The question of 'what is literature?' inevitably changes when you look at other languages and cultures.

Yunjing Xu

With a growing Chinese economy now the second largest in the world, more students are taking Chinese language courses. Professor Yunjing Xu, East Asian studies, says many are double majors — in Chinese and business or political science, for example — who hope to work overseas or for companies in America that deal with China. Beyond practical commerce implications, she says, some are simply curious about Chinese culture. And that's where her courses on premodern Chinese literature add depth.

Xu grew up in Suzhou, a 2,500-year-old city and early modern cultural center in East China. "I came from a teacher's family, and my grandfather used to have all these books," Xu says. "I read all the early modern literature, especially fiction — historical novels, novels about adventure — when I was a kid."

Through literature, Xu says, her students discover unexpected connections between the early modern and modern world, and between China and Western society.

"Students usually come to my courses with some ideas about premodern or early modern China," Xu says, "thinking, for example, it was pretty oppressive of women, not very developed, probably very traditional. But what they find is a diverse world, especially in the early modern period. For example, we have fiction talking about love between people of the same gender and stories about women making careers, trying to venture out of the domestic role. So students feel like that world is closer to us, and we are closer to it, when they finish the course."

Stories are more than just characters on a page, and Xu has unique ways of helping students gain a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and storytelling.

"Instead of just discussion or lecturing, I ask students to come up with a project," she says. "For example, we talk about how these books were illustrated and what the illustrations mean. So I give them a story and ask them to think like a 17th-century illustrator to come up with interesting illustrations, which they actually draw and present to the class."

Xu sees language, culture and literature as woven threads that convey a more complete picture of civilizations. It's a useful and more immersive lens for understanding common humanity.

"In recent years, there's a trend to explore areas outside of Europe or Euro-American literature, to look at other traditions, to decentralize the study of literature," she says. "The question of 'what is literature?' inevitably changes when you look at other languages and cultures."

Posted Oct. 7, 2016