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Meet Yi Wang, history

By Maureen Mullarkey

   Yi Wang 

A nation's borders and territories can often be the trigger points for war and destruction. But for Yi Wang, borderlands can be locations of peace.

"Borders are the middle-grounds between different cultures," she said. "They help to create something new in negotiations and interactions."

Wang, a new assistant professor in history at Harpur College, specializes in late imperial and twentieth-century China, Chinese borderlands, migration, and nationalism.

"I feel that through all of the archives and documents I can travel back in time," she said. "I can experience what the people then experienced, and that's fascinating to me."

Born and raised in southern China, Wang originally studied English as an undergraduate. After taking courses in different subjects, Wang decided she wanted to dedicate her life to history.

"I always had an interest in history and wanted to delve into what happened in the past," she said. "While growing up we learned Marxist Chinese history, so after I took different courses in college my mind was expanded to different perspectives of history."

Wang knew she wanted to study borderlands, but was undecided on which specific borders to examine. But after living in Japan for a year and a half as an exchange student, the Mongolian culture opened up to her.

"I made many Mongol friends and I went to folk festivals," she said. "I fell in love with their music. It's so unique and makes me long for the pastures and farmlands."

With a new focus in mind, Wang went on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and received her master's in Eastern studies. She then studied at the University of Chicago, where she gained her doctorate in imperial and Eastern studies.

At Binghamton University, Wang currently teaches two courses: Late Imperial China, which studies the last two Chinese dynasties; and a Senior Seminar that examines China's borderlands. Wang said that she has always wanted to teach the seminar because it focuses more on her research.

"I created the course myself," she said. "It incorporates different borderlands — Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet and Taiwan — and (views) the relations between borderlands and the central area, so it encompasses multiple perspectives."

In her Late Imperial China class, Wang said she has many Chinese international students as well as American students. Wang encourages her students to always think outside of the box.

"You have to engage in critical thinking; don't take anything at face value," she said. "When researching through articles and documents, always have questions in mind."

In her research, Wang aspires to use this way of thinking by inspecting the lives of local people. Her most recent publication centers on Chinese merchants who traded with Mongols in the loop of the Yellow River. Although it was illegal, many Mongols depended on the merchants for goods like tea, silk and cotton. Wang is also writing a book about the perspective of merchants who were the first to penetrate the border to Mongolia.

"I always like to know about people who are not in official documents," she said. "Whenever you think of China you just think of Confucius and his writings. Now we have all of these possibilities to have perspectives from those who are suppressed, like the frontier people."

Wang believes that taking a history class is one of the best ways for students to widen their perspectives and to learn about the world.

"Students in the U.S. can be exposed to different cultures," she said. "But in order to understand our current world you have to understand history and how cultures and countries came to be."

Even though she's been at Binghamton for less than a year, Wang said that she loves teaching at Harpur College because of her students' eagerness to learn from each other and discuss their opinions.

"I really enjoy communicating with students. I have a lot of enthusiastic students, and our discussions are always fruitful," she said. "I feel like I have equally enough to learn from my students."


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Last Updated: 3/1/17