Fulbright Program Brings Chinese History Scholar to Sewanee

Sewanee’s 2023-2024 academic year brings a valuable opportunity for students interested in exploring East Asian politics, history, and culture: the University has been selected to host a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence from Taiwan to teach in the History Department through next summer. Yejune Chao (preferred name: Arden Chao) is an expert on early-20th century Chinese history and the nuanced factors that caused the Republic of China to reject representative democracy in favor of communism. Chao was selected for the Fulbright award by the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

The Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence Program brings visiting scholars from abroad to U.S. colleges and universities, helping the institutions internationalize their curricula, campuses, and surrounding communities, and diversify the educational experiences of their students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders. Chao is one of more than 45 Fulbright Scholars-in-Residence, and among 1,000 outstanding foreign faculty and professionals who will teach and pursue research in the United States during the current academic year through the worldwide Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program.

Chao will provide instruction in multiple classes, support student research, and give colloquium talks and campus-wide lectures. This semester, he is co-teaching a course titled “China: Inside the Great Wall” with Visiting Assistant Professor of History Claire Cooper. “This course is about Chinese East Asian history from 3,000 years ago through the 17th century,” he says, noting that this was a formative period in the development of Chinese culture. In the spring, Chao will offer courses that focus on understanding Chinese views of Western history. “The Chinese version of George Washington is very different from the version known in the United States,” he says. As an instructor, he says, he wants not only to explain how the Chinese people perceive Washington and other Western historical figures, but also more generally “start a conversation about Eastern and Western modes of thinking.”

Chao earned a Ph.D. in history from Peking University in 2018 and taught at Southwest University in Chongqing, China, from 2018 to 2021. Ultimately, he says, he found that his research interests were incompatible with living and working in China. “In my writing, I say that China is not a democratic country,” he says. “But Xi Jinping himself says that China is a democracy—a people’s democracy, which is very different from the Western capitalist concept of democracy.” He adds, “I can say anything based on my research and conscience outside of China—I can talk about how Chinese political figures misunderstood or misappropriated certain terms. But in China I can’t pursue these topics.”

History Department Chair Kelly Whitmer says Chao’s experiences as a historian and researcher underscore the vital connection between the past and the present. “History is very alive for [Chao],” she says. “It’s a message we always want to emphasize to our students—the study of history is actually about the present. It’s not a dead subject. We’re trying to understand how we arrived at the world we’re living in now.”

Whitmer worked with Hilary Dow Ward, Sewanee’s director of corporate and foundation relations, to apply for the University’s Fulbright partnership. Though Sewanee boasts 56 Fulbright Scholars among its alumni, the University previously had not hosted a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence in nearly 20 years. Whitmer notes that she received a Fulbright Scholarship as a young college graduate, and “it changed my life.” As she explains, “The whole goal of the Fulbright Program is to promote relationship-building across cultures and to try to help people sustain those ties and relationships.” Cultivating these bonds, she says, is an essential step in preventing global conflicts on the scale of World War II.

The Fulbright Program is recognized as the U.S. government’s flagship international academic exchange program and is supported by the people of the United States and partner countries across the globe. It is funded through an annual appropriation from the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). Participating governments and home and host institutions, corporations, and foundations around the world also provide direct and indirect support to the program, which operates in more than 160 countries worldwide.

Since its inception in 1946, more than 400,000 people from all backgrounds—students, scholars, teachers, artists, and professionals—have participated in the Fulbright Program and returned home with an expanded worldview, a deep appreciation for their host country and its people, and a new network of colleagues and friends. Fulbright alumni have become heads of state, judges, ambassadors, cabinet ministers, CEOs, and university presidents, as well as leading journalists, artists, scientists, and teachers. They include 62 Nobel laureates, 89 Pulitzer Prize winners, 78 MacArthur fellows, and thousands of leaders across the private, public, and nonprofit sectors.

Chao says he’s delighted to be in Sewanee and is looking forward to sharing his perspective on China with students and colleagues. As he notes, there are challenges inherent in using English terms to discuss Chinese concepts. “I want my students to understand what the Chinese people really mean when they talk about certain ideas, and to know how these ‘strange’ meanings—if students want to use that term—were formed.” Chao says he believes these types of classroom conversations can generate cross-cultural empathy and “make the world a better place for us to live.”

ECA sponsors the Fulbright Program, and several nonprofit, cooperative partners implement and support the program on the Bureau’s behalf. For further information about the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State, please visit https://fulbrightprogram.org or contact the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Press Office by email: ECA-Press@state.gov.