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New Faculty Focus: Anatoly Detwyler

He brings a focus on modern Chinese literature and history to the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures.

by Katie Vaughn October 31, 2018

Anatoly Detwyler

Title: Assistant Professor of Modern China Studies

Hometown: Stevens Point, Wisconsin

Educational background: 

During my undergrad studies at the University of Minnesota, I switched majors from psychology to Asian Languages and Literatures and never looked back. After completing my BA, I spent a year in Taipei doing intensive training in contemporary and classical Chinese before applying to grad school. I earned my PhD in Chinese literature at Columbia University, during the course of which I spent several research years in Beijing at Tsinghua University and Peking University.

How did you get into your field of research? 

Serendipity. Minnesota had a language requirement as part of its liberal arts major, and I chose to study Mandarin Chinese because I didn’t want to study an “easy” language like French, Spanish or German, which had been my options in high school. I quickly discovered the particular joys of studying Chinese (it’s actually not so difficult!), as well as the culture and history of China and East Asia more generally. The challenges and rewards of immersion abroad prompted me to continue studying until I could conduct real research on primary documents. I chose to specialize on China’s modern and contemporary periods, roughly spanning from the late 19th century to today, on account of how dynamic this era was and continues to be, especially in terms of literary and artistic imaginations of possible futures. 

What attracted you to UW-Madison? 

It’s a world-class research institution with the students to match. There’s a critical mass of scholars and graduate students in Asia studies who are doing fascinating and important work. I’m very proud to join such a diverse community and to step into the particularly strong tradition of Chinese literature studies at Wisconsin. The opportunity to come back to the Midwest after a decade on the East Coast was a big bonus.

What was your first visit to campus like? 

I visited as a teenager when my brother was an undergraduate student here, but the campus and the city seem to have both changed significantly since then. When I visited for the job interview last February it had just snowed and everything was very pretty but also very cold. All my time away from Wisconsin made me forget how to walk on ice because I slipped on the sidewalk and dramatically upended myself. Definitely the most enjoyable part of the visit was getting to interact with the fantastic graduate students in Asian Languages and Cultures and in History and learning about their research projects. 

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with? 

Beyond learning about China and developing a well-rounded cultural literacy, I hope that my students will come away with a sharpened appetite for asking questions regarding the hows and whys of history. Reading literature or watching a film requires us to be empathetic, to recognize voices and perspectives very different to our own. This sort of sensitivity is critical for asking good questions, too, for any field of work. 

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how. 

Topically speaking, the direct importance of China to Wisconsin’s economy is indisputable. Everyone in this state can benefit from an increased understanding of China, its people, its perspectives and its problems. I want to promote such understanding among the broader public, particularly by working with the China Institute, which serves as an important platform of cultural and social engagement. More generally, I believe that the humanities are crucial to the Wisconsin Idea to because they uniquely stimulate our capacity to imagine, to invent, to understand ourselves in a changing world — skills which will only become more valuable in the future.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties? 

The word “brain-washing” is common and very relevant to our current moment. But it has a very specific, and recent, history, going back to the early Cold War and the tensions between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China. A journalist named Edward Hunter coined the term and popularized it in his book Brain-washing in Red China(1951). It’s ostensibly a translation of a Chinese term, xinao(which itself was an adaptation of a Buddhist term, xixin, “to wash the heart”), which described persuasion techniques then being developed in thought reform camps. It’s forgotten now, but in its day “brain-washing” was intentionally popularized by the CIA as a form of cultural warfare thanks to the term’s connotation (in Americans’ minds) of a mysterious, Oriental enemy equipped with a low-tech but powerful social weapon that could counter American nuclear threats. 

Hobbies/other interests: 

I’m an avid disc golfer, so on a weekend morning you may run into me at a local course. Madison — and Wisconsin overall — is a hotbed for this wonderful (and occasionally infuriating!) sport.