Oberlin Blogs

Obies in China and Great Circles

September 21, 2008

Charles Grim

Sunday, September 21st, 5:00 am
Domus Maxima B&B, Rome, Italy

I'm not sure if it is jetlag or the chest cold that I've been nursing since Korea, but I can't sleep anymore. So I thought I'd update you on my trip. Given my flight from Shanghai to Milan and then Rome, I was thinking a lot about the Silk Road and the spread of culture from China in the East to Italy and the rest of the West. Silk, of course, spices, tea, ice cream, and gunpowder come to mind immediately as westward migrations, but I really don't know what the West had to offer in those early days. Later years would see exports of opium and Christianity - two topics with a link to Oberlin.

A few years ago I met an Oberlin alumna in Singapore. She was a Chinese woman, Yangwen, who had earned her BA at Oberlin and her Ph.D. in history from Cambridge. She was then on the faculty at the National University in Singapore (she has since moved on to a teaching post in the UK). In case you are wondering why I didn't mention her family name, it is because I can't recall it and don't have access to the internet at the moment; I think it was Chen (sorry Yangwen). Anyway she had just published a wonderful book called something like The Social History of Opium in China. Most works about the opium trade focus on the economic and political impact, but Yangwen's focused on the rise of opium use, who precisely smoked it, why, where, and when. Although it is an academic style work, I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.

The other great export from West to East was Christianity. Today this idea of imposing one's culture on other people is viewed negatively in most circles - and especially so at places like Oberlin that truly value the individual's rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression. We shall return to this subject momentarily. But in the late 19th century, views were different. In the same way that Oberlin currently values community service and trying to make a difference in the world, in those days one of the most respected ways that people could contribute was to spread the word about Christianity to people living in places where the "True Religion" was unknown. And so it was that a group of Oberlin alumni were living in China and devoting their lives to a cause that they believed in. Largely due to the political and social costs that the opium trade had placed on China and its culture, the late 19th century was also a time of spreading isolationism within China, and efforts were underway in many parts of the country to expel foreigners. The so-called Boxer Rebellion was one such effort and in this struggle quite a number of Oberlin missionaries were killed (martyred?) in the Shanxi province.

Out of this unfortunate event came the idea of Oberlin Shansi. This foundation which is loosely affiliated with the College was founded exactly 100 years ago. Oberlin Shansi has been devoted to improving cultural understanding between the East and West ever since, in the hopes that tragedies like the death of the Oberlin alumni need never happen again. Among the many contributions of the Foundation, four particularly come to my mind. It was instrumental in founding the Shanxi Agricultural University in China. Oberlin Shansi's current programs include sending Oberlin graduates to two universities in China, two in Indonesia, and one each in India and Japan to teach English. The Foundation also brings scholars from these same universities to the US to share their cultures with Oberlin students and to expose the faculty to the Oberlin liberal arts style of teaching. If you are interested in Oberlin Shansi, I strongly suggest that you google their website and get the facts, as I'm sure I've got at least a few details wrong in this blog.

The fourth contribution that comes to mind is the Shansi Memorial Arch at Oberlin, built so that people would never forget the sacrifices made by those who died for something that they believed in. This monument is located in Tappan Square in the center of campus and in some ways is the front door of the College. It is also the archway through which generations of Oberlin students have marched on Commencement Day to receive their diplomas. Which brings us to the end of my Oberlin Shansi tale. As I mentioned earlier, times and views about "cultural imperialism" change. Beginning in the 1970s, some Oberlin students and faculty began to realize that the arch not only commemorated those who paid the ultimate price but that it also commemorated the kind of imposition of our own cultural values on others that is anathema at Oberlin. Some students began to leave the Commencement processional and to march around the arch during the graduation ceremony in protest. This has since become an annual tradition. Each May some students and faculty opt to march around the arch as a symbolic rejection of the past, while others choose to walk through the arch acknowledging the sacrifice. Personally I've always been a through marcher, but in true Oberlin fashion I respect those who choose to take a different route in support of a perspective that they hold dear.

This is getting a bit long and I need to take a shower pretty soon; I'm hoping to experience my first ever Catholic mass this morning. I can't imagine a better place to do it than at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City. However, I did want to leave you with one unrelated little tidbit. Despite my comments about traveling the Silk Road as I flew from Shanghai to Italy, we didn't really. Just as I flew over the North Pole in getting from Chicago to Hong Kong last week, my "great circle route" flight from Shanghai to Rome took me not along the Silk Road but actually over Siberia! This was kind of ironic as I was reading Dr. Zhivago in the plane at the time and, as you probably remember, much of it takes place in Siberia. [Note: if you haven't yet read Pasternak's Nobel Prize-winning novel, please do so immediately - or at least watch the movie (Omar Sherif, Julie Christie, and Alec Guinness).]

So far all of my blogging has been much more likely to appeal to students interested in social sciences or arts & humanities, but here is something for the math/science folks. Without the use of a string and a globe, can you prove that great circle routes always represent the shortest path between two airports? For those of you who don't know what a "great circle route" is, imagine a circle that loops all the way around the world and has the same diameter as the earth. Examples of great circles include all of the lines of longitude and the equator. Other than the equator, the lines of latitude don't count because, even though they go around the Earth, they are smaller than the diameter of the Earth. Anyway, a great circle can be imagined that encompasses any two points on the globe. In most cases they will not be straight up and down (like the meridians) nor horizontal like the equator, but will be tilted relative to the rotation of the earth. Enough with the geography lesson; your homework assignment is to prove that a great circle route is always the shortest path between two points on a globe.

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