Wei Yuhuai insisted that she is only an ordinary student with little extraordinary traits to boast. But in our interview, we felt her earnest efforts and academic passion. Also, we saw what she has gained over her years at the Yenching Academy of Peking University (YCA-PKU).
Maybe not a superstar, Yuhuai has been always there, like her WeChat name “a grain of sand,” working hard and aiming high.
Wei Yuhuai, 2019 cohort Yenching Scholar of China Studies (Law and Society), studied English Language and Sociology at Beijing Foreign Studies University. In spring 2018, she went to Columbia University in New York City as a visiting international student.
She felt uneasy in her first days in New York. “At BFSU, we focus on language skills and liberal studies. But at Columbia University, I must adapt to the new academic atmosphere and approaches. Their approaches are much more methodological and academic, I should say.”
She tagged her life at Columbia University “ascetic-like”; to squarely face academic difficulties and cultural differences. Yuhuai consulted her teachers about whatever she could not understand in the class. She would read through hundreds of pages of reading materials and references and took notes. Also, she was active during class presentations and discussions.
Yuhuai’s efforts were rewarded with A’s in all courses at the end of the semester. Her teachers at Columbia University thought highly of her remarkable performance. “I’ve changed a lot after studying at Columbia University. Academics are not inaccessible, as I used to find. I could be scholastic with efforts. The experience at Columbia University kindled my intellectual passion, like opening a new gate to me.” Following her return to China, Yuhuai contributed her writings and her intellectual enthusiasm grew by attending academic conferences, lectures and seminars.
Yuhuai saw research through a new lens at YCA. Recounting her study in New York, she averred that “[A]t Columbia University, the USA seemed to be the only focus of my research. I’ve been asking myself whether all the theories would work in China and how I should direct my studies. I found the answers at YCA. Through discussions with my fellow YCA scholars, I grew clear about my position. The USA is never the only country worthy of being studied. It’s one of the countries to be understood.”
Before starting her studies at YCA, Yuhuai worked as a student assistant at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences (IHSS) housed in Jingyuan Courtyard 2, Peking University.
“IHSS is open to scholars from different disciplines. There, they communicate and get inspired. The Institute tells about what interdisciplinary spirit is and should be.” At HISS, Yuhuai was an interpreter for visiting foreign scholars and took the minutes of academic lectures. This interpreter’s role gave her ample opportunities to learn during several seminars across different disciplines. “A foreign scholar had the field survey of interactions between the elderly who practised Taiji in city parks. When a teacher commented on the survey, he started from the French Revolution and talked about how public space and community are formed. To be honest, I was inspired at the moment. They saw extraordinary things in daily life scenes we are accustomed. I admired these scholars and was more interested in academic research.”
Likewise, Yuhuai academically benefited by distilling a two-hour academic lecture down to a summary no longer than 10,000 words. “I am better at sociological topics. Technological ones were challenging. But I was encouraged to work harder on summing up and think more. Also, I become more interested in human cultures and civilizations.”
At YCA, Yuhuai helped with lecture summaries of the Topics in China Studies Lecture Series. “The YCA curriculum is as brilliant as the IHSS’s, and the lectures are better related to my discipline. I feel like a successful star-chaser when sitting in the lectures given by the great authors of books I read in my undergraduate years.”
Besides, the successful “star-chaser” Yuhuai has explored new research areas with her fellow YCA scholars who share her academic passions. “I love ‘Modern Chinese History’ by Prof. Joseph Wharton Esherick and YCA Associate Dean Prof. Brent Haas. Everyone enjoys the classes. The professors have given insightful lectures. Their comments on our discussions and presentations are inspiring. I’ve grown more academically rigorous and been greatly inspired by my classmates. For instance, the students with military background would see guerrilla warfare from the angles I’ve never seen before.”
Yuhuai’s favorite YCA courses are “Social Stratification and Mobility in China” by Prof. Qiu Zeqi and “Understanding Social Inequality: China and the World” by Assistant Prof. Dong Hao.
“Prof. Qiu elaborates on the fundamental paradigms of social issues and explores the inherent logic of social changes from a historical perspective through the ages. Dong laoshi gives lectures centering on social topics and employs the latest data. He knows best how to involve everyone in the class in a discussion.”
Yuhuai shared the same research interest in “China in Transition” with her Argentine flatmate, Agostina Blengino, Emilia Alcalá from Mexico and Jordy Bolivar Pasa from Brazil. The four came into a research group. Under Prof. Lu Jiehua’s instruction, they compared China, Brazil and Spain's domestic violence laws by collecting materials by country and brainstorming together.
“I once positioned myself in China. But now my coordinates are China and the world.” Yuhuai, calling herself an “ordinary bookworm,” grew more sanguine.
YCA Scholars share the dormitory area on campus. Yuhuai and her fellow students have forged a closer relationship in this “immersive” life. Her flatmate Agostina is a born football lover, and Yuhuai has been affected by Agostina’s passion for football. The two girls have joined the YCA Football Team together.
“When I was running on the football field, I felt a new self in my heart and body. I forged a stronger will and body. What’s more, we learnt to collaborate, share and communicate, even though we are from different backgrounds. We were enveloped in warmth both on and off the field. YCA is a warm place, like home, and it offers a new idea of intercultural communication. True communication is something natural. It’s in trifles in daily life.”
Prof. Qiu Zeqi from the Department of Sociology, Peking University, was Yuhuai’s thesis and academic instructor. She has studied and worked together with fellow students from the Department of Sociology.
Prof. Qiu’s students in postgraduate programs share an office where they could read or have discussions. Yuhuai would go there and consult her fellow students whenever she had a difficult question.
“When you do research alone, you get confused from time to time. The relationship between the instructor and you is like a single thread. It’s different to study with others in a study room. I feel like being at home there. We’re like a family. I’m not an outsider to them, even though I’m from another department. I’ve been inspired by what the others shared in their discussions. I’ve had wider perspectives of research. And my knowledge base has been enlarged.”
In the autumn semester of 2020, Yuhuai sat in Prof. Qui’s “Technical Application and Social Changes,” on which she learnt more about theme selection and dissertation writing. Yuhuai called that course a “rehearsal” for her graduation thesis.
Online education is a new trend around the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yuhuai’s thesis focused on the issue, exploring the logic and differences between online and classroom education. “The global pandemic has created a natural experimental environment for online education. It could be a good watch window.”
Yuhuai has been most impressed with Dean Yuan Ming’s idea of “support” and IHSS’s annual theme “legacy”.
“One must be confused, frightened and perplexed from time to time. At YCA, I’ve been supported and loved by my teachers and fellow students. They’ve been my source of strength. With them, I’m not alone. Peking University has been the cradle of scholars and home to its alumni. I’m grateful to study here and learn from my teachers how to see and care for this world. Here, I’ve been allowed to find my path.”
Yuhuai was the TA to “Contemporary Chinese Society” by Associate Prof. Yu Jia last semester. The students and the teacher had good discussions in and after class. Yuhuai collected questions from her fellow students before the class and created a remarkable online platform for the students in 16 countries using Canvas’s peer-assessment function. Thanks to her hard work, the course has been smooth. We saw a heartfelt smile on her face when she received a thank-you from the teacher and students. In her brilliant smile, we saw the quintessence of “support” and “legacy” spirit.
*Photos from Wei Yuhuai