On the study of Chinese history and culture - a conversation with Dr. Laura Pozzi

We talk with Dr. Laura Pozzi of the UW Department of History about her love of China, treasures and curiosities from Chinese museums, what the "Century of Humiliation" is, and controlled Warsaw dynamism. A great interview to start the weekend! Enjoy!

  1. Please tell us about your love of China.

My fascination with China was born quite by accident. I was just finishing high school and had not yet decided what kind of studies to take. One evening, while watching TV, I came across a documentary on Chinese cuisine and experienced a real infatuation. I decided to enroll in the Department of Oriental Languages at Venice's Ca' Foscari University. In January 2005, after almost three years of study, I flew to Beijing for the first time. Since then, China has become a second home for me. For many years I felt more at home in China than in Italy.

  1. What are the differences between the European and Chinese viewpoints on colonialism?

There are essentially two attitudes in Europe. The first is to downplay the dark side of colonialism, which is either romanticized as part of national history or deliberately overlooked as an 'inconvenient past'. The second is to condemn the brutality of colonialism and analyze how much today's society still draws on ideas rooted in the colonial system and manifested, for example, in capitalist modernism, racism and Eurocentrism. In this regard, researchers focus on personal accounts and on the stories told by colonized peoples.

In China, the situation is different. The Chinese Communist Party demonizes European (and Japanese) colonialism. For example, the period in which China was largely under the supremacy of some European countries and Japan is called the 'Century of Humiliation.' Such rejection of the European colonial system, however, has not yet led to a broader reflection on its impact on the country's social and political habits. Thus, while the Chinese government criticizes Western governments for their imperialism, there is no public debate in China itself regarding the colonialism of the Chinese Empire or the recent neo-colonial initiatives of the Han ethnic majority in China itself (Tibet, Xinjiang, etc.) and abroad (especially in Southeast Asia and many African countries).

  1. Where did the decision to work in Poland come from, given your research focus on China? Was it because of previous Polish personal contacts? Or did you come across an interesting scholarship in Poland?

I moved to Warsaw in late 2018, after three years as a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. My working life in Hong Kong was very rewarding, but after three years of teaching, I decided to find a position that would allow me to pursue a new research project. When my husband, also a researcher, won a competition at the University of Warsaw, I started looking for a job in Poland. As luck would have it, members of the EU-funded ECHOES project were looking for a specialist in Chinese history to explore a topic related to the depiction of colonialism in Chinese museums. The museum part of the project was headed by Professor Joanna Wawrzyniak of the Institute of Sociology at Warsaw University. I immediately sent in my resume. Let's just say that I was the right person at the right time. I had the pleasure of working on this project for three wonderful years.

  1. You spent many years in China. To what extent did direct contact with the culture, people and local customs influence your earlier academic vision of this country, which is, after all, so different from European ones?

Before going to China, I studied Chinese for two and a half years. Back in Venice, I spent many hours cramming in ideograms and grammar rules that seemed insanely convoluted. More than once I asked myself whether studying a culture so distant from my own made any sense at all. The courses I took were interesting, but a bit far from contemporary. Reading texts by Confucius and Lu Xun was very interesting, but I felt disconnected from reality. Imagine a foreign student who decides to learn about Italy and the Italian language by reading Dante or Alessandro Manzoni and never visiting the country. It was like exploring a culture frozen in the past. It wasn't until I arrived in Beijing that I finally had a chance to encounter a living language, an ever-changing culture and a very dynamic country. It was liberating. You could say that I only really began to discover China after I arrived in Beijing. Today I have a better understanding of Confucius and Lu Xun.

  1. Which museum in China or Hong Kong do you find most interesting? Why?

There are several of them. My favorite is the Nanjing Palace Museum. It is mainly famous for its collection of porcelain from the Ming and Qing dynasties, but personally, I like the section devoted to 18th- and 19th-century clocks best. Some of them come from Europe, while others are of native manufacture. The latter are truly unique, as local clockmakers have managed to give a very Chinese style to the classic pendulum clocks found in many palaces of Europe. I admit that I spent much more time looking at clocks than ceramics. Another museum I visited several times was the Museum - Mausoleum of King Nanyue, in Guangzhou. It houses the tombstone of King Zhao Mo, the second ruler of the Nanyue State (2nd century BC), and various archaeological finds, including the emerald armor in which the king was buried. Other unforgettable sites include the Shanghai Museum, the Sanxingdui Museum, and, of course, the National Museum of China.

  1. Do you know or particularly appreciate any Polish sinologist or historian of China?

Of course, this is Igor Chabrowski, who has written two books on the history of Sichuan province. However, I admit that I may be a bit biased: he is my husband.

  1. What are your future research plans?

I have been trying to explore Chinese history outside the People's Republic of China. Historical museums in China are strongly nationalistic in nature, and the Communist Party now has almost absolute control over the historical narrative that can be communicated to the public. I would like to understand how China's history is perceived outside the country. Last year, I spent a month in Thailand, visiting museums founded by 'overseas Chinese.' In the future, I would also like to explore museums opened in other Southeast Asian countries.

  1. You work at the Department of History at the University of Warsaw. Are there many foreigners there?

I don't know the exact figures, but certainly the number of foreigners traversing the corridors of the department continues to grow. The Global History project I am involved in recently hired a researcher from India, and we also have a colleague working on the same project who came from Finland. We are working closely with Professor Jie-Hyun Lim and his team from Sogang University (Seoul). In January, we held a three-day conference on the idea of the "global East." There are also quite a few foreign scholars who conduct research at the department for months at a time. Last year we hosted a Chinese student who is writing a doctoral thesis on economic relations between the People's Republic of China and the People's Republic of Poland in the 1950s. In short, there is a lot going on in our department.

  1. And in Warsaw itself? Do you often happen to meet Italians? Do you meet them in the scientific community, at the university or at other institutes?

In Warsaw, you can meet many Italians, and their number is growing. My neighbors are Italian, as is the owner of the ice cream shop near my house. I know only one Italian lady professor who works at the university, but there are many Italian Erasmus students, so Italian is often heard in the corridors of the libraries and in the alleys of the campus.

10. Do you see differences in the organization of universities and research funding in Italy and Poland?

I will frankly admit that I have never worked at an Italian university. I am a classic example of 'brain flight'. I did my PhD at the European University Institute, which, although based in Florence, is an academic and research institute with an international focus. After my doctorate, I always worked abroad, so I am not very well informed about Italian academic mechanisms. However, I have friends and relatives who work at Italian universities, and as far as I have been able to find out, the problems with research funding are almost the same in Italy as in Poland: there is not much funding (at least officially), writing projects for national and international funding competitions is very time-consuming, the most fashionable or nationalistic projects are often promoted, and it is increasingly difficult to get a permanent position. I have the impression that this is now a common trend around the world.

  1. You studied and worked in beautiful Italian cities: Venice, Florence. Warsaw is quite different from them. How do you find your way here? What do you like most here? And what surprises you?

I love both Venice and Florence, but I also appreciate the dynamism of Asian metropolises. One feature that has always struck me about large urban areas is their constant physical transformation. They are constantly growing and transforming, exactly the opposite of many Italian cities. I don't want to perpetuate the stereotype that Italy never changes: of course Italian cities are transforming, but these days the changes are slow and not particularly revolutionary. Warsaw, for me, is something halfway between Italian immobilism and Asian frenzy - there are rapid changes taking place here, but they are not out of control. It's a dynamic city, but not a frenetic one. Moreover, unlike Italian and Asian urban clusters, Warsaw is green, which I greatly appreciate. It has also gained more international momentum in recent years. In my opinion, Warsaw is one of the most interesting developing cities in Europe.

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