This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Historian focuses on modern China

Kristin Stapleton joins UB faculty as new director of Asian Studies Program

Published: September 27, 2007

Reporter Staff Writer

Kristin E. Stapleton says she's been fascinated by Asian culture from the first moment she read a work of Chinese literature and philosophy. And learning more about these subjects over the years has only strengthened her passion for intellectual exploration and foreign cultures, which, she says, was awakened early by high school teachers whose ambitious curriculum "changed my life."


Kristin Stapleton says it was her first trip to China as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan that sparked her lasting interest in Chinese history.

Stapleton, associate professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences, joined the UB faculty this semester as the director of the Asian Studies Program. She comes to UB after 14 years at the University of Kentucky, during three of which she served as director of the Asia Center.

"I'm a historian with a focus on modern China, particularly the period when the old empire was collapsing and people were trying to start up a new political system," says Stapleton. "Most of my research is about how social institutions, political institutions, cultural expectations and gender roles changed in that period as China was transformed from an empire to a republic. My main interest is in this transformation: how the old way of life responded to the challenges of Western-style capitalism and new cultural influences."

Stapleton recalls that the first time she traveled to Asia was as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in 1983. "I was really impressed with Taipei," she notes of the academic year she spent in the capital of Taiwan. "It was so much different from Detroit and cities I knew. There were people on the sidewalks all the time, vendors selling food at 2 a.m., tons of public transportation."

She also spent a summer abroad in the city of Chengdu in western China in 1984, as well as two more years on the mainland as a graduate student in the early 1990s. But the first trip was the one that sparked a lasting interest in Chinese history, says Stapleton, who up until that point had planned to pursue a career in international relations. "My earliest introduction to Maoism had been pretty positive," she notes, explaining that her high school teachers had been 1960s-era "anti-establishment types" enamored by the utopian aims of the Cultural Revolution. "Then I went to Taiwan and heard that [Chairman Mao] was an evil bandit who had totally destroyed Chinese culture. That big clash of images of modern Chinese history really affected my thinking and got me to go into history."

In 1985, Stapleton earned a bachelor's degree with high distinction in political science and Asian studies from the University of Michigan, as well as a two-year fellowship for graduate study from Harvard University, from which she earned master's and doctoral degrees in history in 1987 and 1993, respectively. She joined the University of Kentucky faculty in 1993, serving as an assistant professor until 1999 and an associate professor until moving to UB this year. As director of the Asia Center at that university, Stapleton spearheaded the organization of extracurricular enrichment programs for undergraduates, graduate students and the community, including speakers, artists and visiting scholars who taught special courses on Asian studies.

"That was a lot of fun, but it's hard to build for the long term on that sort of thing," Stapleton says, noting that the Asian Studies Program at UB enjoys "a longer history" than the program at the University of Kentucky, as well as undergraduate major- and minor-degree programs and extensive course listings. Nearly 50 UB faculty members are affiliated with the Asian Studies Program, she adds, of which about half actively teach courses in the program.

"One of the things that attracted me to UB is that the Asian Studies faculty is very strong and committed," she says. "There are a lot of opportunities around here and a lot of wonderful professors."

This semester, Stapleton says she will spend much of her time meeting with Asian Studies faculty in order to determine the future goals of the program. "The administration at UB would really like to devote even more energy to building the Asian Studies Program and take it in new directions," she says. "Maybe offer a graduate degree in Asian Studies, certainly increase the curricular offerings in areas that have been neglected—Asian literatures, for instance, and more courses on culture, media and film." She sees herself as the central advocate for the program's faculty, who, she says, "are all scattered among their own disciplinary departments."

Stapleton says she currently is working on a book manuscript concerning a subject similar to her first book, "Civilizing Chengdu: Chinese Urban Reform, 1895-1937" (Harvard University Press, 2000), which focused on urban planning and administration between China's late Qing to Republican eras, but this time using a popular Chinese novel as a touchstone for nonacademics. "Family," by Ba Jin, features characters living in Chengdu in the early 20th century, she says.

"The question I'm asking is: 'Does this book really reflect Chinese history?' It's an interesting question because it's often assigned in classes with the unspoken assumption that it does reflect Chinese history," she explains. She says she hopes the book will appeal to historians, literary scholars and people who simply are fans of the novel.

Stapleton also leads a one-credit course this semester entitled "Asian Studies 101," in which various faculty members present guest lectures on topics related to Asian Studies.

"It's been very useful for me to get to know my colleagues better and learn about the students at UB," she notes of the class. "One thing I like about UB is the diversity of the students; it's remarkable. It's clear that they come from all around the world and all around the country."

A resident of Buffalo's Elmwood Village neighborhood, Stapleton says she experiences this student diversity daily by taking the Metro Rail and UB Stampede between home and campus. "The shuttle is always entertaining because you hear so many different conversations in different languages," she says, "and sometimes I join in in Chinese."