Joanna Waley-Cohen at Commencement 2021

May 25 2021

Chancellor Tong! President Hamilton! Vice-Chancellor Lehman! Friends! Colleagues! Parents! Ladies and Gentlemen, Near and Far! Salute with me our great students of the Class of 2021! Dear students, on behalf of the whole NYU Shanghai community, from the bottom of my heart I offer you warm congratulations upon your graduation.


During the second half of your college career assumptions have been upended, plans disrupted, differences exacerbated, societies divided, and families separated. And yet the pandemic “may yet have some part to play in our lives, for good or evil,” which is another way of saying that we cannot tell how things will turn out—for “even the very wise cannot see all ends”. Those words paraphrase what Gandalf tells Frodo in The Lord of the Rings (a book that I read for the first time almost 48 years ago on the train travelling to Beijing across Siberia from Moscow).  In other words, we should recognize that, notwithstanding all the unpredictability and all the difficulties that you may experience, useful lessons can be learned, new understandings can be brought to bear, and you may find yourself going in unexpected but beneficial new directions. 


By now you all know that an NYU Shanghai education has many distinctive features. I will refer to three of those today. One is the development of multicultural competence that comes with being members of an institution with a double identity; it means that one reflexively grasps the possibilities of multiple perspectives or, put differently, to learn that a glass that seems half full from one point of view can seem half empty from another. A second distinctive feature is the acquisition of negative capability, the ability to hold contradictory meanings or explanations in one’s mind simultaneously. And a third is the conscious quest to acquire new knowledge from as broad as possible a range of areas, so as to put oneself in a position to unite different and apparently disparate elements of one’s knowledge and experience so as to come up with fresh insights. We have frequently drawn your attention to the fact that this capacity of bringing together is the core of creativity, and that human creativity is the core of success in a world in which machines will take over most routine tasks.


What I’m going to say now touches on all of those skills: multicultural competence, weighing simultaneous meanings for a single expression or idea, and the creative bringing together of, in this case, a set of current referents derived from Anglophone Western culture with icons of Chinese classical culture: combining, if you like, present and past, west and east. 


The illustration I want to speak to you about today came to me recently when I was thinking about Chinese garden culture, which took me to Yu garden, a sanctuary of great beauty and an embodiment of classical Chinese garden culture located right in the heart of our city of Shanghai—and one that I hope everyone here has visited or soon will. Chinese gardens generally contain a number of elements, including not only plants but also rocks, water, borrowed views, openings, architecture, and winding paths and bridges. It is the winding character of the paths and bridges that I want to talk about now. At Yu garden, for example, there is a famous zigzag bridge with 9 turns (九曲桥), as well as many 3-bend bridges and paths. None of them is straight but all of them get you where you are going and send you onwards. The zigzag bridge is based on two principles. The first relies on the idea drawn from Chinese geomancy, fengshui, that linear paths are unlucky and bends help distract evil spirits. The second postulates that the zigzag or more indirect passage to your intended destination allows you to see the same vistas from different and sometimes unexpected angles, and to gain new perspectives as you make your way across. What once was hidden from view may become visible, and what becomes visible may bring  fresh vistas or insights. This principle could well be applied in a more metaphorical way to scholarly research or to the pursuit of one’s goals more generally.


To me one of the great pleasures of Chinese culture is the extent to which cultural references crop up repeatedly in different places. This is not unique to China, of course—for instance many people raised in the Western tradition quote Shakespeare all the time, without necessarily even realizing that they are doing so—but here I want to emphasize the longevity and ubiquity of the notion of the benefits of the winding path in Chinese culture. I will mention just a couple of references here.


The winding path is elegantly enshrined in Chinese literature over a period of more than a thousand years, in a four character phrase, 曲径通幽, that translates as “a winding path leads to mysteries” or “an indirect path penetrates what is hidden.” The locus classicus for this expression is an 8th-century Tang period poem by Chang Jian 常 建; then a full millennium later Bao Yu, hero of the great Qing novel 红楼梦, variously translated as “Dream of the Red Chamber” and “Story of the Stone,” memorably cites Chang Jian when he proposes the inscription of that very phrase at the entranceway to that most renowned of fictional gardens, the 大观园 (Prospect Garden) constructed for the visit of his royal sister. His purpose is to imply that it is “just a first step towards more important things ahead.”


My mind itself wandering as I strolled around Yu garden, took me unexpectedly to the lyrics of the Rolling Stones’ famous 1969 song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. This has been used and misused by others many times but today I want to draw attention just to these words: 

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want, but If You Try Sometime You Find You Get What You Need.”  If you don’t know the song, I strongly recommend you listen to the original sometime. It tells us that what you want may not be what you need—it may be more, or less, or different--and it suggests too that what you get may be just what you need, either in and of itself or so as to lead you on someplace else that you weren’t expecting to go. You can’t always get what you want but also you don’t always know what you need.


Class of 2021, what does this meditation on parallels between Chinese literature and Western popular culture mean for you as you set out on your life’s journey? First, it tells you that your dreams and ambitions may change, and that’s ok. Second, the pathways of one’s journey are rarely direct, but take twists and turns and even unforeseen detours. Pathways that run in a straight line without any deviation may in the end even be less productive than those that meander…and keep in mind that the journey itself is as much the point as the ultimate goal. Third, those twists and turns may well reveal things that previously were hidden and they may lead you in new and unexpected directions. These insights are all connected and to some extent reflect one another, like sunlight in a carefully planned garden pool.


So, dear students, as you travel forwards through life, savor the twists and turns that fortune offers you, embrace the unexpected, remember that “even the very wise cannot see all ends,” and, to quote Gandalf one more time, that ‘[what happens in our times ] is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,’ and how best to embrace the opportunities that come our way.


Thank you.