Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Fall/Winter 2010 (November 8, 2010)

Past, Present, East, and West

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November 8, 2010
By Marta Casey'08
Karla Figueroa'13 retraces an earlier Beloiter's steps in China

Traces of the past still dot the former campus of Yanjing University in China, once a private park and the summer palace of a Manchu prince. Now part of Beijing University, the 150 acres that formed Yanjing (also known as Yenching) still contain traditional stone bridges, artificial lakes, and curious rock work. Among these vestiges of the past is a water tower disguised as a 10th-century pagoda—evidence of Yanjing and one of Beloit’s earliest international connections.

The Boya Pagoda is named for its funder, the uncle of Beloit alumnus Lucius Porter (1901), who was born in China. The son of medical missionary Henry Porter (1867) and grandson of Aaron Lucius Chapin, Beloit’s first college president, Lucius Porter came to the United States for middle school, and later attended Beloit College, where he was a star runner, a member of Sigma Chi, and an avid dancer. After graduate school at Yale, he returned to Yanjing to serve as a philosophy professor and respected dean.

Last summer, Karla Figueroa’13 (Memphis, Tenn.) received a Venture Grant to spend three weeks in Beijing, retracing Lucius Porter’s steps.

Karla Figueroa'13“For some time, China had been the most distant and remote place I could imagine,” says Figueroa. “The faculty at Beloit really emphasize that first-year students should try new things. I wanted to use everything I had learned in the classroom and at Beloit in general—with my language study and outside research of Lucius Porter—to go back to places where he resided.”

With guidance from Warren Bruce Palmer, her Initiatives advisor and an associate professor of economics and management, Figueroa devised her project using pictures of Yanjing from Porter’s time, which she selected from the college Archives. She set out to reproduce current photographs with similar views and angles.

“I’m very happy we have these connections going back over 100 years to other countries,” she says. “I can go back in 2010 and analyze what it was like in 1941. The early pictures are very bland. There are buildings, but it doesn’t feel like a college campus … everything is growing wild, and it’s not very kept. But—oh my—Beijing University now is just beautiful!”

Palmer says that what started as a Christian missionary school was intentionally designed in the Chinese style to appear less Western. He originally came across stories of Porter while conducting research for a 2006 conference held at Beloit about the college’s many connections to Asia.

Boya TowerBesides exploring the buildings and physical spaces of Beijing University, Figueroa ventured into the city to mingle with people and get a feel for everyday Chinese life. She found that for all of Beijing’s international life, it could still be hard to integrate into.

“It’s a homogenous society—not always a receptive society,” Figueroa says. “Being Latina, with a Caucasian roommate, we both got looked at. People would ask to have their pictures taken with her, and they wanted to photograph me.”

As an American born and raised in China, Porter also grappled with the challenge of interacting between cultures, groups, and individuals. With his Christian missionary upbringing infused with Confucianism and Classical Chinese thought, Porter sought to find common understanding between the two traditions. Playing off of Rudyard Kipling, Porter wrote in a Rotary newsletter that “East – West? The Twain Do Meet!”

“But it is not enough to proclaim the truth,” he wrote. “We need to live out our relationships. As we meet each other, conscious of our destiny and honoring the ‘other fellow,’ we can overcome in ourselves the prejudices of border, of breed, and of birth.”

Figueroa said that it was, in fact, the way individuals connected and dealt with each other that stood out as the biggest difference between American and Chinese culture. “It comes down to cultural norms and how people interact,” she says.

Porter would have agreed in Confucian terms: 述而不作 (We are transmitters, and not makers.) Porter explains: “We are all of us a part of the process through which the exchange of values, the reinterpretation of essentials, is taking place.”

Marta Casey’08 taught English in Kaifeng, China, for two years. After a stateside visit, she plans on returning to China for graduate school.

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