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Williams International

Christopher Nugent, Assistant Professor of Chinese

Christopher Nugent, Assistant Professor of Chinese, specializes in the dissemination of oral poetry and in Tang Dynasty literature. He teaches a variety of courses, from Basic Written Chinese (CHIN121) to Crises and Critiques: The Literature and Intellectual History of Early 20th Century China.

How did you become interested in Chinese and Asian culture?

My interest in Asian Culture in a vague and general way started with Buddhism. In high school I began to read some popular early works introducing Buddhism (mostly Japanese Zen) to Western audiences and started doing coursework in Buddhism as soon as I got to college. This led first to an interest in early Chinese philosophy and then to later religious and intellectual history. Needless to say, it quickly became apparent that I would have to do a lot of language work as well. I found this intimidating at first, but grew to love studying Chinese (which is a good thing, as it can be a life-long endeavor).

In graduate school I switched from a focus on intellectual history to literature, Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.) poetry in particular. At the same time, many of the interests I pursued with Buddhism, the way different modes of expression develop and spread in both oral and textual forms in particular, figure prominently in my work on poetry as well. My first book, Manifest in Words, Written on Paper: Producing and Circulating Poetry in Tang Dynasty China, as the title states, looks at the way people produced and transmitted poetry in the Tang. I examine both written and oral modes of poetic circulation and discuss what we can deduce about how poets and their audiences in medieval China thought about poetic texts, especially with regards to the ways texts tend to change over the course of transmission. My new project is still in its early stages but deals with the way people organized and transmitted knowledge in the medieval period in China.

Why did you decide to come to Williams?

I came to Williams because I was (and continue to be) excited about an intimate setting where students are willing to work hard and are intellectually curious. After spending most of my adult life in cities, I was also anxious to give country living, to the extent that Williamstown is that, a try. Of course it helped that Williams was willing to hire me!

Why is it important for Williams students to have an awareness of international issues in general, and more specifically of Asian studies?

I think one reason why it’s crucially important for Williams students to have an awareness of international issues is that the domestic/international division is increasingly meaningless. I’m hardly making a fresh observation by claiming that the world is more closely interconnected, whether in cultural, economic, or political terms, than it ever has been. Yet this is indeed the case. As for Asian Studies specifically, again, China, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Japan, North and South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, and so on all play crucial roles the lives of Americans today, even if they don’t realize it.

At the same time, I don’t think contemporary relevance has to be the main reason for studying China, or any other place or subject. I became interested in Chinese philosophy because I found it had something important to say to me about what it means to be a human being. I found ideas there that I hadn’t encountered elsewhere—ideas that continue to shape the way I think about the world and my place in it. There’s something exhilarating, fascinating, and at times even frightening  about trying to understand how other people think. And I strongly believe that by undertaking this endeavor one can learn a tremendous amount about oneself. Living in China for two years didn’t just teach me about China, it taught me a great deal about America, and about what it meant for me to be an American. I was forced to question assumptions I hadn’t previously even realized I was operating under. A metaphor that I like to use for the process of learning Chinese works for learning about other cultures as well. It’s like climbing a mountain in which each foot you travel up reveals 10 more feet of mountain that you hadn’t previously realized were there. You are making real progress, you are learning more, but part of that progress is an increased awareness of just how much you still don’t know.

If you could go one place in the world, where would it be?

I have to say I really can’t answer that question. Now if it were a place and time then the answer is easier. I like to be in a mountain forest outside of Tang dynasty Chang’an drinking with the poet Wang Wei. I think he’d show me a good time, and would also probably do a good job at answering a lot of questions I have.