Beth Notar ('85)

Beth E. Notar ('85)

1. Please tell us a little about yourself!

I was born in Chicago, but I grew up mostly in Madison, Wisconsin, a great university town. My junior year of high school I had a class on Chinese history and society. That course first sparked my interest in China.

2. Why did you decide to become a Chinese Studies major? How did it shape your experience at Wellesley?

I chose Wellesley not only because the college offered Chinese, but also because it was a strong language department at a liberal arts college. That was unusual at the time. Although I was taking Chinese language courses, I originally started out as a Political Science major. I decided to switch to Chinese Studies when I wanted to learn more about Chinese art and history.

3. What are you doing now?

Now I am an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. I teach courses related to my research and interests in China such as “Mobility & Sustainability,” “Urban China,” and “China through Film.” In addition, I am co-directing the Trinity Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, which allows me to invite interesting speakers to campus and sponsor student-faculty reading groups. This summer I will be taking students on a summer study abroad program to Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Dongguan. The program will focus on issues of urbanization, innovation (tech and green energy), and migration. 

4. How has your Wellesley experience and your major influenced your life/career after college?

At Wellesley, I had phenomenal professors in Chinese Studies. Helen T. Lin (Lin tai-tai 林太太 as we called her) required me to take Classical Chinese and memorize lines from Confucius. (I did so reluctantly, but that training has served me well, and I still remember the lines we had to memorize!). Ruby Lam guided me through twentieth century Chinese literature. Paul Cohen lectured deeply about Qing history. Anne Clapp and visiting professor Robert Bagley transformed my ideas about art and aesthetics. They all pushed me to work hard and open my mind to new ways of thinking and being in the world. 

After graduating from Wellesley in 1985, I first went to Beijing University and then ended up staying in China for three years. After Beijing I went to Taiwan where I worked as a translator at the National Palace Museum. At that point I almost did a PhD in Chinese Art History, but after spending a third year at the Johns Hopkins – Nanjing University program, and observing the incredible socioeconomic changes starting to take place on the mainland, I decided that I wanted to try graduate study in Anthropology or Sociology. That was a big risk for me, since I had not taken courses in either subject at Wellesley. I decided to apply to Master’s programs in Chinese Studies and take courses in the social sciences, and luckily, I was accepted to Stanford and the University of Michigan. I chose the latter because of their strong Anthropology and Sociology departments. After finishing my Master’s I applied to the PhD program in Anthropology at Michigan, and was accepted. I wrote my master’s thesis on a Tang text, the 蠻書 and looked at representations of the “barbarians” in what now is Yunnan province. For my PhD, I conducted fieldwork in Yunnan, investigating tourism inspired by representations in popular culture (martial arts novels, movie musicals and tour guides), which was published as a book: Displacing Desire: Travel and Popular Culture in China.

The Chinese Studies program at Wellesley fundamentally changed my life. I had to study hard and think both broadly and deeply. Anthropology is one of the most interdisciplinary of disciplines, and I bring my training in Chinese Studies into my courses and my research. I feel very comfortable collaborating with colleagues in different disciplines, co-directing an interdisciplinary institute, and taking students to China with colleagues whose fields are literature and urban studies. I would strongly encourage any student who is interested to pursue the major.