes in Homeric detail the adventures inside the Three Gorges of warriors such as Guan Gong (China's Achilles) and the ingenious military strategist Zhu Geliang. This exciting text informed the strategic thinking of Chairman Mao Zedong more than the writings of Marx and Lenin. The blockbuster film "Red Cliff" reinterpreted these dramas for the big screen. Recent archeological discoveries of the 'Sanxingdui' culture now posit a competing vision of early Chinese civilization, complicating the Yellow River's age-old claim as the China's "cradle." The role of the Three Gorges in Tang poetry, Song painting, and Ming drama is profound. The Three Gorges are also visually stunning, as are the unspoiled nature reserves in adjacent tributaries feeding the Three Gorges. Finally, to come to terms with contemporary China, one must understand the Three Gorges Dam.

Q: When Smithsonian travelers tour a traditional, perhaps millennium old, Beijing "hutong" or neighborhood, what should they be especially aware of? Architecture? Layout? Location relative to the Forbidden City? Do hutongs compare to old neighborhoods in other parts of the world?

A : What makes Beijing a unique city is that it contains the full range of urban cultural experience, from the sublime Imperial City were the Emperor dwelled as the Celestial Pivot of universal empire, to the large public spaces such as Tiananmen Square, an area that constitutes the very core of China's political culture, and the centuries-old neighborhoods of the 'hutong,' where the city people live. On one trip to China in the 1980s, the airlines lost my luggage and a passenger invited me to stay with his family in a hutong until my bags turned up. The key architectural feature of a hutong home is that the rooms surround a courtyard. The entire courtyard compound is invisible to the outside. Thus from a narrow alley, through a nondescript doorway, the hutong opens up into highly personal spaces where families live. The old hutong neighborhood is walking distance from the imperial city, which was built on the ashes of Kublai Khan's palace.

Q: One can read about the 7,000 Terra-cotta warriors in Xi'an, or perhaps have seen the 120 that have traveled to museums outside China in the last several years, but is there any way to convey the awe and impact of seeing the entire 7,000 in their original 2,300 year old environment? Please share your impressions.

A: The first surprise is the north China plain, on which the Great Qin Emperor's tomb rests. For hundreds of years, emperors carefully placed their tombs in this area, so as one drives to the Terra Cotta warrior site, one passes mound after imperial mound. Most remain unexcavated, but one can still climb to the top and take in the unrivaled feng shui of this zone of imperial eternity, sensing the tomb's role in maintaining the fabric of cosmic harmony. There is hardly a better way to glimpse the imperial imagination than to experience face-to-face its monumental architecture, designed for eternity.


Dr. Hugh Shapiro

Hugh Shapiro is a professor of Chinese history and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Nevada. He earned his B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He has enjoyed visiting appointments at Princeton University, the Institute for Advanced Study, and universities in Japan, Taiwan, and China. His extensive archival and fieldwork in East Asia regards the history of the body. He co-edited Medicine Across Cultures: History and Practice of Medicine in Non-Western Culture, and is experimenting with different media to present research. He received the Li-Qing Prize for the History of Chinese Science and won his university┬ĺ's highest teaching award. Hugh has studied or worked in China regularly since 1978.

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