On Art and Empathy: Teaching China

I am very excited to share a project that I have been working on for the last year: Teaching China with the Smithsonian. This website represents a rich collaboration between curators, teachers, museum educators, and web designers. It was an incredible honor to be named a teacher-in-residence by the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art and to have so much access to the Freer Sackler galleries. It was also one of the best professional experiences of my career. On the site you will find a range of (awesome) teaching materials, including object specific lesson plans written by me and my colleagues, like this one about a summer chaofu.

People might be wondering about my interest in working with an Asian art museum. One, my masters degree is actually in museum education, and museum based teaching is originally what I thought I would do. Life being life, I ended up in the classroom and this was a glorious opportunity to check out the road I didn’t travel. Two, I have had a number of opportunities to teach and learn about China throughout my career.

When I taught 4th grade at The Dalton School, we studied the immigration of Chinese workers in the 1800s, as well as the xenophobia, discrimination, and detention they faced when they arrived. We learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the experiences many had on Angel Island. There is a lovely museum in New York City, the Museum of Chinese in America, that I recommend. These were not topics I studied growing up, even in California, and my perspective on the Asian-American experience was greatly widened.

When I taught 4th grade at Sidwell Friends School, we did a year long study of Ancient China. We learned about the dynasties, oracle bones, bronzes, and terracotta warriors. We compared Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism and made a lot of beautiful art that I wish I still had pictures of. Modern language and culture were also taught. Sidwell Friends actually has a tragic story behind its China studies program. Because of the program, I have been to China twice and visited many different parts including Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Guangzhou, and Yunnan. An incredible array of landscapes, food, and displays of artistic expression were intertwined with complex histories, politics, and beliefs. What little I understood from teaching was brought alive and made more complex by traveling there.

A highlight was three weeks at Qinghai Lake in Central China where I supervised students partnering with Machik, an organization devoted to social innovation in Tibet. They helped run a summer camp for Tibetan youth from around the country. There were joyful moments with circle dancing and yak butter tea, as well as stories of oppression and discrimination that resonated deeply.

Since those trips, the relationship between China and the US has only grown more complicated, and in the midst of all of that, I joined Whittle School and Studios, which opened campuses this year in both countries. The goal is for students and faculty to freely flow, interact, and exchange ideas, which has already begun to happen. Circumstances keep bringing me closer to China so I keep processing, learning, and trying to understand. As I seek to build that understanding, I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to see things for myself.

People also wonder why billionaire white men like Arthur Sackler (who collected and donated many of the objects we wrote about) and Mansfield Freeman (whose foundation funded the website and teacher education project) focused their attention on Asian artifacts and cultures, specifically those from China. According to Mapping Cultural Philanthropy, “Sackler…sought to promote an understanding of Asian civilizations through analysis of their artistic expression.” Freeman, who lived, taught, and began an insurance company in China, also wanted to nurture a better understanding between the United States and Asian countries. He instructed the foundation to fund projects that would “strengthen the bonds of friendship between this country and those of the Far East…and to stimulate an exchange of ideas in economic and cultural fields which will help create mutual understanding and thus lessen the danger of such frictions and disagreements as lead to war.”  In their own ways, they hoped their vast and valuable assets could be used to make the foreign more familiar. They hoped it would help build empathy. Current events tell us that the mutual understanding and peace they sought to foster still needs that support. This, I believe, makes our work even more relevant.

Art, like books, nurtures empathy. It sparks curiosity, which draws you in for a closer look. You become proximate. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative talks a lot about promixity as a pathway, perhaps first to intellectual understanding, and then, if the heart is open enough, to radical empathy.

It is only by empathy being aroused that we change. ~ Alice Walker

Museums can play a powerful role in facilitating this journey from object to empathy by sparking our curiosity and bringing us into proximity with new objects, places, people, and stories. Both museums and travel have transformed me. I hope our lessons allow teachers and students to go on a journey together and through that journey better understand themselves, each other, and the world.

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