In Search of Authenticity

July 17, 2013

Maybe it was her offhand mention of a few of the languages that she is fluent in, or her dogged enthusiasm for finding truth in her research, or all of it together that swayed me: Vera Schwarcz is an impressive AAUW alum. With a keen ear for “what lies between languages” and the belief in “language as a life raft in times of historical confusion,” Schwarcz is a scholar in search of authenticity.

Vera Schwarcz

Vera Schwarcz

Currently the Mansfield Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies and director/chair of the Center for East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University, Schwarcz was a 1988–89 American Fellow. The fellowship, the first of several prestigious awards that she won early in her career, enabled her to “carve a more independent and authentic path of scholarship” and to feel “authorized as a woman, a scholar … to be an expert” in her field. “As a member of the very first group of American exchange scholars to China, many doors opened to me for research and publication. The AAUW fellowship brought great prestige and time for me to explore many voices, including poetry,” she said. Nuance of language and truthful historical inquiry have been salient themes in her research and writing over the years, and she is always “alert to what cannot be said in words,” an awareness that still does not seem to preclude her skillful articulation.

Initially a religion and French literature student at Vassar College, Schwarcz ultimately shifted to Chinese after participating in a seminar on Chinese history with Indian writer and philosopher Raja Rao.

I switched to Chinese studies because I still admired the cultural revolution and Mao Zedong. It took another decade of language study and China travel before I began to seriously interview Chinese intellectuals — survivors of atrocities that I still write about. They taught me to challenge my own previous understanding of China, or my truth of history.

This month sees the publication of her latest work, Ancestral Intelligence. The book delves into the culture of contemporary China and explores the work of mid-20th century Chinese poet Chen Yinke.

In Schwarcz’s field of study, what was true yesterday may not be true today. For her, one of the challenges of teaching and writing about Chinese culture and history is the need to admit, as the expert, “I don’t know.” In admitting uncertainty, however, Schwarcz proves her dedication to sharp critical reasoning and veracious research. She advises young scholars to “maintain a strong inner, personal life. Keep the strength of will to pursue the unconventional.”

Looking back on her professional career, Schwarcz strongly believes that when it comes to balancing family and work, “books get better, deeper, wiser if they come from an anchored place in one’s personal and intellectual life. … [It is necessary to] keep a space in one’s life that does not come from the academy.” In other words, find a way to go after the things that you believe are important, and do not be afraid to pursue them to the fullest.

As a longtime supporter of AAUW, Schwarcz continues to help empower women to pursue rigorous academic paths, just as she did. We are proud to have her as part of our community and look forward to her upcoming book.

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