InFocus: Professor Gregory Lee, Founding Professor of Chinese Studies

The arrival of the Chinese Studies Department in the 2021-22 academic year is eagerly anticipated by many prospective students and staff. It will allow students to take Chinese Studies as part of a joint honours degree or as an MLitt – options that would not have been possible without the University’s hiring of Professor Gregory Lee, the founding professor of the department.

Professor Lee sat down with The Saint to discuss the arrival of Chinese Studies at the University and his own research interests.

Having graduated at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, Professor Lee has subsequently studied at Peking University and taught at the University of Chicago, the University of Lyon, and the University of Hong Kong.

Part of Professor Lee’s family were Chinese but his interest for contemporary China and Chinese literature first occurred when he was 18 years old and travelling on the top of a bus. He looked inside a university UCAS catalogue and discovered Chinese Studies.

Professor Lee said, “I started out researching and teaching on modern Chinese poetry and modern Chinese literature. Later on, I started expanding out to what I call “Chinese Culture Studies” and the Chinese diaspora. I’m just as interested in Chinese communities outside of China as I am in China itself.”

Altogether, Professor Lee has spent approximately seven years in Hong Kong (during which he witnessed the Hong Kong handover) and six years in China.

Before teaching, Professor Lee was a news analyst for the BBC in China, where his stay coincided with the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests.

Speaking of his work, Professor Lee said, “I made a radio documentary called The Urgent Knocking which was an hour-long documentary. It was the first anniversary of Tiananmen and it was told through the prism of Chinese poets, writers, and singers in exile. It was an interesting time to be there.”

As Professor Lee noted, he has had a “worthwhile and interesting career” and his attention has now been drawn to founding the Chinese Department at The University of St Andrews.

Speaking about the focus of the department, Professor Lee said, “It’s part of the University’s strategic plan to have Chinese Studies. The way we are doing it is not a classical approach like Oxford, Cambridge, or Edinburgh. I have to congratulate the University that that’s what they wanted; they wanted to do it differently, and I think that they were absolutely right.

“Our emphasis is not on Classical Chinese; it’s on modern and contemporary China and Chinese language. It’s the 20th and 21st centuries. The focus is on cultural studies, from literature to film, and from popular culture to the socio-economy of China. When we look at the pre-modern era, we’ll do so through the prism of the present, how the past is perceived and used today.”

He continued, “I always stress we’re not just doing China studies. We’re doing Chinese studies; there’s a subtle difference. When we are doing Chinese cultural studies, we do the language and the culture of the Chinese speaking world, which is vast. So, it’s China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

“People don’t realise how extensive their migration was, especially in the late 19th century and the 20th century. You’ve got Chinese population scattered across the world, which is why we call it the diaspora. My mission was to ensure that we were covering all of that. In the syllabus, we try to do justice to that.”

The department will offer a joint Chinese Studies Undergraduate degree and are currently looking into having a second level for students who have already completed beginner’s levels at school. Furthermore, the MLitt in Chinese Cultural Studies will also be available to prospective students for the 2021/2022 academic year. Three members of staff will be joining Professor Lee to teach the available courses.

Opportunities to study abroad will be open to students on both the four-year and five-year degree pathways, who will be able to study in either China or Taiwan. A summer school for both destinations is also in the process of being organised for incoming first year students.

Planning the modules from scratch was a motivation for Professor Lee when he took up the official post of Founding Professor a year ago.

He said, “I accepted the job because it’s a real challenge and it’s a great opportunity to mould something from the beginning. In normal times, it would have been a challenge, but with COVID, it’s been doubly so. I’ve been here since August and almost immediately we were in lockdown. All my contact with colleagues and students is online. I’m very much looking forward to that ending.”

He continued, “Another one of the reasons I was very happy to accept this post was that it’s actually anchored in Modern Languages. It’s the most widely spoken language in the world, even before English. Around 1.4 billion people speak some form of Chinese.”

Professor Lee’s long-term vision for Chinese Studies at the University includes expanding it into a single subject degree for honours students.

He said, “The main ambition is to see Chinese taught in the same way that French is. My ambition is to see through the first cohort of students four or five years down the road. I would like to see Chinese in St Andrews become not just an integral part of the Modern Languages faculty but renowned for the specific kind of Chinese studies course that we offer.”

Professor Lee discussed his most recent ongoing research project “A Cultural History of China 1975-2020” and the use of an image archive.

Professor Lee gave The Saint an in-depth insight into his research project.

“This is part of a bigger project which is a cultural history of China since 1975, basically since the death of Mao and Maoism. The period I am looking at is post-Mao China after the cultural revolution. There’s been a lot of change in everyday life and cultural life. The Communist Party is still there and dominating society. The idea is to do as wide and as deep a study as possible.”

He continued, “Part of the project is my own photographic archive which I started working on over 40 years ago. There was a 15-year period where I was on and off in China and Hong Kong, so it occurred to me that I had a treasure trove of colour photographs, black and white photographs, slides transparencies, and colour and negative films. There’s also a sound archive which I worked on as a PhD student when I interviewed writers. They have all ended up as grist to the mill for this bigger project. I’m also considering doing an annotated photographic album.”

Professor Lee noted that a project like this does not exist.

He said, “It’s something that hasn’t been done before. There are a lot of books about China but very few studies that take that kind of sweep and look at things in such depth. I got the idea when I was writing a previous book about the 1980’s. I had written 400 pages and thought that I could have easily written 4000 pages.”

He continued, “The good thing about doing that today with digital humanities is that you can have these other aspects. You can have the monograph but you also have the possibility of having an archive behind it so people can go and look at the images and listen to the sound archive. It becomes this sort of arborescence and not just a linear book project.”

Professor Lee has approximately a few thousand photos in his archive. He spends his Saturday mornings identifying the date, place, and people (if there are any) of each image, as well as what is going on in the frame and the political context. Though digitising can be time-consuming, the process of tagging, identifying and logging one single image can take up to an hour to complete.

The process of tagging an image is a significant step in the formation of an archive as Professor Lee noted.

He said, “You’re basically trying to second-guess what people would be interested in twenty or thirty years from now. If you do an archive, it’s not for tomorrow or for today, it’s for a few years down the road.”

He continued, “In the future, people will be looking at different things and the questions they will ask won’t necessarily be the same. It’s difficult to know when you are tagging pictures with key words what will be the key words down the road that people will be looking for.

“It’s obvious when you’re saying it. I often say to my students who are working on the contemporary that the contemporary will not be the contemporary twenty years from now. When you do your reference notes, think about people twenty years down the road reading what you have written and trying to make sense of it.”

Professor Lee expanded on this, stating that, “Knowledge shifts and changes and people have different kinds of knowledge. The way that people want to use that knowledge changes. Twenty years ago, progressive politics was all about economics and social injustice and now it’s more about ecology and climate change – things that people didn’t foresee twenty years ago. When you scratch the surface, there were people telling us that, but we didn’t listen to them.

“China’s contribution to climate change was predictable. There were people talking about ecology in the seventies and what was going wrong. That was the moment that we were encouraging China to become an industrial capitalist consumerist society. We knew these things; we just didn’t think they were a priority. So, in a sense, my research project is about that. It’s about what happened, how and why it happened, how we let it happen and how we encouraged it to happen.”

Professor Lee noted that the images he has accumulated from his time in China and Hong Kong serve as a reminder for a changing culture.

He said, “The value of those images is something that dawned on me in the last couple of years. I realised that they are representing something that’s gone. Everything that I show in my archive is not there anymore, whether it’s people practicing crafts in the street, market stalls, the way they dress, the martial arts, the buildings and temples, vernacular architecture – it’s all gone. If you Google Shanghai, you see thousands of skyscrapers and high-rise buildings, so everything I was showing is a world that’s gone.

He continued, “Without wanting to get into a nostalgia, I’ve been trying to work out a theory for what it represents. The photos at the beginning of my collection are just after the cultural revolution and people were enthusiastic about getting back to some sort of normality. Then, you realised that they weren’t getting back to anything. They are in a process which leads up to today. That process is the disappearance of a historical way of life which is then replaced by the everyday of modernity and consumerist society, where every day is basically the same. Everyday is horribly monotonous. That’s when I realised it was about the remnants of another way of life and people didn’t realise that that’s what they were participating in.”

“That’s what I get from staring at these pictures and comparing it to the way things are now. It’s about these photographs changing their meaning over time. Without knowing all of this, the reason for me taking these photographs was that, somehow, I knew that this was not there forever. I think that almost behind every photograph there is that idea that this is transitory.”