LRCCS Spotlight: Kenneth Lieberthal

Kenneth Lieberthal   Professor Emeritus

Kenneth Lieberthal

Professor Emeritus

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight, I sat down with Professor Emeritus Kenneth Lieberthal, former LRCCS director, Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, and Senior Director for Asia on the U.S. National Security Council, to name just a few of his distinguished titles.  In the interview, Professor Lieberthal talks about how he initially got involved in Chinese Studies, his time working for President Clinton, and his vision for the future of our Center.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: How did you initially get interested in China?

Prof Lieberthal: By accident.  I studied Russian in high school and college, including doing a college major that focused on Russian/Soviet history, culture, economics, and politics.  I then enrolled at Columbia for a Ph.D. in political science.  

I prioritized Columbia because it had one of the best Russian Institutes in the country. But when I met with my advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski (who went on to become President Carter’s National Security Advisor), before classes started, he said, and I’ll never forget this, “Well Mr. Lieberthal, my advice to you is to not take any courses in the Russian Institute; you’ve already covered everything we have to offer.  You should do something else.”

As this was two days before the beginning of classes, I quickly reviewed the course catalogue to see what else looked interesting – and I spotted  one lecture course on the Chinese revolution.  I knew nothing about China, but I was interested in communist revolutions.  So I signed up for that class.  It was like stepping in quicksand, and I’ve been sinking ever since.  

Couillard: So that conversation with Professor Brzezinski was the catalyst that shifted everything.

Prof Lieberthal: Exactly.  Ironically, decades later, I moderated a panel that he was on in Washington, and afterwards I was chatting with him and I said, “I have to thank you for my being known as a China specialist here.”  He said, “What do you mean?”  So I reminded him of that conversation at Columbia in 1965, and he said, “You know, I have no recollection of that whatsoever.”

Couillard: Hah

Prof Lieberthal: That really struck me because it’s one of the things that’s really exciting about teaching and always worth remembering – that as a teacher that you have an opportunity to interact with young people when they are developing the interests that will shape their lives.  A number of times over the years I have seen students I had thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago, who commented to me that something I said, either in class or in conversation, changed their life.  But at the time it’s often hard to know what’s having a significant impact on whom.

Couillard: Do you think you’re more passionate about teaching, scholarly work, or policy work?

Prof Lieberthal: For many years I wasn’t passionate about policy.  I was very interested in research, writing, and teaching, and I quickly found that each contributed significantly to the others.  Research gave me a deeper understanding of what I was trying to teach.  It helped set my agenda and got me engaged in ways that went beyond what reading and teaching alone could do.  And writing was a tremendous discipline.  I found that could I get away with a lot of imprecision in speaking that I just couldn’t get away with in writing.  So I did not start writing a piece until I had figured out what I wanted to say.  And once I started writing, I would realize all the things I had not sufficiently figured out.

Writing is itself a great learning experience, and it carries over to teaching – not only in terms of what to communicate, but also the phraseology.  How you put things so that – ideally – someone with almost no background will understand what you’re saying, and a specialist in your field will still find what you’re saying interesting and valuable.  

Former LRCCS Director Ken Lieberthal speaking on the current state of the Chinese government's relations with the US at the 2017 UM Pan-Asia Alumni Reunion in Shanghai

Former LRCCS Director Ken Lieberthal speaking on the current state of the Chinese government's relations with the US at the 2017 UM Pan-Asia Alumni Reunion in Shanghai

Couillard: What about the policy side?  What brought you into that?

Prof Lieberthal: A variety of circumstances rather than any single event or opportunity. To the extent that any one individual proved critical in my becoming interested in the policy side, that was a former mentor and colleague of mine, Michel Oksenberg.  Mike became a central figure both at the UM and nationally in the development and ongoing evolution of major national efforts to understand and deal with China.  He was President Jimmy Carter’s chief China staff on the National Security Council and played a major role in the negotiation of full diplomatic relations between the US and China.  In the late 90s I was asked to become Senior Director for Asia on the National Security Council and special adviser to President Clinton for National Security Affairs – which frankly had a big impact on my life.

Couillard: What kind of a job was that?  Did that completely take over your life?

Prof Lieberthal: Oh yes.  And at that time (1998-2000), President Clinton saw major opportunities in foreign policy, and thus it was a great time to serve on the National Security Council (NSC).  For me, the job was totally consuming – 24/7.  I had a specially encrypted phone next to my bed, getting calls anytime of the night (which was not at all infrequent, given the roughly 12 hour time difference between Washington and Asia).  But I always saw it as a privilege.

Couillard: Did you get burnt out toward the end? Or were you still enjoying it?

Prof Lieberthal: I got worn out, but I wouldn’t say burnt out.  I was the second oldest person on the NSC staff when I served there – about 55.  It was somewhat a younger person’s game, in part because the work demands were so extreme.  We were always on call.  The advantage of the NSC is that you have very little bureaucracy – at least when I was there.  The total NSC staff then was about 100 people to cover the entire world.  It was a very flat hierarchy – there was one layer between NSC Senior Directors and the president.   The disadvantage was that we had almost no staff.  Things were coming at us a mile a minute, and errors could have very serious consequences.

Couillard: Were you a part of the administration during the Chinese embassy bombing in Yugoslavia?

Prof Lieberthal: I was.  It was physically and emotionally a horrendous time.  It came right after a huge project I was involved in that had completely consumed my life regarding China’s accession into the World Trade Organization.  In the aftermath of that, on my first night of rest, I was headed to a concert at the Kennedy Center with my wife – it was a Friday evening.  We were about to walk out the door, and I was saying to her, “This is the first time I’m going to get to relax for a little bit.”

Couillard: Uh-oh

Prof Lieberthal: And then my secure phone rang – “Dr. Lieberthal, we’ve got a situation here…” We do not have time to go over the developments that took place over the ensuing weeks, but it was one of the most intense and exhausting experiences of my life.

Dernberger Symposium (2015) left to right: Yuen Yuen Ang, Kenneth Lieberthal, Yasheng Huang, Thomas Rawski, Dwight Perkins, Mary Gallagher. Symposium photos by Peter Smith.

Dernberger Symposium (2015) left to right: Yuen Yuen Ang, Kenneth Lieberthal, Yasheng Huang, Thomas Rawski, Dwight Perkins, Mary Gallagher. Symposium photos by Peter Smith.

Couillard: That sounds terrible.  There’s so much more I’d like to know, but in the interest of time, I’d like to change the subject a bit.  One thing I’m really curious about hearing is what you’re up to now.

Prof Lieberthal: I’m doing a variety of things.  At the UM I am a member of the Provost’s Advisory Committee, I am on the board of the William-Davidson Institute, and I have tried to help raise funds for the China Center.  I also serve on a variety of Advisory Boards in China (of universities and think tanks in Beijing, Shanghai, and Kunshan), Singapore and the US, as well as on the editorial boards of five journals in the US, Europe, and Asia.  I also do some private sector consulting.  And I remain engaged in Washington, mostly in the think tank and NGO communities. 

Couillard: What’s your vision for the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies?

Prof Lieberthal: The idea behind the UM China Center, from its inception in 1961, has been to bring together faculty from different disciplines who work primarily on China so that they can, through interacting, develop a better understanding of China and benefit from each other’s scholarship and broader efforts.  And to offer courses to prepare students to have a multidisciplinary understanding of China.  Over the years, the China Center has had two centers of gravity – one more focused on the social sciences, which had a large component of policy related activities in the 70s, 80s, and 90s; the other on the humanities.  

The Center now reaches out across the University in ways that in the 60s or 70s we never would have dreamed of.  Now, engagement with China is a reality across the University – whether it’s the School of Public Health, or Engineering, Medicine, Music – you name it, and they’re doing substantive work with individuals and institutions in China.  Within that context, the goal is to have the LRCCS be able to be a source of information and provide advice to programs across the University, help to provide a bridge to Chinese counterparts, and as always to try to train the next generation of top scholars, people in government, business, non-profits, and more.

Couillard: Last question, and it’s a big one - how do you think we should approach the understanding and study of China?


Prof Lieberthal: With an appreciation of the forces that shape China – its history, culture, political system, and major challenges. First, deep history: what are the intellectual, philosophical, and societal legacies of China’s deep history?  Second, modern history, especially the repercussions of the industrial revolution in the West that directly and indirectly caused the decline of the Qing Dynasty to lead not to the establishment of a new dynasty but instead to the disintegration of the dynastic system itself.  Third, how the political system actually works.  This includes not only political struggles at the very top but also how policies are developed, adopted, and implemented.   Mike Oksenberg and I wrote a book on this called Policy Making in China: Leadership, Structures, and Processes.  Finally, you have to understand the details of key substantive problems that the country confronts.

In other words, if you want to understand a major country, you’ve got to understand its deep past, you’ve got to understand its recent past, you’ve got to understand how the system actually works, and you have to understand the serious technical dimensions of the issues it’s grappling with.  The interplay of these fundamental factors inevitably profoundly affects any country’s goals, fears, and principles, and I believe the LRCCS can provide great value to the extent that it can communicate the importance of that set of factors and provide expertise on each of them.


LRCCS Spotlight: Anne Rebull

Anne Rebull  LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

Anne Rebull
LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series, I sat down with Anne Rebull, one of four of LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellows for 2017 – 2019.  In the interview, Dr. Rebull talks about improv, cross dressing, and gender norms in traditional Chinese theatre from the modern period.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard.

Couillard: How did you originally get interested in studying China?

Dr. Rebull: It was a bit of happenstance.  I was playing around with things I hadn’t been exposed to before; and Chinese was one of those things.  But after I had taken one year of Chinese, my school changed the requirements for studying abroad in China so that you only needed one year – originally two years were required.  So I went to China and it was fabulous – that was in 2002.

Couillard: What was your first impression?

Dr. Rebull: It might seem strange, but what sticks out was the smell.  The trees, the wildlife, tea, pollution, construction.  It just all felt so different.

Couillard: And so how did you get interested in modern theatre specifically?

Dr. Rebull: That combined a couple things.  I majored in music, and musical theatre was a component of that.

Couillard: Do you play music?

Dr. Rebull: Yes, I play violin and piano.  But just for fun.  Anyways, when I was applying to grad school, I was trying to find ways to combine music and Asian studies.  When I was at the University of Chicago, they had a very strong program in Chinese theatre studies, especially the early modern period.  So after taking some courses on that topic, I felt like that was a great place for me.  There’s a rich tension between the needs of tradition and modernization.  And that’s a tension that interests me.

Couillard: What interests you about that?

Dr. Rebull: I like how they try to deal with it.  How do they present themselves?  How do they sell it to the outside world?  Some people wanted to describe it as more traditional to be perceived as exotic, but others wanted it to seem modern so it would be perceived as more relevant.

Couillard: What’s the name of what you’re studying in Chinese?  Is it 戏曲 xiqu or 戏剧 xiju?

Dr. Rebull: Both! Xiju is the blanket term for theatre, where Xiqu is the term that gets translated as Chinese opera.  The distinction is recent – in the last sixty years or so.  Before they were interchangeable.

Couillard: Random question – I’ve seen a lot of instances of male actors portraying female characters in traditional Chinese theatre, such as Leslie Cheung’s character in Farewell My Concubine.  At what point did women start portraying themselves?

Dr. Rebull: This is a complicated question.  It seems like a modern thing, but if you go back far enough it’s not.  You could go back to the Ming dynasty and look at literati like Ling Mengchu who may have owned a small troupe of all female performance artists.  So there’s a long history of actresses and all female troupes.  In the Qing dynasty when performances became more public is when you start to see all male troupes.  Mixed troupes occurred briefly in the early 1910s but were almost immediately censored.

Couillard: Why was it censored?

Dr. Rebull: There was a feeling of moral indecency to having genders mixed on stage.  There was a similar outcry for all female troupes.  But if you look at the ticket sales, those shows sold the most seats.  Performers like Mei Lanfang may have garnered the highest prices, but the average Beijinger was much more likely to see female troupes.  

Couillard: Would the females portray male characters?  

Dr. Rebull: Yes.  But in the early PRC they decreed that men should plan men and women should play women and there should not be any cross-dressing of any kind. A prominent exception was made for a Shanghai regional opera type, but even there it was only okay for women to play men, not the other way around.

Couillard: What’s exciting to you about all this?

Dr. Rebull: The history of everything gets embodied in the theatre.  It’s so easy to think of it as escapism, out-of-touch, but I think it’s really connected to society, to the nation, to the world.  They all appear on stage in different ways.  I think it can be more surprising than other art forms like writing or painting.  It’s something that happens live, so in China they could get a lot past the censors.  Improvisatory acting was a big part of the tradition, which opens the door for being subversive.

Couillard: Was improv something that developed in the modern period, or does it have a longer history?

Dr. Rebull: It was definitely a premodern practice.  Which is why in the early modern period, the writers of scripts were not as famous as the actors.  In fact, often times writers would approach a star with their idea for a play and whether or not they were willing to work with the story was a major determining factor for whether or not the play was ever produced.

There was one star in the early 20th century who notoriously would delay his entrances.  The percussion would be going with the “here-comes-the-big-star” pattern, and the man on stage would deliver the line, and then there’d be a good ten minute wait.  So the actor on stage would have to improvise, be like, “And he’s having trouble with his horse, so that’s why he’s not arriving yet,” or trying to come up with anything that made sense with the plot to explain the wait.

Couillard: What’s important to you about the research you do?

Dr. Rebull: I think this is an underappreciated part of history.  I think there’s so much energy put into writing a history of Chinese theatre in a way that appeals to the western imagination of what China is.  In addition to that, there’s also a mark of politics on the way history has been recorded – people more well-connected with the communists tend to be highlighted while people connected with the nationalists were washed out.  There are whole portions of histories which have disappeared, but they were very influential in popular culture of the time. 

Couillard: So is it about decolonizing the way people think about perceive Chinese theatre? 

Dr. Rebull: Right.  It’s not just rewriting, but trying to sort out what the priorities were when the history was first written, and deciding whether or not we should be using those same priorities now.  

LRCCS Spotlight: Jeffrey Javed

Jeffrey Javed  LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

Jeffrey Javed
LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight series, I sat down with Jeff Javed, one of four of LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellows for 2017 – 2019.  In the interview, Dr. Javed talks about his research on Chinese land reform, and how the communist party exploited moral norms to incite rural communities to violence against certain people.

This interview was conducted and edited by Eric Couillard.

Couillard: Where do you call home?  And how complicated of a question is that for you?

Dr. Javed: Actually it’s a very easy question – Kinnelon, New Jersey.  About 40 minutes outside New York City.

Couillard: When did you start getting involved with Chinese Studies?

Dr. Javed:  College.  I didn’t have much exposure in high school – at that time I was more interested in Europe.  My senior year of high school, I picked up a copy of the Dao De Jing on a whim; I went to a Catholic all-boys’ school, and all my exposure to religion was Catholicism.  So when I read the Dao De Jing I was so moved by it that I wanted to read it in the original language. That’s why I chose to learn Chinese in undergrad.

I enjoyed it far more than I expected, so much so that I went to study in Harbin the summer of my freshman year.  Later on, I got around to studying guwen (古文 – Classical Chinese) and reading the Dao De Jing in its original form. 

Couillard:  Now you’re working a lot with Maoism.  So – from Daoism to Maoism.  How did that happen?

Dr. Javed: Yeah, it was a strange transition. I had also developed a passion for sociology as an undergrad, so in my senior year I attempted to unite my interest in China with my interest in the social sciences by writing a senior thesis on environmental legislation and protest in China. That led me to do a PhD in political science with a focus on Chinese politics. I didn’t explore my interest in the Maoist period until grad school.

Couillard: And what are you working on now?

Dr. Javed: I’m working on a book project based on my dissertation, which analyzes how the Chinese Communist Party mass mobilized violence in the aftermath of the ’49 revolution, specifically in what was known as the land reform campaign.

I explore how this mobilization was carried out, who it was directed against, and to what end the party used this violence.  Most scholarship on this period focuses on the economics of land redistribution or how the Party’s land policy evolved over time.  But I think the main goal of land reform was political, not economic, and central to this was the consolidation of political authority through mobilizing participatory violence against the landed elite.

Couillard: Were the people being targeted mostly “evil landlords,” or were other kinds of people being included in that?

Dr. Javed: It’s interesting that you used the word “evil,” because the thrust of my argument is that the Communists exploited moral norms to incite rural communities to violence. Part of this process was to redefine certain members of the community as “evil” or “cruel” landlords.  But to address the question of who was targeted – it varied by region.  Depending on the economic and social structure of a region, victims could include warlords, petty criminals, traditional landlords, or just ordinary farmers. The point is that many people didn’t fit into the class rubric the Party adopted from the Soviets, so they had to improvise and tailor the movement to the regional political economy in which they were operating. 
The unifying theme is that all these people were labeled as moral transgressors – as having been dishonest, cruel, or downright unpleasant people. 

Couillard: What did struggling against someone look like?

Dr. Javed: It was really quite dreadful. The hallmark of all this violence was that it was public, usually held in a large clearing or on a stage. There, some members of the community would denounce or ‘speak bitterness’ against a ‘struggle target’ by telling dramatic stories about their alleged misdeeds. After listening to these ‘testimonies,’ the presiding cadre would ask the crowd what should be done with this person, and the audience could share their ideas.  But sometimes the people speaking bitterness, or the audience, would spontaneously attack, torture, or kill the person. This is because denouncers were often coached by the Party to tell their stories in an emotionally powerful way that framed clearly who was the evildoer and who was the victim. 

Struggle Session happening in Shanghai County, circa 1950.    Source.

Struggle Session happening in Shanghai County, circa 1950.  Source.

Couillard: Was that to justify the violence against them?

Dr. Javed: Yes, and to elicit the local community’s moral outrage against ‘struggle targets’ and sympathy for their alleged victims. It’s notable that the people “speaking bitterness” against struggle targets were called the “aggrieved,” even though they were the ones inflicting violence against others. 

So the government was intentionally creating the conditions for violence, and sometimes, not surprisingly, it spiraled out of control.

Couillard: And the government was all right with that?

Dr. Javed:  They were totally all right with that. Granted, they were afraid of violence engulfing an entire community – there needed to be some limit.  But the Party wanted to present themselves as the facilitators, not the actual perpetrators, of this violence. Documents from this period reveal the Party’s insistence on cadres not carrying out the violence themselves, but instead, mobilizing the people to carry out the violence.

Couillard: And this was to get buy-in for the revolution and its legitimacy?

Dr. Javed: Very much so, and that’s what I’m trying to show with this research.  Not only how this was carried out and varied locally, but the degree to which this mobilization was being done to establish the legitimacy of the Party.  Making people complicit in bloodshed as a way of bonding them to the new regime.

Couillard: What sort of an impact do you want your research to have?  Do you hope that learning how people legitimize violence will help curb that type of violence? 

Dr. Javed: Oh yeah, definitely.  I know other people have thought about this, and how to do the reverse – mass nonviolent mobilization.  I would be thrilled if my research could add to our understanding of how violence could be pre-empted. After all, this kind of mobilization was not limited to 1950s China. In fact, you see similar processes in the Inquisition in early-modern Europe and the Salem witch hunts, the Stalinist terror of the late 1930s, and even 1950s McCarthyism.

In all these cases we see politicians appealing to popular morality in an attempt to mobilize the public to support, and often participate in, the repression of particular members of society for their alleged deviance. Understanding this process speaks to my personal motivating interest in this project—understanding why humans are capable of extreme cruelty, and the conditions under which that comes out. 

LRCCS Spotlight: Courtney Henderson

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series, I sat down with Courtney Henderson, 2013 graduate of our MA program.  In the interview, Courtney told me about her experience since graduation, and the role she's now playing in helping to create jobs in Michigan by attracting investment from China.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard.

Courtney and Gov. Rick Snyder on an official trip to China in 2016

Courtney and Gov. Rick Snyder on an official trip to China in 2016

Couillard: Where do you call home?

Henderson: I’m from Clarkston, Michigan. It’s a suburb of Detroit.  

Couillard: When did you get interested in China?

Henderson: I didn’t start studying Chinese until my sophomore year at Notre Dame. At first I thought I wanted to be an architect, but after a year in that program I realized I was actually much more interested in the arts. I made a big shift and started a great books major that was anchored in the Western tradition and decided to learn Chinese to balance it out. 

I knew I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in Chinese studies after graduation, but before I took that next step, I wanted to spend some time in China first. I moved to Shenzhen for a year to teach English and experience China’s rapid development first-hand. I taught high schoolers, and they brought so much energy to the classroom. We did a lot of acting and skits – I was big on the drama.

Couillard: So when you were at CCS you did research on the college entrance exam (gaokao) – did your time in Shenzhen have something to do with that?

Henderson: Absolutely. I had around 800 students all preparing for the gaokao, and that was all they talked about, all the time. I left that experience with a lot of questions, and I wanted to explore those at CCS.

Couillard: What happened after CCS?

Henderson: I moved to D.C. and worked for a trade association focused on renewable energy.

Couillard: No China stuff?

Henderson: Almost no China stuff. I tried to sneak it in wherever I could, but the opportunities were limited. I mostly kept my China connection alive by mentoring. I volunteered with a non-profit called Asian American Lead which connects mentors with Asian-American youth in need of a positive role model. I ended up being paired with a 9 year old Chinese girl who is a real beam of light.  

Couillard: Do you still keep in touch with her?

Henderson: Yeah! I was just back in D.C. for work and went a few days early to meet up with her – she’s 13 now. 

Couillard: What sparked your move back to Michigan?

Henderson: I wanted to be a part of Detroit’s comeback and surround myself with that creative energy. 

Couillard: Tell me about the Michigan China Innovation Center (MCIC). When you started was it brand new or had it been around?

Henderson: It was brand new. 

Couillard: How did MCIC get started?

Henderson: MCIC got started with the support of Governor Snyder and a grant from the State of Michigan. Our main goal is to create jobs in Michigan by attracting investment from China. 

Couillard: What sorts of resources do you have available to attract FDI?

Henderson: We have three main resources:

1. Information: Chinese companies often need help figuring out energy costs, labor costs, etc. We help them find that information. 

2. Introductions: Many of these companies also need to find lawyers, accountants, and other service providers. We help them get connected. 

3. Financial incentives.

Couillard: So what do you do for MCIC?

Henderson:  I’m a business development manager, so essentially, I build relationships and “sell” Michigan to potential Chinese investors. I’m also in charge of MCIC’s marketing and communications work. Since joining the team, I helped brand our center, updated our logo, and built a bilingual website:

Couillard: What do you like about working there?

Henderson: I’ve always enjoyed bridging the gap between the U.S. and China. When I was at CCS, I loved participating in outreach activities. My favorite CCS outreach activity took me back to my own school district in Clarkston where I taught a few lessons on Chinese characters. When I was a student there, I didn’t have the opportunity to learn about China, so it was really rewarding to open that door for kids in my community.  

In a way that’s what I want to do on a larger scale for the entire state of Michigan. Growing up here I’ve been given so many opportunities, including studying at CCS. Now I want to use those skills and experiences to serve the people in my state.

Interview with Professor Emeritus Don Munro

Don Munro   Professor Emeritus - Asian Languages & Culture; Philosophy

Don Munro

Professor Emeritus -
Asian Languages & Culture; Philosophy

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series, I sat down with Professor Emeritus Donald Munro, who retired in 1995 but remains active in the LRCCS Community.  In this interview, Professor Munro tells me about learning Confucianism from a Manchu prince, the importance of ritual practice, and some of his earliest experiences in the PRC.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: I like to start these interviews off from the very beginning – where do you call home?  Where did you grow up?

Professor Munro: I grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  A happy place to grow up.  I started out college at Amherst, but had not developed any sense of goal or reason for studying.  I failed calculus and had to go to summer school, and that gave me sufficient shame and incentive to put some more thought into what I was doing.  I spent a year in Europe and North Africa, studying French and French society.  When I returned home, I wanted to learn about a different culture, so I chose China, at the University of Michigan.  I was totally enraptured by the richness of the culture.

I took Chinese at Michigan, then transferred to Harvard to finish my undergrad.

Couillard: So you went to three different schools for undergrad?

Professor Munro: That’s correct.  By the time I graduated, I had had enough of universities.  So I went to Navy Officer Candidate School and became a naval officer for a few years - this was during the tail end of the Korean War.  After that I came back to the US to study Chinese and philosophy at Columbia.  

Couillard: When did you learn Chinese?

Professor Munro: I started learning at Michigan where the Chinese language teaching was superb, but that only set me up with a rudimentary foundation.  I had three years of Chinese language at Columbia.  It wasn’t until I was living in Taiwan that I really began to grasp the language.  At that time I was studying under a prince three times a week, and read the Chinese philosophical classics with him.

Couillard: A prince?

Professor Munro: Yes, Aisin Gioro Yu from the Manchurian royal family that had ruled China during the last dynasty.  During World War II, he had been recruited by the Japanese to be the Manchukuo delegate to Vietnam.  He told me a lot about life in the Forbidden City in the late teens and early 20s of the last century.

Couillard: Do you remember any of those stories?

Professor Munro: Oh sure.  He had a lot of good things to say about both Confucianism and Buddhism, but also lived with some of the negatives.  For example, the quantity of rituals that a person of his position in the court was supposed to observe was exhausting.  If he wanted to get up in the middle of the night to go pee, he had to make sure he had certain belts, certain vests, and certain stones hanging from strings on the belt.  So he made special effort to never have to pee in the middle of the night.

Couillard: Haha.  What’s the other side of the story?  I know some of your research relates to Confucian rituals – what draws you to that?

Professor Munro: Are you familiar with the term 功夫 (gongfu/kung fu)?  In the west it’s mostly associated with martial arts, but in Chinese it refers to any practice which can develop skill.  Ritual practice is a kind of gongfu to instill ethical behavior so that it becomes spontaneous, just like a tennis player who has honed their technique so well that they don’t need to think about their swing.

In relations, I think ritual practice makes things easier – they work as a kind of social lubricant.  It fosters connection so that people can establish some trust before they talk about more ‘inconvenient’ topics.

Couillard: I never thought of it like that – fascinating.  To what extent did you practice this kind of gongfu?

Professor Munro: It was expected that I would live according to these rituals with most of my relations in Taiwan, especially in association with the prince.  For example, every time I went to a new person’s house, we would spend time appreciating their ‘personal art,’ which meant calligraphy, before doing anything else.  

Couillard: So do you think the practice of rituals is a key component of learning about Confucianism?  Not just the philosophy or memorizing The Analects.

Professor Munro: Yes I do.  But they don’t have to be Confucian rituals.

Couillard: Would you say that practicing rituals to learn about philosophy is a kind of embodied knowledge?  Similar to how Emily Wilcox focuses a lot of her research on the physical practice of Chinese dance

Professor Munro: Yes, I would say her work is right on target.

Couillard: I also wanted to ask you about was your early experience in the PRC.  Your first trip there was in 1973 – what was that like?

Professor Munro: I went there in 1973 as the co-leader of a delegation of officers in U.S. K-12 teacher organizations, such as the National Association of School Superintendents.  Before the trip, most of them had been impressed by Maoism, thinking it was a utopia.  They thought China was going to be the first real egalitarian society.  And I said, “Well, when we get there you can see for yourself.”  They were angry with me, they thought I was some right-wing type.  When we crossed the border, we were met by two communist party officials, and one of the first things they did was ask me for my protocol list so they would know who should ride up front in the limousines and who would ride in the gray bus.

Couillard:  Haha, yeah, welcome to China!  I have to ask – do you think there were any spies with you on that delegation?

Professor Munro:  I don’t think we had any on the American side, but I’m sure our Chinese colleagues were writing reports to their information bureau.

Couillard: Another thing I wanted to ask you about was this gift you and Mrs. Munro gave to the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and the Philosophy Department to create a tenure-track professorship in in Chinese philosophy.  What are you hoping creating this role will do?

Professor Munro: First, I hope it will solidify Chinese philosophy as a justifiable part of world philosophy in the curriculum of a Western philosophy department.  The occupant of the position must also be proficient in the Chinese classical and modern languages.  Second, I think there’s a great deal to be gained by having someone familiar with both Western and Chinese philosophy working together with their counterparts in China.   The person in the position will be able to do that.

Couillard: What are you working on these days?

Professor Munro: I’m interested in the degree to which there is a relationship between facts and values of which most of us are actually aware.  For example, part of human health is a function of social relations.  The value of social bonding derives its strength from the emotions of love and sympathy.  These in turn can lead to our care for those with whom we bond.  These are objective facts, as are the positive impact of caring on our own health and wellbeing.  I think that need is innate and biological – we manifest it with our families, professional associations, all of that.  These are symbiotic relations not just among humans, but also animals like chimps.  There are wonderful books on the latter, such as those by Frans de Waal.  So I think this fact has ethical implications, and I want to explore those implications.

LRCCS Community Spotlight: Wang Qingsong (English Version)

The LRCCS Community Spotlight is honored to introduce Artist-in-Residence Wang Qingsong.  Wang Laoshi started off as an oil painter, and later went on to become one of the most influential photographers in China.  His work is full of humor and profundity, and also serves to document contemporary China.  During this interview, Wang Laoshi explains his path to becoming a renowned artist, and some of his insights from that world.

This interview was edited by Erzhan Xu and conducted/translated by Eric Couillard.  You can read the original interview in Chinese here.  

Wang Qingsong at the University of Michigan

Wang Qingsong at the University of Michigan

Couillard: When did you first start to study and practice art?  Did you learn it as a child?

Wang Laoshi: No.  My family worked in the oil industry, so we were always moving around to different oil fields.  My family was never very stationary.  As I recall, I only ever had an art teacher for one year when I was little.  It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I discovered I liked it.  I started to make crude drawings and paintings.

Couillard: So when did you decide you wanted to become an artist?

Wang Laoshi: After I graduated from high school, one of my mom’s colleague’s kids entered a local art school.  My mom knew I loved to paint, so she told me about it.  At the time I thought, “What?  There’s schools just for making art?”  After I knew that was an option, I decided to study there.  Once I graduated, I went to the art school to formally study how to make art.  Actually the school was more like a club from another high school; there were no classes until after the normal school got out.  Even though I was taking professional courses, I had no idea where I was going with it.  At the time I never dreamed I’d become an artist.  I just wanted to continue my hobby.  It wasn’t until 1993 that I decided I wanted to pursue art as a career.  This was after I graduated from the art school and moved to Beijing.

Couillard: What happened in ’93 that made you decide to move to Beijing and become an artist?

Wang Laoshi: In ’92 the National Art Museum of China in Beijing had a very important exhibit in collaboration with a Japanese art museum.  It was a collection of western art ranging from egg tempera, oil, impressionism, and other works from many famous artists throughout history.  I went to see it, and though the art wasn’t especially exciting for me, what surprised me was the people who came to see it.  So many of them brought notebooks to take notes, write down their reflections, study the composition, even make some sketches of the pieces!  This inspired me!  I suddenly realized there’s quite a large interest in art, even among older people.  So I thought Beijing must be a very cultured place.  Where I was living and working at the time, you never saw anything like it.  For the most part everyone was all about doing business, earning money.  So after that Beijing exhibit, I decided I had to move there.  I moved the next year.  Looking back, now it doesn’t seem like Beijing was so cultured back then.  But the curtain had been raised for me, and I was hooked.  So I went for it.

Couillard:  So how did you make a living when you first moved there?

Wang Laoshi: When I first moved to Beijing, I was painting a lot.  It was almost like writing in a diary.  I painted things from my heart, certain feelings and experiences.  Personal experiences, I didn’t too much bother with the outside world.  I thought art only needed to express oneself.  Later I slowly changed.  Maybe it was because society was changing.  The first one or two years there were difficult.  I couldn’t make a living off art.  And it was then that housing prices started to rise.  I remember one winter, I think it was ’96, it was so cold!  I had rented a cheap place, it didn’t have glass windows or a door, just holes in the wall that we covered with some plastic.  The pipes were frozen.  That winter was almost unbearable!  At the time I thought, it’s been about three years, and I still have nothing.  I was depressed and thought, “Will it be like this forever?  Is this hopeless?”  But the depression passed suddenly.  After winter, the trees started to bud, the pipes melted and started working again, and I felt full of hope.  In the 90s I always felt supported by my hope.  Hope is bigger than any difficulty.

Couillard: How did you maintain hope for those three long years?

Wang Laoshi: One was that I saw my friends doing better and better.  Another piece was that I had already burned my bridges – there was no turning back.  I figured I could take it for 3-5 years.  But if went on too long, if I didn’t have any shows or sell anything, maybe that hope would have disappeared.  People need hope to persevere.  I pushed on until 97 or 98, and around that time my work started to get recognized.

Couillard: When did you make the transition from painting to photography?

Wang Laoshi: 1996

Couillard: Why the change?

Wang Laoshi: When I first got to Beijing I was focused on painting.  But I was seeing so many unthinkable changes happen before my eyes – the rent prices were surging, more and more people were flooding the city.  I thought society was so different, maybe we were in the midst of a historic transformation, and I had no idea where we were headed.  I just knew things would never be the same.  So I thought there must be a better way to draw attention to this change.

One World, 2014 (Taken from )

One World, 2014 (Taken from

Couillard: To document it.

Wang Laoshi: Yes, exactly.  So I thought, if I want to document this, of course I’ll use art.  Photography is the most direct medium.  So in 96 I started out, but it wasn’t until 97 that this became my main medium.

Couillard:  So when you create your art… would you say you have a goal or purpose?  What impact do you want it to bring to the world?

Wang Laoshi: To record and document.  China is changing too fast.  It just needs to be recorded, I’m not so interested in commentary.  Of course I bring my own views to the things I choose to photograph – I’m not just taking pictures at random.  I’ve always thought of myself as a reporter.

Couillard:  By recording and documenting all this, what do you hope will happen?

Wang Laoshi: I hope that my work will serve as an illustration to sociology.  I hope people researching contemporary Chinese society can use my work to learn about the times or use them as photos in textbooks.  Actually my photography is like a compressed history, it takes large issues and compresses them into one photo.  In one photo, you can find many stories being told, many layers.  So they cover a lot of territory in a very limited space.

Thanks for reading!  Stay tuned for more interviews.