History in the Making
Chin-Yin Tseng holds many positions: Digital Dunhuang Research Fellow at the Dunhuang Academy; Adjunct Professor at Chengdu Textile College; Research Fellow at the Institute for Ancient Civilizations at Peking University; and Senior Director of the Global Innovation Center at Beijing UniStrong Science & Technology. We spoke to her about her work for the Dunhuang Academy and her time at the International School of Beijng (ISB).
Chin-Yin has attended world-renowned schools to study in prestigious departments and holds a Ph.D. in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford, an M.A. in Regional Studies: East Asia from Harvard University, and a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Stanford University. Her educational resume is impeccable, however, it is ISB that Chin-Yin credits for really preparing her for life.
While Chin-Yin holds a US passport, she was born in Taiwan, to parents who had immigrated there from mainland China. Joining ISB in 1998, she saw an opportunity to find her Chinese identity. Although the family’s initial intention was that Chin-Yin would complete only one year at ISB, she stayed through graduation. “I stayed because I really loved ISB, and being in Beijing kept my links to China and to being Chinese alive,” she said. “Although ISB is an international school, there is a focus on Asia which I really enjoyed. It’s necessary for us all to know the history and culture of the places we live in and call home.”
She said because the learning culture at ISB was committed to developing students into whole, well-rounded people it gave her the latitude to explore. She became deeply involved in the Model United Nations program (MUN), meeting Kofi Annan when he attended the closing ceremony of her last MUN event in The Hague. “Mr. Stein got a picture of me shaking hands with Mr. Annan. That was the photo I used for my college applications,” she said. “And when I was writing college applications, my time in MUN provided me with many authentic leadership stories.”
While participating in MUN, she began dreaming of working for the United Nations. This in turn propelled her into East Asian studies at Stanford and the Regional Studies East Asia program at Harvard. “At Harvard, I noticed that I elected to take many more history classes than classes in international relations or contemporary politics. I figured out I just don’t like to argue that much and I don’t enjoy the hostility people often exhibit as they debate politics,” said Chin-Yin. “I preferred history; because the issues are at a remove and the debate is not as personal. People can talk and disagree without becoming flustered.” Having changed tack, Chin-Yin then went on to Oxford where she researched on China in the fourth and fifth century, culminating in her Ph.D. in Oriental Studies.
Chin-Yin credits ISB for preparing her to follow her passions, and to be adaptable in her goals. “Having the self-awareness to choose the things that are appropriate for you; having the confidence to say, I don’t want to do international relations, I want to do history; having the self-knowledge and self-belief to give up on an idea you have of yourself and grow toward something authentic: that was a huge part of the message at ISB,” said Chin-Yin.
Her cohort at ISB had a strong diplomatic contingent. “I had friends from all over: from Zimbabwe to Malaysia. Being close and hanging out on the weekends raised my awareness of the world,” says Chin-Yin. She said that her experience of ISB’s multiculturalism informs her approach to art history: she looks at themes of the interrelation between regions and cultures in her work rather than treating different cultures as separate entities.
Chin-Yin's research focuses on fourth or fifth century Tomb Art and Cave Art of the Northern Wei period. Caves are a locus point in the culture of the Northern Wei people and illuminate their social history. Examining the tombs’ objects, historians try to put together a picture of the identities of their occupants and how they saw themselves in this world. “Sometimes they’re wearing Han-style clothing, other times it’s nomadic-style,” said Chin-Yin. “They don't adopt just one single identity.”
Dunhuang Caves is a UNESCO World Heritage Site system of temples located in northwestern China, in Gansu province. The caves contain some of the most important artifacts in Buddhist art, spanning a time period of over 1,000 years. Dunhuang Academy is responsible for the conservation, management, and research of the site. Their activities include restoring the cliff face, caves, statues, and murals, digitizing the caves and their relics, and creating a virtual tour for visitors. A large part of their work concerns a cache of precious manuscripts dating back to the Tang Dynasty, discovered in the Library Cave in the early twentieth century, and dispersed to museums and libraries in the UK, France, Japan, Russia, and India. “Now it would be almost impossible to repatriate them,” said Chin-Yin. “China is taking the lead in funding a digitization effort, and my role with Dunhuang Academy includes reaching out to facilitate the internationalization efforts.”
In addition, Chin-Yin is pursuing research on the western explorers who traveled through the region doing surveys and archaeological digs in the early twentieth century. They took photos, recorded film, wrote journals, and made maps of the area. “Back then the Chinese scholars wrote about these regions, describing northwestern China in words,” said Chin-Yin. “It’s interesting to contrast their descriptions with the subjective photography taken by the western visitors. They present the region very differently, romanticizing different things.” In future, Dunhuang Academy would like to digitize this material and include it in the Digital Dunhuang archive.
For Chin-Yin, keeping in touch with other ISB alumni is easier than ever, as more and more of her cohort trickle back. “Many people are electing to take positions that bring them back to China,” said Chin-Yin. “So, it’s easier to get together or simply bump into each other every now and then.” She believes the ISB community network and the bond between past students and teachers from ISB is particularly strong. “The school has a long reach in people’s lives,” she said. “Even now, I may not remember the names of my professors from my undergraduate degree, but I still remember all of the teachers from my time at ISB.”