June 7, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 18

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    2007 Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching: Wu Hung

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    Wu Hung

    Wu Hung, the Harrie H. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in Art History and the College, never teaches the same graduate seminar twice.

    One of the world’s leading experts on both early and contemporary Chinese art, Wu always links his graduate seminars to his current research. For Wu, the graduate seminar is an integral part of his own research process. “For me, each seminar has a real sense of discovery,” he said. “I think of it as scientists think of a lab. We try to find evidence, to test hypotheses.”

    The author of Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture, The Double Screen: Medium and Representation in Chinese Painting, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century and Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space, Wu said his seminars almost always play a valuable role in shaping and refining his paper and book ideas. Next year, for instance, he will be a Franke Institute fellow, researching the ideas and images of ruins in Chinese art. He also will be teaching only one seminar during his fellowship year. “On ruins in Chinese art and visual culture,” he said, smiling.

    “I think it’s much better if I’m teaching something that I’m thinking about currently, than something I did 10 years ago.”

    A popular teacher whose seven- or eight-member seminars in Asian art often also include as many as 10 auditors, Wu believes he has two chief roles as a professor: “One of my goals is to produce books, essays and lectures. And the other goal is to produce people. And that’s equally important. I am producing my future colleagues.”

    Wu, a former curator in the Palace Museum in Beijing and a Chicago faculty member since 1994, views the graduate seminars as the central component in developing scholars.

    Cultivating scholars requires a varied skill set, Wu said, none more important than trying to find a story to tell.

    For instance, Wu’s most recent seminar focuses on Dunhuang, a place in northwestern China that once was an important junction between various cultures on the ancient Silk Road. The site is unusually rich with both visual and textual information because of the numerous paintings and sculptures in more than 400 Buddhist chapels there, and because of a 20th-century discovery of a “secret library” in one of the chapels.

    Wu has studied many aspects of Dunhuang, but this year’s seminar focused on constructing a complex ritual calendar, examining, in particular, the many festivals and rituals organized by multiple communities and religious institutions for different purposes. A central idea behind this project was that these festivals and rituals were important occasions for producing, using and viewing images and performances, Wu said.

    But even before young scholars choose a story to tell, Wu said, they must master fundamental skills, such as knowing how to read particular texts; knowing how to analyze pictures for their style, content and form; and understanding the historical context and the preexisting scholarship.

    That is the first stage. Then, Wu said, students need to learn how to find a narrative thread. “The guiding principle is that the field is changing—whether one is studying Chinese art, Buddhist art or funerary art. “We need to constantly renew the story, to change the characters, to find new material. My goal is to push students do both simultaneously, to bring in new materials and to redefine the questions.”

    For advanced graduate students, who have amassed a greater knowledge, base and more technical and language skills, Wu said his role is “simply bringing them to the next level. I am more of a seminar leader, rather than a ‘teacher’ in a conventional sense. My first task is to set the methodological agenda.”

    The results have been, at times, astonishing. This year, he said, one student in Chinese literature worked on some important documents from Dunhuang and developed an interesting theory about the relationship between a group of Buddhist caves and death. Another student, focusing on rituals at Dunhuang, wrote a paper on not just the form of portraiture, but also its ritualistic function and production. “I have been amazed at what students have come up with in a 10-week quarter,” said Wu.

    Wu, who also has a Ph.D. in anthropology, said interdisciplinarity—having students whose fields of study vary from art history to literature and history to anthropology—generates productivity in his seminars.

    Wu said his role as a “producer of students” obliges him to also work on two other dimensions.

    The second dimension of graduate education, or what he calls “outside the classroom,” is to participate in his student’s workshops and to help them organize symposia. His third role is to help them engage with scholars outside of the University. “It’s important that they make contact with their future peers from around the world, beyond Chicago and the United States,” said Wu, who tries to facilitate these interactions through his role as Director of Chicago’s Center for the Art of East Asia.

    “All of this is very important,” said Wu. “This plays a big role in the future of the field of Chinese art history.”