“The awkward silence is an indispensable part of the classroom; it is the moment that students stretch to come up with something new. And I believe there is beauty in it.” - Zhao Lu.
Assistant Professor of Global China Studies, Zhao Lu has always been fascinated by how people think and learn. Through his research in Chinese intellectual history and scripture culture, and the history of education, travel, divination, and science, Zhao explores ideas that are often dismissed as “hokum, superstition, or propaganda” to reveal the agency of others and the self.
Before joining NYU Shanghai in fall 2018, Zhao was a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science where he studied the history of divination as technical knowledge.
As a native of Beijing and newcomer to Shanghai, Zhao has discovered the perfect lab to observe how people meet and interact: Jing’an Temple, the oldest and most famous temple in Shanghai, and a place where for centuries travelers received lodging, students studied for civil examinations, local residents celebrated festivals, and tourists came for sightseeing.
The Gazette followed Zhao to this rich cultural hub to discuss his research and experience as a teacher.
How did you become a scholar in history and divination? What was your starting point?
My starting point can be traced back to my early college years and my time in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. As a student, I became deeply interested in the Confucian classics and did my dissertation on one of the earliest utopian visions in traditional China, particularly on how the Han dynasty literati thought that they could enact the ancient institutions recorded in the classics to bring the ideal society of the Great Peace to the world.
After receiving my Ph.D., I worked as a research fellow at the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities (IKGF) at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, on the research project “Fate, Freedom, and Prognostication: Strategies for Coping with the Future in East Asia and Europe." Along with other collaborative studies on divinatory techniques in traditional China, this gave me an opportunity to ask questions such as: “Why are certain predictive techniques considered legitimate in the modern world based on the yardstick of science, while others fall into the category of superstition?”
I decided to make my research go beyond the science/superstition dichotomy to think about divination as something that people innovatively invented to cope with their futures. Indeed, history and divination represent two of the most fundamental concerns of human beings: the past and the future. On a daily basis, we also try to navigate through our lives by looking back into the past and planning for the future.
What first attracted you to study education and travel in traditional China?
It started out with a research question: Can we study Chinese intellectual history without assuming individuals are the puppets of some abstract intellectual schools such as Confucianism or Daoism? It is a gross generalization to label your neighbors or classmates as “Confucian” or “Christian,” but somehow this is a rather common practice in studying Chinese history, such as using the generalization “Confucian culture.”
I wanted to look at the agency of individuals, and education and travel gave me a good chance to do so. After all, the whole point of traveling and learning is to transit to whom you have not become yet.
What are the driving forces behind your research?
The driving forces are human agency and innovation that comes with it. Among these seemingly diverse research topics, I want to see how individuals cope with anxieties and challenges in their own ways. Their ways might seem to be trivial, irrelevant, or outlandish to us, but they are the very testimony of our agency. I hope that my research can serve as a reminder that with our own agency, we can be bigger than our circumstances.
You mentioned that rote memorization was a huge factor of your own education, but as a professor, you encourage creative learning methods. How do you help students develop their own thought-processes and agency for learning?
As a teacher, my role is to help students find their own voices. Besides historical criticism and other skills, I also want to show our students that Confucius can be fun, and research can be fun.
In the classroom, although teachers seem to lead the lecture or discussion, students are in fact doing the heavy-lifting. They have to go through the process of learning and eventually making the new knowledge their own. They need to reconcile new knowledge with what they have already learned. In this sense, they are not just repeating the information, but making innovations through the recombination of knowledge.
The awkward silence is an indispensable part of the classroom; it is the moment that students stretch to come up with something new. And I believe there is beauty in it.
What do you hope students will take away from your classes?
I hope that students can find their own ways to make sense of the world. Going beyond the dichotomy of good and bad, praise and criticism, I want to introduce them to different perspectives and analytical tools so that they can capture the different layers of the world.
In my class on the history of the Silk Road, we have an activity series called “Let’s!” In order for students to understand the different choices of civilizations, we did “Let’s Play Civilizations,” where they could choose a starting place on the map of China and Central Asia with the selection of two of the following starting technologies: irrigation, animal husbandry, mining, sailing, writing, archery, and masonry. The aim is to explain how they can take over the whole map militarily, religiously, or economically with the chosen place and technologies. Soon enough, some of them went through the route of nomadic confederations, others preferred Han China’s style, and a few even used the strategy of Victorian England.
Through the process of the “Let’s!” series, students have not only just learned the dynamics of civilizations, religions, etc., they also get to make sense of them through experiencing them.
Any forthcoming research plans or projects on your checklist?
Along the line of seemingly outlandish ideas, I have been researching the unorthodox images of Confucius throughout Chinese history. I have already written on Confucius as a prophet in early imperial China, Confucius as a “ghostbuster” in early Medieval China, and Confucius as a diviner during the Tang dynasty.
Now I plan to work on Confucius as a military general during the Ming and as a deity in late imperial China. The sentiment is again to show how traditional Chinese people perceived Confucius in real life instead how Confucius was supposed to be perceived as official propaganda told us. Meanwhile I will bring this project into the classroom and offer a class on the many images of Confucius ranging from the most orthodox ones to the strangest ones.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.