Summer Institute for Chinese Studies Held at Pitt

SICS scholars gather during a break from the conference.

Scholars from across three continents convened at the University of Pittsburgh’s Asian Studies Centers during the week of May 26-June 1, 2019 for the inaugural meeting of the Summer Institute for Chinese Studies (SICS).  The Asian Studies Center, in collaborative partnerships with Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Inter-University Center for Sinology, USA (CCK-IUC), designed the Summer Institute to allow senior scholars of Asian Studies to meaningfully engage ten “early career scholars” in their research and scholarship throughout the week.  Scholars presented on a range of fascinating topics related to this year’s seminar’s themes of Science, Technology, and Medicine.  Presentations ranged from Health Caring in Daoist Ritual to Confucian Ethics in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Participants formally presented their research each day, and then engaged in a series of panel discussions, workshops, critiques, pedagogical mentoring, and lectures for the purpose of developing Chinese Studies courses.  The week was punctuated with group outings to visit the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens medicinal garden, the East Asian Library at the University of Pittsburgh, and the Taste of Taiwan food festival in Oakland’s vibrant walking neighborhood.

As the program evolves over the years, SICS will focus on the relationship between teaching, publishing and the production of knowledge through multi-media salons, blogs, curating exhibits, creative non-fiction writing, op-ed writing, and digitization of libraries, among other objectives.

Overall, the Summer Institute proved to be an enriching and helpful experience for both young and senior scholars.  Meaningful professional relationships and networks were cultivated through the seminar, and opportunities for increased scholarship and intellectual growth were fostered by the level and rigor of inquiry and analysis throughout the sessions. The scholars were able to connect across disciplines and research interests, with their passion for Chinese Studies serving as the overall foundation for what proved to be a stimulating and fascinating week.




Interview with Catherine Fratto

Cathy (1).JPG

Catherine Fratto joined the Asian Studies Center in May of 2019 as Engagement Coordinator.  She will work within the Asian Studies Center and across all six UCIS centers to develop and deliver K-12 curriculum and programming for teachers and students, as well as engage with the university-wide community and regional communities through UCIS programming and events.  We caught up with her to ask her a few questions about her work at the Center.

Tell us about your background.  What brought you to the University of Pittsburgh?

Before taking this position with the ASC, I was a high school History for 14 years.  I taught World History to 10th graders, and really enjoyed developing a curriculum that incorporated a great deal of Asian Studies content in my classes. We worked with a lot of primary source documents on a daily basis in our study of the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. I also taught AP US History to 11th graders for about 12 years, and in that course, I was able to touch on the interactions between the U.S. and Asia at pivotal points throughout the 18th-21st centuries. As a high school educator, I took part in a number of Asian Studies-related professional development opportunities, as well, ranging from Pitt’s National Consortium for Teachers of Asia 12-week institute for teachers to book discussion seminars through the NCTA and UCIS’s Global Studies Center to National Endowment for the Humanities summer institutes related to US foreign policy with Asia. Before I became a teacher, I was a curator at the Heinz History Center, where I created exhibits and programming related to western Pennsylvania immigration history.  I did a lot of research and writing in this capacity, and presented to community groups on a regular basis. The position with the Asian Studies Center at UCIS was a great opportunity for me to continue to develop and share my skills and interests related to research, writing, education, outreach, and programs.

What are some aspects of your new position that you are excited about?

I am very excited to work with my colleagues in the Asian Studies Center who are all super smart, accomplished, hard-working, engaging, and supportive. There are so many outstanding programs that are already in place at the ASC, and it will be exciting to support their continued success and to develop new programs and engagement opportunities, as well. Also, I am enjoying getting to know and work with my colleagues in the other five UCIS centers, who are also integral to so much of the amazing programming that comes out of UCIS. I am working hand in hand with the other two engagement coordinators—Susan Dawkins of the Russian and Eastern European Studies Center, and Samantha Moik of the European Studies Center—to strengthen and grow UCIS’s overall mission of internationalizing the university through engagement with K-16 schools and their communities and within Pitt.

What is a piece of wisdom that you have learned from your other professional positions that you feel will impact or be helpful to you in this position?

I would say that the ability to stay curious and hungry for knowledge is an important piece of wisdom I have learned, and that I hope to keep with me not only in this position but for the rest of my life. No matter what role you hold or where you work, there will always be something new to learn and someone who can teach you new things, which is an amazing and humbling experience to behold on a daily basis.  It keeps the world fresh and interesting, and allows you to grow both personally and professionally and to better your capabilities. It helps you to remember that the world is a big place and that there are many paths one can navigate to arrive at new knowledge. Pitt is an exciting and vibrant place for me and many others in this regard.

Interview with Dr. Zhaojin Zeng

download (2)Dr. Zhaojin Zeng is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh. He completed his PhD in history at the University of Texas at Austin. As a new faculty member, Dr. Zeng began his research and teaching at Pitt in Fall 2018. We are fortunate to meet with him and have a chance to sit down and talk about his research and teaching experiences.

Q: Tell us about your background and what brought you to the University of Pittsburgh?

I got a bachelor’s degree of engineering in food science and technology and then because of my personal interest, I decided to pursue a doctorate in history. This decision can trace back to my undergraduate in China. At that time, I took several elective courses on Chinese History in addition to my major’s courses in food studies. The fascinating topics taught by the history professors at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) strongly impressed me and planted the seed in my heart to explore further this field. After college, I took the next step moving toward history to pursue a two-year Master of Philosophy in Social Sciences (MPhil) at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. After that, I got admitted to the doctoral program in history at UT-Austin and then obtained my PhD degree in East Asian History there after the six-year study. Looking back, I will say that I am very fortunate to have an interdisciplinary background, which has laid a robust foundation for my historical research. When analyzing a historical issue or event, I always think about it from various distinctive perspectives like science, technology, and sometimes physics. My data analytics skill also helps me a lot when I conduct quantitative research.

I am very happy to join Pitt, as I know that Pitt has wealthy traditions and resources in East Asian studies and famous historians such as Prof. Cho-yun Hsu used to work here. I am sure that these will be helpful to my academic career. This semester, I am teaching two courses, Modern China and Modern East Asia Civilization. I am glad to see that both classes are fully registered, which means that a lot of students are interested in East Asian culture and history. I am currently also a faculty affiliate in the Asian Studies Center (ASC), so I also look forward to participating in the ASC’s events and contributing to our University.

Q: What research are you currently focusing on? Are you confronting any challenges?

I am writing a book on the history of Chinese industrial factories in the 20th century. Through a case study of a regional iron factory in Shanxi from 1907 to 2004, I found that despite eventful political and social changes in China, regional factories managed to survive and demonstrated strong continuity in their economic institutions, business culture, and production practices. Nevertheless, revolutionary changes were still part of the story. My research shows that the factories had to adopt various strategies in response to different state policies and regime change. Through the lens of regional factories, my research reveals the tension between state and society in China’s century-long industrialization and highlights the mixed legacies of local industries,

state initiatives, and transnational network in the making of the Chinese factory economy.

I studied factories through reading their archives and carried out oral historical interviews with factory cadres and workers. One of the challenges in writing the factory history is the unavailability of factory documents. Some small factories that I am looking at have been shut down by the local government and therefore none of their archives were left. This made the research really hard to do. But I believe that it is important to recount the history of Chinese factories, as today China has been the world factory as well as a global economic powerhouse. Thus it is important to understand how the Chinese economy evolved from a predominately agrarian economy into a global factory over the course of the 20th century.

Q: What is your favorite part of teaching?

My teaching emphasizes the integration of historical analysis, human interaction, and digital methods. Back in 2016-17, I taught a self-designed course “Modern Chinese Economic and Business History,” using lectures, group discussions, and business-case analysis. Students played local enterprise leaders in class and debated the strategies in response to China’s political and economic changes. At Pitt, I expanded it into an Asian history course and incorporated new digital tools (Carto and TimelineJS) to help students visualize historical transitions. Students worked in groups to create a digital timeline of an East Asian city and performed a PechaKucha presentation on their project. In the future, I will continue to develop new courses and embrace digital turns in history education. My favorite moment of being a history professor is introduce new historical figures to my undergraduate students and teach them how to build a digital map.

PAGE Internship Program

Post by Mara Wearden, ASC Student Ambassador

This semester I have the incredible opportunity to participate in a 3-credit internship through the Asian Studies Center, in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, the Russian and Eastern European Studies Center, and the European Studies Center.  Entitled the PAGE (Partnership in Advancing Globalized Education) Program, this opportunity is being offered for the third time here at Pitt, but this year is the first year that the Asian Studies Center is participating.

As written in the syllabus:

“This Partnership for the Advancement of Globalized Education (PAGE) course is designed to develop the knowledge, skills, and theoretical considerations needed to teach social studies in the secondary classroom with a focus on global perspectives on education by providing pre-service teachers with an introductory overview of some of the most effective approaches to planning, implementing, managing, and assessing successful and effective learning experiences for students.  Emphasis is placed on gaining insight from hands-on classroom experience through both observation and co-teaching experience, as well as developing professional skills such as lesson planning, assessment, and classroom management.  Interns will have opportunities to analyze classroom strategies and practices to engage in key pedagogical practices which receiving constructive feedback from a Master of Arts in Teaching mentor and the course instructor.”

As a student interested in both Asian Studies (in particular, China), as well as education, this internship allows me to observe a classroom weekly, and work in close coordination with an MAT student and professor.  By the end of the semester, I will be teaching my own unit on a topic of my choosing (related to Asian Studies) to an AP World History class of 10th graders at Pittsburgh Public Schools’ CAPA High School.

For those of you interested in participating in this program next year, feel free to reach out to me ( with any questions.  Although only four weeks into the semester, I already know that this opportunity will benefit me greatly in my future career.

Interview with Dr. Emily Rook-Koepsel

Dr. Emily Rook-Koepsel joined the Asian Studies Center in August of 2016 as the Assistant Director of Academic Affairs. She advises undergraduate and graduate certificate students and East Asian IDMA students; she also administers faculty and student grants and fellowships. We are delighted to have her with the Center and glad she could take the time to answer a few questions.

Tell us about your background. What brought you to the University of Pittsburgh? 

I graduated with a Ph.D. in South Asian history from the University of Minnesota in 2010, and got a job at the University of Oklahoma in their International and Area Studies Department in 2011. In 2016, I was ready for a change, and excited to move closer to family. When the Pitt job came up, it was a perfect fit. I grew up in Pittsburgh, so I was heading home. More importantly, the job had all of the aspects that I most enjoyed about academia—working with students, and building a strong focus on global education.
 What led you to study South Asian History? 

I began to study South Asia by accident. I was a history major as an undergraduate student, and in my program we had to complete a historiography course. I was fairly sure that I was NOT interested in Asia, so I decided to take the historiography course that I thought would be focused on Asia to confirm my disinclination. The final research project for that class was a 20 page paper on whatever subject you liked, but it needed to be focused on one country, and use a specific set of books that we could borrow from the library. When I went to check out the books (during the second week of classes) the books about India were the only ones left. I was intrigued by what I found, and continued to take courses including ultimately Hindi language. By the time I left my undergraduate program I had worked in India at a primary school, taken two years of Hindi, and gotten a second major in South Asian Languages and Civilizations.
What is your favorite takeaway from your academic background? 

My favorite takeaway from my academic background (widely applicable) is that being a good scholar is about being critical AND generous. Too often as students and young scholars, we read or think about questions with the main idea of ripping them to shreds. Certainly, no argument, article, book, etc. is perfect (as any author of an argument, book, or theory would admit), but little is gained if I look at every work as an opportunity to criticize. Reading and thinking, in order to be productive, need to collaborative and open. I have after many long years learned to read and think productively, asking how is this argument helpful or useful to my understanding rather than how is this argument flawed. Of course, any scholar must be able to understand how to engage critically with their peers, but interacting productively allows for greater engagement.


What is your favorite part of advising certificate students? 

I love working with our certificate students, because each of them brings a specific and personal take to learning about Asia. Whether it is the undergrad med student who is adding an Asian Studies Certificate because he has a passion for Chinese poetry, or the Japanese manga enthusiast who has built on early passions to be able to talk knowledgably about Japanese linguistics, or the Korean minor who also runs a highly regarded K-drama blog, each of students comes at the study of Asia with different passions. Moreover, because the certificate is part of a larger plan, our students all are genuinely interested in thinking about Asia often outside of their major departmental concerns. The kinds of thinking they do makes me feel like the study of Asia is in good hands for the next generation.
Share a piece of wisdom you’d like to impart to every student you interact with. 

There is no clear path after college or graduate school! Students learn a ton of things in college and graduate school. What matters most to post graduation success is how the student is able to explain and contextualize what they learned, and the degree of confidence, professionalism, and intellectual curiosity that the student will bring to their explanation of what their degree was about. You will probably be more successful (or at least just as successful) in the long run if you focus on your intellectual passions in college, as long as you are able to coherently and cogently explain why what you learned (skills and content) has prepared you for where you want to go. So study Japanese (or history, or anthropology, or any number of fields), but get prepared to explain what you learned and why it makes you fantastic!
What is your hope for the Asian Studies Center in the near future? 

The Asian Studies Center is fantastic the way it is! But, if I have to choose a hope for the future, it is that the center is able to share how important and interesting Asia is even to people who haven’t had a chance to study it.


Seijin Shiki @ Pitt

Post by Raka Sarkar, Japan Studies Intern

This past semester, we were incredibly fortunate to have exchange students visiting us at Pitt from Yasuda Women’s University in Hiroshima, Japan. Having crossed a vast sea, they chose to come here, to us, to study English at our English Language Institute, from August through the middle of January. Thanks to the Asian Studies Center’s facilitation, I (and many other students of Japanese like me) was incredibly fortunate to be able to have one of these wonderful, talented, and brave girls as my conversation partner.

However, the time that they chose to be here is incredibly significant in Japan for not one, but two reasons. New Year’s is an incredibly important time for people of Japanese heritage, as it is a time when family unites to usher in the new year together and pay their respects. However, for a number of the girls who came here to Pitt, 2017 was the year that they turned 20, and officially came of age in Japan—the age that they will finally be recognized as adults, ready to enter society, their futures bright with new possibilities.

As a result, Coming of Age Day (成人の日, Seijin no Hi) is  a national holiday held on the second Monday of January, where young people dress in their finest traditional clothes, and are celebrated during ceremonies held at schools and prefectural offices. Any young women will wear furisode, a style of kimono with long, elegant sleeves that fall around one’s ankles, and men can dress up in either traditional dress with hakama trousers or snappy Western suits. The photos that come out of Japan at this time every year are stunning to watch, but this year, looking at them was bittersweet—the girls studying abroad with us could have been celebrating in style back home, but in chasing their passion, they were brought here.

Thus, we decided that we should bring a Coming of Age ceremony to them. On Wednesday, January 10, a ballroom in the University Club was rented out, and following a rousing performance by Pittsburgh Taiko, students from Yasuda, as well as students from Pitt and Chatham, all twenty, processed in, dressed in resplendent kimono and formal wear. Speeches were given about responsibility, about the opportunities lying in wait for them as adults, and all that their English education would provide for them. A calligraphy demonstration captivated the audience, and gifts were exchanged, before everyone was set free to mingle, dance, celebrate, eat toasted almond cake, and spend time with host families and friends.

Seeing this new side to the Yasuda students—dressed in their finery, heads held high as adults, I personally felt overwhelmed. It was such an incredible privilege to witness their coming of age across the sea, and smother them with all the love we could before they return home to their families and teachers. My conversation partner flies home on Sunday, and while I will worry and fuss over how these last two years of her college career will fare, the photo I have of her, in her dazzling red kimono, with flowers in her hair, will remind me that she’s a stronger, braver, and more capable woman than she was before. I look forward to the next time we Pitt students can meet with the Yasuda students again.

Pitt International Week: George Takei

Post by Mara Wearden, ASC Student Ambassador Intern

“Star Trek is about acceptance, and the strength of the Starship Enterprise is that it embraces diversity in all its forms.” – George Takei

Born in 1937, Japanese-American actor, director, author, and activist, George Takei is a household name.  Many may know him from his role as Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek, but many others, of the younger generations, may know him from his social media presence.  As of February 2017, this 80-year-old’s Facebook page, on which he frequently shares photos with original humorous commentary, has over 10 million likes!

The University of Pittsburgh was fortunate enough to host George Takei on Tuesday, October 17, as a part of the university’s International Week.  Soldiers and Sailors Hall was packed, full of Pitt students, faculty, staff, families, and members of the Pittsburgh community, eager to hear Mr. Takei speak.  The event commenced with opening remarks from UCIS Director Dr. Ariel Armony, as he spoke about the importance of International Week and this year’s theme of “Displacement”, whether that be out-of-country displacement, or domestic displacement.

Mr. Takei then took the stage to talk about his own experience with domestic displacement.  When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Takei was just shy of five-years-old.  His Japanese-American family, though all born in the United States, were taken by armed soldiers and forced to into an internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, where they lived until the war ended.  Takei talked about his vivid memories of his time in the internment camp, and then his anger and resentment towards the US government after being released.  As he matured into a young adult, he struggled with the concept of the Pledge of Allegiance’s final phrase “with liberty and justice for all”, knowing that his family received neither liberty nor justice.  “It was an egregious violation of the American Constitution.  We were innocent American citizens, and we were imprisoned simply because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor.  It shows us just how fragile our Constitution is.”  While George struggled with these concepts, his father continuously reminded him that the beauty and flaw of democracy is that it is run by the people.  All people make mistakes, and for democracy to work, one has to believe in the general good of people, and that with time and activism, those mistakes will be resolved.

As Takei began his acting career, he was continuously faced with the internal conflict of coming out as gay in the Hollywood community.  Ultimately, Takei took his father’s advice, and realized that if people in a democracy do not stand up and fight for things that they believe are not just, then nothing will ever change.

Today, Takei is married to his husband of 9 years, Brad Altman, and lives in Los Angeles, where he has been deemed the “funniest guy on Facebook”.  Not only are his social media posts humorous, they also promote political activism and the standing up for what you believe in.  George says it best that “Our democracy is dependent on people who passionately cherish the ideals of a democracy.  Every man is created equal with an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  It’s a wonderful idea, [but] it takes people who cherish that idea to be actively involved in the process.”

Thank you Mr. Takei for being an incredible part of Pitt’s International Week 2017!