When Brantly Womack, professor emeritus of politics at the University of Virginia and senior fellow at the Miller Center, retired from his professorship at the University last May, there was a noticeable loss in departmental coverage. politics of contemporary China and Chinese politics. No classes on China politics are offered this semester, and the politics department has yet to name a replacement for Womack as the department’s China expert. This was a catalyst for Womack’s decision to organize a four-part lecture series titled “China and the Refocusing of East Asia” through Womack’s own East Asia Center. University, starting Thursday and with three more scheduled through October 7.
“It’s my small effort to continue to present something available to students on the big picture of China and Asia,” Womack said.
Womack’s speaker series is scheduled for four consecutive weekly lectures, covering a chronological scope of China’s history and its positioning in the changing regional and global socio-political landscape. Each session will feature Womack’s own knowledge, an assortment of participant questions curated by a chosen moderator, and meaningful collaboration with a renowned Chinese expert.
“I could combine the presentation, not only with a webinar, but also with the best Asian experts to comment on the history of Asia or comment on my ideas on the history of Asia,” Womack said. “It adds tremendously to the depth and richness of ideas available.”
The first session in the series took place on Thursday evening and was moderated by Ambassador Stephen Mull, the University’s current Vice Provost for Global Affairs. To kick off his discussion on the topic of “China’s premodern centricity,” Womack welcomed Wang Gungwu, a professor at the National University of Singapore and renowned Chinese historian, as his first guest contributor.
In addition to Zoom, the event hosted both in-person attendance and a YouTube livestream service for those who didn’t register in time. 300 people alone were registered on Zoom, and this large online attendance was supplemented by the approximately 40-50 students and faculty present in person who gathered in the large conference space of Nau Hall. All attendees were masked in accordance with the University’s COVID-19 policy, and everyone was seated quite far apart.
East Asia Center Director Dorothy Wong greeted all in-person and virtual attendees of the event at 8:30 p.m. Thursday before passing the microphone to Mull. After a brief acknowledgment of all of Womack’s accomplishments, Mull invited the series host to the stage and the main presentation began.
Womack’s first presentation focused on three different types of continuities across Chinese history: situational factors, asymmetric perspectives, and relational interactions. The now-retired professor expanded on each continuity in carefully articulated detail before inviting his guest Gungwu to elaborate, underscore and question his presentation.
“It was a very enlightening discussion,” said Juan Arratia, a freshman at the College. “There were a whole bunch of interesting perspectives… My favorite moment would probably be when [Wang] modified a bit what the teacher said and added a new twist to it, I liked that a lot.
That interest certainly didn’t stop with Arratia – faculty and students alike sat intently in the Nau Hall crowd.
Participants took notes, listened and engaged with the professor’s intellectual and humorous ideas. Although the reasons for participation varied, there seemed to be unanimous interest in the selected topics that were discussed.
“I heard about the event through my Pledges class,” said college freshman Reese Whittaker. “I would really like to attend the other parts of the lecture series… I think it’s important to know the story all over the world [because] I firmly believe that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Brian Murphy, the East Asia Center’s administrative coordinator, reinforced Whittaker’s position on the importance of understanding history from a broader perspective.
“I mean, it’s not the kind of thing that’s really taught in the curriculum at all levels,” Murphy said. “You know you can get a BA and really have no idea about the history of the East… It’s kind of amazing that that’s the case, that the history of the world is still so Eurocentric.
Murphy’s and Whittaker’s responses highlight the importance of continuing to expand our understanding of contemporary China despite the subject’s absence from the University’s curriculum this semester. In the wake of the Asian Student Union’s survey report of APIDA students released in February, opportunities like this lecture series hope to continue to serve as avenues of awareness and contextualization.
“I think a lot of our students are interested,” Wong said. “I learned that among the U.Va. undergraduate population, 25% of students are of Asian and Asian American descent. I hope the University pays attention to the needs of Asian and Asian American students.
In the coming weeks, Womack will return to the Nau 101 podium and virtually host three more internationally acclaimed guest speakers from China, Australia and Taiwan.
Its line-up of speakers is impressive to say the least and might not have been possible without its immediate acceptance of a hybrid format.
“They’re all friends of mine and I’m happy to say they’re my number one choice and they all agreed to do it immediately,” Womack said. “And while I think distance learning has all kinds of problems, remote events – it’s something that Zoom has added a whole new dimension of possibility that we could never afford, let alone get. people who are going to comment over the next few weeks.”