Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is a historian and writer who graduated from the Hopkins Nanjing Center with a HNC Certificate in 2008. She has her PhD in Modern Chinese History from the University of California, Irvine, M.A. in East Asian Studies from Yale University and B.A. in History from Saint Joseph’s University. She is co-author with Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (3rd edition), coming out in 2018.What was it that drew you to apply for the Hopkins Nanjing Center originally?
I was planning to apply for PhD programs in Chinese history, because I had a pretty good sense that was where I wanted to go…But I wanted to go back to China. There was so much more that I needed to learn about China, so much more that I needed to do there, that the six months I had spent in Beijing studying Chinese just wasn’t enough, before I committed to a PhD program and settled back down for that in the United States. I came across the HNC and it was the kind of graduate program that I was interested in, and it would get me in China, studying really advanced Chinese for a couple of years. It was more than just language study, but more structured than going to China on my own and trying to find a job.Did you feel your time at the HNC was beneficial in terms of your later study?
It really helped me to refine my academic interests. Taking the courses made me figure out what I liked, what I could focus on in my graduate career afterwards. The language skills that I picked up there – I already knew how to speak Chinese, I already knew how to get by in China – but the advanced, technical vocabulary I picked up and the ability and the confidence to write papers in Chinese was invaluable and you’re just not going to get that in any graduate program in the USA. There’s nothing like reading an academic article in Chinese to make you realize that’s a different thing entirely.
During my first year at the center, I was looking at many different PhD programs in history. I kept coming back to University of California, Irvine, because they were looking at Chinese history but also China’s engagement with other countries and looked at China within a context of world history. Jeff Wasserstrom, one of the UC Irvine professors, came through in my first year to do a talk. The American professors set up a meeting for me with him, I got to meet him face to face and talk about what my interests were and why I should study at his school. I wound up going to UC Irvine. The connection that I made with Jeff at the HNC was one of the reasons that that worked out.
I’m currently working on a co-authored book with Jeff: China in the 21st Century
: What Everyone Needs to Know
. It’s the 3rd edition, the first was 2010, then 2013 and now we’re doing the 3rd edition. It’s a short introduction to contemporary China for people who really don’t know much about the country.
Is the book typical of your general academic interests?
Very broadly, my career is about education outside the classroom. I find a lot of fulfillment in talking to general audiences about China, to people who have never been there, who may never get there, but who want to learn more about it, want to understand it in more depth than reading the newspaper or listening to the news. I try to convey in my writing and public speaking that, yes China is special and there are so many unique things about the country, but it is also like other countries, and we shouldn’t always treat it as being this unique, one off sort of thing. News stories can sometimes be about how different China is from everyone else, and I look for connections, parallels and ways of saying let’s put this in a broader context, let’s think about the ways that China is following trends in other places or engaging with things that are happening in other countries, like the US. It’s a way of saying, we’re really not that different after all.And do you think that’s a line of thought that you see in the HNC?
The HNC is one of the places where people realize how much the two countries have to learn from each other and how important people to people engagement is between the two. So it’s very useful, the chance to take courses with Chinese students and hear different perspectives on the same topics that we’ve learned about and talked about in American classrooms for decades. It’s also a place where you can hash things out: you say, we’re all coming to this topic with our own understandings that have been conditioned by our education and our media. Let’s exchange ideas and information, and maybe come up with a third understanding of the situation. I think the HNC is one of the very few places, and for a long time it was the only place, where you had Chinese and international students coming together in that sort of context.Yes, the HNC differs a lot from the typical study abroad in China experience.
The HNC is also different from a language program in that people who usually teach Chinese to foreigners get very good at eliminating accents and they write in very precise standard characters. But at the HNC the professors speak in their normal accents and write with their normal handwriting. They’re not conditioning what they’re doing for a foreign audience. It’s incredibly useful to get used to hearing different accents and learning to read actual Chinese handwriting. It’s another learning curve and it’s a better training. You have to get accustomed to how people actually speak.Is there anything that stands out from your time at the HNC?
The Wall Walk may still remain the most impressive physical feat that I have ever achieved. I remember the next morning not being able to walk down the stairs from my 5th floor bedroom because my leg muscles hurt so much. The wall walk was a great way to see the layers of Nanjing’s history going back to the Taiping rebellion, up until post 1949. I’m still very impressed with myself that I completed it and I’m not sure that I could do that today!
The spring of 2008 the Olympic torch came right by the HNC. All of the classes that morning were cancelled and we went out to the street and got to see the torch from 20 feet away as it passed. It’s something you just can’t replicate. It’s one of the things that at the time I thought it was cool and interesting, but I didn’t quite realize how important the Olympics were for China. It’s only as the years have passed that I’ve truly come to understand how fortunate I was to be in China in 2008.Do you have any advice for students looking to write about China in their careers?
I think it is very important to look for unusual stories. Foreign correspondents tend to be based in Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong, and so if a young journalist is interested in going to China, there would be a lot of value in going to different cities or out to the countryside, so we get a more layered understanding of the country and its political and social dynamics.
I also recommend reading widely – reading about other places besides from China. I gravitate towards Russia, India, other countries in Asia, I just picked up a book on Brazil. There are certain countries that make for certain parallels – i.e. politically comparing China and Russia. It’s important to think about the world more broadly. Read other people, read other opinions, read a variety of writing styles, if you’re someone who’s really interested in writing. There are plenty of different ways to write about the world, and I think we need to train ourselves well in being good writers.Do you have any thoughts on encouraging different voices in the conversation on China?
In my previous role, I was co-director of the Public Intellectuals program at the National Committee on US China Relations. That program trains mid-career scholars in learning how to do good interviews, how to speak with non-academic audiences and how to take their knowledge on China and disseminate it to the general public. It introduces the fellows to journalists in the US and China and they get to know each other so that the next time the journalist needs a source, they can use someone they’ve met through that program. That program is a fantastic way to introduce new voices into the conversation. Journalists can go into the national committee website and there’s a list of the 100 intellectual program fellows, and their academic specialties.Do you have any podcast or book recommendations?
I'm a huge fan of podcasts and subscribe to a bunch of them. Aside from the Sinica podcast, other excellent China podcasts are Laszlo Montgomery's China History Podcast, the Little Red Podcast that Louisa Lim and Graeme Smith are doing from Australia, and Radii China's new Wo men/Women podcast, in which two Chinese women speak with guests about a wide range of topics, from Donald Trump and U.S.-China relations to adventure travel.
Any last thoughts on the HNC and your relationships stemming from the HNC?
When I lived in Shanghai there was an HNC alumni book club. We would get together on Sunday afternoons once or twice a month and talk about different books, dealing with international relations or China. None of them were people I’d gone to the center with but we all had that connection. It’s one of those things that when you find out you both went to the HNC, and even if they went there 10 or 15 or 20 years before you did, there’s still that connection there, so it’s just a really invaluable place to learn a lot and to meet people, and to forge those sorts of networks. It’s hard to believe I was there ten years ago – it just feels like yesterday.Interview completed by Anna Woods, HNC Certificate/SAIS MA '18