FEATURES • Winter 2002

 

Beata Grant, associate professor of Chinese; chair, Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures

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What meaning can such words from a long-ago world possibly hold for us now? In Beata Grant's translations of classical Chinese, brave writers' voices express a sense of what humanity shares.

By Judy H. Watts

China. A far-away land so ancient that its semi-legendary first ruler is said to have lived nearly 4,000 years ago. A civilization so productive that achievements blossomed during its earliest documented dynasty, heralding centuries of artistic, philosophical, technological, economic, and scientific accomplishment. A nation whose classical written language—which requires a lifetime to master—is based on thousands of intricate characters that are in themselves an art form.

If in these ways and a multitude more the historical China seems an antipode to the United States, one might reasonably assume that a highly respected non-Asian scholar of literature and religion in Imperial China would be exceptionally gifted—but that her work would be inscrutable to all but her peers. Beata Grant, however, is determined to share her discoveries "in a way that people can appreciate and understand." In fact, says the associate professor of Chinese and chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures in Arts & Sciences: "I've always been dubious about this ivory-tower business. I personally believe that part of our responsibility as academics is to make our work accessible to the general audience."

Grant's words imply the respect for all people that great teachers share. And her path-setting scholarship has deepened her regard for humanity's common ground. Her current research focuses on the interrelationship of Chinese Buddhism and poetry of the late Imperial period (17th to 19th century), particularly in women's writing, and especially in the poems of Buddhist nuns. "One reason I've chosen to study traditional China is because I believe that many of the cultural values and insights into the dilemma of being human are still very useful," she says.

 
"I personally believe that part of our responsibility as academics is to make our work accessible to the general audience," says Grant.

 

Before college, Grant had been attracted to the idea that in India, where Buddhism began in the 4th and 5th centuries, an entire culture shared the ideal of spiritual realization. But as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, where "the best language teacher taught Chinese rather than Hindu or Sanskrit," she decided to study Chinese—an experience she describes as "plunging into the deep sea." She adds: "I sometimes joke that my whole youth was lost in memorizing and learning to write Chinese characters. After a while you can't turn back!" Before she went to Stanford for her master's and doctoral degrees in the subject, Grant lived in Taiwan for two years in order to improve her Chinese. Later she spent two years in the People's Republic of China working on her dissertation.

Grant discovered that she liked many things about China, "especially the fact that religiosity there was very down-to-earth." In graduate school, she became interested in how people experience, interpret, and express religion, particularly Buddhism, which has not always had an easy time of it in China. Despite her adviser's misgivings, she decided to write her dissertation on Buddhism in the life of the 11th-century poet and writer Su Shih, widely regarded as one of China's greatest literary figures. Prevailing academic wisdom held that Su Shih had only a superficial knowledge of Buddhism—but as Grant worked through mountains of secondary material, as well as Su's own voluminous writings, she realized that he took Buddhism far more seriously than scholars had realized. Grant later published her research, which demonstrated Buddhism's influence on the high culture of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1120), in the book Mount Lu Revisited: Buddhism in the Life and Writings of Su Shih, 1037-1107 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994).

Grant had also found an objective that drives her work today: to determine how the marginal survives in a mainstream culture. She finds that once she fully appreciates the diversity at a great culture's margins, what is universal—the connections and the commonality—can be deeply understood. Her research focus has turned to Chinese women, whose participation in the literary and public world was always constrained and limited, according to the historical record. "If Buddhism was marginal and women were marginal, that is a double marginality. Buddhism was in many ways as patriarchal as Confucianism, and I wondered how these women in their own communities dealt with male monastics and laymen, established networks, encountered obstacles, and found solutions, if only in the joy of meditation."

"One reason I've chosen to study traditional China is because I believe that many of the cultural values and insights into the dilemma of being human are still very useful."

Last year, at the invitation of Wilt L. Idema, an internationally known scholar and professor of Chinese literature at Harvard University, Grant collaborated on a survey of such women's literature over 21 centuries tentatively titled Writing Women of Imperial China: An Anthology of Poetry, Prose, and Other Writings, which is being reviewed for publication by the Harvard University Asia Center. Grant is using the 600-plus page tome as a pilot text in her new fall 2002 course Writing Women of China. Early feedback is already in: "I gave it to my mother to read," says Grant. "She had a hard time reading some of my earlier scholarly work, but this book she enjoyed very much!"

The book promises to be useful as well as fascinating. Its accompanying narrative—which distinguishes the work from others in the field—provides social, cultural, and historical contexts for the diverse writings Idema and Grant excavated. Of the yearlong collaboration, Idema says: "We had great fun together working on the manuscript. Professor Grant is one of the few scholars who combines expertise in the demanding fields of classical Chinese poetry and of Chinese Buddhism, which made the cooperation not only pleasant but also very fruitful."

Grant is also preparing another book for publication: Remarkable Women: Female Chan [Zen] Masters of Seventeenth-Century China, which represents a significant discovery and fills a scholarly gap. While doing research in the Princeton University library, Grant was riffling through a privately published 17th-century edition of the Chinese Buddhist canon. Although Buddhist names are not gender-specific, she recognized a single character for nun and soon realized that she had found eight discourse records written by women who were not only nuns but Chan [Zen] Buddhist masters. "All other collections of Chan masters' writing are by men," Grant says. "And while people knew about early nuns from the 6th century, some from the 12th century, and contemporary nuns, very few people knew these 17th-century women existed at all!"

After intense, basic sinological research—including learning the unpunctuated, unannotated text's specialized Buddhist terminology and exploring both historical and contemporaneous forces—Grant reconstructed the women's networks and discovered "a very dynamic group of Buddhist abbesses who built nunneries, raised funds, had hundreds of students, passed down the Dharma [the Buddhist teachings], and wrote quite wonderful poetry."

In addition to her books, seven articles, and scores of translations, book reviews, and encyclopedia entries, Grant will produce for Wisdom Publications, the major Western publisher of Buddhist works (including many of the Dalai Lama's books), a book aimed at a more general audience. It will contain translations of the Buddhist nuns' poems, complete with biographical notes and illustrations.

 

Above: Professor Grant currently is writing about 17th-century female Chan [Zen] Buddhist masters. Portraits show two of those who left collections of writings.

Right: Grant shares this research in her new course Women in the Chinese Literary Tradition.

 

The belief that scholars have a duty to communicate with all people and that a part of their job is "not so much to 'problematize' reality but to show that it's much more diverse, complicated, and human than we tend to think" enlightens Grant's teaching. Always, she "shows students that what they learn has implications for their lives or the world around them." Her success with courses on Asian religions, Buddhism, pre-modern Chinese literature, and women and religion can partly be measured by honors and awards. These include the 1999 Governor's Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education and two Kemper teaching grants.

But Grant's students provide the best evidence. "They flock to her classes," says Arts & Sciences Dean Edward S. Macias. Krystel Mowery, A.B. '92 (Japanese), A.M. '02 (East Asian studies), took a large helping of Grant's courses as she earned her degrees. "Beata Grant was always very approachable and strongly encouraged questioning, dialogue, and independent thinking. She recognizes that each of her students is different," says Mowery, now an assistant in the Visiting East Asian Professionals Program, a new four-year Arts & Sciences program for undergraduate enrichment.

Grant's intellectual and philosophical convictions also enhance her service as department chair. "The Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures department is highly complex, with seven languages and very different cultures and literatures," says Macias. "Beata—who is also everything a university could ask for in a faculty member—does a wonderful job of leading while letting everyone be heard."

Through her service, her teaching, and her research on the hitherto forgotten or misunderstood, Grant offers a worldview that is not alienating—that respects the ways individuals, society, nature, the world, and a hundred billion lifetimes are interrelated. "When I immerse myself in the old Chinese texts, I understand that these human beings grappled with how to live and how to die. People have suffered, and they have come up with answers, some of which are useful and some of which do not translate. What happens to us has also happened to others, and the reverse is true. I find our common humanity very compelling."

Poetry Beyond Place

The following poems from the book Writing Women of Imperial China "are unusually straightforward expressions of the frustrations of a woman named Lo Qilan (1755-1813), whose soaring ambitions were hampered by her gender, symbolized here by bound feet in 'three-inch shoes,'" says Beata Grant.

In my dream, I was a student dressed in blue, 
           The talented were summoned: I took the exams! 
           After a long journey in a speeding state carriage,
           I demonstrated my brilliance in literary battles. 
           In the palace offices, I changed my gown to green, 
           At heaven's gate, my name was displayed in gold. 
           Riding on horseback, I inspected all the flowers, 
           A score of miles darkened by fragrance and dust!
In my dream I headed the imperial troops,
           Grasping our lances we cleared the dust. 
           The troops seemed to descend like a flash, 
           The formation was one of birds and snakes. 
           At the border, I displayed my heroic tactics, 
           On the dome of the sky, I wrote my ambitions. 
           Then suddenly, I awoke at the sound of a bell, 
           Only to find myself still wearing three-inch shoes.  

—From an eight-poem series, Records of Dreams, translated by Beata Grant and Wilt Idema

 

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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