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NOVEL ADVENTURES: Using The Journey to the West to Teach Tang China History and Culture

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It often seems that the further away in time and space a topic is from our students’ lives, the more difficult it can be to inspire engaged learning in a history class. This is equally true of courses from other disciplines that engage with content from the distant past, such as those focusing on art, culture, and religion. Thus, teaching Tang China (618–907) history and culture might seem to be a particularly daunting task, especially to the nonspecialist. Such a challenge might even tempt us to swiftly pass over (or completely ignore) this era for other, more familiar temporal or geographical terrains in world, Asian, or Chinese history and culture surveys. But this need not be the case. By employing tried-and-true methods, as well as slightly less conventional ones, Tang China can be made significant, relevant, and even interesting to high school and college students.1 My advice? Begin with an adventure story.

Not just any adventure story, but one whose place in Chinese culture looms large—The Journey to the West. As Jianfen Wang and Gordon Gray demonstrate in their Education About Asia article, The Journey to the West still holds great potential to capture the imagination of teachers and pupils alike. As they note, “The sixteenth-century novel The Journey to the West, with its many incarnations, is ideal. It features a rousing adventure story, which can be read as historical fiction, political satire, and religious allegory. The novel has been reproduced for many types of audiences in many different media.” But unlike Wang and Gray, whose valuable suggestions are for “a course that seeks to introduce China studies through multiple disciplinary lenses,” and with a focus on the eras after the novel’s production, this article offers possible ways to deploy The Journey to the West as a tool to teach about the eras before its appearance in print, particularly Tang Era history.2

In addition to teaching Tang Era history, this essay also shows how the novel reflects, and can be used to teach, a number of more general early Chinese culture topics. The Silk Road, Buddhism, Daoism, and imperial state structures—topics whose significances are not limited to the Tang dynasty—also loom large in this classic tale. As such, I suggest ways The Journey to the West can be used to give students a better sense of traditional Chinese cultural values and worldviews more broadly, rather than strictly providing lessons in Tang Era history. The novel could be assigned as easily in an introduction to Chinese culture course as in a more traditional history course. Emphasizing some general components of Chinese culture raised in the work reinforces the fictional nature of The Journey to the West and helps prevent students from reading it too literally as a work of history, as can sometimes happen.

The conventional approach to using a work of literature in a history course asks students to situate the piece into the era of its creation. Thus, we teach and learn about the historical circumstances that informed the creative choices of an author. In such an application, The Journey to the West, first written in 1592, would be used to illuminate late Ming China (1368– 1644). Alternatively, historians can use novels to explore themes, questions, or identities significant to the historical moment under consideration. What I am suggesting is slightly different. Just as writers often begin a work with a hook to draw a reader into the story, The Journey to the West can be the hook to lure students into a unit about Tang China, the era in which the actions of the novel are set. The tale itself can then be opened for historical unpacking by using references from the text that suggest topics for broader historical or cultural inquiry. With some creative maneuvering, we can even explore interdisciplinary connections and career choices, and emphasize the relevance of the ancient past to our contemporary lives.3

In what follows, I offer possible connections among episodes in the novel and historical and cultural topics for consideration. I have included links to digitized primary sources and suggested some ways to bring these sources into classrooms. My aim is to provide an array of possibilities that instructors can pull from, depending on their own pedagogical aims, interests, and expertise. I also hope to reinvigorate history courses through my passion for this classic tale.

Although my following suggestions can be accomplished by assigning selections from the full work, I recommend having the class read an abridged edition in its entirety even before exploring the historical connections. This will ease students into the topic and present them with the biggest possible hook. These are especially useful strategies for courses in which students are often academically experiencing Chinese history and culture for the first time. This will also provide the broadest platform from which connections can be drawn. Once the students understand how you are using the fictional story as a node for learning about the actual past, they may even raise points about the text that had evaded your consideration. Plus, you’ll likely be the only historian in your department assigning an adventure story.4

For those unfamiliar with the fictional tale, it recounts the Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India in search of the true scriptures. He is accompanied on the demon-infested journey by four disciples: the rambunctious and troublesome Monkey, the oafish and intemperate Pigsy, the wholehearted and loyal Sandy, and the former dragon and now-trusted white horse. It is only with the aid of their magical powers (and the timely interventions of the Bodhisattva Guanyin) that Xuanzang manages to successfully return to China with the scriptures and ensure the salvation of this intrepid band. Along the way, one learns the backstories of each character and is introduced to many others, including Laozi, the Buddha, and the Tang Emperor.5 Each of these characters provides an opportunity to more deeply explore some of the actual circumstances of Chinese culture and events of the Chinese past.

The Journey to the West is a novel, so when using it to teach history, we naturally run the risk of students conflating fiction with fact. While this might seem to be a detriment, it can instead be considered a beneficial pedagogical exercise. Though we need not fear that our students become convinced that monkeys fly, dragons exist, or pigs shape-shift into little girls, ensuring a legitimate reading of any source material is a responsibility of all educators. Historians, and humanities instructors more generally, must often balance how we describe to students the nature of human life with the reality of human records. For example, when teaching this novel, students might literally conflate its presentation of heaven’s imperial bureaucracy with the actual historical Chinese state bureaucracy. We see the heavenly hierarchy at work in one particularly humorous episode in the novel. The Jade Emperor assigns Monkey to supervise the heavenly court’s stables, a position he assumes comes with a high rank and salary befitting his great magical talents. After later learning of his placement at the lowest of all heavenly positions, Monkey, with wounded pride, flees heaven, precipitating further episodes. This is just one of many examples from the novel in which the heavenly administrative hierarchy is deployed for literary, and comic, effect.

Because traditional Chinese understanding of heaven conceived of it as bureaucratic in nature and structure, reading this fictional hierarchy as an exact rendition of a factual one can seem logical to students. One can emphasize to students how, although these two might not be replicas, they do, in fact, relate because, according to Professor of Religion Stephen Teiser, bureaucratic shape and function “reach into nearly all spheres of Chinese life, including religion.” Navigating such analytical nuances alongside students helps them see how and when to acceptably extrapolate from diverse types of sources—a crucial skill to be taught in all history and humanities courses.6

The ability for us to accomplish so much with this novel is made possible thanks to the narrative’s human protagonist—and actual historical figure— Xuanzang (596–664). The historical Xuanzang, no less than the mythical one, continues to captivate readers who learn of his passionate commitment to Buddhism and courageous journey to India. As a precocious young monk, fearless sojourner, committed disciple, able teacher, adviser of kings, and diligent translator, the many facets of this seventh-century man inspire and illuminate. They also provide an opportunity to consider what the “real” Xuanzang and his world were like.7

There are four extant primary sources related to Xuanzang. These include a biography written by two of his disciples and an account he made of his travels undertaken at the request of the Tang Emperor himself. Both have been copied into numerous ancient and modern languages, and open up the potential for much further historical exploration. Samuel Beal’s English translations of Xuanzang’s Life and Records of Western Lands are both available on Sections from each could be particularly useful for primary source investigation. His descriptions in Records recounting Indian science, military, social order, and customs reveal what most caught Xuanzang’s eye and what he presumed the emperor would be most interested in knowing. His account humanizes the pilgrim as a careful observer with a curious mind, while illustrating the transcontinental connections between these ancient civilizations. During this time, China’s “West” meant India, a theme that can be explored in more detail with other sources related to the Silk Road.8

It is worth pointing out to students that while Xuanzangmay be the most famous Chinese traveler to India, he certainly was not the first. In fact, one could assign a short comparison between his and the fifth-century Chinese monk Faxian’s (ca. 337–422) travel account based on digital transcriptions provided by the University of Washington’s Silk Road Seattle Project. This website also makes available a Tang Era history of the Uighurs. Introducing the Uighurs presents the possibility of connecting the Tang perspectives on this region with contemporary Chinese ones, when read in conjunction with modern sources dealing especially with human rights issues. Connecting the past to the present remains a crucial part of our work as history educators; we must convince our students of the relevance of the past on the present.9

Situating Xuanzang’s sojourn as part of the history of the Silk Road allows for a discussion of the movement of people, commodities, and ideas along this network of exchange. It also allows for a consideration of ancient China’s international interactions and its cultural diversity. A good place to start might be with Stewart Gordon’s “The Silk Road” chapter in his book There and Back. This accessible summary emphasizes the experiences and determination of religious pilgrims on the route. Similar fortitude is frequently evidenced in the novel. On numerous occasions, Xuanzang appears ready to give up, only to be renewed in his resolve by the inspiring words of Monkey. In addition, Gordon’s work places this exchange route among eleven other significant routes from diverse times and places. This provides an excellent opportunity to introduce students to a comparative approach to doing history.10

Gordon’s “Silk Road” chapter also emphasizes the extreme difficulties of travel along the Central Asian section of the Silk Road. Walking across 3,000 miles of sparsely populated, bandit-infested deserts and mountains meant that surviving the journey was in no way guaranteed. This can illustrate to students how the constant travails encountered by the fictional pilgrims on their travels between China and India differ only in the nature, rather than the degree, of those suffered by actual travelers. It might also raise the question as to what extent fiction follows fact. Passages from Xuanzang’s biography take on an eerie familiarity to some of the travails of the novel. For example, the disciple Sandy’s origin story in the “river of sand” echoes his biography’s description of the Taklamakan Desert. And his biographical description of being kidnapped and nearly sacrificed by a band of robbers reminds readers of both Monkey’s battle with the child-sacrificing fiend and the belief held by certain monsters that tasting Xuanzang’s flesh would bring immortality. Finally, the place of dragons in both the fictional and historical accounts invites a consideration of Tang cosmology that is sure to captivate students.11

Numerous digital resources are available for a deeper historical exploration of the Tang Era Silk Road. Though few business records survive from the China of Xuanzang’s lifetime, some of those that do should pique students’ imagination. Seventh-century documents related to contract disputes over silk exchange uncovered near Turfan, which became part of the Tang Empire in 640 while Xuanzang studied scriptures in India, reveal the challenges to facilitating transcultural commercial exchange. A pawnshop account book also found in Turfan provides some especially interesting insight into the lives of common people in the Tang capital city of Xi’an. Historian Valarie Hanson’s The Silk Road: A New History with Documents includes excerpts from these sources, as well as a wide range of others specifically designed for classroom use.12

While attempting to secretly leave the empire along this route (Tang subjects were not allowed to depart the empire without permission), a border guard encouraged the historical Xuanzang to study scriptures at the Buddhist educational hub of Dunhuang rather than make the difficult, and illegal, journey to India.13 Resources made available with the Getty’s 2016 Silk Road exhibit bring the Dunhuang of Tang China colorfully to life. In addition to the website’s fabulous imagery and digital recreations, videos about preservation of the World Heritage Mogao Caves provide an opportunity for conversations on history-related careers. Professionals whose work combines technological, scientific, artistic, or archeological skills with a passion for the past neatly illustrate many potential occupations to students. The International Dunhuang Project also provides digital material for educators. To further explore ways of bringing the Silk Road into courses, a number of professors have generously made their syllabi available for perusal on the Silk Road Seattle website.14

Arguably the most significant exchange along the Silk Road routes was Buddhism.15 Brought to China from India in the first century CE, Buddhism shifted in its new home to accommodate existing Confucian and Daoist ideas, and achieved widespread appeal under the Tang dynasty. Since the entire fictional narrative is situated around the Chinese monk on a pilgrimage to the birthplace of this religion, historical connections to the novel are easy to make on this theme. For example, the tale describes the imperiled pilgrim chanting the Diamond Cutter Sutra, Lotus Sutra, and Heart Sutra (among others), which provides a way to introduce sutras as historical sources into the classroom. Xuanzang’s translation remains the most popular Heart Sutra translation, which is still commonly chanted by Buddhists worldwide; instructors can have students read or listen to English versions.16 This is an especially pertinent pedagogical choice, since the historical Xuanzang spent the remainder of his life after his return to China translating the texts he returned with from India. The historical pilgrim brought 657 Sanskrit texts back to China and translated over seventy of them with the help of a state-supported “board of translators.” Many of these texts are still of great value to scholars today.17 Since the monk’s mission was to return with written scriptures, examples of the Sanskrit and Chinese languages he translated between could bring philological considerations into the classroom. One nice digital resource on Tang calligraphy allows students to compare styles from texts made for different purposes and provides helpful guiding questions to lead them through thinking with these distinctive sources.18

When prayer or their own abilities seemed too feeble a resource for challenges met on the journey, Monkey often flew to heaven to plead for the help of the Bodhisattva Guanyin directly. This invites deeper exploration into the theological place of Bodhisattvas in Buddhism. Numerous digitized visual and textual sources can bring Guanyin specifically into the classroom.19 More general visual sources related to Buddhism can vividly illustrate Tang Era religion as well. The historical Xuanzang proudly returned to China with statues of the Buddha; a number of websites previously cited provide ample resources to illustrate to students what these may have looked like.20

Though Buddhism is clearly the religion central to the plot of The Journey to the West, Daoism features in the text a number of times as well. These references typically end with Daoist priests being duped by the clever Monkey, but they nonetheless present the possibility of its discussion in comparative religious and historical contexts. On several occasions, the text presents Buddhism and Daoism in competition with each other, most notably during a royal contest between the magical powers of Monkey and the Daoists. The humorous (if deadly) trials, which involve Monkey cutting off his head, disemboweling himself, and bathing in a cauldron of boiling oil, mirror the competitiveness between these two beliefs. To illustrate the historical contention, one can introduce students to Han Yu’s (768–824) “Memorial on the Bone of the Buddha” and Emperor Wuzong’s (r. 841– 846) “Edict of the Suppression of Buddhism.” Excerpts made digitally available through Columbia University include relevant analytical questions for consideration.21

In addition to Daoism in general, Laozi specifically appears in the novel. He too is made a fool of by the scurrilous Monkey. After gobbling down a gourdful of Laozi’s magic elixir, “for all the world as though it had been a dish of fried beans,” Monkey then escapes his “Crucible of the Eight Trigrams,” which was one of heaven’s many attempts to destroy the obnoxious beast. Here, one could assign excerpts from one of the many translations of the Daodejing. Though The Journey to the West mentions only Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, noting at one point “that the Three Religions are one,” students might be interested to learn that there were, in fact, Christians in Tang China as well. Thanks to the Fordham University Internet Sourcebook, they can consider the inscription on an eighth-century Nestorian Christian stele from Xi’an.22

The Tang Emperor as a character in The Journey to the West provides the opportunity to explore much more about his life and the imperial state. When first introduced, “The whole land was at peace, tribute-bearers poured in from every side, and the whole world paid homage to him.” This claim can prompt consideration of Tang empire-building and statecraft. Assigning an excerpt from “Maintaining Military Forces,” from the second Tang Emperor Taizong (r. 626–649), a man the historical Xuanzang personally knew, can be used to explain the expansive nature of the empire in the generations that followed. Xuanzang played a role in the Tang imperial project by providing information to the emperor on his return from the Western Regions, as well as providing polities of the Western Regions with information about the Tang. Nearly 100 years after Xuanzang’s death, the An Lushan Rebellion (755–763) significantly weakened the Tang Empire and eventually led to its loss of the Western Regions, an area that figured so prominently in the historical Xuanzang’s life, and thus in fanciful form as the novel’s setting. The widespread turmoil in Central Asia, of which this rebellion was a part, led to the destruction of many of the places Xuanzang visited on his historical westward journey. When read with other sources, such as poems by Li Bai (701–762) and Du Fu (712–770), the era’s militancy and violence are made evident.23

Tang imperial administration can be connected to the novel as well. The fictional Xuanzang’s father wins the hand of his mother after finishing in first place in the imperial examination competition, which invites a consideration of this historical practice. These civil service exams, in use for over a millennium when abolished in 1905, tested knowledge of the Confucian classics and skills in expressive elegance. Though some examination records survive from the Tang Era, a lack of access to them in translation makes using them in courses difficult. Instead, one from the late sixteenth century, around the time when the novel first appeared in print, could be interrogated to reveal the erudition most valued in that era. In addition, one could deviously assign questions from the exam as a mock “pop quiz,” or more generously as an extra credit opportunity. If read alongside the current US civil service exam, the values of the two countries will stand in sharp relief.24

The suggestions described above are just a few ways one could utilize the sixteenth-century text of The Journey to the West in history and culture courses to teach about Tang China. Although most examples given connect aspects of the novel to the Silk Road, religion, and imperial administration, many other possibilities exist. I hope these curricular ideas and resources prove useful to your teaching about this significant era of Chinese history. I also invite you to imagine how other classic texts from Asia could facilitate similar pedagogical techniques. Above all, my goal has been to reignite among students an interest in the fabulous and daring escapades of Xuanzang and his magical companions, a story with much still to teach each of us about our own life’s journey.


1. For a useful introduction to Tang history, see Mark Edward Lewis, China’s Cosmopolitan Empires: The Tang Dynasty (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

2. Jianfen Wang and Gordon Gray, “The Journey to the West: A Platform for Learning about China Past and Present,” Education About Asia 24, no. 1 (2019): 5–11. For the place of Journey to the West in the Chinese literary tradition, see Sabina Knight, Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 88–89.

3. Diana B. Turk, Emily Klein, and Shari Dickstein, “Mingling ‘Fact’ with ‘Fiction’: Strategies for Integrating Literature into History and Social Studies Classrooms,” The History Teacher 40 (2007): 397–406. My approach mirrors their “literature-based” approach, but with historical pedagogical aims, in which “teachers may choose to select a particular text on its own merits and then design a unit around it, illuminating various aspects of the text” (399).

4. I recommend assigning the Penguin Classic version of this novel, sold as Monkey. Wu Cheng’en, Monkey, trans. Arthur Waley (London: Allen & Unwin, 1942; Penguin, 2016). After reading this abridged version, if you want to read more about their escapades, I recommend the complete, and much more scholarly, Anthony C. Yu, trans. and ed., The Journey to the West, 4 vols., rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), or his abridged version, The Monkey and the Monk: A Revised Abridgement of The Journey to the West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). For the page numbers in the following citations, I will be using my well-worn 2006 Penguin edition.

5. For a fuller summary, see Wang and Gray, “The Journey to the West,” 5–6.

6. Stephen F. Teiser, “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” in Religions of China in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 29–32 (quote, 30).

7. For approachable summaries of his life and its significance, see Anthony C. Yu, “The Real Tripitaka Revisited: International Religion and National Politics,” in Comparative Journeys: Essays on Literature and Religion East and West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 188–203; Sally Hovey Wiggins, The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2004); and Arthur Waley, The Real Tripitaka and Other Pieces (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952).

8. Hwi Li, The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang, trans. Samuel Beal, pop. ed. (London: 1914), 19,, accessed March 8, 2020; Huen Tsang, Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, vol. 1, trans. Samuel Beal (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1906), 69–90,, accessed March 7, 2020. The other two primary source documents are letters written to him by two Indian monks and are not easily available.

9. For these historical records, see “Silk Road Narratives: A Collection of Historical Texts,” Silk Road Seattle, Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities, University of Washington,, accessed March 7, 2020.

10. Stewart Gordon, “The Silk Road: By Land and Sea,” in There and Back: Twelve of the Great Routes of Human History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

11. Gordon, “The Silk Road.” For sand, see Li, Life, 15, 21; and Wu Cheng’en, Monkey (2006), 183. For kidnap and sacrifice, see Li, Life, 86–89; and Wu Cheng’en, Monkey (2006), 291–317. For dragons, see Huen Tsang, Records, 24–25, 49, 103, 114–115, 297, 320; and Wu Cheng’en, Monkey (2006), 36–40, 107–114, 158–165, 218–219. For more on dragons in Chinese history, see Qiong Zhang, “From ‘Dragonology’ to Meteorology: Aristotelian Natural Philosophy and the Beginning of the Decline of the Dragon in China,” Early Science and Medicine 14 (2009): 340–368. For a comparison with European beliefs, see Louise W. Lippincott, “The Unnatural History of Dragons,” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 77 (Winter 1981): 2–24.

12. Valarie Hanson, “How Business Was Conducted on the Chinese Silk Road During the Tang Dynasty, 618–907,” in The Origins of Value: The Financial Innovations that Created Modern Capital Markets, ed. William N. Goetzmann and K. Geert Rouwenhorst (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 43–64,, accessed March 8, 2020; and Valarie Hanson, The Silk Road: A New History with Documents (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). To bring more Tang Era law into the classroom, see a complete English translation with commentaries in Wallace Johnson, trans., The T’ang Code, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979, 1997), https://tinyurl. com/yyg4cyfv and, accessed March 9, 2020. For the law Xuanzang broke by leaving the empire, see vol. 2, 54–55.

13. Li, Life, 19; Wriggins, The Silk Road Journey, 14.

14. “Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road,” Getty Research Institute and Getty Conservation Institute,, accessed March 8, 2020; International Dunhuang Project: The Silk Road Online, Education, https://, accessed March 9, 2020; Silk Road Seattle, Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities, University of Washington,, accessed March 8, 2020.

15. See Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) for a brief and general introduction, and especially pages 62–70 and 84–86 for themes related to the rest of this paragraph.

16. Wu Cheng’en, Monkey (2006), 131, 144, 266. The Heart Sutra states, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” a theological position for you and your students to ponder.

17. Waley, The Real Tripitaka, 84–130; Martin Delhey, “From Sanskrit to Chinese and Back Again: Remarks on Xuanzang’s Translation of the Yogācārabhūmi and Closely Related Philosophical Treatises,” in Cross-Cultural Transmission of Buddhist Texts: Theories and Practices of Translation, ed. Dorji Wangchuk (Hamburg: Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, 2016), 51–79. For more ways to bring sutras into the classroom, see Columbia University’s selections from the Lotus Sutra, which include introductory remarks and guiding questions for the classroom. “Lotus Sutra,” Asia for Educators,, accessed March 7, 2020.

18. Waley, The Real Tripitaka, 84; Patricia Buckley Ebrey, “Tang Calligraphy,” A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization,, accessed March 8, 2020.

19. Wu Cheng’en, Monkey (2006), 162, 187–188, 314–317; Patricia Buckley Ebrey, “Bodhisattvas,” A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, y2aan8xr, accessed March 8, 2020.

20. Li, Life, 213–214.

21. Other references to Daoists see Monkey freeing their Buddhist slaves and tricking them into drinking the pilgrims’ urine as the purported holy water of the immortals. Wu Cheng’en, Monkey (2006), 243–283; Asia for Educators,, accessed March 7, 2020.

22. Wu Cheng’en, Monkey (2006), 63–64 (first quotation, 64), 78–82 (second quotation, 81), 224–228, 285 (third quotation). All documents referenced here can be found in the East Asian History Sourcebook, Internet History Sourcebook Project, Fordham University,, accessed March 7, 2020.

23. Wu Cheng’en, Monkey (2006), 97 (quotation). These documents are available at Asia for Educators,, accessed March 7, 2020. For more Tang Era poems translated into English, see “Chinese Text Initiative,” University of Virginia Library,, accessed March 8, 2020.

24. Wu Cheng’en, Monkey (2006), 97–98; David L. McMullen, “The Chinese Examination System in Dynastic China: Did it Select the Brightest and Best?,” Sunway Academic Journal 8 (2011): 1–11,, accessed March 9, 2020; Benjamin A. Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Later Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); “Questions from a Civil Service Exam, The Chinese Educational System, c. 1575 CE,” East Asian History Sourcebook, Fordham University,, accessed March 9, 2020; “Civil Service Exams,” Federal Government Jobs,, accessed March 9, 2020.

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