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Heather Clydesdale: Deep Inside Tombs and Eastern Philosophy

Heather Clydesdale is an adjunct lecturer in art history, focusing on Chinese art history and archaeology. She responded to one of my emails saying, “I have had adventures in China—my research (3rd century tombs in the far west of China) takes me to remote places, some epic landscapes, and deep underground to multi-chambered tombs (some with bats and mummies).”


Dr. Clydesdale got a Ph.D. in Archaeology and Art History from Colombia, and teaches several classes with fascinating titles: “China on the Silk Roads,” “Art! Making China Modern (19th-21st century art and politics)” and “Fabricating Nature (philosophy, painting and landscape design in China, Korea, and Japan).”


In this conversation, we dive deep into Dr. Clydesdale’s adventures across China and India; what Americans can learn from Eastern cultures and philosophies; the value of learning another language; and navigating tradition and innovation.  


Clydesdale at the Great Stupa at Sanchi in India

Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: How do Eastern philosophies help you see things from different perspectives?

Heather Clydesdale: I taught a class in winter quarter called “Fabricating Nature,” and it was looking at philosophy in East Asia. I wanted to look at neo-Confucianism, which is a really vibrant system of thought. It has this view of nature as being much more powerful than people, but people are embedded in natural forces. But it also gives people a great deal of agency. You’re not just at the whims of these fluctuations of nature. When people act virtuously, you can bring the cosmic forces into alignment and society will prosper.


It can sometimes dissolve into a little bit of hocus pocus where if there are earthquakes, the government gets blamed. But these days, with fracking, maybe the government should be responsible for some earthquakes or climate change.


This idea that chaos can ensue in the environment if everyone is not doing their role in society resonates today, and that’s why I wanted to think about philosophies like Daoism, Buddhism and Shintoism.


GC: What can American culture learn from Chinese culture?


HC: Chinese culture and American culture can be very complementary. China has 5,000 years of history, it’s language is the longest one in continuous use in the world. There’s a strong emphasis on tradition. American culture is about disruption, change and new things all the time. Putting those together, I think you actually see that looking back to tradition is what can make you creative. It’s hard to be creative in a vacuum. There’s a certain power that comes from drawing upon and connecting with 5,000 years of history.


When thinking about personal liberty versus social responsibility, you have a really interesting way of approaching those if you’re taking a standard American view and a traditional Chinese view.


GC: How did you get access to tombs and archives in China?


Listen at 16:13

“We think that power is the person standing, the person talking. But it’s not. The power is the person who moves the least and speaks the least.”


GC: What should Westerners think about when traveling to Eastern countries?


HC: Be polite, be receptive and observe. Recognize that there are codes of politeness. Subtle clues can let people know that you want to learn about a system. China is a very formal place, and there is lots of etiquette. What I have learned is how much it can ease a relationship. It takes away an anxiety about what you’re supposed to say or do. Once you make one overture, people know you see that you understand there is a dance. Then they are happy to teach you the next step to the dance. If you say that the only dance is the one you know, you’re embarrassing from the beginning.


GC: What advice would you give to a first-year college student?


Work on your writing. Take every writing assignment as an opportunity to better your writing. Anything in life, your writing skill will be how you present your work or yourself to clients and others.


The other thing is to take a lot of classes in the humanities. They can seem superfluous, but for example in our trade war with China right now, one would do well to understand the “century of humiliation,” which is definitely framing their response. One would do well to understand Xi Jinping’s ambitions for the “one belt, one road” and how he sees himself in history. If you understand how people in history see themselves in a narrative, you are on much surer footing.

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