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Chung-I Tan: The Year of China

January 26, 2011  |  By Deborah Baum |  401-863-2476
Chung-I Tan Professor of Physics    Credit: Jane Martin
Brown University will celebrate the Year of China during the 2011-12 academic year to advance understanding of China’s people, culture, history, economy, and politics, and examine its current and future role on the world stage.

Brown faculty and administrators are gearing up to launch the Year of China during the 2011-12 academic year, which will feature a series of public events, lectures, and activities focusing on the history, politics, culture, arts, and economy of China and its rapidly growing global impact. Sponsored by the Office of International Affairs and led by Chung-I Tan, professor of physics, organizers want to engage the entire University community in this initiative — from the First Readings selection for all incoming Brown students to worldwide involvement of alumni clubs.

Tan spoke with Deborah Baum about his goals for the Year of China and how everyone can get involved.

Why the “Year of China?” What is the goal of this initiative?
The primary purpose of this initiative is to introduce our students to Chinese culture and examine China’s current and future role on the world stage. For many years, China has been considered a somewhat mysterious culture, only partially known to some Westerners and scholars. This attitude is rapidly changing as China’s sweeping influence continues to expand. China, in its broadest sense, has already entered into every facet of American life, and this initiative is also an opportunity to celebrate this presence. The Year of China is a natural extension of Brown’s strategic initiative of internationalization. It is timely because of China’s dynamic global presence that has already made an impact on the student population. Brown’s future depends on making the campus more a part of the world, a world in which the Chinese presence is immense. The Year of China draws attention to the increasingly global nature of a Brown education.

What does the term “China” mean to you?
I see China in the broadest possible terms — its culture, history, people, geography and neighbors, and its relation to the world. This broadened perspective, some might refer to as Greater China, incorporates not only the historical homeland but also those communities where a history of migration has seeded new settlements with Chinese roots. With the help of our students, alumni, faculty and friends, we plan to provide many opportunities to learn about this extraordinary nation. The intellectual wealth inherent in China is immense, and we look forward to tapping into it as we seek to expand our understanding of the “Middle Kingdom” (中國 Zhōngguó). We plan to enhance Brown’s existing institutional connections with China and help establish new ones. We will focus on the exchange and interchange of students and faculty and the flow between Brown and the communities of Greater China. We will strive to bring China to Brown while bringing Brown to China.

You’ve said one of the goals is to engage the entire Brown community with the Year of China. How do you plan to do this?
China’s long and complex history presents myriad opportunities for exploration and study. In the coming year, we expect to examine Chinese philosophy, politics, literature and art, as well as China’s economy and numerous scientific achievements. There will be many lectures, conferences, films, and exhibits. One set of lectures, “Opening Doors Open Minds,” will examine the impact on China and the United States of Chinese students coming to study in the West. I hope to have a variety of perspectives of China represented, a sort of “seeing China through different prisms.” I encourage every department and every student organization to participate. While it may not be immediately obvious, the unprecedented transformation of China has affected us all. In this regard each department might consider incorporating into their lecture events a scholar whose work touches upon an aspect of China or Chinese culture. I also wish to include perspectives from the Medical School and hospitals. In addition, I would love to explore various regional views of China, for example, from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, California, Hawaii, Africa and South America. It is in this spirit I hope to engage all Brown alumni. Of course, I would like to engage those Brown alums currently in China as well as parents of students currently here. Perhaps we could organize a China Day celebration at different locales and share them electronically.

You plan to include leaders of science in the group of distinguished individuals who come to Brown as part of the Year of China. Why is that an important element?
Science and technology are an integral part of the future. The pattern of Chinese students studying abroad, which in the past has been primarily in the sciences, has significantly impacted both China and America. Their impact on the development of the Silicon Valley is a prime example. In fact, science transcends national boundaries; it is an area where collaboration can be achieved more easily. It is the “ping-pong” diplomacy of the 21st century. China’s growing economic strength, like ours, depends not only upon labor skills and natural resources but also increasingly upon our collaboration and competition in pure and applied science. Our pre-eminence in industrial and university R&D is being challenged by China’s growth in science and engineering.

What do you hope students take away from this?
Due to the explosive growth of the Internet, job opportunities for our students are progressively more global in scope. I hope Brown students will more fully appreciate the fact that the futures of America and China are inextricably intertwined, and one can no longer afford to lack insight into the exceptional world player that is China. It is an indispensable partner in addressing global challenges. While we appreciate its past glory and its future promise, China will help to mold our own future. We hope that our students will engage in visits and exchanges to China to increase Chinese awareness of Brown and its unique standing in American higher education.

What can the campus do now to prepare for this initiative?
We can start building the momentum. We invite all departments, centers, and student groups to think about how their plans for 2011-12 could tie in to the Year of China. Special curricular grants will be available for this purpose. To herald the Year of China, the Dean of the College has chosen Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls (2009), a book about rural migration in China and the modern industrial revolution, as the “First Reading” for the Class of 2015. New Brown students and transfer students will receive copies of the book early in the summer. Others who are interested may pick up a copy at the Brown bookstore, and I encourage everyone to read it. This migration theme also ties in well with our “Opening Doors Open Minds” series. Otherwise, sit back and relax. Whenever you can, choose green tea over coffee. Of course, it won’t hurt if you sign up for a Chinese language course for Semester II.