Fulbright Award Sends History Professor to the Movies — in China

OGDEN, Utah – The lights have gone dark on Weber State University’s Chinese film series this academic year.

The series, typically featuring six to eight significant Chinese films, will be on hiatus while its organizer, WSU history professor Greg Lewis, conducts research in China.  Lewis has received a Fulbright Scholarship to research and write the history of Chinese cinema for a forthcoming textbook. 

For Lewis, the opportunity extends a journey of discovery that began with his first stay in China in 1985-86.  A curiosity stemming from the “aesthetic beauty of the Chinese language” soon blossomed into an active interest in Chinese cinema. “It was a means to study the language without any distractions,” Lewis said.  “The fresh perspectives and dialogue that Fourth-generation directors embedded into their films challenged my notions of Chinese culture especially, and even its history.”

As a teacher, Lewis continues to see an educational value in the study of film.  “Film really lets you see the world through the eyes of the people. It is a straight document without much filtering,” Lewis said. “Of course, the Chinese language is sometimes heavy in terms of meaning and symbolism and the translation conveys only a portion of that.”

Over the years, Lewis has made many trips to China. The most recent was this summer, when he taught a course on American films to Chinese students at the People’s University of China in Beijing.  The class viewed such classic films as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “On the Waterfront,” “Little Big Man,” and “In the Heat of the Night.”

“American film often reflects not only on our history, but also upon the rugged individualism that permeates our culture,” Lewis said. “The young people reacted mostly positively and sometimes almost wistfully when they reviewed these films.”

Rather than teaching when he returns to China in September, Lewis will reside in Beijing, Shanghai and Changchun, the country’s three primary film capitals.  “Changchun in the northeast is the oddest location for a film hub,” Lewis said. “The Japanese built the largest studio in East Asia there during their occupation in the 1930s. It is like creating a new Hollywood in Kansas City.”

Lewis expects to find plenty of research and scholarship to review during his 10-month stay. As Chinese cinema approached its centennial anniversary in 2005, the government authorized scholars to write several dozen tomes on the subject. Lewis plans to spend plenty of time in libraries pouring over and translating these works, as well as speaking with some of these scholars and filmmakers.

Once Lewis returns to Utah, he hopes to bring the best of Chinese cinema scholarship to the states through his forthcoming textbook. Lewis estimates the writing process may take another year or two to complete.

“The Chinese scholars are excited to see this knowledge shared with western audiences,” Lewis said. “We have relatively few Chinese cinema historians here in the U.S.”

Lewis gives credit to DVDs with English subtitles for boosting American familiarity with Chinese movies during the past 10 years. It also has enabled him to share many more Chinese films with local audiences compared to when he first started the WSU Chinese film series in 1999.

Noting how the film series has grown over the years, Lewis hopes that upon his return he’ll be able to entice some of the scholars and filmmakers he meets to come to WSU and speak to students and cinema enthusiasts at future screenings.

“The series attracts people from campus and the community,” Lewis said. “The films bring together students, locals and even Chinese who live here in Utah. The films engage them, and I enjoy the wide-ranging discussions that ensue.”

TheFulbright U.S. Scholar Program sends 1,100 American scholars and professionals each year to more than 125 countries to lecture or conduct research in a variety of academic and professional fields. The late Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas proposed the international educational exchange program to the U.S. Congress in 1945 as a vehicle for promoting “mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries of the world.” President Harry S. Truman signed the program into law in 1946. Since its inception, the Fulbright program has provided more than 294,000 participants—chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential—with the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.

Visit cies.org for more information about the Fulbright program.

Visit weber.edu/wsutoday for more news about Weber State University.
Greg Lewis, history professor
801-626-6707 • glewis@weber.edu
John Kowalewski, director of Media Relations
801-626-7212 • jkowalewski@weber.edu