Profile: Meeting Professor Zhao Lu Halfway

(Photo credit source: NYU Shanghai Faculty Spotlight)

Erin Luo, a Business and Finance major sophomore at NYU Shanghai, has taken two courses offered by the Global China Studies department, both of them taught by Professor Zhao Lu. 

“Professor Zhao always encourages us to express our own thoughts in class. He has a way to make classes interesting, even if they are about the Silk Road,” Erin said.

Just as Erin gave credit to Professor Zhao for boosting her interest in Global China Studies, Zhao Lu, Assistant Professor of Global China Studies, credited his teachers multiple times when discussing his life as a student. 

Interested in literature and history since his childhood in Beijing, Zhao majored in Comparative Literature at Capital Normal University. As an undergraduate, he followed the style of his teacher in Early Chinese Literature and became an expert in memorizing, reciting, and copying traditional Chinese texts. Wanting to study with Professor Paul R. Goldin, Professor Zhao spent his graduate and Ph.D. years in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Though not familiar with his future major, Zhao’s parents, who are both doctors, were very supportive of his decisions. “My dad thought studying abroad is a good experience to have,” he said.

Zhao started his study in the US in September 2008. Less than a month earlier, diver Guo Jingjing had won a gold medal in the Beijing Summer Olympics. She used her original name instead of Jingjing Guo, the westernized version. Prof. Goldin used her example to encourage Zhao to keep his identity. 

“He basically said to me, ‘If your name is Zhao Lu, then go with Zhao Lu. You don’t have to flip the order or have an English name if you don’t want to. Just like Guo Jingjing.’ So I had that strong feeling that I can keep my own identity,” he said. 

Zhao’s academic training was very international. As he recalled, it emphasized “knowing is knowing” and that it had nothing to do with students’ nationality or heritage. “So I had to earn my spot like everyone else,” he said.

Although Zhao didn’t think his Chinese identity particularly advantaged his academic career, some of his later colleagues in Germany had a different idea. After earning a Ph.D., he worked as a Research Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and as a research fellow at the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities (IKGF), at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. 

“Sometimes I got comments at a professional level like ‘I’m jealous of you because you are Chinese and can read classical Chinese better.’ But in my opinion, somebody being better at something is because of their training, not their nationality,” he said.

Thinking back on his work experience in Germany, Zhao recalled both growth and setbacks. As a research scholar, he was responsible for bringing scholars together for conferences. Interacting with these specialist mindsets was not only a pleasure but contributed to his research. 

Setbacks mainly came from small differences. Sinology, instead of Chinese Studies, is studied in Germany. “Sinology is different from Chinese Studies in many senses. Sinology focuses on philology, which features reading and being able to speak. The training is often on one focused area instead of interdisciplinary,” he said. German academia was also more secure compared to that of the US, which sometimes meant fewer opportunities. 

“I still identify myself as an American scholar in the sense that I empathize multi-disciplinary collaboration with individualistic work and I empathize not just theology but also historiography,” he said. 

The first hand interaction between teachers and students is one of the reasons he joined NYU Shanghai in the fall of 2018. It was not the only time that he mentioned the importance of students in the interview. When talking about teaching, he said, “Hearing unexpected answers is the most beautiful thing for teachers. It’s not about something I know. It’s about something I didn’t know.”

According to its official website, the Global China Studies program aims to “deepen students’ understanding of China’s interactions with the wider world as well as comprehend the trends within China, at individual, societal, state, and global levels, and in the context of socio-economic, religious, cultural, and political transformations.” 

Zhao explained the differences between Global China Studies and East Asian Studies and Chinese Studies. In his opinion, Global China Studies means studying a big region with a small focus. As for learning outcomes, he believed that “On one hand, our students will learn specialized knowledge on China. On the other, they will be provided with a global vision.” In the past few years, he and his colleagues have strived to maintain the emphasis on “global.”

Although not the most popular major at NYU Shanghai, Zhao still thought that Global China Studies and all humanities, in general, have their unique mission, one of “looking at a situation, either now in Shanghai or around the world, and making a good moral choice.”

For him, being a professor means not having a set schedule. He manages to keep his life as organized as possible by making his own comprehensive and detailed plan. From having breakfast at 7 a.m. to writing plans for the next day at 5 p.m., his regular day revolves around his responsibilities as a professor, a researcher, and an administrator. 

However, he needed to make changes to adapt to life in the pandemic and especially during the lockdown. In contrast to his previous seven-day-a-week schedule, he now takes weekend afternoons off for relaxation. He enjoys walks and seeing friends in his leisure time. Recently, he took up drawing as a new hobby. Sketching simple images has become his way of marking the days in the fight against COVID.

“Although it’s hard to praise Shanghai at this moment because we are all under stress, I still believe it is an international city that really takes differences in and has a human touch,” he said. Moments he will remember about Shanghai are when people always greet each other and apologize for being late. He referred to them as moments of respect and that’s the reason he wanted to be a part of the city.

It’s not hard to conclude that Professor Zhao cautiously avoids generalization of any kind, even for Shanghai. This may come from what he believes is the right way to study people in history. When asked what the take-away was after the last class of his course, The History of the Silk Road, he said, “When trying to understand people from a certain period of time, do not leave them aside or do as they do. Meet them halfway.”

Author: Meredith Lu

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