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Washington State University
CAS Connect November-December 2014

In Motion: Lydia Gerber’s unique, global journey

Lydia Gerber, clinical associate professor in the Department of History, recently was appointed director of the interdisciplinary Asia Program at WSU. An expert in cross-cultural studies and Sino–German relations, she brings more than 20 years of teaching experience and a collaborative approach to her new role within the college.

Lydia Gerber
Lydia Gerber

Lydia spoke with us recently about how she came to WSU and her vision for the Asia Program.

You joined WSU faculty in 1995—would you share some highlights of your journey?

I was born and raised in Germany and earned my terminal degree in Chinese studies and religious science at Hamburg University. From 1983 to 1985 I studied Chinese History at Shandong University in Jinan, PRC. Fewer than 50 foreign students were in the city at the time, and we were objects of intense public interest. Jinan and all of China were in a process of profound economic transformation. I was fortunate to befriend some Chinese students at a time when the authorities discouraged contact with foreigners.

View of a 1980s street market in China. (Photo: Lydia Gerber)
View of a 1980s street market in China. (Photo: Lydia Gerber)

I came to WSU by a rather strange route. From 1991 to 1992 I taught German to graduate students at Nankai University in Tianjin, China, and conducted research for my dissertation on Sino-German relations. While there, I met Bill Hallagan, who taught here at WSU and was a Fulbright professor in economics at Nankai that year. We were married in 1994, and I arrived in Pullman that September with a seemingly interminable dissertation project in boxes of Xeroxed archival material from Germany and China.

Without even a driver’s license, I was at first badly prepared for life in the United States. American idioms perplexed me. I remember walking all over Pullman that fall, seeing signs on many well-manicured lawns that said: “Slade Gorton works for me.” I assumed he ran a lawn-care service. Even though I have been here almost 20 years (Bill and I spent another year in China 1998-99), I continue to learn about American culture as our son attends public school and I try to be a worthy and inconspicuous soccer mom.

How did your scholarly interest in Asia develop?

A good omen qilin overlooks a field being prepared for crops in 1980s China. (Photo: Lydia Gerber)
A good omen qilin overlooks a field being prepared for crops in 1980s China. (Photo: Lydia Gerber)

When I graduated from a German gymnasium in 1980, I had two plans related to my college education. I wanted to learn another spoken language—since, apart from German and English, I had studied Latin and Ancient Greek—and I wanted to understand the world beyond Europe. Chinese studies and religious studies was a perfect fit. I have to admit that at the time I did not have a well-developed career plan, I just wanted to understand better what was happening in the world. Given China’s long history, complex culture, and beautiful language, my field continues to fascinate me!

What do you enjoy about teaching?

I greatly enjoy the “beginner’s mind” students bring to the exploration of history. I can never quite predict what they will ask or contribute in class. It’s been delightful to support students as they develop their own research and gain confidence in their abilities as scholars. My proudest moments have been sitting in the audience as they present their research at the Showcase for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (SURCA) and at our Columbia Valley Undergraduate Asian Studies Research Symposium.

What aspects of your research do you find most compelling?

At the heart of my research interest is the figure of Richard Wilhelm (1873-1930), who went to China as a Protestant missionary and returned as a key figure in promoting Chinese traditional culture in Germany in the 1920s.

German sinologist, theologian, and missionary Richard Wilhelm.
German sinologist, theologian, and missionary Richard Wilhelm.

Wilhelm arrived in the German Leasehold Kiaochow in China shortly before the Boxer Rebellion (1900). He persuaded German troops to stop killing helpless Chinese peasants in the aftermath of the rebellion, saving hundreds of lives. For the next three decades he worked tirelessly to promote mutual understanding between China and Germany through the translation of texts, the education of students, and the forging of enduring personal connections. Both China and Germany cherish his legacy, some of his translations are still in print, and one of his granddaughters just made a well-received movie about him and his translation of the Chinese classical text, the Book of Changes (Yijing).

My recent research has explored Wilhelm’s attempts to forge connections between Chinese and Christian values, including the vision of a “new religion” that would incorporate both.

I am currently engaged with two new projects: one is a co-authored volume on German voices on China during the first three decades of the 20th century. The other is an exploration of the entire history of the missionary work of the Swiss–German Weimar Mission in China (1885-1951). Wilhelm played a significant role in it, but some of its other missionaries are equally noteworthy scholars in Chinese studies. My aim is to establish how the missionary society responded to the changes China went through in this time period, which includes the end of the Qing Dynasty, World War I, World War II, including the Japanese Occupation, and finally the Communist Revolution.

What do you hope to achieve as director of the Asia Program?

My primary goal is to re-energize the Asia Program.

We have wonderful, dedicated faculty collaborating across disciplines, and a small but very engaged student body. Our signature annual events, such as the China Town Hall, our East meets West annual symposium, and our Columbia Valley Undergraduate Asian Studies Research Symposium already give our program a strong profile on campus. But I see opportunities in enhancing the support we can give our majors and minors by strengthening connections between our students, faculty, alumni, and local and international donors. This will help us guide students in acquiring internships and scholarships that enhance their profiles in the job market or graduate school applications.

Among top items I’ll propose to our faculty and students are creation of an Asian Studies Student Club and ideas for developing a unique learning and traveling experience exclusively for our majors and minors. Another is the development of a capstone course that highlights the interdisciplinary nature of our program.

Snapshot: Asia Program

The interdisciplinary Asia Program provides a broad, systematic examination of Asia through the study of history, language, literature, culture, philosophy, religion, society, arts, politics, and cinema. It is designed to deepen students’ appreciation of the complexity and diversity of the region encompassing East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.

Floating Torii, Itsukushima, Miyajima, Japan. (Photo: Paul Brians, courtesy of Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, WSU Libraries)
Floating Torii, Itsukushima, Miyajima, Japan. (Photo: Paul Brians, courtesy of Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, WSU Libraries)

Classes are taught by faculty whose departmental homes include history, philosophy, foreign languages and cultures, political science, marketing, and international business. Exemplary teachers and researchers, faculty of the Asia Program are distinguished by their extensive travel and the scholarly work they conduct abroad.

Faculty research interests range from translation of ancient Chinese texts to Japanese aesthetics and urban history, as well as Asian philosophy, ethical theory, east-west studies, Islam, and issues of globalization, including international trade, social and environmental justice—even Chinese pesticide policy.

The major in Asian studies promotes depth and breadth with course work in major areas of the humanities and social sciences. Students may focus on one country or region (China, Japan, India, Middle East), while developing pan-Asian perspectives and interdisciplinary perspectives through geographic and disciplinary distribution requirements. Alternatively, students may complete a minor in Asian studies, tailored to their individual interests, while satisfying several of their general education requirements.

Study abroad is very strongly encouraged.

Degrees offered

  • Bachelor of arts in Asian studies
  • Minor in Asian studies

Certificates offered

  • East Asian studies for College of Business Majors
  • East Asian Studies for College of Engineering and Architecture Majors