Christopher Lupke is Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta and has been an AAS member for 32 years, since 1989. Lupke’s research interests cover literary and cultural studies, including film studies, in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Sinophone World.
Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues?
It is standard practice for Asianists to become members of the Association for Asian Studies, especially back when the Modern Language Association had no presence outside European and English languages and the American Historical Association was nearly solely concerned with European and American history. The AAS is still an important academic association today because it does not merely focus on one or two disciplines or subregions. The AAS implicitly follows an area studies paradigm which, despite certain shortcomings and questionable beginnings, is still a very important prism through which to investigate the world. Disciplinary-based academic associations like the MLA, the AHA, and the American Philosophical Association are still overwhelmingly dominated by Eurocentric and Anglonormative subjects and scholars.
Additionally, the profoundly interdisciplinary scope of the AAS enables members to learn from colleagues in virtually every field in the humanities and social sciences. I would recommend colleagues join the AAS and submit proposals to the Annual Conference, and for younger members in particular to become active in a regional AAS conference, in order to build experience and contacts. Although I have not participated in any of the AAS-in-Asia conferences, they look like a great justification to travel to some amazing places in Asia and if feasible in the future I would love to go and present.
How did you first become involved in the field of Asian Studies?
I began the study of Chinese in 1979, when I studied abroad during my junior year in college at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The decision to study Chinese was somewhat whimsical. Most of my friends planned to study in Europe, which sounded interesting, but I preferred to do something totally different and radical. That’s why I chose to study Chinese. I knew almost nothing about it, so I took some history courses with Andrew Hsieh at Grinnell College.
That year in Hong Kong was transformative. It led me to the realization that this was a subject worthy of serious inquiry. My intensive language experience at CUHK also gave me a great sense of accomplishment, because I quickly displayed an aptitude for Chinese. Not eager to return to the U.S., I was urged by Professor He-hsiang Yuan to study in Taiwan, which I did until I mastered spoken Chinese and achieved at least an intermediate reading knowledge. By the time I returned home I had decided this was what I wanted to do with my life, and although there are many other things that would have been interesting or fulfilling I have never had a day of regret that I chose Chinese.
What do you enjoy most or what were your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?
There are many things I find rewarding, but I think what stands out as the most is a deep reading of a sophisticated work of literature. I’m proud of all my work, but my early essays on Bai Xianyong, Wang Wenxing, and others are works I stand by to this day. Translation is equally important to me, because it forces one to gain a complete grasp of the text while leaving room for creativity in English. Recently, I was awarded the biennial Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize from the MLA for the translation of a scholarly study on literature, Ye Shitao’s monumental A History of Taiwan Literature (1987; translation published by Cambria Press in 2020). Ye’s work is encyclopedic, which posed a major challenge for translation. But equally daunting was translating the Japanese-language notes, which constitute about half the length of the annotated version of Ye’s book. My Japanese is only at about an intermediate level, but the notes are written in a straightforward and lucid manner and chiefly include background information such as names, titles, and historical events. After translating that portion, I was able to obtain some funds from the Prince Takamado Japan Centre at the University of Alberta and employ a graduate student (Mei Nan) who proofread the whole work, paying special attention to the notes from the Japanese, rescuing me from several infelicities.
Tell us about your current or past research.
Currently, I am writing a book on the representation of filiality in modern and contemporary Chinese literature and cinema. Due to the pervasiveness of this subject in Chinese society and discourse, no such work could be exhaustive. However, I want it to encompass works from the late Qing to recent decades. Therefore, I am selecting out works that typify the issue in their literary or cinematic representation. I’ve been working on this project for a long time and presented on it widely, including at the AAS Annual Conference. I hope I can wrap it up in the next couple of years. Besides this, I maintain an affection for translation and mainly have been translating the poetry of Xiao Kaiyu (b. 1960), one of the most important post-Mao poets in China and one of the most linguistically challenging. I was drawn to the syntactic density of his work and the depth of the themes he tackles. I have had an interest in poetry that dates back to my college days, and I have edited or co-edited three books on contemporary Chinese poetry, with more to come.
What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?
To students considering Asian Studies as a career, I recommend that they not give up in the face of a very challenging job market. No one can accurately predict the future. If you love what you do, then do it. Don’t give up. But try hard to stay out of student debt or at least limit your debt, which is not easy for everyone. A low debt level allows one to keep their options open.
I also recommend to work hard on language skills. If you are a native English speaker, work hard on your target language and possibly add in more. In my case, my Chinese is very good but I wish my Japanese were better. My Korean language skills are non-existent, which is a deep personal disappointment to me.
In addition to this, I would recommend that students pursuing a PhD in an East Asian field also consider an ancillary Master’s degree, such as an MA in Education, a Master’s of Library Science, an MFA in some genre of creative writing, an MFA in curatorial studies, a film or music degree, or even an MBA—something that will give demonstrable depth quickly in a field other than one’s primary expertise. The reason I suggest this is that the academic job market in the humanities is shrinking. Tenure-track jobs are becoming rare; contingent academic jobs are becoming more frequent, many of which do not afford a living wage or decent benefits. We don’t know what the future will portend, but we can hedge bets by diversifying. A PhD in a field like Chinese plus one of these MA gives one a wider set of skills, making one marketable in a variety of sectors while still enabling one to do what they love.
Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself (your interests, hobbies, skills, etc).
I live in Canada, where it is nearly obligatory to be an ice hockey fan. My 13-year-old daughter is an avid hockey player and highly skilled. As you can imagine, she is a great source of joy. I also love music, although I am not skilled at playing an instrument. I love nature and have a particular fascination for birds. I have birded throughout North America, East Asia, and South Asia. If I had more time, I would do more hiking, camping, and birding in exotic areas.