Club Connection: East Asian Calligraphy Club

Post by Bliss Xiaoxu Hou, Chinese Social Media intern

Isabella Lam, who is one of the founders of Easter Asian Calligraphy Club, is currently pursuing her double major of History and Chinese with a Museum Studies Minor. As for interests, she like to spend her time with friends or reading books.

The idea of starting a calligraphy club came from a group of Isabella’s friends, who all have passion and enthusiasm of Chinese calligraphy. The calligraphy club currently has more than 10 members who meet weekly to learn and practice calligraphy together. Isabella once introduced the calligraphy club that “the Eastern Asian Calligraphy Club is open to anyone who is interested in calligraphy. We welcome students, faculty, and families to join us at our weekly meetings. We would be thrilled to have members practice Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or English calligraphy. Members can practice calligraphy by learning the basics, copying calligraphy books, or copying songs and quotes from popular culture.”

If you are interested, please contact:

Abroad in Asia: Gabrielle Lee

Post by Gabby Lee

I am currently spending my last semester as an undergraduate student, studying at Konan University in Kobe, Japan. This is not my first time in Japan because I went during high school as a part of my boarding school’s curriculum and once again in college via the Kakehashi Project, but this is my first time in Kobe and my first time studying at a university in Japan. I decided to study abroad my final semester at Pitt because I wanted to gain some experience living and studying in Japan before I graduate. I have been in Kobe for about 1.5 months and I am not ready for my study abroad experience to be over. I am living with a host family and they are the most considerate, lively, and wonderful people I have ever met. I live in Motoyama-machi, which is only 20 minutes away by walking from Konan University. I live extremely close to the sea and on days when the weather is nice and warm I go to the wharf and just enjoy the beautiful scenery.

My weeks are usually busy because I have 14 hours of Japanese language instruction per week as well as two Japanese studies classes that meet every Tuesday and Friday. Despite being busier than I thought I would be, I still have time to enjoy myself. I adapted quite quickly to living in Japan and this is probably due to the kindness of not only my host family, but also because of the students at Konan, both exchange students and Japanese students, and the kindness of those who live in Kobe. Living in Japan feels different than living in the US, but I feel like I belong here.

Being in Japan at this time has felt as though I have been living in a bubble. The United States is in turmoil and I am happy that I am in Japan, but I often worry about my friends, family, and coworkers who are experiencing the hardships that have come with the recent election. The news from America is often the number 1 topic of discussion with my host family as well as with other Japanese people, but more often than not I forget that I am American and that my home country is currently unstable.  My study abroad experience will end in May and I am now wondering what will be waiting for me in the US once I return. However, these thoughts do not prevent me from enjoying my time here in Kobe.

After my study abroad experience ends, I will return to the US with plans to return to Japan at some time in the near future. I think I could easily adjust to living in Japan for many years and I hope to return to Japan to work as a translator or a librarian or possibly both.

Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Oyler

Dr. Elizabeth Oyler is a professor of Japanese literature, drama, plays, and history. She completed her undergraduate in Japanese here at the University of Pittsburgh and earned her PhD at Stanford. Dr. Oyler has taught at Pitt for a number of years and is currently on academic leave for the spring semester. We recently sat down with her to discuss her research interests and experiences teaching Japanese literature and culture.

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

I was an undergraduate at the university many many years ago. I had a wonderful experience here and have been trying to make my way back ever since. There’s always been a very strong program in the things I’m most interested in. And of course Japanese studies generally and Asian studies more broadly. It’s been a very happy homecoming for me.

What originally drew you to the study of Japanese literature and performing arts? What sets them apart from other world traditions?

I think every world tradition is inherently interesting and worthy of study. But when I first came here the first class I took as an undergraduate was a course in pre-modern Japanese history taught by Professor Richard Smethurst who’s since retired but is still around. I was completely captivated by it. He was a wonderful lecturer and teacher. There was something about pre-modern Japan that kind of resonated for me and I wasn’t sure what it was at that point. But then I took classes in Japanese theater. Professor Keiko McDonald was doing all the literature classes at the time and she taught a course on Japanese theater. I wrote a paper on the noh play “Matsukaze” and in the process realized that it really resonated with my way of thinking about things and reading texts. Since then I’ve learned more about theorizing theater as well, so that was the impetus for it. Professor Mae Smethurst who’s also retired but still around did a comparative course for me and one other student in Greek tragedy and noh drama so that was another really important class I took here.

What’s your experience in studying the Japanese language and working/studying in Japan?

I started taking Japanese when I was a sophomore after graduating high school and thinking I’d never take another foreign language again! So I started in my sophomore year. I took two years here, and then I studied abroad in my senior year which was a little off but that worked out nicely and then went on to continue Japanese in graduate school.

How difficult is the language? Not just for regular conversation, but for academic discourse?

I suppose that depends on how good a language student you are. I’ve certainly seen many students who after five years of language study could do some pretty sophisticated stuff. It took me longer than that (laughs). If you want to become really good in Japanese, if you spend a little time in Japan and kind of target your advanced language training to programs that are about professional communication and so forth, I think you can do it in a reasonable amount of time.

Currently you are on leave, but what classes in the past have you taught here? How do you engage with students?

The Introduction to Japanese Literature class is something I’ve taught all through my career and has kind of been one of my bread and butter courses. It’s always a process of refining and responding to student needs but I like having classes where there’s a little bit of lecture, there’s a lot of discussion. There are projects and activities where the students can explore Japanese culture from different perspectives and bring their own interests to class. So that’s one I’ve always taught. I teach classical Japanese language too. I’m not doing that this semester but I’m hoping to next spring which is another extremely satisfying class because it’s a little language class and it’s a beginning language class but you’re teaching students who are in Fourth Year Japanese and they already have a good background in modern Japanese. There’s the joy in teaching a beginning language class where you go from nothing to quite a bit by the time you get to the end.

What can students take away from reading works that are hundreds of years old? Is there still a place for these stories in today’s world?

It’s always a challenge. There were a couple of students in the class I just taught where they had enough of a background and a good contemporary pop culture background to help bring these things together. I usually have to work with students to do that because I don’t know the games really well. I do know some of the anime, but I don’t know all of it. There are so many continuities. Japanese modernity and postmodernity are still so reliant on the tropes and the narratives from the distant past that they’re always reworking so you usually can find places where a classical text is popping up in a videogame or in a movie.

How does reading works in translation compare to reading the works in the original Japanese? Do you feel that a lot of nuances are lost in English?

Sure. And that happens when you translate anything from any language into another even if it’s Spanish to English or Spanish to French. However, there are degrees of difficulty or incomprehensibility. If you have a narrative that’s relatively straightforward and doesn’t have a lot of allusion in it and doesn’t have a lot of wordplay in it, it’s easier to really get at what is going on in the original through a careful reading of a translation and maybe references to the original. But with something like poetry or with the noh theater or with Sei Shonagon’s “Pillow Book” for example, these texts are so situated in literary practice and also in a particular cultural setting that it’s hard. It’s true of Edo Period things as well because they’re topical and contemporary in their own contexts that many of the references are obscure to someone not really well versed in that particular period.

In your view, what is the most interesting era of Japanese history?

They’re all very interesting. I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the Edo period because there’s such a sense of irony and parody in the literature and I’m not as good at that as I am in other periods. My work is all in the Muromachi period and I like working in it because it has behind it the Kamakura period and similar foundational stories associated with each of their shogunates. I’m very interested in historical narrative and historical memory and that’s a period where that very much becomes part of the literature and the theater so I enjoy that very much. I love the Heian period too though.

What do you wish students to take away from learning about Japanese literature?
I think that one of the things you encounter particularly when you go into a class about a pre-modern society is that the works are about topics you wouldn’t necessarily read and some of them are really difficult. Some of the things we read from a 21st century view you say, “That doesn’t work,” “That’s isn’t right,” “that’s not okay.” It’s the opportunity to engage with something that is completely different, to spend some time with a group of your peers and somebody who knows the stuff pretty well to kind of navigate your way through it and see where you can draw connections to your life, where you can find works that really resonate with you. Good works will resonate across and they won’t necessarily all resonate for everyone in every moment, but you will find something in there that does resonate with you and is a different way of often approaching a topic that is important to you, that you can then bring to your own life as you move forward.

Selling Dreams: Akiko Takeyama

Post by Rachel Jacobson, Administrative Assistant

On February 10, Akiko Takeyama (Associate Professor of Anthropology, Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, University of Kansas) visited the University of Pittsburgh and presented a lecture on “Staged Seduction: Selling Dreams in a Tokyo Host Club.” In her lecture, she introduced host clubs, which are Japanese businesses in which trendy, attractive men provide companionship (and sometimes nudge-wink “companionship”) to female consumers for ridiculous amounts of money. In her lecture, she explained how host clubs grew out of Japan’s shift from a primarily manufacturing economy to a primarily service-based economy and how they serve those who feel excluded by Japan’s standard model—college, followed by working for a single company for all one’s life.

However, the main point of her lecture is revealed in the lecture’s subtitle. She discussed how the primary business of a host club is to “sell dreams”—to present both potential consumers of the host clubs’ services, as well as potential “hosts” to work at the club, with a vision of their future that they then will feel compelled to pursue. She told the story of one host club customer, a middle-aged woman who did not consider herself to be the target audience for such businesses, and how she nevertheless eventually sold her home to support the future that a specific host proposed to her. Professor Takeyama also explained that recruiters for host clubs encourage their hosts to imagine themselves first as successful hosts; then, once that is achieved, as the top host for that club; then the top host in Tokyo; then in Japan; then, achieving worldwide fame. In both representative examples, the fantasies keep the target engaged, but they present moving goalposts. The future they describe will never be a reality.

In listening to Professor Takeyama’s lecture, I was reminded of multi-level marketing schemes in the United States. For instance, Mary Kay encourages their “independent beauty consultants” to sell more and more goods and to recruit more and more consultants in the hope of finally becoming a top seller and leasing the famed pink Cadillac. However, the company oversells the ease of profiting off the venture, and very few people manage to break even—and no one without putting in significant effort. The dream of making easy money from home never comes true.

Especially in pessimistic times, con men and hucksters can sell their own versions of “dreams” to those hoping for a brighter future. To best counter such sales tactics, one must both be aware of the strategy and have one’s own vision of the future. Professor Takeyama’s lecture aids the listener on both fronts.

Abroad in Asia: Patrick Keane

Post by Patrick Keane, Year in Japan scholarship recipient

My freshman year of college I decided, by chance, to study Japanese. At first, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to stick with Japanese – there were, after all, other languages I could study and other ways that I could spend my time. However, by the end of my first year, I was hooked. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to channel this interest into a study abroad my sophomore year, where I was able to improve enough that I knew I had to keep going but not enough that I felt competent enough to actually use Japanese professionally.

Without the Year in Japan award, I wouldn’t have been able to spend this past year of my life intensively studying Japanese. This scholarship gave me a fantastic opportunity to study at one of Japan’s best universities, Kobe University. I was able to take advanced Japanese language classes as well as normal university courses with Japanese peers.

In my Japanese language classes, I was challenged with material that was far above anything the University of Pittsburgh could offer. I was challenged by peers, many of whom ran so far in front of me with their language proficiency that I constantly doubted whether I belonged in the same class. I was asked to understand the finer differences between related grammar, pick apart an author’s meaning, and communicate with native speakers on a variety of complex topics. In my normal university classes, I was surrounded by intelligent young minds and forced to struggle to participate in academic discussion. I was forced to stress my listening abilities, to try to hang on to the lecture’s thread. And, every night, I cursed the academic papers I struggled to read. In short, by going abroad, I was put into a situation where I had to struggle, and, through struggling, I grew.

While my labor did bear fruit when I handily passed the JLPT 1, my time was not just spent studying. I hiked mountains, dug for artifacts, and got trounced at a video game tournament. I ran anchor for the winning relay at an athletic festival, visited Japan’s largest shrine, and cheered at a national high school boys’ baseball game. I went to the doctor’s, helped a nurse translate colonoscopy directions, and stuck out like a sore thumb at a Vietnamese dinner party. I made mochi, learned to play go, and saw Star Wars VII with my friends and their children.

My time in Japan was not just spent intensively studying. It was spent intensively living. For that, I have the Year in Japan scholarship to thank. This was a year of my life that jump-started my professional Japanese proficiency and gave me life experiences that will never leave me.

Club Connection: Chinese Student and Scholars Association

The Constitution of Chinese Student and Scholars Association is a Pitt student club open to all Chinese students and scholars of the University of Pittsburgh and their families. It is also open to staff, postdoctoral fellows, and undergraduate and graduate alumni of Pitt.
We also welcome participation of all University of Pittsburgh students and scholars in various activities. Two of our main activities each year are the celebrations of the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Spring Festival. We offer delicious dinners and host excellent performances, attracting more than 1000 people from all areas of Pittsburgh. Besides those two activities, we also hold welcome parties and orientations for new students enrolled at Pitt every year. These include free BBQ parties and shopping trips. On Halloween, we have a small costume party for CSSA members and other Pitt students who are interested.
To keep up with our events, you can follow us on social media!
Facebook: PITTCSSA
Instagram: PITTCSSA
WeChat: PittCSSA
Ofiicial Website:

Silk Road Journeys of the Eurasian Lute

Post by Charlotte McAnulty, Undergraduate Advisory Council Outreach Coordinator

On January 12, Dr. James Millward, a professor from Georgetown University, gave the lecture, “Silk Road Journeys of the Eurasian Lute.” He started off the lecture by talking about the Silk Road itself, using a map to help visualize what it looked like. The map showed not only the trade routes, but some of the items most common in certain cities along it (ceramics, tea, and sugar from Guangzhou, China, for instance). During the time that the Silk Road was active, there were not only physical exchanges, but cultural ones as well. Chordophones, however, did not originate during the time of the Silk Road. In fact, the first signs of chordophones can be found as early as 15,000 years ago in cave paintings. Not a lot is known about the existence of chordophones during this time, unfortunately, since there was nothing physical for us to find. Fortunately, this changed as time passed.

Much later, humans starting making physical objects with chordophones on them. These objects were mostly made of terra-cotta, and were very common during early human civilizations. For example, there is a terra-cotta relief dated back to the second millennium BCE containing a woman playing a type of harp. There is also a terra-cotta figure containing a bull lyre (a lyre shaped like a bull) dating to around 2600 BCE. There are many different types of chordophones, the early ones sometimes being hard to recognize as such, and it is not even until around 3100 BCE that there is the first appearance of an actual lute. Up until that point, various bows were found, but it took a while before lutes actually took form. Dated to around 2900 BCE, a stone carving of a long-necked lute was found in Iraq, and later, dated to around 2400 BCE, another carving was found. The later carving contained multiple deities, attendants, as well as a seated lute player, but soon after this one, lutes seemed to disappear. Interestingly, chordophones appear very often for a long period of time, and then, as previously stated, seem to disappear. They do reappear again hundreds of years later, but many of the examples shown during Dr. Millward’s lecture were from the 2000s BCE, as this was when a majority of figures were found.

As time passed, writing systems were eventually developed, and the earliest textual reference to a chordophone was dated to 2094-2047 BCE. Eventually, lutes and other chordophones started coming back, but this time lutes became much more common. A 1500 BCE terra-cotta figurine was found containing a “dwarf” lute player, and an 870 BCE example was found in Nimrud, containing lute players and other figures wearing lion skins. Around 1500 BCE, lutes traveled to Egypt, where they were often found in tomb paintings. The lute of the Egyptian singer of Harmose is often found in these paintings, and in lute carvings throughout time, monkeys can often be found as well.

From Egypt, the lute moved to India, where it can be found in many Buddhist sculptures. An example of one such sculpture is from the first to second centuries CE, and can be found in Gandhara, India at a stupa (an Indian temple for the Buddha). Other examples involve lutes appearing on Kushan gold coins, in addition to a sculpture of the Indian Goddess Durga, who is pictured playing a lute while on a lion. Lutes also appear in a famous painting in a cave at Ajanta, and with a sculpture of the God Vishnu, although soon after they come through India, lutes seem to disappear for another couple hundred years.

The lute did not only travel to India, though. Around the same time that it got there, it also moved to Greece. Many terra-cotta and gold figures of lute players were found there dating from the first century BCE to the third century CE. These lutes were quite different from the others, as they were often shown at downward angles, as opposed to the usual upward angle. Many of them also had small crescent markings on them, and they only appeared on short lutes. Later, these crescent markings were discovered to be associated with Nana, the Grecian Mother Goddess, and can be found subtly on many Greek sculptures.

The lute made a long journey throughout history, traveling from the Middle East, to Egypt, India, Greece, and eventually China and Japan. If it were not for the Silk Road, it could not have become involved in nearly as many cultures as it did, and it would not have developed as much as an instrument, either. Chordophones changed significantly throughout time due to the many different cultures throughout Eurasia, and although very few early examples of the actual instruments themselves exist, there are still many carvings, figures, paintings, and texts that hold its history.