Trinity University history professor Gina Tam, Ph.D., was recently named one of 20 Public Intellectual Fellows through the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a program meant to mentor and highlight a handful of China specialists from across the country. The program intends to increase Americans’ understanding of China by strengthening links among U.S. academics, policymakers, opinion leaders, and the public.
We talked with Tam, who is also one of the leaders for East Asian Studies at Trinity (EAST) and co-directs the women and gender studies interdisciplinary minor, about her background, research, and hopes for the future.
What inspired you to pursue a career in academia?
I was inspired to pursue a career in academia by my own advisers in college. I've always been drawn to teaching; since I was a teenager, I've always found it really rewarding to be on a path of discovery, whether it is discovery of information, a skill, or insight into ourselves, with another person. You not only learn more about the world by being forced to explain things clearly to someone else; you also learn more about those things yourself. Teaching is, ultimately, a lifelong learning opportunity for me.
How do you hope to influence your students?
I hope at the very least I can teach them that learning is a lifelong process. I hope I can teach them less particular information about it, but instead give them the tools to approach the construction of knowledge with empathy, critical thinking, and nuance. I also hope I can influence them to do something that will make the world a little bit of a better place or bring a positive impact to the lives of others.
Your research interests are in modern Chinese history, nationalism, construction of collective identity, gender studies, and Chinese languages. What draws you to these areas? What do you hope to learn about them through your research?
I am fascinated by how categories define us as people. What does it mean for me to be an American? A woman? A millennial? A professor? An English speaker? How much is the meaning of these categories something that I get to define—as in, how much do I get to decide what it means to be a woman for me—and how much of it is projected onto me by others? I think that the way these categories are created, defined, bounded, and gate-kept really helps us profoundly understand our human past and present.
Through my research, I hope to help both the people who read my work and my students understand China in a way that is more nuanced and human than is so often portrayed. China is often conceived of as monolithic. But China is a diverse country, defined less by a singular historical cultural tradition than by cleavages and tensions among understandings of what it means to be Chinese. My work seeks to address and bring awareness to the inherent fallacy of Chinese unity by drawing attention to how categories of identity are constructed, how they serve unequal power dynamics, and how they shape tangible realities.
You enjoy using teaching to explore with students how the study of history informs our present. How do you think your research adds or plays into this idea?
I’ll give an example. My book, Dialect and Nationalism in China, is focused on the relationship between language and national identity, but rather than focusing on the national language, Mandarin, my book reorients the story of Chinese nation-building to focus on fangyan, a word we normally translate into English as "dialect," and includes dozens of other non-Mandarin Chinese languages spoken across the country. While this book certainly has historical implications—it challenges conventional histories of language policy both in China and worldwide that present the promulgation of a standardized national language as the groundswell of nationalist sentiment—it also has meaning to people today.
I frequently give talks where speakers of these local, non-Mandarin Chinese languages often feel as though their mother tongues, or the languages their parents or grandparents speak, are going extinct. My work, I hope, can give a voice to those hundreds of millions of speakers of other Chinese languages who see their own language as central to their own lives and identities, because it shows that, historically, those languages have always been central to what China was and is. It also has helped serve as a tool of advocacy for these languages.
What does it mean for you to be named one of only twenty Public Intellectual Fellows for The National Committee on United States-China Relations?
To be really blunt, it's somewhat overwhelming and surprising, because it is a really huge honor. The Public Intellectual Program was founded 15 years ago to help strengthen ties between academics and policy makers, professionals, and the general public, and it is truly amazing to be a part of these really important conversations.
I have long found it a responsibility to not just write for other academics, but to help make China legible for broader audiences, both my students and other communities. This program gives me a platform to continue to speak to a general audience interested in more nuanced understandings of China. It is also meaningful to me because, right now, U.S.-China relations are deteriorating, and a lot of us who study China are finding it difficult to maintain the very personal connections with China that make our work so meaningful. The Chinese government is becoming more and more hostile to foreign academics, and violent, oppressive crackdowns and crimes against humanity in places such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong are really heartbreaking to watch as someone who truly loves the country and the people who live there.
I can't think of a more important time for us to be having difficult, but critical, discussions about what it means to sustain engagement with China in a compassionate, nuanced, and empathetic way today. We need to work together to find ways to speak for the most oppressed groups within China and also work to dispel the common two-dimensional, flat, or even racist tropes that often dominate popular discussions about China and feed anti-Asian racism around the world.
What do you plan on doing with the fellowship, and how will you use what you learn at Trinity?
A critical part of the fellowship is making connections with other people who are invested in strengthening personal, intellectual, and cultural ties between the United States and the People's Republic of China, and using that to forge a better, more humanistically driven future. I am deeply looking forward to meeting not only other fellows, who are at the forefront of cutting-edge research on things like digital security, local politics, trade relations, and other topics, but also professionals including journalists, nonprofit founders, activists and grassroots organizers, entrepreneurs, and policy makers. I think academics have a lot to offer these other professionals, and we have an enormous amount we can learn from them. I look forward to simply enriching my own knowledge and understanding of China.
The headlining photo is of Gina Tam receiving media training during a Public Intellectual Fellows conference in Washington, D.C.