Zijia Zhuang '21 was a comparative literature major at Bryn Mawr and winner of the prestigious Watson Fellowship who is now pursuing a master's degree at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
In the below Q&A, Zijia talks about choosing comparative literature as a major, the value of Bryn Mawr's 360° program, her thesis topic, and more.
Can you tell us about how you chose the comparative literature major?
I didn’t have a very fixed plan about what major I am going to choose when I just came to Bryn Mawr. I knew I have always loved reading, so I took some courses in the English department. But then I thought East Asian Studies is also appealing…That’s when I realized that there is a comparative literature major that can combine these two interests together so I can study both English and Chinese literature!
My friend Olivia, who was a junior comp lit student when I declared, designed the perfect poster for the comparative literature info session, which features the tower of Babel, the symbolic beginning of multilingualism. But unlike those people in the myth who are estranged due to the different language, in the field of comparative literature we celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity, we practice and embrace empathy through reading, building our own tower of Babel in the world of literature.
Do you have any advice for current and future comparative literature majors?
I choose my class based on my interest. I am the kind of person that can only become a motivated “good student” if I am learning something I am interested in. And there are absolutely so many interesting courses at BMC. My only advice for course choosing is: Try to apply for a 360° program! Not only the interdisciplinary study will bring you new lenses, but you get valuable hands-on experiences, join field trips that are thoughtfully designed by your professors, and meet with professionals who are currently working in the field and hear about their stories.
I studied abroad at Oxford for my whole junior year. I produced a total of eight 2500-word essays for this tutorial with topics ranging from animal characters in Charles Perrault’s fairy tales to the significance of ignorance in WWII children's literature. During the process, I was introduced to some of the ongoing debates and critical theoretical works in the field and became more familiar with researching children's literature, which all became really helpful for my thesis writing and own research conducted in my senior year.
I am very grateful for the flexibility of the comparative literature department.
Zijia Zhuang '21
My thesis studies the work and life of the first Chinese children's literature theorist, Zhou Zuoren, and especially how his children's literature theory is shaped by English nonsense children's literature (i.e., Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Book of Nonsense).
Can you tell us about your thesis and how you presented it at the NeMLA conference* in 2021?
Both my thesis and NeMLA presentation are based on comparative studies of Chinese and English children’s literature: how western children’s literature influences the creation and development of children’s literature and theory in 20th century China. My thesis studies the work and life of the first Chinese children's literature theorist, Zhou Zuoren, and especially how his children's literature theory is shaped by English nonsense children's literature (i.e., Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Book of Nonsense).
My NeMLA presentation introduces the influence of Oscar Wilde’s fairytale on the birth of Chinese children’s literature, uncovering the transnational and transformative nature of children’s stories. I won the best visual presentation prize for my presentation.
*The majors and minors enrolled in Prof. Kwa’s COML 398 class all submitted abstracts to the 2022 NeMLA conference based on their thesis projects for the 2022-2023 year.
Zijia, you were one of the winners of the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship in 2021, which you are deferring this year to pursue an M.A. at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. How do you think your major in comparative literature has prepared you for all the wonderful adventures you have had and continue to look forward to?
Academics-wise, my comparative literature training has helped me to become an independent researcher. I enjoy the process of fostering my original thinking on random topics through reading primary and secondary materials, taking notes, and piecing together my thoughts.
The Watson Fellowship offers a “one-year grant for purposeful, independent exploration outside the United States.” I guess all comp lit majors possess the passion and desire to explore other cultures around the world — Like the old Chinese saying goes: "Travel ten thousand miles and read ten thousand books.” (Now it’s so easy to travel ten thousand miles, I need to catch up with my book reading!). Overall, I think my experience at BMC taught me to reach out to every possible opportunity, and the professors of the comparative literature department have always been extremely supportive — they wrote me recommendation letters, tolerated my ever-changing major course plan, encouraged me to participate in undergraduate conferences, and offered great advice when I needed them most. I did not realize how valuable and rare the bonding between the comp lit students and professors is until I graduated (it’s not happening at other schools!). And I will always be grateful for all the kindness and nurture I received from my fellow classmates, friends, and my professors!
Can you recommend a book to read?
Dream of Red Chambers — because it is a masterpiece. There is a reason why people have been obsessed with the book for more than two hundred years. Also, there are so many interesting debates and conversations revolving around the various topics in the books. You can only get involved or pick a side when you are familiar with the plots.
Prof. Kwa will be teaching her course on Dream of Red Chambers (EALC 212/322) again in Spring of 2023.