It was a public high school English teacher who pointed Rebecca Nedostup toward a path that would lead her to a faculty position at Brown — not in English, as it turned out, but as an associate professor of history specializing in the history and culture of China.
“It was in my junior year, long before it became fashionable to study China,” Nedostup said. “I had a Chinese-American English teacher who considered it important to introduce us to the classics of China. She had us read Dream of the Red Chamber, considered one of the most important classic Chinese novels — in translation and in abridgment, because the original is several volumes long. Then she started teaching a small group of us Chinese language one day a week after school.”
That experience and an encounter with Chinese architecture during a summer program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art sealed the deal. “I think I was drawn in by the culture,” she said. “I recognized the complexity and understood that there are many, many cultures and languages involved in understanding China.”
The road led first to Harvard, where she majored in East Asian studies (B.A., cum laude, 1989), and then to the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, where years of reading, writing, and learning Mandarin suddenly met the test of buying food in a market or ordering from a menu. The complexities drew her further in. After a few years as an English teacher in China, Nedostup returned to the States for graduate study at Columbia University (M.A., 1995; M.Phil., history, 1996; Ph.D., history, 2001).
“China presents itself as a great unity, which is daunting,” she said, “but what convinced me to stick with the subject over the long term was figuring out that China has a multiplicity of languages and cultures.”
Her early research examined the relationship between established or popular religions and the state’s understanding of its own prerogatives and goals. She focused on the early 20th century, a time of global change and internal upheaval.
“Issues of public policy and religion often turned on what was to be defined as religion and what was superstition — what gets permitted and what does not,” she said. “The Nationalists actually did things similar to what the Communists did later. In an effort to present China to the world as a more modern society, they destroyed a lot of temples and promoted certain kinds of what they thought was more serious religion. What was ‘legitimate’ religion and how could the government control people who were under the influence of that religion?”
Her current project is a study of people who were displaced by World War II, the war with Japan, and the Chinese civil war — how they built a sense of community, how they lived, and particularly how they dealt with death. “In Chinese culture, one of the things that determines what ‘home’ is is where your ancestors are buried,” Nedostup said. “People are supposed to be returned home when they die.”
That cultural tradition continued across more than five centuries of Chinese diaspora, including a substantial system for transporting bodies across the Pacific from frontier towns during the California Gold Rush. To follow that cultural tradition into the 20th century, with its cataclysmic political changes and wars that measured their dead in tens of millions, is to study the historical complexities that produced modern-day China.
“The government has been trying to ban earth burial because it takes up land that is needed for agriculture and urban development,” Nedostup said. A colleague is studying the rise of Western-style funeral homes in China, where the increasing frequency of cremation and formal funeral services parallels the rise of the middle class. Nedostup is co-organizing an international conference for next summer on the changing ways of dealing with the dead.
To some, China remains large, exotic, and daunting. Nedostup’s philosophy is to help students overcome that sense of cultural distance. She has taught classes in Chinese popular culture — “fashion, music, architecture, movies, design of cities ... everyone has a way of connecting” — and finds that technology makes material culture far more accessible than even a decade ago. A website she created — China Gateway — connects students with Chinese elements closer to home, including social agencies in Chinatown. The site, most of it, will move with her from Boston and be recreated at Brown.
“Now that I’m writing a book that takes place in multiple sites over a long period of time, I need to be creative in how I put the project together,” she said. “Brown is a place where the faculty and students encourage creative thinking. It seemed like the right moment in my career for getting involved.”