The Things I've Found True: William Rowe - East Asian Scholar

By William T. Rowe (as told to staff writer Matt Hansen) | February 16, 2006

I grew up in Brooklyn. My earliest memory is of my father coming home from work. He was a banker. It wasn't a glorified job; he worked for a small savings bank. He had come out of the Depression as a farmer, had been drafted in World War II, then had come home and worked his way up from a teller to the president of this small bank. I remember watching him beginning his life when he came home. He liked his job, but he was a different person when he came home. I remember thinking that wasn't for me. But I knew that I was going to have to find a job doing something I loved. Later on, I realized that the academic life would let me do what I loved and get paid.

When I grew up, there was no world beyond Brooklyn. We played a lot of basketball, we partied. When I go back now to visit my father, who's 93 and still in the same house, it's funny. Some things have changed, some haven't.

I went to Wesleyan; I knew I wanted to be a professor. I majored in English, but I was a bad student. I learned a hell of a lot but didn't do any of the required reading. In 1967, right out of college, we were all drafted for Vietnam. This was before the lottery system. Congress had been debating whether they should take kids out of college so they decided they would take everybody, but they did give you a chance to take the test to see if you could qualify for Officer Candidate School. I took it, and I passed.

At that time, the student deferment wasn't an option. The only way you could get out of service was to go to divinity school. I wasn't that desperate, but I knew plenty of guys who started to become clergy to get out of the draft, then dropped it.

I wasn't in favor of the war, but my only options were to leave the country or take the commission. I guess I just did what I was told, although I certainly thought about the decision.

After my officer training, I was sent to Newport for a year, where I worked as a communications officer on a presidential command post. This was a big cruiser that had guns which nobody knew how to use. It was one of three command posts, one in the water, one in the air, and one in some hole in the ground, intended to provide a place for the president to evacuate in case of a nuclear war. We were always prepared for the president showing up. My job was to keep the communications circuits up and running. I spent a year and a half on that ship of fools and didn't really have to do anything. We kept the damn thing afloat but just barely. Half the crew were people with no interest in the military, like myself, while the other half were officers whose careers weren't going anywhere.

In late 1969, I was assigned to a riverboat squadron in Vietnam, you know, like Apocalypse Now and all that crap. But before I could get there, the whole squadron was completely lost.

I received orders to go to the Philippines instead. It was here that I first knew that Asia existed. It was one of the most vivid moments in my life. We were taking a bus to our station at Subic Bay and driving along this dirt road, and all along the side of the road were farmers out plowing their rice paddies with water buffalo. I could have been on Mars. I had no idea people still did that. I spent the rest of my commission there in the base library, as we had plenty of free time, reading up on the region.

When I got out of the navy, I got a job as a construction laborer in New York. It paid good money, so on nights and weekends I started taking classes on Asia. I had a particular interest in China but I didn't speak Chinese and my undergrad grades were lousy. I managed to get into one grad school, and quit my job to take intensive Chinese at Columbia that summer. The class was taught by this old dragon lady who absolutely terrorized the class. After a few weeks, I was getting the best grades in the class. Finally, one day she literally grabbed me by the ear and dragged me down to the dean of East Asian Studies at Columbia. `You will admit him,' she yelled, and the dean, who was as afraid of her as everyone else, did. It helped that I had a military background, as he was an old Swedish baron who had fought in the resistance in World War II, and figured a military man was just the type they needed in their program.

I graduated from grad school in 1980, the same year I married my wife, who I had met in one of the early Chinese classes. She had lived three blocks from me as a kid, but I hadn't known her. So we spent two years job hunting. I applied for 100 academic jobs, and nothing came. Finally, I realized I would have to do something else. I had been in the military, worked construction, worked in a bank, hated all of `em. So I applied to join the CIA. The day they accepted me was the day that UNC Charlotte called and said that the candidate they had for a professorship had backed out and gone to Princeton, and they gave both my wife and I jobs. I figured Charlotte was better than the CIA, so I accepted.

During my 2 years at UNC, I was part of the first academic group to be able to visit China after Mao. I spent 6 months in China in a rough hellhole of a city- this was only 4 years after Mao's death. It was a China that doesn't exist anymore. It was delightfully undeveloped but also difficult to visit. There were no restaurants, for example. Sure, the US ping-pong team had been before, or members of the right political groups, but we were the first people to show any interest in Chinese history. The archivists at the local libraries couldn't believe it.

I was hired by Hopkins in 1982. For 30 years before my hiring, there had been no Asian Studies at the University. They hired me because of a demographic crisis- the department was 100% old. I was the only China scholar on staff until just recently, when we hired our second.

I want to make clear that it's unfair to hold the yardstick of progress that we use for the rest of the world up to China. The more I study the area the more I challenge my own assumptions of the way the world works. China has had great historical change. Even if it doesn't look like `progress' to the Western world, this change has a logic behind it.

Scholars of China were astonished at the ferocity of the Tiananmen Square massacre. To me, there were two very distinct responses. One was the Bush senior response, who said, `You can't expect the Chinese leaders to respect human rights because they have no tradition of it.' The other was the Richard Gere response, saying, `We know what human rights are' and shoving it down the throats of the Chinese. The trick is to find a middle ground between these two approaches, and it's difficult.

I had written a biography of a revered Chinese leader in the Qing dynasty. After 10 years of reading and studying his writings, I had the chance to visit his village. It was way out in the boonies, and the only thing that's really left is the temple of his lineage. I met the village elders, one of which was the great-great grandson of this man. We talked for hours about his great-great grandfather, of how proud they were of him, even if the Maoists hated him. They showed me their treasure: two gigantic stone lions outside of the temple, given to the village in honor of their leader.

If there's one thing I want people to remember it is that China is not stagnant, and the West is not always progressive, and there isn't always some need for the West to `straighten these guys out.' I'm here to tell ya that they've been moving along.

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