Her smile never wavers and her hands are in constant motion as she explains her research on medieval China. Though the walls of her office on the second floor of the Harvard-Yenching Library are lined with all sorts of heavy volumes—in both Chinese and English—her demeanor is light and unpretentious.
The conversation moves on to the various artifacts displayed in nooks throughout her impeccably neat office. She suddenly stands and reaches into a drawer.
“Well, if you’re interested in artifacts, you probably didn’t see this yet,” she says.
Out comes a beautiful but deadly bronze pike head, from some indeterminate Chinese dynasty. One thing is for sure: Xiaofei Tian, Professor of Chinese Literature, is full of surprises.
Tenured at age 34 in September of 2006, one would never guess Tian’s status as an expert of her field from her youthful appearance. It wouldn’t be the first time that she’s exceeded expectations. Tian graduated from Beijing University at the tender age of 17 before receiving her doctorate in comparative literature here at Harvard in 1998.
Tian can’t single out one specific turning point in her career. “I suppose that everything that happens in your life sort of contributes to what you become one day.” She smiles again.
Outside of her office and in the classroom, Tian is just as animated and down-to-earth. “I think she’s very inspiring. She never gets impatient with anybody and she’s always smiling,” Feifei Yi ’12 says, who took Chinese 187: “Art and Violence in the Cultural Revolution” with Tian last fall.
“She really tries to engage the class even though it’s really difficult to do so considering the subject matter,” says Sisi Pan ’11, who is currently enrolled in Tian’s Foreign Cultures 68: “Authority and the Claims of the Individual in Chinese Literary Culture.” “She’s so incredibly supportive,” Pan adds.
Her Foreign Cultures class crams 3,000 years of Chinese history and literature into one course—quite a daunting task.
“I think when we talk about 3000 years of Chinese history in one course, I think you see great changes in values,” Tian says. “I want to show people that apart from the New York Times version of China, there’s another China. You have to scratch the surface and see what’s there, see what’s underneath.”
She also says that she wants to dispel the stereotype that Chinese culture can be described in full as Confucianism. “It’s much bigger and much more complicated than that,” she says, her voice betraying a rare hint of exasperation.
As one might expect, such ideas aren’t exactly in line with China’s current government. As a participant in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Tian sidesteps any outright derision of the Communist party. When pressed for an opinion, Tian says, “Nothing lasts forever. In the grand scheme of history, it’s really a very short period of time.”
Though Tian’s work focuses on the past, she says that because nothing stays in place forever, we need to look into not only the past but also the future. “Because things are changing, we can’t live in the past,” she says.