Refreshment and Reflection Abroad and at Home

President's Perspective

As we embark on another busy school year, my hope is that you found some time this summer for refreshment and reflection. I found opportunity for both during a summer trip to China with my wife Suzanne. Before I took my journey, however, I offered counsel to colleagues assuming new administrative positions in academe. Published in Inside Higher Ed, “Leadership, Prayers, and Poetry” suggests that action should be preceded by an inner equilibrium born of reflecting on the meaning of life and work. I offer the meditation with wishes that what I wrote might resonate with you. “Words,” I wrote, “embody our engagement with life.” In that spirit, I also share with you some of the words that Suzanne recorded in our travel journal during our trip to China:

Wednesday, 10 July

We are embarked on a two-week tour of Central and Northern China. It is my first time in country. Bobby has been to Hong Kong and Guangzhou, but he has never visited these regions. I am expecting to be seen as an anomaly, but Bobby is also wary. He is American-born, and his rudimentary Chinese is Cantonese, not Mandarin. He anticipates that people will be surprised at his inability to speak the dialect.

Thursday, 11 July

We spent the afternoon in the Shanghai Museum, which has a world-class collection of Chinese pottery, calligraphy, bronzes, and scroll paintings. We began with the pottery, which was made in parts of China 5,000 years ago. Of the many rooms, I was most taken with the Tang dynasty figures, some life-size, covered with bright, three colored glazes.

Suzanne Fong with the celestial turtle that is a symbol of order and longevity.

Bobby was most impressed by the celadon pieces, simple, almost modernistic shapes, some with designs carved in them, covered with a green-grey, lime-based glaze. He especially liked one with a hand-formed dragon shaped around the lid. Many of the pieces we saw reflected the everyday lives of the makers—modeling houses, animals, or people they might have seen. This created a connection between the craftsmen and us—hard to believe the hands that formed them did so over 1,500 years ago. Bobby reveled in the calligraphy section, feeling drawn to the marriage that Chinese ideographs make between image and poetry and to the various personalities reflected in the writers’ styles.

We both savored the landscape scrolls, many in ink and brush, simple lines hinting at mountains, streams, and trees, with tiny, insignificant human figures and houses almost hidden in the pictures. The sense of humans as part of a harmonious natural world reminded us a bit of the painters of the Hudson River school in the U.S. Bobby loved those scrolls that combined drawings and verse. Those exemplified “The Three Perfections”: poetry, calligraphy, and painting. Oddly, we preferred the older paintings to those of the last 150 or 200 years. More recent Chinese artists exposed to western realism and color seemed to lose some of the fluid spontaneity in drawing that made the earlier works so powerful—the later work is much more mannered and “pretty,” and they feel less “Chinese” as a result.

Saturday, 13 July

We spend the day chugging steadily up the Yangtze, happy to spend much of the time just gazing out at the river and the flood plain beyond. The river banks show layers of clay but rise just a few feet above the river, which is yellow with silt. We can see how floods could spread for miles, much as in the Mississippi delta, engulfing farms and towns and killing thousands. There have been small herds of water buffalo, accompanied by cattle egrets, along the banks, but very few humans and almost no habitations. The vegetation is either tall reeds or trees clearly planted in rows. There seem to be a few abandoned farmhouses, and in places we can see the outlines of factories and apartment blocks in the far distance. We suspect that people have been removed from the flood plain that has been totally given over to planting.

After breakfast, we docked and boarded buses and drove through the river town of Yueyang to visit a school. This is where we felt we were seeing a China tourists rarely get to see. Yueyang has a population of about a million, but many of its young people, even parents, have left for jobs and opportunities in the coastal cities, so it is a city of the very old and the very young. Many of the houses are old style, of crumbling brick patched in make-do ways. Instead of shopping malls, there are hole-in-the-wall shops. Late model cars are not in evidence, in lieu is every possible permutation of motor scooter carrying every possible load—some even topped by elongated umbrellas which fend off sun as well as rain. The school is four stories on three sides surrounding a paved courtyard. The classrooms can be entered only through open-air hallways. There is no air conditioning. Each class has about 70 kids. The class we visited had 30 girls and 40 boys—the one child policy in action.

Children greeted us and did a little song for us, while a few kindergarten boys went charging around in the courtyard, yelling. Kids are kids. We then went to individual classrooms to meet some of the kids, singing a song for them and chatting with them. Given the language barrier, both students and tourists were more than a little shy and tongue-tied, until some of our group got out their cameras and began showing pictures to the kids. In the class we visited, we were informed that the students were learning fractions, so one of our group began giving them problems to solve, which they loved. Bobby got in on the act and ended up, without any Chinese, showing them how to multiply fractions. Math builds bridges just as music does. . . .

Tuesday, 16 July

Bobby has been thinking of a suitable memento for the trip, and today he hit upon one. We were given a stanza from Li Zhiyi in honor of our wedding anniversary on 13 July. (English translation: I live by the source of the Yangtze,/ You live where it reaches the sea./ I think of you daily, longing for you/ And the same river feeds you and me.) He took the stanza from the classical poem to the painting master on board ship. Bobby asked him if he could do a calligraphic painting of the words. In turn, the master offered to do a painting of the Yangtze along with the calligraphy. The master’s assistant also suggested that the poem be accompanied by a dedication marking the occasion of both the anniversary and the trip, and she asked to include Chinese versions of our names. She was pleased to learn that both of us already have Chinese names: Bobby’s given at birth and mine from a Mandarin class at Wellesley forty-two years ago. Bobby had wanted something that embodied the Three Perfections of calligraphy, poetry, and painting. Done! The composition was completed this evening. After showing it to us, the master rolled it and placed it in a box for safe travel.

A sense of straining for personal and social equilibrium in modern China was underscored in a talk given by the ship’s program director. As late as the 1990’s, women were married by twenty, and a woman of twenty-four was considered a spinster. Economic aspirations have led to an increase in the age of marriage. Recent years have seen the advent of Dating Fairs held at public parks, where parents mingle with their children’s resumes and personal profiles, trolling for potential mates for their sons and daughters. It is a distinctively Chinese response, where parents attempt to broker a life relationship amid a society less culturally defined and more tumultuous than the villages they knew. In Beijing annually there is one divorce for every two marriages. So the increasing personal freedom found by young people in today’s China is accompanied by a loosening of traditional social ties and frequent loneliness.

That loneliness occasionally prompts an interest in religion. Chinese Communism is officially atheistic, and members of the Party are by charge avowedly atheists. But there is freedom for the general population to practice religion so long as there isn’t proselytization. But the languages of faith have been attenuated by years of official non-belief. The reality is that the Party intrudes in public and private life as it will, and it continues to do so in a country of radical economic disparities. In Beijing a middle class family may earn $80,000 US a year, while in the western provinces, families subsist on $1 US a day.

Friday, 19 July

We board the bus for the hour drive to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. The mountain ridges are jagged and narrow, falling steeply away on both sides. The bus begins to climb, and we catch glimpses of the wall, which undulates along the ridges much like the serpentine curves of a Chinese dragon. It is a double wall, filled with masonry and rubble in between, and topped with a walkway about 8 feet wide between two crenellated sidewalls behind which archers can take cover as they aim. Two-story watchtowers rise every 600 feet, or the range of two bow shots, so that the watchtowers have a field of fire that encompass each length of the wall.

The first ascent is a series of uneven steps, so steep that I use my hands to balance as I climb. I am puffing and dripping by the time I reach the watchtower at the top, but the view of the mountains, the plain stretching far to the north, and the wall wandering up and down into the far distance is worth it. Once I get my breath, I push on from tower to tower, being rewarded by better views and fewer people as I continue to climb.

Pausing yet again to catch my breath, I look down and notice two horses with packs wrapped in burlap tied to their rumps walking along a narrow dirt path at the base of the wall, seemingly without direction. Then I see an old man following them. I have spotted a road that probably existed before the wall was built, and horses and man going about their business as they have for millennia. Time collapses yet again.

Saturday, 20 July

Bobby has felt so at home here in many respects. The Chinese are disparate regionally, and even dialects of Mandarin are sometimes difficult to comprehend. He’s just another Chinese visitor from afar. I have been able to resurrect Mandarin phrases from my year of Wellesley Chinese study, and my sense of standing out has been alleviated somewhat by the appreciation of shopkeepers that I am trying to speak the language.

For both of us, however, there is a perception of China seeking to moor its soul in something other than personal consumption. The religious traditions of the past have regained some foothold, and there are still true believers in the Communist vision that underlies the official narrative of the state, but the majority of the people are secular agnostics, for whom achievement is defined in individual and familial materialistic terms. We wish this country and its people well.

This is but a brief snapshot of our trip. I will be returning to China Sept. 10 for a different journey—educating families about liberal arts schools like Ursinus. But I will also heed my own advice to others and try to write and reflect on that trip. As I wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “What we desire for our students, we must model in our own lives.” Reflection is a part of a liberal arts education, and should continue throughout our lives.

Go, Bears!
Bobby Fong