In Memoriam: Yi-tsi Mei Feuerwerker, 1928-2018
It is with great sadness that we share that Professor Yi-tsi Mei Feuerwerker, Professor Emerita of Chinese Literature in the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures, and in the Residential College, passed away in December 2018. She taught at University of Michigan from 1962-2000 and specifically in the RC Literature and Arts and Ideas in the Humanities programs from 1972-1984.
Professor Feuerwerker received her B.A. degree with high honors from Mount Holyoke College in 1951, her M.A. degree from Radcliffe College in 1952, and her Ph.D. degree from Harvard University in 1979. Professor Feuerwerker was a specialist in modern Chinese literature and was one of the first scholars to focus on the fiction of women authors. Her first book, Ding Ling's Fiction: Ideology and Narrative in Modern Chinese Literature (Harvard, 1982), is a standard work in the field and has been translated into Chinese. She was the author of scores of publications in both English and Chinese, including her book, Ideology, Power, and Text: Self-Representation and the Peasant "Other" in Modern Chinese Literature (Stanford University Press, 1995). At the RC, she taught courses in Chinese literature, cultural values in modern literature, and writing and society in modern China.
Professor Feuerwerker compiled a distinguished record of service. She taught and mentored many of the leading female scholars in the field and had a truly distinguished record as a skilled and dedicated teacher at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Her course, "Arts and Letters of China," has been one of the mainstays of the Asian studies curriculum at Michigan for many years. In recognition of her superb teaching, in 1990 she was named to an Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship, the University's highest honor for an undergraduate teacher. Professor Feuerwerker was regarded by her colleagues as having the highest degree of integrity and dedication to her work, and she held the distinction of being the first Asian woman to reach the rank of professor at the University of Michigan.
You can read about her research work with Chinese writer Ding Ling in the newsletter commemorating the 50th anniversary of the U-M Center for Chinese Studies at this link.
In 1998, RC Arts and Ideas faculty member Cindy Sowers delivered the following dedication to Professor Feuerwerker on the occasion of a dinner given by then RC Director Tom Weisskopf in honor of several RC faculty members:
The fortunate among us experience life, but not history. For me, the latter has been mostly a matter of stories, often partially understood, or only glimpsed outside the realm of understanding: vague figures moving against a sky; horizons, perspectives, times.
Once or twice, however, I approached the face of history. In the late 1970s our colleague Yi-Tsi Feuerwerker (then a lecturer at the Residential College) was completing her dissertation on Ding Ling, a writer of the revolutionary period in China. Unexpectedly, word came to Yi-Tsi that Ding Ling, after a 20 year disappearance, had re-emerged and was being rehabilitated by the Chinese Communist Party. Yi-Tsi was able to go to China at this time to interview Ding Ling - a journey of profound personal as well as intellectual significance.
When Yi-Tsi returned, she delivered an important address to the Residential College faculty. We assembled in Room 126 -- where she had for many years lectured on arts and ideas of the 19th and 20th centuries. As she spoke this time, I recalled the characters and works I knew she savored -- Miss Flyte in Dickens’ Bleak House, proffering her documents; the poetry of Wordsworth; and most of all Kafka, whose terrible doors close the implacable page. During this talk, however, another history entered Room 126, one I could barely comprehend: “the heartbreaking history of modern Chinese literature, its pages spattered with the blood of martyrs.”
Not long after, Ding Ling herself came to the University of Michigan. She spoke in the Rackham Auditorium, with Yi-Tsi as translator. I will never forget the sight of these two women seated sideby-side at the table on the podium. I became completely absorbed in Ding Ling’s talk; so absorbed that in the midst of it I came to myself, and realized that I thought I could understand Chinese. An illusion, need I say, but one so powerful as to contain within itself some truth. Ding Ling’s personal authority was irresistible. But Yi-Tsi built the invisible bridge. She served for me, as for so many others, as the exemplary teacher. She was the mediator who guided us through the space of a language, along the tangled paths of a human history, into the presence of a personal life that would otherwise have remained impossibly, immeasurably remote. Without her, we would have been lost.
The questions she enabled us to hear are among the most persistent of our century. What is the relation between ideology, history and fiction? Are they distinguishable? On what grounds? What is the status of a fiction that is simultaneously complicit with and victim of an ideology? Can literature be held to account? Does some element of literature evade the ideology it embodies - does some trope, some convention, some opacity of diction - get away? Does subjectivity resist ideology? Will the individual survive? Does history teach? As is Yi-Tsi’s style, she raises questions she declines to answer -- perhaps knowing that they will trouble the minds of her students -- not all of them scholars or literary recluses -- “for the ages.”
Arts and Ideas in the Humanities
Thanks to the U-M Library's Faculty History Project and the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies for supplying information for this story, to former RC Director and faculty member, Jens Zorn, for the photograph, and to Cindy Sowers for the words of dedication.