Last updated: July 5, 2012 4:43 pm
Tsao Hsingyuan, the UBC prof who self-taught during China’s cultural revolution
VANCOUVER (CUP) — There was a period in Tsao Hsingyuan’s life when an ordinary mango was a source of wonderment and burning curiosity.
Hsingyuan, now an associate professor of art history at UBC, was 11 years old and living with her uncle in Yangchun, China because her parents had been incarcerated by Mao Zedong’s communist regime. Mao was so beloved by an African country that they gave him a basket full of mangoes.
“According to the newspaper, he could not finish them all, so he gave mangoes to the Chinese leading class, the workers,” Tsao recalled. “Yangchun received one mango for the coal miners, that’s why this mango was on particular display. It was a huge event.”
She had never seen a mango before, so her sense of curiosity compelled her to visit the mango every day on her way to school. She noticed that it permanently sat in the display case in pristine condition. “How can there be a fruit that didn’t go rotten for days, weeks?”
Tsao recalls her life in China as being filled with such logical inconsistencies. Her father was a college teacher, condemned during the Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957 and imprisoned, although he never actually did anything to upset the government. “He only expressed sympathy to those who did,” she said.
“For the first seven years I had no idea I had a father,” she said. “My mother received notice that he was dead.” He was released from the labour camps when she was seven but still considered a black sheep until she was in college. During the years in between, he would be taken away whenever there was political movement, put in jail for a few months, and released again.
Tsao attributes her sense of curiosity to her genes and the fact that there was very little she was allowed to know in China. “My family had a lot of books, and what you read from books did not reconcile with society, with what you saw … You wonder why there was such a big gap.”
Due to political circumstances, school was intermittent during the cultural revolution. People like Tsao who were accepted to college had to depend on themselves to receive an education. She recalled sneakily photographing restricted books in the library and secretly studying English from cassettes at night. At school, “some months, we would do nothing but read Mao’s writings, recite them. I could recite his famous essays backwards, forwards.”
In 1989, just as she was finishing her year of required labour after her master’s, the student protests broke out at Tiananmen Square. “I was curious. I had to be involved,” Tsao said. She was witness to the massacre on June 4 and played a role in supporting the students. Her boss at the time, who was under house arrest, urged her to leave China to study abroad, and she left the country on June 9.
In the United States, Tsao continued to study art history at UC Berkeley and Stanford. When asked about her experience as a Chinese woman, she said that the first time she was referred to as a woman in an academic setting was in the United States, during her first month at Berkeley. “To my biggest surprise, I was branded in the United States as a woman of colour, two categories I have never heard.”
She said she was never categorized as a woman academic in China. “I did well in school all the way and I got my first job as teacher not because I was a woman, but because they wanted to judge me, always judged me based on my academic activity [and] conduct,” she said. “That’s China. That’s the side of China that you don’t see.”
For Tsao, university education is about teaching students how to ask questions and how to find the answers. Her approach to teaching and research recalls her early fascination with Mao’s mysterious mango. “Asking questions is to put forward what you want to know, what you expect to know. If you don’t get a satisfying answer from society, you push forward.”