Meet our faculty: Haiyan Lee

Haiyan Lee

Haiyan Lee

Tuesday, March 8, is International Women’s Day: a day to celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness against bias, and take action for equality.

Today and throughout Women’s History Month, we will be highlighting the trailblazing women who make up the Stanford Global Studies community as part of the Meet Our Faculty series. Our first interview is with Haiyan Lee, the Walter A. Haas Professor of the Humanities and Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and of Comparative Literature. Lee is an affiliate of the Center for East Asian Studies. In the interview below, she discusses her research, the barriers she has faced as a woman in academia, and what International Women’s Day means to her.

What does your research focus on?

Modern Chinese literature and popular culture; philosophy and literature; law and literature; cognitive science; affect studies; cultural studies of gender, sexuality, race, and religion; human-animal relations and environmental humanities.

My forthcoming book is called A Certain Justice: Toward an Ecology of the Chinese Legal Imagination. It is an interdisciplinary study of the Chinese legal imagination pivoted on the idea of justice. I read Chinese stories about crime and punishment, subterfuge and exposé, and guilt and redemption, and bring them into conversation with moral, political, and legal philosophy. My goal is to shine a light on the fight for justice outside the familiar arenas of liberal democracy and in terms other than those furnished by the rule of law.

What barriers have you faced in your career, and how have you overcome them?

I consider it a blessing and privilege that I have never had to leave school. Academia is probably the most enlightened and inclusive institution that has ever existed. It’s a place where one is not unremittingly and oppressively reminded of one’s gender or race (implicit bias aside) and where the life of the mind is a vocation that also fills one’s “rice bowl,” to use a Chinese expression for earning a livelihood.

Academia has its own power dynamics and being an immigrant Asian woman brings its specific set of advantages and disadvantages. I owe whatever I have been able to achieve to the liberal institutions and values that have their full expression in American higher education.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

I grew up in Mao’s China where the International Women’s Day, commonly referred to as “March 8” 三八was (still is) an official holiday on which everyone got a day off. As schoolgirls, we used to think the boys shouldn’t get to piggyback on “our” holiday and should instead go to school on March 8. But on second thought we didn’t want them to get ahead with lessons, so we begrudgingly “allowed” them to mooch a free holiday.

That’s a facetious way of saying that I’m a product of socialist China’s official feminism. I was not made to think of myself as innately inferior to boys. There was no such thing as cheerleading, or any form of gender-focused consumerism. But I’m also a product of Reform-era China’s developmentalist ideology, so all I ever dreamed of was to become a scientist.

The woman question is supposed to have been solved by the Communist Party who made gender equality an official policy and brought real changes to women’s lives. But gender discrimination and sexist oppression have deep roots in China and have seen troubling resurgence in recent decades. Human trafficking is an endemic problem aggravated by China’s draconian birth-control policy that has resulted in a severely skewed sex ratio. In fact, as we speak public outrage is reaching a crescendo over the discovery of a trafficked woman who was found chained to a wall and had all her teeth knocked out. She is said to have given her “husband” eight children—under Heaven knows what ghastly conditions. China will have to celebrate this year’s March 8 as the nation stews in its own bitter juices.

What woman inspires you the most and why?

Hannah Arendt and Margaret Mead. Both for their chutzpah—for daring to venture into territories where few women had tread before.

What advice would you give to your female students?

Knowledge and wisdom are what anchor you in life. Love and attachments are what make your life richer and fuller. When you know who you are, you’ll have more to give to others.