In Colors of Veracity, Vera Schwarcz condenses four decades of teaching and scholarship about China to raise fundamental questions about the nature of truth and history. In clear and vivid prose, she addresses contemporary moral dilemmas with a highly personal sense of ethics and aesthetics.
Drawing on classical sources in Hebrew and Chinese (as well as several Greek and Japanese texts), Schwarcz brings deep and varied cultural references to bear on the question of truth and falsehood in human consciousness. An attentiveness to connotations and nuance is apparent throughout her work, which redefines both the Jewish understanding of emet (a notion of truth that encompasses authenticity) and the Chinese commitment to zhen (a vision of the real that comprises the innermost sincerity of the seeker’s heart-mind). Works of art, from contemporary calligraphy and installations to fake Chinese characters and a Jewish menorah from Roman times, shed light light on the historian’s task of giving voice to the dread-filled past. Following in the footsteps of literary scholar Geoffrey Hartman, Schwarcz expands on the “Philomela Project, which calls on historians to find new ways of conveying truth, especially when political authorities are bent on enforcing amnesia of past traumatic events.
Truth matters, even if it cannot be mapped in its totality. Veracity is shown again and again to be neither black nor white. Schwarcz’ accomplishment is a subtle depiction of “fractured luminosity,” which inspires and sustains the moral conviction of those who pursue truth against all odds.
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In Ancestral Intelligence, Vera Schwarcz has added a forceful and fascinating work to her ever-growing list of publications depicting the cultural landscape of contemporary China. Here, she has created stunning “renditions” of poems by a mid-20th Century dissident poet, Chen Yinke, and has added a group of her own poems in harmony with Chen Yinke’s. Like his, her poems show a degradation of culture and humanity, in this case through comparison of classic and modern Chinese logographs. Early readers of the book have been universally enthusiastic. Sam Hamill writes, “This deeply engaging celebration of the life and work of Chen Yinke is masterful in its blending of biography, history, linguistics, and poetic adaptation. If the scholarship is vast, the presentation is elegantly swift and insightful. And the poetry (not only Chen Yinke’s but also the author’s own collection of ‘logograph poems’) speaks clearly, powerfully, and passionately. Ancestral Intelligence is a magnificent accomplishment.” Mai Mang (Yibing Huang) adds this: “Through Ancestral Intelligence, Vera Schwarcz proves that a poet and a historian are one and the same: both must work against the flow of time and revive buried voices. That’s why we continue to read and listen.” And this praise from Eleanor Goodman: “The language of these poems lives in two worlds, gleaming across boundaries, thanks to the skill and insight of poet and historian Vera Schwarcz. In the tragic yet inspiring story of Chen Yinke, Schwarcz finds her own powerful way of articulating the horrors of political oppression, and also the smaller but no less difficult personal afflictions of growing old, seeing loved ones suffer, and
Vera Schwarcz was born and raised in Cluj, Romania, where she began her explorations of poetry in several languages. Her mother tongues include Hungarian and Romanian, with Yiddish, German, Hebrew, Russian and French added along the way. After emigrating to the United States in 1962, she pursued degrees in East Asian studies and history at Vassar, Yale and Stanford. A member of the first group of exchange scholars to be sent to China in the spring of 1979, she has returned to Beijing repeatedly during the past three decades. All along, her corpus of scholarly writing has been accompanied by the publication of poems in several languages in the United States, Europe and Asia. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Schwarcz has made the quest for remembrance a central theme in all her works. Her writing has been nominated for the National Jewish Book Award and has been accorded several major grants, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. She holds the Freeman Chair in East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University. Vera Schwarcz lives in West Hartford, Connecticut. witnessing the degradation of one’s culture and language. Along with their illuminating exploration of the loss of traditional Chinese ideograms on the mainland, these poems are a kind of primer in empathy, as Schwarcz opens a window onto twentieth-century China and one brave man who, with his intellectual courage and creative output, stood in the way of a dubious ‘progress.’ ”
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Reviewers have praised the exciting combination of passion, wisdom, and historical perspective present in this new poetry collection by Vera Schwarcz. Sam Hamill writes as follows: “These deceptively simple, direct poems are ‘organic’ in the best sense, drawing deeply from roots in Jewish, Chinese, and other ancient traditions and arising as naturally as a deep breath at the first light of dawn. They are a pleasure.” And Charles Adés Fishman adds this: “Vera Schwarcz’s words are precise brushstrokes that reveal and illuminate what she loves, celebrates, mourns, and desires. For this poet, the past does not recede into the realm of forgotten history but rushes forward into the present. In this engaging and elegant book, Schwarcz wields the ‘chisel of remembrance’ that, delicately, delicately, finds its way to what is sacred, necessary, and—in the right hands—lasting.” Stanley Moss finds the work of Schwarcz to be “poetry of a very high order, simultaneously informed by English, Chinese, Hungarian, Romanian, German, Hebrew, and Jewish religious tradition. I place English first only because the book is written in English. But I hear Chinese, a language I do not know, as dominant while post-Holocaust emotion is ever-present… This politically charged poetry with its abhorrence of suffering also teaches a profound love of nature, while providing the simple pleasures Auden required.” And this from Michele F. Cooper: “Into the corpus of Vera Schwarcz’s shimmering poetry and meditations comes this outstanding book of new poems, Chisel of Remembrance, which offers the reader a combination telescope/microscope as the poet ponders Chinese, Jewish, and personal culture. Again and again it offers lines I want to read aloud, enjoying their chemical mix of feeling and intellect. You never know what’s around the next corner: an art collector, blinded clocks, wild chirping, alphabets, cherry bark, date fronds, the scent of peace, or Confucius himself… This bright and eloquent book will keep Vera Schwarcz in the light for many years.”
Vera Schwarcz was born and raised in Cluj, Romania, where she began her explorations of poetry in several languages. Her mother tongues include Hungarian and Romanian, with Yiddish, German, Hebrew, Russian and French added along the way. After emigrating to the United States in 1962, she pursued degrees in East Asian studies and history at Vassar, Yale and Stanford. A member of the first group of exchange scholars to be sent to China in the spring of 1979, she has returned to Beijing repeatedly during the past three decades. All along, her corpus of scholarly writing has been accompanied by the publication of poems in several languages in the United States, Europe and Asia. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Schwarcz has made the quest for remembrance a central theme in all her works. Her writing has been nominated for the National Jewish Book Award and has been accorded several major grants, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. Currently, Vera Schwarcz is serving as Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University and holds the Freeman Chair in East Asian Studies. She lives with her husband and children in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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Place and Memory in the SINGING CRANE GARDEN
(University of Pennsylvania Press 2008)
“Well written, carefully structured, and beautifully focused on the importance and values associated with the memory and remembering. Vera Schwarcz emphasizes the interest in exploring a garden whose materiality has been lost but whose spirit endures, and does so creatively and with grace.”
— Peter Jacobs, University of Montreal
The Singing Crane Garden in northwest Beijing has a history dense with classical artistic vision, educational experimentation, political struggle, and tragic suffering. Built by the Manchu prince Mianyu in the mid-nineteenth century, the garden was intended to serve as a refuge from the clutter of daily life near the Forbidden City. In 1860, during the Anglo-French war in China, the garden was destroyed. One hundred years later, in 1960s, the garden served as the “ox pens,” where dissident university professors were imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. Peaceful Western involvement began in 1986, when ground was broken for the Arthur Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology. Completed in 1993, the museum and the Jillian Sackler Sculpture Garden stand on the same grounds today.
In Place and Memory in the Singing Crane Garden, Vera Schwarcz gives voice to this richly layered corner of China’s cultural landscape. Drawing upon a range of sources from poetry to painting, Schwarcz retells the garden’s complex history in her own poetic and personal voice. In her exploration of cultural survival, trauma, memory, and place, she reveals how the garden becomes a vehicle for reflection about history and language.
Encyclopedic in conception and artistic in execution, Place and Memory in the Singing Crane Garden is a powerful work that shows how memory and ruins can revive the spirit of individuals and culture alike.
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Bridge Across Broken Time:
Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory
(Yale University Press, March, 1998)
“This is a beautifully written, reflective personal essay on the role of memory for those whose history has been fragmented by trauma. Original and moving.”
— Paula E. Hyman, author of Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History
In this remarkable book, Vera Schwarcz explores the meanings of cultural memory within the two longest surviving civilizations on earth. The author of previous books that the New York Times Book Review called “moving” and that Jonathan Spence termed “subtle, elegiac, and elegant,” Schwarcz finds a bridge between the vastly different Chinese and Jewish traditions in the fierce commitment to historical memory they share. For both, a chain of remembrance has allowed tradition to endure uninterrupted from ancient times to the present; for both, the transmission of remembrance and the active bearing of witness to the significance of the past are high moral values. From her unique standpoint as China scholar and daughter of Holocaust survivors, Schwarcz uncovers resonances between the narratives of Chinese intellectuals, recovering from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and the halting tales of her own parents.
Focusing on the transmission of cultural memory in these two cultures, the author examines how metaphor becomes an aid to memory, how personal remembrance plays a role in public commemorations, and how historical wounds are healed. Combining poetry and historiography, oral interviews and archival documents, this book brings to life the struggles of Chinese and Jewish survivors who managed to cultivate memory through inimical times and to preserve the continuity of their long traditions.
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The Chinese Enlightenment:
Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919
(University of California, Berkeley Press, 1986)
It is widely accepted, both inside China and the West, that contemporary Chinese history begins with the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Vera Schwarcz’s imaginative new study analyzes what makes that event a turning point in the intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and political life of twentieth-century China. Focusing on the students and teachers of Peking University who launched an iconoclastic attach on Confucian tradition. Schwarcz explores the conflict between their advocacy of enlightenment and their evolving commitment to national salvation. Her argument that nationalistic pressures and loyalties have constricted, and will continue to constrict, the pursuit of enlightenment calls into question previous interpretations of the May Fourth Movement.
This richly textured account conveys the broad historical significance of May Fourth, while at the same time it demonstrates the continuing influence of the ideal of freedom of thought on contemporary China. Schwarcz thus offers a special insight into the dilemma of modern Chinese intellectuals who are the heirs of the Chinese enlightenment.
“No other study matches it in conveying the broader historical significance and contemporary meaning of the May Fourth Movement.”
— Maurice Meisner
“An inspiring book about an inspiring event. Schwarcz demonstrates convincingly that the significance of the May Fourth Movement is not restricted to the past history of China….Her study is thought-provoking and offers a very important reference for those interested in modern China and its future.”
— Chow Tse-tsung
“A thoughtful, stimulating account… unique in detailing how the dynamism of that movement impelled subsequent generations to continue the effort begun by their predecessors.”
— Merle Goldman
“Vera Schwarcz has written a subtle and deeply original book. By presenting the stages of the May Fourth Movement in terms of the different generations of the main participants — several of whom she interviewed — she is able to analyze the significance of a Chinese ‘Enlightenment’ with a rare precision. Her final chapters on the struggles made by the governments in both the People’s Republic and Taiwan to claim the mythic elements of May fourth for their own underline the continuing difficulty of the Chinese to obtain what she calls ‘liberation from self-repression,’ and to establish a truly critically minded humanism.”
— Jonathan Spence
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Long Road Home:
A China Journal
(Yale University Press, 1984)
“There is an apt Chinese expression about fleeting perspectives: ‘ride a horse to look at flowers.’ This has been the hallmark of the American perspective since the opening of China in the early 1970s. We used to come to China for two or three weeks, rush through major cities, take as many pictures as we could. We used to scavenge each encounter to glimpse the ‘real China.’ … I have been in China eight weeks now. Long enough to still feel the thrill of being one of the first Americans to live here since the Cold War. But … I am finally able to catch my breath…. I am slowly starting to dismount.”
—April 28, 1979
In this unique journal of her sixteen-month stay in the People’s Republic, Vera Schwarcz probes beneath the official face that China presents to its foreign guests. A sensitive observer, Schwarcz describes life in China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and records her reactions — both intellectual and personal — to this complex world. Fluent in the language and knowledgeable about Chinese customs and traditions, she becomes friends with her colleagues at Peking University. From these still patriotic individuals, she hears first-hand accounts of the degradation they endured during the Cultural Revolution — and of the ongoing difficulties they face as intellectuals in China today.
Schwarcz’s experiences beyond the university reveal other aspects of China to her. While participating in a wheat harvest at a commune, or travelling among the first students to go from Mongolia to Xinjiang, she continually alters her preconceptions about China as she becomes exposed to its multilayered realities.
With honesty, intellectual and political integrity, and a keen awareness of the anomalies and opportunities of her own position in a foreign land, Schwarcz takes the “long road home” — an arduous journey that not only teaches her to know herself better but also to bring that knowledge to bear on China’s unfolding modernity.
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Time for Telling Truth is Running Out:
Conversations with Zhang Shenfu
(Yale University Press, 1992)
Over the five years that we talked [octogenarian Zhang Shenfu] became the underbelly of China’s history for me…. Zhang was like a broken mirror through which I glimpsed the fragmented reality of China in revolution.”
— Vera Schwarcz
Zhang Shenfu, a founder of the Chinese Communist party, participated in all the major political events in China for four decades following the Revolution of 1919. Yet Zhang had become a forgotten figure in China and the West— a victim of Mao’s determined efforts to place himself at the center of China’s revolution– until Vera Schwarcz began to meet with him in his home on Wang Fu Cang Lane in Beijing. Now Schwarcz brings Zhang to life through her poignant account of five years of conversations with him, a narrative that is interwoven with translations of his writings and testimony of his friends.
Moving Circuitously, Schwarz reveals fragments of the often contradictory layers of Zhang’s character: at once a champion of feminism and an ardent womanizer, a follower of Bertrand Russel who also admired Confucius, and a philosophically inclined political pragmatist. Schwarcz also mediates on the tension between historical events and personal memory, on the public amnesia enforced by governments and the “forgetfulness” of those who find remembrance too painful. Her book is not only a portrait of a remarkable personality but a corrective to received accounts and to the silences that abound in the officials annals of the Chinese revolution.
“This is a subtle, elegiac, and elegant book that circles around and through Zhang Shenfu’s life as he circled around and through his country’s revolutionary history, Vera Schwarcz has done the hardest things here: she has stalked an elusive voice from the past and caught it, just so.”
— Jonathan Spence (Yale University)
“Zhang Shenfu was part of so many of the events that shaped post — May Fourth China that his story is bound to be of enormous interest to students of twentieth-century China. The portrait of Zhang that emerges from Schwarcz’s description is sensitive, nuanced, and evocative.”
— John Israel (University of Virginia)
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