By Donal O’Shea and Maneesha Lal
Over half of the world’s population lives in Asia. In the U.S., we watch films and hear music that increasingly reflect the global influence of popular Asian cultures.
Today’s university graduates need a knowledge of Asia’s historic civilizations, myriad religions, diverse cultures, and dynamic economies. Indeed, two of those economies are forecast to overtake America’s in their lifetimes. Challenges such as climate change and global pandemics will require knowledge of critical languages and cooperation across national borders and boundaries.
Happily, a number of local educational and cultural institutions help students, and local residents, deepen their knowledge of Asia. Never was this more evident, than on January 16 to 19, when a remarkable collaboration brought together a rich panoply of matters Asian.
More than 100 scholars of Asia from the US and around the world gathered at New College to share their research. Talks ranged over topics as diverse as British representations of Tibet in the nineteenth century; American, European, and Japanese policy toward Shanghai’s Jewish refugees during World War II; and public health and geopolitics in 1950s and 60s Cambodia. It was the first time in two decades that the Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies had met in Florida. Professors Xia Shi, Fang-yu Li, and Jing Zhang of New College put in enormous effort over many months to organize the multi-day program.
The Elling Eide Center kicked off the conference by hosting a public lecture on a stunning act of civil disobedience in the late years of the Ming Dynasty that led to an erotic opera with a hidden subversive agenda. The lecture was followed by a luncheon that included students, and, on the next two evenings, a splendid performance of the opera-inspired dance “Peony Dreams: On the Other Side of Sleep” by renowned dancer Yin Mei at The Ringling’s Historic Asolo Theater. The Ringling Museum hosted a welcome reception in the courtyard of the Center for Asian Art, and Dr. Rhiannon Paget and Dr. David Berry offered tours of its collection to conference participants. Conference attendees were also treated to a virtuosic New Music New College concert featuring soloist Jen Shyu performing her composition Nine Doors, inspired by Timorese and Korean folklore.
New College students eagerly took the opportunity to describe their Asian-themed thesis projects through poster presentations for conference attendees. The association’s leadership was so impressed with the students’ work that they hope to incorporate student poster presentations as an ongoing feature of future conferences.
New College’s offerings in Asian studies, culture, and languages have grown over the years. Now, six tenure stream faculty members regularly offer courses in Asian history, religion, economics, and politics as well as Chinese language and culture. These courses are available to other students in the Cross College Alliance.
New College’s commitment to Asian studies is not just academic.
One of this nation’s most illustrious Chinese American immigrants, I.M. Pei, designed the university’s iconic residence halls in the 1960s. The Florida Association of the American Institute of Architects designated the Pei residence halls as one of Florida’s Top 100 Buildings in 2012 and the University of Florida’s Historic Preservation Program included them in its list of 50 flagship structures in the state.
The multinational sensibility evoked by the Pei residences contributes to New College’s mission of preparing intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement. The residences and our course offerings embody the university’s commitment to educating students for a global future. We look forward to new partnerships to build on our Asia-related offerings in the years to come. And we also look forward to housing future generations of students in renovated residence halls designed by one of the iconic architects in Asian-American, indeed global, history. Those renovations will require volunteers, talent, and funds. The benefits will accrue to our entire community. Please contact either of us if you wish to help.
This column originally appeared in SRQ Daily on February 8, 2020.