“The point of reading is to transcend oneself, to enter the other. So we want to assume an attitude of replacement as we contemplate, comprehend, and put ourselves in the place of others, and gradually habituate ourselves to living together with the characters in the book. Only then will we begin to understand the nuances of their behavior, reactions, and sense of values as members of the gentry class.”
Before she starts explaining the world of Prospect Garden in the classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber, Prof. Li-Chuan Ou calls attention once again to an important principle of literary reading, “We need to enter the thinking of the author’s milieu and avoid the presumptuous approach of using a modern mindset to view the past, or worse, disregard the past.”
In 2014, the renowned Redologist opened a course covering Dream of the Red Chamber on the massive open online course (MOOC) website Coursera, which boasts an enrollment of 8 million registered users. In the course, Prof. Ou goes beyond the book’s content to share her extensive knowledge about the historical background, lifestyles, and social classes of the author Cao Xueqin’s times, and ties this extratextual information to the narrative.
The first time she offered the course, it drew nearly 20,000 students and became the third most popular course on the global platform. Prof. Ou had not anticipated such a positive response and was impressed by the power of OpenCourseWare (OCW) to transcend the constraints of time and geography and reach such a vast audience. This year, the Open Education Consortium presented Prof. Ou with an Educator Award as part of its 2015 Open Education Awards for Excellence, praising the scholar particularly for her “dedication to open education.”
Despite the great effort required to record and produce the course, Prof. Ou considers the hard work to have been entirely worthwhile. She says, “The point is not how many people we help to achieve a transformation, but that our production can be understood. After all, this is a form of cultural promotion. We are not asking more people to read this classic, rather we hope to enable more people to understand the value of the book properly.”
Throughout her career, Prof. Ou has maintained that Dream of the Red Chamber is not a work of literary realism since it is based on fictional and fabricated content that display no correspondence to any specific historical people, happenings, or things. Nevertheless, on the whole, the novel possesses the logic of literary realism that helps readers to comprehend the culture of daily life and the value systems that prevailed among the nobles in Chinese society during that period. The scholar believes the value of Dream of the Red Chamber lies not in its tone of anti-feudalism or its critique of the gentry; rather, the novel’s greatest significance lies in its depiction of the profound and nuanced spirit of humanity rooted in the core of traditional Chinese culture.
Prof. Ou also stresses that readers of the novel must “understand the ancient gentry impartially.” Readers who appraise the characters or imagine the author’s intention according to the contemporary values of equality and freedom will misunderstand the meanings and motivations behind the characters’ words and actions. She contends that Dream of the Red Chamber is hardly the book many imagine it to be. Not a politically correct novel full of progressive ideas that satirizes class inequality while advocating equal gender rights and the freedom to love, it is a book that sings the praises of and sympathizes with the traditional aesthetics and ethics of the gentry of that era.
An Interview with Prof. Li-Chuan Ou
How should we appreciate literary classics?
Literary classics have passed the test of time to serve as important guides for people when confronted with the unavoidable hardships of life. Facing life without reading the classics is like passing by a mountain full of treasures and walking away empty-handed. A great classic becomes complete only when it is appreciated by a great reader, and a great reader comes into being only when he or she allows reason to transcend emotion and approaches the text accurately and impartially.
Why is it so easy for the average reader to come away with misunderstandings when reading Dream of the Red Chamber?
The world of the Jia Clan is that of an aristocratic class that the modern person is unable to comprehend without some preparatory research. A person who has never been a part of this world will inevitably miss the subtle though important details and misunderstand the true purpose of each character’s actions.
What is the impact of OpenCourseWare on education?
When a large offering of quality courses is placed on an open platform, it is easy to compare the courses and their instructors. This certainly places some added pressure of oversight on the instructor.
What is the most difficult aspect of recording and producing an online course?
Facing the lens of a camera, I find it difficult to maintain my usual manner of expression and fluency of thought in the classroom. Yet, explaining Dream of the Red Chamber requires just this sort of meticulous thought, which became a serious challenge for my teaching. The ancients said, “When Master Sheng teaches the dharma, even a stone nods in agreement,” meaning that the Buddhist scholar Tao Sheng taught the dharma with such mastery that even a stone would be moved. The experience of opening a course on Coursera has allowed me to gain new insight into this saying: When Master Sheng was teaching the dharma, he certainly wasn’t speaking to stones.
How do you view the role of the teacher?
Regardless of how the modes of teaching change, for the instructor it always comes down to the course itself; the most important thing is to prepare well by conducting thorough research about the subject. The instructor must be able to endure loneliness in order to deeply cultivate his or her profession.
The teacher should respect the level of the students, and not speak over their heads or offer too many personal opinions. Instead, the instructor should operate from the position of helping the students to achieve a degree of critical understanding and be able to express their subjective views. While the profession of teacher involves a sense of authority over the class, I’ve always felt that I should avoid the expression of authority in presenting my instruction. One needs to be especially prudent in this position, particularly in the context of a MOOC course, with students from around the world
- Ph.D. (1997), Department of Chinese Literature, National Taiwan University
- Associate Professor (1997-2001), Department of Chinese Literature, Providence University
- Professor (2001-now), Department of Chinese Literature, National Taiwan University
- Tang Dynasty Poetry, Dream of the Red Chamber, History of Chinese Literature
Academic honors and awards
- Class A Research Award, National Science Council (1999, 2000)
- Outstanding Teaching Award, Providence University (2000)
- Outstanding Teaching Award, College of Liberal Arts, National Taiwan University (2004, 2005, 2007)
- General Education and Service Course Outstanding Teaching Award, National Taiwan University (2006)
- Academic Research Achievement Award (Outstanding Periodical Paper Category), National Taiwan University (2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012)
- Academic Research Achievement Award (Outstanding Book Award, 2007; Class A Book Award, 2009), National Taiwan University
- University Outstanding Teaching Award, National Taiwan University (2010)
- General Education and Service Course Distinguished Teaching Award, National Taiwan University (2011)
- Educator Award, The Open Education Awards for Excellence, Open Education Consortium