By Brooke O’Neill, AM’04
Photo courtesy of the Center in Beijing

Collaboration between the University of Chicago and China can help us jointly tackle some of the biggest challenges our world is facing right now.”
—Ka Yee Lee
Professor in Chemistry

As nine pairs of scissors sliced through scarlet ribbon, a cheer went up on Wednesday from hundreds of people who filled the gleaming halls and galleries and classrooms of the University of Chicago’s Center in Beijing.

Elbow to elbow, they constituted a gathering you would not find elsewhere: faculty of many disciplines; undergraduates freshly arrived for a quarter of Civilizations Abroad; alumni from across Asia and the United States; ranking Chinese government officials and university presidents; deans; trustees; a battery of photographers and videographers, and even a string quartet, all stretching for a glimpse of the moment when the Center was ceremonially opened.

In truth, the work of the Center had been under way for weeks, and its distinctive approach to academic collaboration was already playing out in venues here and there throughout Beijing.

The 23,000-square-foot Center, on the 20th floor of the Culture Plaza in the Haidian district, got a test run at the beginning of September with a conference on physics, “Novel Quantum States in Condensed Matter.” Even as guests lingered on Wednesday evening, the Center was being reset for two more conferences, including Thursday’s Conference on Global Health, which would explore China-Chicago collaborations in transplantation science, medical school reform, genetics and genomics, and more.

At a nearby hotel Wednesday, experts in literature, language, printmaking, ink painting, and traditional medicine traded ideas on “Culture in a Globalizing Era.” That was followed by a panel discussing “Science beyond borders,” and preceded by a panel on China’s economic development and the rule of law.

A few blocks in the other direction from the Center, at Renmin University, preparations were underway for a joint symposium on family and labor economics, led by two Nobel laureates from Chicago and colleagues from four Chinese universities.

Even the Great Hall of the People, the monumental government center that dominates one side of Tiananmen Square and looms large in China’s collective imagination, took on a bit of Chicago flavor this week, when more than 550 guests listened to a panel of Nobel laureates talk about their work. They then flowed into the Golden Room for dinner and for a chance to hear a little more about the ways in which the Center in Beijing embodies the core values of the University of Chicago, and carries them onto a new kind of platform for learning, teaching, and research.

Studying a Complex Nation

When it comes to studying China, “there’s no comparison to simply being here,” says Dali Yang, a Professor in Political Science and Faculty Director of the Center in Beijing. A specialist in China’s development and economy, he’s spent more than two decades analyzing the country’s evolving reforms and governance. The Center, located near Beijing’s top government institutions, puts Yang at the heart of his subject. The proximity will help him keep a finger on the country’s pulse, allowing him to “bring colleagues together and engage more with Chinese counterparts.”

Not all collaborations take place on the bustling streets of Beijing. In 2001, Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno teamed up with researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences for an expedition into Inner Mongolia’s fossil-rich Gobi Desert. Together, they unearthed a herd of the ostrich-like herbivore Sinornithomimus dong; the group apparently died en masse when they got trapped in a mud hole. The find—25 juvenile individuals, many preserved as complete skeletons—made headlines around the world and gave rare insight into dinosaur behavior.

“The Center in Beijing is really a pioneering exchange in a very important part of the world,” says Sereno, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy. Additional fossil discoveries from northern China, including the groundbreaking Raptorex species—an early example of the T. Rex body plan in a smaller form—have “produced a revolution of material” for his international team to decipher. The Center, he adds, “will be very helpful in coordinating our efforts.”

Sacred Sites for the Humanities

China also holds a powerful draw for humanities scholars. For nearly four decades, Edward Shaughnessy, the Lorraine J. and Herrlee G. Creel Distinguished Service Professor in Early Chinese Studies, has worked with Chinese researchers to analyze and translate archeologically recovered manuscripts from China’s Zhou period (1045–256 B.C.). One of his main subjects is the I Ching, a cosmological text widely considered “China’s oldest book.”

Etched on bamboo strips and inscribed in oracle bone or bronze, these ancient manuscripts are almost exclusively found in China’s Hubei and Hunan provinces. Deposited in tombs centuries ago, the texts were saved from disintegration when the burial spaces flooded. “Stagnant water is a very good preservative of organic material,” explains Shaughnessy, who is currently working on a monograph about recently excavated versions of the I Ching and related manuscripts.

China holds similar treasures for art historian and curator Wu Hung, the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in Art History, East Asian Languages & Civilizations, and the College. A Beijing native who specializes in ancient and traditional Chinese art, Wu also fosters cultural exchange by championing contemporary Chinese art around the world. This past year, he curated a contemporary Chinese sculpture exhibition in Chicago’s Millennium Park that grappled with globalization, the energy crisis, and other modern-day conundrums.

Strength in Numbers

“Collaboration between the University of Chicago and China can help us jointly tackle some of the biggest challenges our world is facing right now,” says biophysical chemist Ka Yee Lee, Professor in Chemistry. For her, that means bringing together researchers and students to develop therapies that could repair cell membranes in the event of burn trauma or help premature babies breathe normally. In 2000, she partnered with Chinese University of Hong Kong to place top Chinese undergraduates in her lab for a 10-week research immersion.

Other Chicago-China engagements confront health issues specific to the region. At Wuhan University in Hubei, for example, Prof. Renslow Sherer and several colleagues from the Pritzker School of Medicine are leading a five-year medical education reform. To date, at least 20 Chicago faculty members have visited the central China campus to implement curricula. The goal, says Sherer, is to “train the next generation of doctors to be better primary caregivers more attuned to community care.”

The new Center in Beijing aims to broaden such scientific partnerships—and foster new ones. “We hope to create a new intellectual destination here in Beijing,” said President Robert J. Zimmer this past April, “a place where scholars and students gather and constantly test their ideas, with the goals of better mutual understanding and the development of new ideas that will serve people around the world.” To that end, the Center already has hosted a conference on novel quantum states, drawing approximately 100 physicists from around the globe to share theoretical and experimental developments in their field.

The Beijing headquarters also offers Chicago students an opportunity to forge stronger on-the-ground connections in the region. The central location in Beijing’s Haidian District, home to several universities and research institutions, provides unprecedented access to Chinese researchers and materials. Undergraduates in the University’s East Asian Civilization study abroad program, housed in the Center, can explore Beijing’s intellectual heritage while graduate students engage with local scholars. “We now have a first-rate space for our students,” says Yang, “one that really represents a very significant part of the University’s adaptation to a globalizing world.”

Lasting Ties

“What people really see in China is potential,” says geneticist Bruce Lahn, the William B. Graham Professor in Human Genetics. A China native, he founded the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Tissue Engineering at southern China’s Sun Yat-sen University and serves as its scientific advisor. Throughout the country, he sees an increasingly open space of inquiry where Chinese and American scientists are converging on the same big questions. In his field, that means delving into stem cells, personalized medicine, and other frontiers in biomedicine.

The Center in Beijing takes advantage of these synergies, giving Chicago researchers the freedom to collaborate across several different Chinese institutions. “It’s been a critically important decision to be independent in Beijing rather than linked to a single university,” says Sherer, who hopes to take medical education reform beyond Wuhan as part of the University’s Global Health Initiative.

As more partnerships emerge and evolve, the University’s new Asian hub reaffirms Chicago’s commitment to the region. “Our Chinese colleagues certainly value long-term, durable relationships,” says Sherer, who sees the Center as an integral bridge to future large-scale collaborations. “This isn’t one single project, then out,” he says. “We’re here for the long haul.”

Originally published on September 13, 2010.