Through Our Door | Lihua Zhang: Associate Professor of the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Peking University

From being enrolled in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature of Peking University in 1997 and obtained a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctor’s degree in the Department, Ms. Zhang spent 12 years as a student in Jingyuan courtyard 5. After two years of post-doctoral research at Nanyang Technological University, Ms. Zhang joined the Department of Chinese Language and Literature of Peking University in 2011 and continued her relationship with Jingyuan as a faculty member. Ms. Zhang shared that when she was studying at Peking University, she did not regard Jingyuan as something special, but when she left her Alma Mater to do post-doctoral research in Singapore after graduation, the memories and thoughts of Jingyuan flooded back.

Q: When was your first visit to Jingyuan? What is your deepest impression and memory of Jingyuan?

A: The first time I came to Jingyuan was when we were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of Peking University in 1998. I enrolled at the Department of Chinese Language and Literature as an undergraduate in 1997, and back then the freshmen in liberal arts would all be arranged to study at Changpingyuan. So as soon as we enrolled, we were carried by a big school bus to Changping District in the suburbs of Beijing. We hadn’t even seen Weiming Lake, the most renowned site in Peking University, at that time, let alone Jingyuan. When I returned to the main campus (Yanyuan) during the 100th anniversary celebration, a senior fellow showed me around the various attractions on campus. At that time, Jingyuan was introduced as the old site of the girls’ dormitory of Yenching University. Of course, I had a good impression of it, especially since I imagined a lot of scenes such as Bing Xin, the famous author, at that time studying and living here (but later I got to know more about the history of Yenching University and realized that this was a misunderstanding. The campus of Yenching University here was actually established in 1926, and Bing Xin had already graduated from Yenching University at that time. She firstly went to North China Union Women’s University in 1918, which was in Dengshikou and was later merged into Yenching University in 1920).

Actually, when I was an undergraduate, I didn’t spend much time in Jingyuan. My memory of Jingyuan, apart from listening to some lectures, is about taking the final graduation photo there. In my memory, around the year of 2000, Jingyuan 5 was renovated. At that time, my Department moved to the Philosophy Building. I remember that my junior year interview for the postgraduate entrance examination was in the Philosophy Building. In addition, I was an undergraduate in the Experimental Class of Literature, History and Philosophy, so another impression I have is that at the end of each semester I had to hand in homework in the three departments at Jingyuan [laugh].

Most of my connections with Jingyuan were during my postgraduate years. During the eight years from 2001 to 2009, I studied for a master’s degree and a doctor’s degree in the same department. During that period, I spent more time in Jingyuan because both of my master’s advisor, Professor Feng Wang, and my doctoral advisor, Professor Pingyuan Chen, like talking with their students. And the main site for the chat was the Modern Literature Teaching and Research Office at Jingyuan 5. Prof. Chen’s classes were usually on Friday morning. After class, he used lunchtime to meet with graduate students. We bought meals from the canteen and went to the office at Jingyuan 5, where we sat around the table and had lunch while talking. In this “lunch meeting,” we talked about basically everything: academic issues, life minutiae, and even gossip. Prof. Chen, from time to time, introduced his friends who were big names in academia (such as Yuan Zhao, Jialing Mei, Jianying Zha) to us at the lunch meeting. This small office became a space that allowed us to closely interact with our teachers, and it was also a place to get to know more about the fellow scholars who were guided by the same tutor (we call it Tongmen).

Q: If you close your eyes now, what kind of space is Jingyuan in your mind? What kinds of characteristics does Jingyuan have? How would you describe Jingyuan in three words?

A: The first word coming up in my mind is “quiet.” At that time, the courtyards of Jingyuan were the offices of several humanities departments, and they had a quiet vibe. The second was “simple but luxuriant”: Jingyuan is simple on the one hand, but is full of vitality on the other hand. It is simple and unassuming but has internal vitality. The third is probably “poised,” which may remind people of aristocracy, but I want to emphasize that it means being calm, unhurried, and confident.

Q: Do you feel that working in the Lee Shau Kee Humanities Hall is different from working in Jingyuan before?

A: Not long after I became a teacher, my department moved from Jingyuan courtyard 5 to the Humanities Hall. It provides a research room for every faculty member, and we finally have a place to settle on campus. However, I have discovered a very interesting phenomenon. Although we have moved to the Humanities Hall, my teachers continued their original working and living habits. For example, when Professor Feng Wang meets his students, he still likes to meet in a conference room in Jingyuan courtyard 5; Professor Pingyuan Chen also retains his previous working habits, preparing lessons at home and coming to school to give classes; he isn’t used to working in the current office. Our department even moved all the chairs in the conference room on the second floor of Jingyuan 5 to the Humanities Hall. Those chairs were a bit twisted and are now all in a meeting room in the Humanities Hall. And this room is always used for lectures, which sometimes makes me feel that we are still in Jingyuan. Perhaps this is also a wonderful extension of the space of Jingyuan.

In the case of Jingyuan, it may be because the place is small, so whether as a student or a teacher, it is difficult to stay there for a long time; we only go there when we have to. But one advantage is that the size enables you to meet all kinds of people, that is, you have more opportunities to meet with teachers and classmates. On the contrary, even though the Humanities Hall has more space now, there are fewer opportunities for us to meet. We used to have only one room for each teaching and research office, so there might be more chances to talk with each other because they were all in that one space. For example, sometimes I had appointments with students, and when I went to the teaching and research office, I found that another teacher was reading the newspaper there, so I might chat with him or her a bit. (Q: How to deal with this situation?) We hadn’t made any agreement in advance, but there was a tacit understanding between us. If the teacher reading the newspaper saw that a student wanted to talk to the teacher with whom s/he was talking, he or she would just leave.

When I was in Jingyuan, many well-known scholars came here to give lectures. The lectures of my department were usually in the conference room on the second floor of Jingyuan courtyard 5. The conditions of the meeting room were actually not very good—the space was limited, and the chairs were old-fashioned, but the lecture halls were full all the time, and everyone just squeezed into that small space, tier upon tier. The “largeness” of knowledge and the “smallness” of space formed an interesting tension. So that’s why I said that those chairs had a unique memory of Jingyuan, and now they are placed in the Humanities Hall intact. This is perhaps also an interesting continuation of the tradition of Jingyuan.

Q: Are there any special anecdotes or stories that made a deep impression on you that happened in Jingyuan?

A: It is the interactions with teachers and fellow students in Jingyuan courtyard 5 that left a deep impression on me. I remember that when I was studying for my master’s degree, there was a fellow student under the same advisor as me who was very talented. She started writing a paper under the guidance of Professor Feng Wang when she was just an undergraduate and was always encouraged by him. To my surprise, her paper was once criticized by Professor Wang in an email, and then one day she was with me in Jingyuan 5, waiting to meet the professor (to be chastised). I asked her what was going on, and she cried even before she spoke, saying that she couldn’t accept the criticism. I have forgotten how Professor Wang instructed and appeased her later, but her tears of grievance, her undivided feeling for academics, and her careful expectation of being affirmed by the teacher are things that I can never forget. Another time was at the lunch meeting of Professor Pingyuan Chen, probably when I was studying for the doctor’s degree. A bold and forthright fellow graduate student said to Professor Chen, in a very distressed way, that she felt that she could not only become a scholar, but also enter politics and go into business. Hard to make a decision. Professor Chen immediately smiled and replied: “Then go into business so that we can all count on you in the future!” Everyone laughed happily. Later, that fellow student still chose to become a scholar. Now, the two fellow students I have mentioned whether they were dedicated to academics or once hovered between politics, business and academics, have both become young scholars with outstanding achievements in their professional fields.

Q: What is your favorite season or time in Jingyuan?

A: It may be summer, or at the end of spring and the beginning of summer—Jingyuan is particularly beautiful after the wisteria blooms. Summer is the season of graduation, and there will be a thesis defense before that, so we come to Jingyuan more in summer. Maybe the reason why summer in Jingyuan gives me the deepest impression and I like it the most is that I have the most contact with Jingyuan in this season. I remember that there was a pomegranate tree outside the window of the Modern Literature Teaching and Research Office of Jingyuan 5. We could see it bloom in June, and then after a summer vacation, we could see the fruit of the tree when the new semester started in September. The pomegranate tree grew in the yard between Jingyuan courtyard 4 and 5. Very few people visited that yard, so it bloomed and bore fruit in a leisurely and carefree manner. Then in late autumn, the pomegranates on the tree would have already fallen out without anyone noticing. I like this pomegranate tree very much.

In fact, when you are very accustomed to a place, you won’t objectify it purposefully, because it has become a part of your life. I began missing Jingyuan after I finished my doctor’s degree. When I went to Singapore to do postdoctoral work, by chance, I saw an interview with my advisor, Professor Pingyuan Chen. Professor Chen moved a chair, sat in Jingyuan courtyard 5, and talked with confidence and composure. The background was a wall of ivy. That scene left a deep impression on me. I have forgotten what Professor Chen talked about in the interview, but I remember the way he sat under the ivy, and the sunshine was also very pleasant. I feel that this is the Alma Mater in my memory, the Peking University in my memory. It was a beautiful impression.

Q: Some students once left messages on the Internet saying that Jingyuan is the spirit of Peking University. In your mind, what is the spirit of Peking University represented by Jingyuan?

A: When I was in the experimental class of literature, history and philosophy during my undergraduate years, the headteacher led us to run a class magazine named “Shouwang (Keep Watch)”. In fact, we didn’t make it clear what exactly we were keeping watch over, but this posture of “keeping watch” may be the spirit of Peking University in my mind, represented by the three faculties of literature, history and philosophy. Speaking of Peking University, there may be many influential figures or famous people in your mind, but what I want to say is that Peking University not only has outstanding alumni and influential students; more importantly, but there are also forces here of not following the crowd and the trends, but still having a sense of mission and the fighting spirit of the “backbone.” This group of pillar forces may not display themselves that much, but at critical moments, they can play the role of a “ballast stone.” If we compare Peking University to a ship, then the navigation of this ship depends on both the helmsman and backbone of ballast. This makes it possible for her to not yaw too much or not sail with the wind too much at moments of sudden turns. Being able to accept commendation with modesty and endure loneliness at the same time; being able to accomplish while preserving certain things (holding fast to something)—this is the style of Jingyuan I have experienced, and it is also my understanding of the spirit of Peking University.

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