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Chinese scholar earns fellowship to explore race

Emma Teng
Emma Teng
Photo / Donna Coveney

An MIT professor of foreign languages and literature whose research focuses on pre-modern Chinese ideas about race has won a Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) for 2007-2008.

Emma Teng, associate professor of Chinese studies, will spend a year in residence at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, working on a comparative study of Chinese and Chinese-American representations of Chinese-Western interracial marriage and biracial identity at the turn of the 20th century.

The Burkhardt is awarded to recently tenured faculty in the humanities and social sciences.

Teng's Burkhardt project is a "major departure" from her previous work, which explored Chinese colonial representations of Taiwan. Teng's book on that topic, "Taiwan's Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683-1895," was published in 2004.

For her project on interracialism, Teng said she will be researching literature, racial theory and historical documents. One major focus will be on Eurasian memoirs, she said.

Her personal goal for the project is to gain a greater understanding of how "biracial" or "transracial" identities have been constructed historically and crossculturally and to attain a "fresh perspective on contemporary issues," she said.

Teng also plans to offer a new course, "Eurasian Biracial Memoirs: 1900-2000," and to organize readings through the MIT Center for Bilingual/Bicultural Studies (CB/BS) when she returns.

"We have a significant number of students at MIT who are biracial and/or bicultural, even multiracial and multicultural. I hope the class will provide students with a chance to explore their own identity issues, but also broaden their understandings by looking at larger historical and cultural contexts," Teng said.

For Teng, the research phase of her Burkhardt project is an "exciting" period of "new discoveries and learning fascinating details about people's lives in the past," she said.

Reading memoirs has shown her "for those of 'mixed' European and Asian descent, 'race' was lived very differently in the U.S., Britain, Hong Kong, China, India, Australia and other parts of the globe, even within the same time period.

"Many of the authors I have been reading were truly global citizens who migrated multiple times during their lives; they describe how their racial identities were forced to shift as they moved to different geographic locations, with different social norms and different laws," she said.

Teng was awarded the 2005 Levitan Prize and was a co-winner of the MIT Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 22, 2006 (download PDF).

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