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Coming Home to China
Author:By Donald Stone    Date:2012/05/28


The first time I was invited to teach in China—in 1982 as the guest of Beijing Teachers College—I thought that going to China would be like going to the moon. What I very quickly found myself in was a second home. I knew in advance that a country as culturally rich as China would provide many aesthetic delights; and I soon discovered that the landscapes of China were the most beautiful on earth. (Hangzhou’s West Lake! Suzhou’s magnificent gardens! Huangshan’s incredible beauty! The fabulous Buddhist carvings at Datong, Dunhuang, Maijishan, and Longmen!) But I quickly realized that China’s greatest treasures were its people. Everywhere I went,I encountered superb hospitality and incredible kindness. Here is a small example. Traveling to Xi'an during the October holiday, I was able to get a flight there; but all the seats coming back were booked.Since I had to be back in Beijing in time for my classes, I showed the CAAC office in Xi'an the letter written by the English Department in Beijing in my behalf. The result was that an extra seat was added to the flight! Flying to Nanjing a few months later, I was astonished when the stewardess told all the passengers to stop smoking. There's an American on board, she said, who is sensitive to cigarette smoke. My student assistant had told her this without my knowledge. (I had never told him of this sensitivity, but he observed my discomfort when being near a smoker.) So everyone stopped smoking! (His wife later told me how grateful she was that he had given up smoking on my account.)

My student Sun Zhixin is now a senior curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York—in large part responsible for the superb exhibition of Yuan dynasty art at the Met. In 1982 Zhixin introduced me to the masters of ancient Chinese art (in those days the greatest paintings in the Palace Museum collection were exhibited every October), and he introduced me to the great living masters of Chinese painting. I quickly fell in love with the work of Li Keran, Li Kuchan, Huang Yongyu, Qi Baishi (Were there artists of comparable quality outside China). One of the highlights of that first trip was the acquisition of a gorgeous painting by Wu Guanzhong at Rongbaozhai gallery—for the price of my monthly salary. My students were horrified by the cost, but I thought I had bought a masterpiece—I still do. In recent years, as works by Wu Guanzhong became unaffordable, I acquired some beautiful watercolors by his great pupil, Liu Yongming. In my New York apartment, my greatest treasure is a painting of the Beida magpies, which Liu Yongming painted for me.

After that first trip to China, I could hardly wait to come back; and my second visit was arranged through the Visiting Scholar program jointly run by the Chinese Academy of Social Science and the National Academy of Science, Washington. That visit, like the first , was arranged through t he help of a great and warm-hearted Chinese scholar, Zhu Hong, who was then head of the English literature division of CASS. On each  of my subsequent visits to China (eleven so far), I have lectured at CASS—last year, for example, I gave a memorial lecture on John Updike—and I a m proud and honored by my friendships with Zhu Hong, Huang Mei, Lu Jiande,Shen Ning, Lu Danian, Fu Hao, Zheng Tusheng, Xue Hongshi,and countless younger scholars.

One of the greatest honors of my life was to be invited to the fortieth anniversary reception for CASS. (I was one of the few Americans invited.) Another great honor was to be invited to the fiftieth anniversary of Beijing Teachers College, renamed Capita l Normal. By then my dear friend Han Zhixian (former head of the English Department, and my Chinese older sister) was too ill to attend; but among my friends who were honored on that occasion were dear Wang Wei and former President of Capital Normal, Yang Chuanwei. I had met Chuanwei in New York before my 1982 trip to Beijing; and he and Wang Wei met me at the airport in Beijing. (It was 1 AM, the plane being three hours late.) Immediately, thanks to them and Zhu Hong and Han Zhixian, and my marvelous students, I felt right at home.

In 1991 I gave my first  guest lecture at Peking University. My topic ( I vaguely recall) was a Bakhtinian comparison of Charlotte Bronte, Salman Rushdie—and who else? Despite the pretentiousness of the topic, I was invited back to Beida—in 1997 for a longer stay when Tao Jie was English Department chair. The student who looked after me (now a professor in Guangzhou) begged me not to get lost in what seemed to me then a maze of a campus. “If you get lost,” he explained, “Professor Tao will never forgive me!” For his sake I learned how to get around this very beautiful campus, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. In 2002 the then English Department Chair Chen Zhaoxiang and his Assistant Chair Ding Hongwei invited me to teach here on a regular basis. Starting in 2006 (following my retirement from Queens College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York), I began to teach here every fall semester. A few years ago, when I was asked to represent the Foreign Experts at a New Years gala, I was asked what I thought of the Beida students.“They are the best on the planet.” I replied.

And so they are—the smartest and the nicest students I have ever encountered (and I have taught at Harvard and New York University in addition to CUNY). They are incredibly hard-working, incredibly dedicated, incredibly appreciative. They are also incredibly imaginative when given the opportunity. I’ve encountered nice students who were not smart, and smart students who were not nice; the combination (in America) is not as common as one might like. Every year the Beida students inspire me to try to do a little better for their sake. It seems strange, at times, to be teaching Western writers in a country which has a surplus of literary geniuses; so I have made it a point to focus on texts that have relevance to modern China: for example, the works of Shakespeare, the novels of George Eliot and Charles Dickens, the poetry of Tennyson and Yeats, the prose of Ruskin and Matthew Arnold.

It is because of my love for these students—and my dear friends in t he English Department (too numerous to be named here, although I must quote the nicest thing anyone has ever said of me: Professor Liu Yiqing’s “we think of you as one of us”)—that I decided to assemble a donation of western art works for the Arthur Sackler Museum on campus. It is rare to ?nd permanent collections of western art in China. (Harvard and Princeton, by contrast, have magnificent collections of Chinese art.) Drawing on my teacher’s pension—and my friendship with many of the leading art dealers in Europe—I have already donated 110 western artworks, plus over 30 rare Chinese antiquities. So far I have prepared exhibitions of Delacroix’s rare lithographs illustrating Hamlet (2007), a group of major 20th century print-makers in 2008; and an exhibition of Daumier’s lithographs in 2009. For the fall of 2010, I will present over 45 beautiful 19th century prints; and for 2011 we will have an exhibition of great landscape prints (including etchings by Durer, Bruegel,and Piranesi). This is my way of saying thank you to Peking University for making me feel at home here.

Donald Stone, Professor Emeritus of City University of New York,USA. Since 2002, Professor Stone has been a foreign expert of Peking University and has been teaching one semester every year at Peking University. For five consecutive years, Professor Stone has donated precious art collections and cultural relics to the Sackler Museum of Peking University. In June 2011, ProfessorStone  was honored with the Award for Beijing’s International Education Cooperation.


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