University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA 92697-6000
Classical Chinese poetry and poetics, the cultural and intellectual contexts for poetry, literary history, aesthetic theory, linguistic issues in classical Chinese, and the neuroscience of memory, emotion, and selfhood
Long ago as an undergraduate at Caltech, I decided that the questions I wanted to explore about the intersection of culture, identity, memory, emotion, and biology could best be answered (for me in any case) indirectly through literature and philosophy, with an eventual return to biology. After I transferred to Yale to complete a B.A. in English literature, I became interested in the question of the cultural and philosophical forces that shape literary history and began studying Chinese to gain a comparative perspective. This same question informed my doctoral thesis on the development of the poetry of the Northern Song dynasty literatus, Su Shi. The thesis–and then the book–focused on the intersection of literary and intellectual history.
I next turned my attention to the complex cultural interactions shaping poetry in the Southern Song, the period of the rise of Neo-Confucianism and of a larger epistemic shift that marked the beginning of late imperial Chinese culture. Given the differences between contemporary western and classical Chinese formulations about language, literature, emotion, and the mind, as I pursued specific historical studies, I also sought conceptual categories sufficiently basic to human experience to allow meaningful cross-cultural comparisons. Here I turned in part to the Kantian account of aesthetic judgments and in part to connectionist versions of neuroscience, which provided ways of thinking about language, memory, emotion, and the human structuring of meaning. My first effort to explain the significance of connectionist neuroscience in explaining the domain of human experience usually explored by the humanities was a manuscript (see below) that never saw the light of day. Perhaps I should not have insisted that the reader learn linear algebra to follow the mathematics of neural networks. In any case, I am returning to this project and will update and revise my account in ways that I hope find greater resonance with my humanist colleagues.
I find the recent developments in neuroscience extremely promising for conversation with humanists. (1) Since my first effort almost twenty years ago, neuroscientists have increasingly stressed the distributed nature of neural activity and the importance of the long-distance connectivity via white matter tracts. (2) Researchers have increasingly applied the ideas of predictive coding, best known through the paradigms of deep belief networks and deep knowledge, developed by computational neuroscientists. In this class of models, each ascending layer of neural networks develops a model for the patterns of input presented to it by the lower layers and passes back best-guess interpretations of the incoming stream as top-down activation to help rapidly process the lower-level input. Thus each layer in the network develops abstractions about the patterns of the perceived world, but at each layer, these “concepts” (abstraction of input patterns into mutually defining systems of objects, events, and actions) grow increasingly complex and of higher-order dimensionality. (3) In these models, perception and interpretation are closely intertwined, and, given the complexity and diversity of connectivity, both perception and cognition are shaped by memory structures that integrate emotion, the proprioceptive data of the body, and our entire history of encounter with the world.
Humanists know a good deal about the nuances and difficulties of these interactions among the body, emotions, memory, and the self–all situated in a world organized through human intentionality–and need to be part of the conversation about the human structuring of meaning.
An Introduction to Chinese Poetry: from the Canon of Poetry to the Lyrics of the Song Dynasty (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center Press, 2018)
“人文”：中唐时期诗歌和审美经验转变 (“Patterns of the Human Realm: Poetry and Transformations of Aesthetic Experience in Mid-Tang China”), in Jiang Yin 蔣寅, ed., 川合先生榮休紀念文集 (Hangzhou: Fenghuang Press, 2017)., pp. 195-222.
“倦夜”：——对中国古典传统中肉身诗学的反思 (“‘Weary Night:’ A Reflection on Embodied Poetics in the Classical Chinese
Tradition”), 中國學術. vol 38 (2017), pp. 119-37.
“Moral Intuitions and Aesthetic Judgments: the Interplay of Poetry and Daoxue in Southern Song China” in John Lagerwey, ed., Modern Chinese Religion I: Song-Liao-Jin-Yuan (960-1368 AD) (Leiden: Brill, 2015), pp. 1307-77.
Drifting among Rivers and Lakes: Southern Song Dynasty Poetry and the Problem of Literary History, Harvard University Asia Center, 2013
[Co-authored with Shuen-fu Lin] “Chapter 6: North and South: The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries” in Stephen Owen and Kang-yi Chang Sun, eds., The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 465-556
The China Biographical Database (CBDB) I am the chief data architect and develop analytic routines for
CBDB. The database initially was created by the late Robert Hartwell and bequeathed to the Harvard-Yenching Institute. As someone who knew both dBase and Song dynasty history, I was recruited to assess the database and, if it was worth the effort, to port it to FoxPro. I obviously decided it had significant potential, and the
database has grown into an important international project.