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Vassar College Fall Convocation Address by Professor Peipei Qiu, September 10, 2014

“Life’s Twists and Turns”

Peipei Qiu
Professor of Chinese and Japanese on the Louise Boyd Dale and Alfred Lichtenstein Chair 

Thank you, President Hill, for your kind introduction. Honored guests, members of the Vassar community, the incoming class of 2018 and graduating class of 2015, transferred students, and exchange students—my heartfelt greetings to you all!  

This fall marks the beginning of my twentieth year of teaching at Vassar and it is a great pleasure for me to celebrate the opening of the year with you here. I would first like to welcome the newest members of our community by saying that Vassar is a wonderful place for us to study and to live. Enjoy it!

When President Hill invited me to give this convocation address, I was leaving for a trip to China. I felt both honored and humbled and, without thinking carefully, I accepted the invitation. However, as I returned from the trip and sat down to prepare the speech, I panicked.

Listening to past addresses I have always been deeply impressed by my colleagues’ perseverance and wisdom in finding their true passion in life. Their commitment and talent in carrying that passion to amazing success are truly inspirational. However, my study of Japanese language and literature was not by choice but rather a result of life’s twists and turns, which does not seem to be a fitting topic for a convocation address.

In panic, I asked my son, who is also a college freshman this year, whether a speech on the unexpected turns of life would be interesting to students. His reply came in handy, “Sounds like a cliché, Mom.”

Indeed, to my son and his peers who are just about to face life’s unfolding turns, “the unexpected turns of life” is a cliché rather than a reality experienced. Then I thought, “Maybe my cliché story can provide them with some references about life, or at least remind them that life does not always turn the way we expect it; when an upsetting turn takes place, don’t become disillusioned.”

So here is my story about the cliché, a story I didn’t tell my sons before.

When I was little I dreamed of becoming a scientist. My favorite books were a set of science encyclopedia for children, entitled One Hundred Thousands Whys. By fourth grade I had read each of the eight volumes multiple times and also became addicted to science fictions. I was so envious of my brother as I listened to him talk about his science experiments in high school. I couldn’t wait to try them myself.  

However, that day didn’t come. Before I had finished elementary school, Mao Zedong, the then chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, started the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Students, responding to Mao’s call to remove all “capitalist, feudalist, and revisionist” elements from China, formed Red Guard groups, which quickly spread across the entire country and all sectors of life. Youth everywhere began to rebel against the existing school system as well as anything perceived as “old” and “counter-revolutionary.” Classes were promptly canceled.

At first it felt great to have no homework and exams, but this feeling was soon replaced by fear and confusion as the “revolution” went on and many people I knew and respected, including my school principal and my father, were persecuted as “capitalist leaders,” “reactionary intellectuals,” or “anti-revolutionary saboteurs.” Seeing my teachers being publicly denounced and beaten was deeply disturbing and frightening, so I stayed home most of the time.

Schools were closed for about a year while the Red Guards stormed across China attacking the “Four Olds”---old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Old books and art were destroyed; old temples and churches were taken down; even old street names were abolished and changed. Ultimately the “revolutionary” acts became violent and verbal struggles between separate factions turned into armed conflicts. Society fell into chaos.

By the fall of 1967 students were ordered to return to school. I entered middle school but everything had changed. Teachers were no longer allowed to teach anything labeled “old” and students were expected to continue participating in “Cultural Revolution.”  I remember one major school project was to dig a deep tunnel in the schoolyard as a bomb shelter. China and the Soviet Union were not on good terms at the time and there had been border conflicts.

The Red Guard became a regular student organization in school at the time and its activities kept many busy. Those who were not Red Guard activists played ping-pong in classrooms. We put eight rectangular desks together to form a small ping-pong table and placed a wooden board in the middle to be the net. This was the only thing I learned in middle school that could be called a skill.  At a ping-pong party last year, Dean Chennett said I was a tough player. I didn’t tell him that I had learned to play on the classroom desks.

Before the end of middle school, Chairman Mao issued a supreme directive that brought about another big turn to our lives. Starting in 1968 Mao launched the “Down to the Countryside” movement, which sent millions of the recently graduated middle and high school students from the cities to countryside. My brother and sister went that year; I followed as soon as I graduated from middle school. At the time each family in urban areas was allowed to keep one child in the city, but I could not stay. My mother had been sent for reform in the countryside and my father was detained under political interrogations. Rather than staying in the suffocating city environment I was eager to join my peers to go to the countryside.

Political scientists now view the “down to the countryside” movement as a strategy Mao used to relocate the Red Guards so that they would cause less trouble in the cities. Economists and historians view it as part of the means to resolve the country’s employment crisis.  At that time we did not see those hidden agendas but believed it to be a great cause to develop the country’s rural areas and to strengthen ourselves through hardships.

I was sent to the skirt of Xing’an mountain range in northeastern China. There was no electricity, nor running water when we arrived. About three hundred of us were divided into five teams and the girls of my team lived in one big tent. That year our area had historically high rainfall. The ground inside our tent was muddy and puddles formed under the two big beds we shared. We worked in the constant rain harvesting wheat, wearing wet clothes and shoes for over a month.

Winter in the mountains was often 20 degrees below zero. When cutting trees in the mountains the air we breathed out immediately became frost forming on our hats and eyebrows. We cut countless trees to heat up the tent and to build wooden houses. Now looking back, we did severe damage to the environment, but at the time we thought we were constructing a new world.

Although the reality was harsh, the mountains and fields were so beautiful. When spring came golden lilies covered the fields. Birch, poplar, linden, and many other trees whose name I didn’t know, painted different shades of green like a portrait.

In the scorching summer, I had less energy to pay attention to the scenic beauty when working in the fields. During the busy season we got up at 3:00 am to tend the fields. Millions of mosquitoes surrounded us. Even though we wrapped our heads with clothes, the mosquitos’ bites made everyone’s faces so swollen that we could hardly open our eyes.

We had no books to read except for Chairman Mao’s works. It seemed school would never be in my future. However, two years after I went to the countryside college admissions restarted. At the time the admissions were not based on academic credentials, but rather by recommendations from local factories, farms, or military units.  This peculiar college admission process, though open to abuse in many ways, was a glimmer of hope for an education at the time.

In the fourth year of my life in the countryside, the college entrance examination was reinstated nationwide. I managed to find old high school textbooks and studied after each long day of labor.  However, as soon as the examinations were over, the government nullified all examinations along with our test results. Admission based on test scores were accused as a resurgence of the denounced capitalist education system, and the college admissions were set back to the recommendation and selection procedure.

Luckily, that year my peers and senior workers on the farm recommended me for college admission. However, I was quickly rejected, because I didn’t pass the political background check due to my father’s political status and my grandfather’s historical record. By then I had learned not to expect too much from life’s turns, but still the news left me hopeless and helpless, like being crushed by invisible walls with no way out.

At the bottom of my despair I realized depression could get me nowhere, and I remembered what my father had told me before he was detained. “Society is very chaotic now and I don’t know where it’s heading.” He said. “No matter what happens, remain working hard at what you do, remain interested in learning, and keep a positive attitude toward life.”  I held onto his words and kept working hard.

Perhaps impressed by my hard work, people in my farm recommended me for college admission again the following year. Thanks to their strong recommendations, this time I was not rejected. At the time, the government assigned a set number of openings of different majors at different colleges to each local district. Because I was the youngest among all the local candidates, I was assigned to study Japanese language at Peking University.   

Years later when my students asked why I chose to study Japanese, I had trouble explaining how it happened; I didn’t want to confuse them by saying it was not by choice, so I would answer evasively, “Well, I liked studying languages.” The truth is when I was assigned a Japanese major, I had never had a chance to study any foreign language and had no idea whether I would like it.  Nonetheless I certainly had no complaint but felt fortunate, as many of my peers in the farm didn’t have an opportunity to attend college.  

I spent my college years in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution. The four-year college was shortened to three, and many courses, including English as the second foreign language for Japanese majors, were cut as a result of the “revolution of education.” From the limited pool of curriculum I hungrily absorbed whatever I could. I found Japanese words not so hard to memorize, perhaps because the eight-year absence of schooling since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution had left a huge blank memory space in my head. Trying to fill the empty spaces as much as I could, I learned every chapter by heart. While reciting the Japanese lessons I fell in love with the language—its musical sounds, its sensitive expressions, its delicate grammar, the unique culture it embodies, and the beautiful poems written with its words.

China witnessed a historical turn in Fall of 1976 with Chairman Mao’s death, followed by the arrest of the Gang of Four, who had led the Cultural Revolution with Mao. Changes began taking place everywhere.

As soon as I heard about the reinstatement of graduate school entrance examinations, I signed up. Entering the Graduate School of Peking University allowed me the opportunity to fill many gaps in my seriously interrupted education. Graduate school also brought an inspiring turn to my life. It presented me the opportunity to meet one of the leading scholars in Japanese literature, Professor Donald Keene from Columbia University. His lecture on “The Characteristics of Japanese Literature” given in Japanese in Beijing opened a new window for me to see how literature could be read, appreciated, and analyzed in ways so different from the politically centered literary theories I had been taught.

Coincidentally, another fortuitous turn came soon after, as China opened its door to the West and began allowing scholars and graduate students to study abroad. Without hesitation I applied and was accepted to the doctoral program in East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University.  

The initial years studying in United States were particularly challenging. Before I arrived I had only had one year of formal English instruction. When writing term papers I had to consult a pile of dictionaries--Chinese English, English Chinese, Japanese English, English Japanese, Chinese Japanese, Japanese Chinese—simply to find the words I needed.  There were many times I was extremely exhausted and frustrated, but it never occurred to me that it was difficult. Having spent eight of my best learning years with no access to education and five years working in the mountains and fields, homework was a privilege, not hardship.

With the generous support of Professor Keene and Columbia University I completed my doctorate degree on a teaching assistantship. I am deeply grateful to Professor Keene and my teachers at Columbia who encouraged and guided me to conduct comparative studies of the complex literary and cultural relations between Japan and China.  My dissertation examines Daoist influence in Japanese poetry, which later became the first English monograph on the subject. The second major research project I undertook after graduation is a study and translation of a thirteenth century annotation of the Daoist classic Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi Juanzhai kouyi (or Juanzhai’s Vernacular Explanations of the Zhuangzi). This fascinating text draws upon Confucian, Buddhist and literary canons to interpret the Daoist classic and it has been widely read by Chinese, Korean and Japanese writers, including one of Japan’s greatest poets, Matsuo Bashô. I received a National Endowment for Humanities Fellowship for the project, but I feel very guilty to say that I have not completed it yet, as not long after I started the project, another unexpected turn of life brought me to a different research that is more time-sensitive.

As President Hill mentioned, I wrote a book, Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies of Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves. The book was recently co-published by University of British Columbia Press, Oxford University Press, and Hong Kong University Press, and has garnered wide media attentions. One of the frequent questions I have been asked by media reporters lately is “why did you choose to write about this subject?” The curiosity behind the question is natural: “why would you, a literature person, write about the history of the war?” Since the book came out at a time of escalating geopolitical tension between Japan and China, the media also implicitly questioned the independence of my research on a topic that is so charged with nationalistic emotion and state politics. My answer to these questions has been a surprise to them: this drastic turn in my intellectual life was inspired by a Vassar student.

In 2001-2002 Asian Studies major Lesley Richardson wrote her senior thesis on the “comfort women” redress movement. My colleague Seungsook Moon and I served as her thesis advisers. For those of you who are not familiar with the topic, “comfort women” refers to the hundreds thousands women who were coerced to become imperial Japanese military’s sex slaves during Japan’s aggressive war in Asia from 1931-1945. These women were subjected to multiple rapes each day, brutally abused, and many of them were killed. Tragically, for a long time after the war the handful women who survived the atrocities were kept silent by the suppressive social, political, and ideological environments; justice has not been served. Lesley’s thesis traces the historical, social, and cultural contexts that allowed the establishment of the sex slavery system and provides an incisive analysis of the international movement supporting the victims to reclaim voices in South Korea and Japan in the 1990s. It was an outstanding thesis that received an Asian Studies Best Thesis Award.

Working with Lesley on her thesis I noticed that although there had been a large number of English publications on Korean and Japanese “comfort women,” little had been available about Chinese “comfort women.” Because Chinese women comprised one of the largest victim groups and they as Japan’s enemy nationals suffered unspeakable brutality, the lack of this information seriously impaired a full understanding of the scope and nature of the “comfort women” system. At the time, nation-wide investigations on Japanese military “comfort stations” had started in China, so I hoped historians could fill this void soon by producing English scholarships on Chinese “comfort women.”  

However, after four years I saw little English publication on the subject and these women’s tragic stories remained untold to people outside China. I couldn’t stay indifferent, as the survivors’ testimonies I had read haunted me. These “comfort women,” whose very bodies were taken as war supplies, were tortured and exploited by the Japanese imperial forces during the war. Then, when the war ended, they were discarded as shamed or traitorous by their own patriarchal societies. Even today, their demands for an official apology and compensation have been denied, and the aged survivors died waiting to see justice done one after another. Their stories must be told. And seeing that the continued denial of imperial Japan’s war crimes sparked wide spread anger among people of Japan’s Asian neighbors, I felt keenly that achieving a fuller understanding of the profound sufferings caused by the war was an indispensable step toward true conciliation.

Hoping to help fill the informational gap, I went to China to do research in the summer of 2006. A friend of mine who knew I was struggling with medical issues was concerned about my health. “Are you sure you want to get into this heavy subject?” She asked. “Don’t you know that the author of The Rape of Nanking died after having written that book?”

Frankly I wasn’t sure if I could handle this subject and there were two voices debating in my mind. One said, “You are not a historian, so don’t get into this controversial topic. You have a promising project of studying the Daoist text in hand.” The other said, “These women’s sufferings cannot and should not be forgotten. Since you had the opportunity to learn Japanese and English, you should use your language skills to help tell their stories.”  Ultimately I thought of my days working with Lesley and asked myself, “If a young American student could care about human sufferings that had occurred on the other side of the globe at a time long before she was born, how could I, an Asian Studies faculty member who came from the land where the tragedies had happened, see it as irrelevant to my work?”

The answer was clear; immediately I committed myself to researching Chinese “comfort women.” It took me six years to get the book done -- learning along the way and working in-between teaching and other research projects, my surgery and medical treatments, and the illness and death of family members. I know I am not the best person to write about this topic. I couldn’t have carried it to fruition without the inspiration of these “comfort station” survivors who lived through the horrible atrocities and are fighting courageously for justice, and the collaboration of Professors Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei who pioneered the “comfort station” investigations in China. I am immensely grateful for the strong support and insightful consultations of my colleagues, many of whom are sitting behind me and in the audience right now, and for the inspiration of my students, who brought this meaningful turn to my intellectual life and assisted me throughout the writing process. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you all!

Looking back, the history of my intellectual life has been rather random, shaped by life’s many unexpected turns.  Cliché as it is, I have learned from it that persevering through difficult times can bring forth meaningful new directions. When an unexpected turn of life poses a challenge, it also opens a fresh horizon. Rise up to meet the challenge, you will attain a new height in your life.

Dear freshmen and seniors, as you begin this important transitional year of your life, I wish you well prepared for life’s twists and turns ahead. In front life’s unfolding turns, we are all elementary students. Let’s embrace life’s twists and turns, my fellow students, and together we grow!

Posted by Office of Communications Thursday, September 11, 2014