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A Taste for China

Happily Hooked on China

Professor of Chinese Alan Berkowitz is the Susan W. Lippincott Professor of Modern and Classical Languages. He can be reached at

Alan Berkowitz, professor of Chinese, shares stories about what initially sparked his interest in China, recounts his adventurous travels, and explains the value he sees in studying the Chinese language in this interview with Carol Brévart-Demm.

In the third floor of Kohlberg Hall, the wide-open door to Alan Berkowitz's office is inviting. It's hard to miss the newspaper clipping attached to its surface — about Bhutan, the small Himalayan kingdom whose monarchs prefer to measure quality of life in terms of gross national happiness rather than gross national product. It's an appropriate introduction to the cozy workspace where Berkowitz is happily hooked on China and things Chinese.

An air of comfortable, colorful clutter pervades the room. Wide shelves are packed with rows of books standing two-deep, their titles utterly unintelligible to non-initiates of the language; more are piled atop the rows. Stacks of course materials cover flat surfaces. The walls display original Chinese art drawings and calligraphy, many created as gifts for Berkowitz. Rising from a small, clay teapot, the aroma of green tea — brought from Taiwan — scents the air.

Although Chinese language has been offered at the College since 1975, Berkowitz, who joined the faculty in 1989, was the first tenured professor in the discipline. His fields are Classical Chinese and Mandarin; he is fluent also in Italian and French and reads several other languages. Instrumental in building the College's Chinese program within the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and as an integral part of the Asian Studies Program, he is delighted to report that currently more students major and minor in Chinese than in any other language offered at the College.

Despite initial anxiety about being interviewed, Berkowitz appears serene and completely in his element. He lifts the teapot, pours the steaming, fragrant liquid into two small cups, and sits back, ready to chat.

What sparked your interest in China?

Around 1973, I met a guy in a bar in Vermont, where I was working on Food Stamp advocacy. He was a teacher of Classical Chinese. I'd read a lot about East Asian thought in translation, but he advised me to read it in the original, for it was very different. So I went back to college and studied Classical Chinese with him at the University of Vermont. He was right. That's how I got into all things Chinese.

What's the most useful language to learn?

That depends. There are about a billion speakers of Mandarin Chinese, so for the purpose of communicating with as many people as possible, Mandarin Chinese would be a good one to know. But for literature, there is probably more written in Classical Chinese over the millennia than all else combined — except perhaps e-mail.

What's the most difficult aspect of learning Chinese?

There's no relation between Chinese and Indo-European languages — like English — no cognates, no analogous grammar. And writing is usually a stumbling block, because Chinese is not alphabetic, nor is it syllabic. You have to learn thousands of characters. Then, once you've mastered the grammar and characters, the language relies on cultural context. Instead of becoming easier the more you know, it becomes increasingly difficult the deeper you go.

What level of fluency do Swarthmore students of Chinese attain?

It's pretty high. They can function in China without difficulty. If they study abroad, then they achieve a really high level. Immersion is key, but even without spending time abroad, they usually score high on international proficiency tests. Many go on to use Chinese regularly in their jobs.

How do you spend your time when you're in China?

I do some research, but I also like to spend time with friends, buy books, eat well, travel, and climb mountains. Mountains are special there, because they often have ancient stairways to the top, cut out of the stone, leading to pavilions, temples, or overlooks.

What's been most fulfilling about your work at the College?

To see how Chinese has grown and how Asian Studies has become better represented in the curriculum. Chinese grew slowly, but in the past seven or eight years, it's been pretty popular. That's because the crew is so good. You have to have really good teachers at the introductory levels, to get the students hooked. We have that.

What do you believe is your best quality?

I try to be a good listener.

How about your worst?

I see too many sides to a situation, so it's sometimes hard for me to make a quick decision.

How do you believe your wife would describe you?

Someone who is really into his work; a nice person to hang out with; a person who likes culinary — although vegetarian —adventures; tolerant; open, except to eating meat.

What qualities do you value most?

Tolerance and humility.

What's your favorite musical instrument?

The qin. It's a seven-string, fretless Chinese zither, about four feet long. It has a deep, resonant, yet not loud sound. I'm a member of the New York Qin Society but don't play as much as I used to.

What's the wackiest thing you ever did?

My wife, Titina Caporale, and I spent several months in the mid-1980s traveling through the Taklamakan Desert by public buses with no glass in the windows, from Lake Kokonor through Qinghai and Xinjiang. From Kashgar, we wanted to continue down the Karakoram Highway into Pakistan, but we missed the weekly bus from Kashgar. So we rented one of the bus company's long-distance six-wheel-drive buses and drove ourselves. We went to all kinds of crazy places. Sometimes, the only available roads were made of salt, so when it rained, the road would dissolve if driven on. We had to wait for hours until it dried.

This story was originally published in the College's alumni magazine, the Bulletin