My YCA Story | Sarah Brooker: Seeing the Rich Chinese Culture in Small Carved Seals

Sarah Brooker, a 2021 Cohort Yenching Scholar from the United States, sat in the audience during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the National Stadium. As a little girl, Sarah watched the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics on TV. On the site, she felt more exciting this time. Seeing the twenty-four solar terms countdown and the giant snowflake-shaped cauldron, Sarah came to understand deep in her heart what “Together”, a new addition to the Olympic motto, meant. Younger generations are not only individual “selves”. Together, they are “we” through which people connect and understand one another.

Sarah Brooker’s ties to China have been more than the Olympic Games.

Carved Seals: A New Door Leading to China

“China often means porcelain and tea to people. Few know about carved seals in China, let alone study how to use the seals or understand the role of seals in people’s lives. There is much behind a smaller carved seal.”

Sarah Brooker is from the United States and graduated from New York University Shanghai with a Bachelor’s in Global China Studies, minoring in Art History and Chinese Language. While studying the Silk Road’s history, Sarah became fascinated with seals –their design and importance in politics, religion, and social interactions.

After studying at Lingnan University for a summer, she developed an interest in how China interacts with neighboring nations, past and present, mainly through seals and seal images. During her study, Sarah found China a nation more “open and inclusive” than the Western stereotype of it. Her undergraduate thesis used Daoist seals as a case study for developing effective methods and terms to study seals as a field.

Seals are more than an object of study. They are her interest. Sarah carves seals herself and enjoys studying them.

“Sarah is one of the best students working on a topic that provides deep insights into the making and meaning of seals in pre-modern China,” said NYU Shanghai Professor of History Tansen Sen. “She is the first student from NYU Shanghai who has so extensively focused on Chinese art history. Sarah will be an excellent addition to the Yenching Academy. She has the potential to develop into a leading scholar of Chinese art history in the future.”

Sarah cherished her minor in Chinese language at NYU Shanghai. She has read Chinese classics like Mengzi and Zhuangzi to understand the essence of Chinese culture. It is hard to find literature on seals outside China, and the skill of Chinese language has facilitated her study of seals.

Jingyuan, A Place of Cultural Diversity

Some of Sarah’s senior schoolmates at NYU Shanghai took the master’s program at the Yenching Academy. From them, Sarah knew a place where one could “study and understand China in the nation.” She then applied for admission and began her life at Peking University last September.

As a Yenching Scholar, Sarah concentrates on History and Archaeology to further her study of Chinese history and culture. She was most impressed by “Development of Chinese Civilization” taught by Professor Lu Yang, Director of Graduate Studies of Yenching Academy. In his class, Prof. Lu encouraged students to focus on Chinese civilization and issues beyond methodology. Sarah felt inspired every time she discussed with fellow students from different academic backgrounds.

Sarah thought she was lucky to study and live on campus because most international students could only study from home due to the pandemic. At PKU, she has been able to make close friends. Sarah is determined to be a good “representative” of the international students and share her experiences of campus activities with the off-campus students. The Mid-Autumn Festival Gala was a special event for her as she became more familiar with her fellow students at the Gala. They are talented, funny and lovely. And she felt they were together, despite the distance and time zone difference.

China, My Second Home

In her spare time, Sarah loves painting, calligraphy, and writing. She loves writing and has published poems and short stories. She is passionate about music; she has played the flute and double bass in orchestras in the United States and China. “I enjoy playing the instruments – music connects other players and me, whoever they are and wherever we are.”

Sarah has been in China for over four years. She moved from Shanghai in the south to Beijing in the north, and she has an impressive knowledge of the country. She lives in love and warmth with her fellow students and teachers. “China is my second home.”

At YCA, Sarah plans to explore how pre-modern China used and interacted with seals, particularly the forgery and misuse of seals, expanding on her previous research. She intends to study for a doctoral degree in art history or East Asian studies to further her China Studies.

“Of course, seals remain my lifelong interest,” Sarah concluded with a big smile.

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