Cato van Schaik: Venturing into Chinese History

Apr 28 2017
Written by NYU Shanghai

Although studying at NYU Shanghai will soon be coming to an end for Cato van Schaik ‘17, her connections with the Chinese language and culture will carry on. The Dutch graduate plans another year of intensive training of a language that even many of her Chinese peers find challenging -- traditional and classical Chinese.

“I’d like to venture out to an area that I have not yet mastered. Being here for four years, I do not want to leave before I’m proficient in Chinese,” van Schaik said. She has been accepted to a one-year language program at National Taiwan University, and will move to Taipei in the fall. Before that, she will also complete a language immersion program in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

van Schaik’s passion for the Chinese language stems in part from her growing interest in this country over the past four years. She also considers it a necessary quality for her future as a historian focusing on Chinese intellectual history, and learning the language also offers insight into the country’s political culture and philosophy.

“In order to get a graduate degree in Chinese history, being able to read and find resources in traditional Chinese is imperative,” she said.  “Whether I decide to pursue graduate research or take this experience with me in any other field, being fluent in Chinese will allow me to serve as a link between a Western or European experience and China.”

At the moment, the history major is finalizing her capstone project, which discusses the development of cartography in ancient China, taking a close look at early Han maps from 200 BC. According to van Schaik, China’s map-making technology emerged as early as more than 2,000 years ago, but disappeared for a period of time.

“I’m very keen to find out why it disappeared and why it came back, and how these archeological objects become interpreted within a narrative of China and its development” van Schaik said. “Maps are conceptualization of space. The imaginary realm of where we are in contrast with the rest of the world is very illuminating for me.”

In addition to the capstone thesis, she has been conducting independent research under the guidance of Professor Joanna Waley-Cohen, whose classes sparked van Schaik’s interest. 

For a Dutch teenager, flying across the globe to China for an undergraduate degree in a startup university is very unusual, but not for van Schaik, who spent two years of high school in Mbabane, Swaziland even before moving to Shanghai.

Born and raised in Amsterdam, van Schaik said she saw the uncertainty of joining NYU Shanghai as a worthy risk.

“It’s small, but you have the chance to make as much out of it as you want. You can get involved to shape the university as your own, something that comes with a sense of responsibility,” she said. “If you get through, you’ll be rewarded with insight and first-hand experience in China that nobody else has. It’s a risk that has so much potential to pay off.”

It was in such spirit that van Schaik boarded a plane to China “with a suitcase full of junk and a heart full of fear.” Now she prides herself as a cultural adventurer who once savored turtles and drank baijiu in rural Anhui province. 

“Living in Shanghai is a fantastic experience and can be overwhelmingly modern, but in rural areas you observe other aspects of China and learn customs that are often no longer practiced in cities,” she said.

Enthusiastic in promoting equality and serving the community, van Schaik was among the first to establish the Queer and Ally Society in her freshman year and launched Ally Week, now evolved into an annual NYU Shanghai tradition. Currently serving  as Chief of Staff for Student Government 2016-17, Cato’s extraordinary work outside the classroom  landed her two NYU President’s Service Awards--a notable high prize for student involvement.

Completing her third-year study-away in Berlin and Washington D.C., van Schaik also took the opportunity to build a strong interest in politics and international relations.

“However, no matter where I go for graduate schools or for a job, I do want to maintain a connection with my experience in China, and no matter what, Chinese will be important,” she said.