It was the classic undergraduate experience, Jeffrey Moser says. He arrived at Berkeley knowing that he wanted to study history but not sure about the history of what. So he signed up for an introductory course on China.
He was thunderstruck.
“When I started, I knew who Mao Zedong was and who Confucius was, but that was about it,” he said. “I took that survey course. Then I took another. Berkeley was very strong in East Asia studies. Once I got an idea of what was there — that I could spend my whole life studying it and barely scratch the surface — I was transfixed.”
He finished his bachelor of arts in Chinese history with highest distinction — “blessed with certitude” about his choice of an academic career, he says — and set off on the next major hurdle: mastering the language.
“I moved to Taiwan. My first year there I was studying Chinese and teaching English to support myself, which is what most of my classmates were doing,” Moser said. “What that meant was that I was spending two hours a day learning Chinese and the rest of my time speaking English, which wasn’t why I had moved to Taiwan. About nine months in, I decided I had to find employment in a Chinese-speaking environment.”
That decision opened an expansive academic vista: art. Moser noticed a small job posting from the National Palace Museum, looking for an editor and translator. His facility with written and spoken Chinese had developed to the point that he thought he might be able to apply, but he was still astonished when the museum actually hired him.
The institution that he joined was in desperate need of translation assistance. Every exhibition label and wall text required an English translation, the museum put out an English edition of its quarterly newsletter, and every scholarly paper published in the museum’s research journal required an English abstract. Moser was one of the two foreign translators at the museum tasked with producing this content. This put him in direct contact with the curators working at the museum, and the wider community of art historians studying its collection.
“As a young guy, all of these senior scholars would come to me and talk about their work so that I would have the knowledge to prepare their translations. Who wouldn’t be enthralled by that experience? I was exposed to their research at a very high level and very early on — and that’s what pulled me into art history.”
He remained at the National Palace Museum for four years, completing an intensive language program at the National Taiwan University and beginning a four-year master’s degree there in Chinese art history. He also began work on his Ph.D. at Harvard, maintaining concurrent enrollments and receiving both degrees in the same year.
His dissertation and master’s thesis focused on the art and history of the Song dynasty (A.D. 960–1279). The Song was an era of momentous cultural, intellectual, economic, and social development: printing, gunpowder, paper money, major advances in agriculture, demographic growth and change, and new scholarly endeavors of all kinds. It witnessed a flowering of culture centuries before the awakening in Europe — a Renaissance in its own terms.
The period had a tremendous influence on the development of art across East Asia. Painters developed radically new techniques to represent the myriad effects of the environment on the human consciousness. Scholars produced what are among the world’s earliest catalogues of ancient artifacts and wrote extensive commentaries on the arts of painting and calligraphy. There was a fresh effort to study and reinterpret the Confucian classics — to adapt the teachings of the past to a world convulsed by dramatic changes.
“All kinds of cultural, intellectual, economic, and social phenomena that we consider essential to ‘traditional China’ developed in the Song,” Moser said. “The relationships between these developments have substantial implications for how we understand processes of historical change elsewhere in the world. It’s the first period for which both physical art objects and written commentaries about art survive in large numbers, exponentially greater than those of earlier eras. It becomes possible to ask and answer whole sets of questions that aren’t possible for scholars of the early dynasties.”
Moser comes to Brown from McGill University in Montreal. He knew Brown both by academic reputation — home to some of the leading scholars in both the field of art history and the study of East Asia, he said — and for the attention it devotes to an undergraduate experience that is nourished by the first-class scholars and graduate students of a research university.
“I have a passion for undergraduate education. It was personally important for me, and it made everything else in my life possible,” Moser said. “If I can bring a fraction of that inspiration to students, it will be one of the most important things I do in this life. The opportunity to be at an institution that expects that and facilitates that is really exciting.”