Haiyan Lee, associate professor at Stanford University, is a unique voice in Chinese studies. Although one might think of her principally as a humanist (she is in the Department of East Asian Languages and Culture), her research and work, as listed on her faculty webpage, span the following: history, anthropology, philosophy, and gender studies, in addition to literature and media studies.
With a BA from Beijing University and a PhD from Cornell, Professor Lee considers her intellectual foundations to have been laid in the few years she spent doing her master’s at the University of Chicago, where she imbibed classical social theory and moral and political philosophy through her engagement with the works of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, political theorists, and philosophers. As such, she is among the most interdisciplinary and creative young scholars studying Chinese culture and society.
Lee wants to rethink the Chinese revolutionary experience through the twentieth century as an experiment in modern political theology. Her first book, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900–1950 (Stanford University Press, 2007; winner of the Joseph Levenson Book Prize), asks how the Chinese, in the process of adopting the modern notion of love, acquired an interiority or layered self, free sociability, the ideal of a sentimental national public, and a sanctified everyday life. Her forthcoming book, The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination (under review), interrogates how the Chinese have coped with the quintessential condition of modernity in which strangers are routinely thrust together, a condition that tests the moral limits of a society known for the primacy of consanguinity and familiarity. In her future work, Lee hopes to take up the problems of charismatic authority, theatrics of power, utopian aesthetics, moral agency and responsibility, and above all, how the Chinese have conceptualized and responded to evil.
For someone who learned English relatively late in life, Lee is not just brilliantly lucid but has developed a distinctive style. Perhaps the most engaging feature of her writing is the way she can get facets and details of Chinese life and society—beyond what most foreign scholars know—to speak to or against the writings of a range of world thinkers, such as Emmanuel Levinas, Zygmunt Bauman, Richard Sennett, Partha Chatterjee, Marshall Sahlins, and Wang Hui. Through her work, Chinese experiences will come to present a powerful challenge to conceptualization in social theory.