Yi-tsi Mei Feuerwerker was the daughter of Mei Guangdi (1890-1945; published in English under the name K. T. Mei), a well-known scholar and educator in China and the US who was the third Chinese person to teach at Harvard, where Yi-tsi completed her dissertation on the Chinese writer Ding Ling in 1979. She first began to teach at the University of Michigan in 1962, as a lecturer in the predecessor to the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures (ALC), the Department of Far Eastern Languages and Literatures. In 1972 she became a lecturer in the Residential College and from 1984 on, until 1996, she held positions and taught in both units (ALC and the RC). In 1996 she was promoted to full professor and her appointment moved entirely over to ALC (this allowed her to have more time to do research and facilitated her mentoring of graduate students). In 1985, Yi-tsi and Harriet Mills were the ones who interviewed me for a visiting lectureship at an Association for Asian Studies conference and was thus instrumental in my getting my foot in the door at ALC. From that time on, until the very last time I saw her, she was an extremely kind mentor, model, and friend to me.
Yi-tsi was a wonderful teacher, as recognized in her appointment to a Thurnau professorship in 1990, and loved the Residential College, where she once served as Interim Associate Director. She was well-known in Chinese Studies circles at UM for her creation and co-ordination of a very influential course, “The Arts and Letters of China,” for which practically all professors of Chinese humanities did guest lectures, and about which I still occasionally receive queries from colleagues outside UM (after Yi-tsi retired, in 2000, I taught the course several times, but never anywhere near as successfully as she did). Because the course was originally housed in the RC, students received narrative evaluations. Yi-tsi’s ability to write full, detailed, and very meaningful narrative evaluations for each and every one of the students in the course, which enrolled on average one hundred students, always amazed me.
Having grown up in China and experienced such things as the great retreat to the interior during the Japanese invasion, Yi-tsi was also important in ALC and in Chinese Studies at UM for embodying Chinese history in a way that very few of her colleagues here, and especially someone like me, who grew up in Alabama and New Jersey, could ever do, no matter how many times I go to China or how much time I spend there. It is my great regret that although she remained in Ann Arbor after her retirement until her passing, Yi-tsi’s progressively decreasing mobility because of problems with her legs meant that she participated less and less in Chinese Studies activities on campus; for this reason, many of my younger colleagues in ALC and in Chinese Studies never had the chance to get to know her. My own personal regret is that I did not go to see her often enough after she retired, nor was I able to succeed in getting her to allow me to take her to more than a couple of Chinese Studies events.
In 1982, Professor Feuerwerker published Ding Ling's Fiction: Ideology and Narrative in Modern Chinese Literature (Harvard UP), the first monograph in English on one of the most prominent women writers in modern China. The book remains to be an important resource for students of modern Chinese literature, which as an academic discipline in the United States was fast coming of age in the 1980s, thanks in no small part to contributions by Professor Feuerwerker and her generation of scholars. Before the book was published, Professor Feuerwerker spent six months in China in 1981, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. While there, she met and interviewed Ding Ling, and traveled with the seventy-seven-year old writer to Northeast China to revisit the vast farmland where Ding Ling underwent forced “labor reform” for some twelve years. Professor Feuerwerker also interacted with many Chinese scholars and made insightful observations of China in the early days of the reform era. “In post-Mao China,” she later wrote, “literature is seen as a source of truth and attains a moral authority inconceivable in [the US].”
In the fall semester of 1981, Professor Feuerwerker welcomed Ding Ling and her husband to the University of Michigan. During her visit to Ann Arbor, the renowned Chinese writer gave a public talk in the Rackham Amphitheater.
Professor Feuerwerker’s deep engagement with Ding Ling’s tumultuous life and work would have an impact on the conceptualization of her second monograph, Ideology, Power, and Text: Self-Representation and the Peasant “Other” in Modern Chinese Literature (Stanford UP, 1998), even though Ding Ling does not figure centrally in the study. In discussing how four generations of Chinese writers, from the 1920s to the 1980s, deal with rural life and represent peasants, Professor Feuerwerker provides not only sensitive readings, but also a sympathetic narrative of the development of modern Chinese literature. In the words of a reviewer, her “breadth of knowledge, and her enthusiasm for her topic” make the book “a joy to read.”
These two monographs, along with her other publications, firmly establish Professor Feuerwerker as a passionate and dedicated scholar whose work will always speak to and inspire future students of modern Chinese literature.