An Interview with Professor Yurou Zhong

An Interview with Professor Yurou Zhong

Professor Yurou Zhong was appointed to the EAS faculty in 2013. Since her arrival, Zhong has been teaching courses on modern Chinese literature and culture, literary theory, history of writing, and sound studies. Zhong completed her doctoral program at Columbia University in the department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society in 2014 with a dissertation entitled “Scripts of Modernity: The Transnational Making of the Chinese Language and Social Reform 1916-1958.” When we posed some questions about her academic interests and background and her U of T appointment, this is how Zhong responded:

dsc02926-copyQ: What are your primary areas of research?

I work on the cultural and literary history of modern China. I am generally interested in writing systems and literacy, intersections between technology and writing, history of linguistic thought, and media theory. I am currently working on a book manuscript on the Chinese script revolution in the twentieth century.

Q: Can you describe your academic journey up until this point?

I was trained in comparative literature and cultural studies in college. I did my graduate work in East Asian Studies and Comparative Literature. My fascination with the Chinese writing system first took hold when writing my undergraduate thesis. I was puzzled when realizing that the commonly accepted dichotomy between the classical Chinese literary language and the so-called modern Chinese “vernacular”—a basic tenet of the field of modern Chinese literature—was by no means stable. More important, this dichotomy concealed a larger history of a script revolution that both threatened to obliterate the entire body of Chinese literature and marked the emergence of its modern renewal as a national literature. I have been working to make sense of that puzzle ever since.

Q: What drew you to the University of Toronto?

The University of Toronto has one of the strongest programs of East Asian studies in North America. The recent EAS curriculum reform and the vision that brought about that very reform promise even greater prospects. Our department is well-connected to many other units with an interest in Asia across the tri-campus system. It is a sizable and remarkable group. My brilliant colleagues have cultivated an unusual intellectual community that combines scholarly rigor, theoretical acumen, and genuine collegiality. It is difficult not to be attracted by such a rare combination.

Q: What courses are you teaching?

As a relatively new lecturer, I am still at an early stage of building my repertoire and exploring my teaching style. I have taught both undergraduate and graduate courses on modern Chinese literature and culture, history of writing, literary theory, and media studies. I value opportunities—more like challenges—to combine teaching and research. My undergraduate seminar on the cultural history of the May Fourth Movement allowed me to invite my students to think with me—along the lines of my own book project—about the cultural enterprise that defined modern China. I take great pride in the kind of research and creative projects that my students developed coming out of that seminar. My new course on soundscapes gave me a valuable education in sound studies, and spawned a new side project for me, while compelling me to reflect on my own fascination with or even fixation on sound in general.

Q: What are you currently reading?

I am working my way through Friedrich Kittler’s Discourse Network 1800/1900 and Tang Lan’s Chinese Philology. For leisure reading, I just finished Ge Fei’s new novel Wang chun feng, an absolute masterpiece. I am also enjoying John Joseph’s extraordinary biography of Ferdinand de Saussure.

Q: We’ve heard you appreciate podcasts. Do you have a favourite?

I am a loyal subscriber to This American Life and The New Yorker Radio Hour. Recently, I was introduced to the great Slate’s Cultural Gabfest and have just started following a podcast on the early Hollywood history called You Must Remember This. I find good research (be it academic or journalistic), delivered with good presentation, a beautiful craft. I dare to hope that one of these days I’ll create my own podcast. Stay tuned.