By Allison Campbell-Jensen
Chinese is a tough language for an English speaker to learn, with thousands of ideographic characters to learn, and four tones in spoken Mandarin. But as a college student, Ann Waltner didn’t yet know enough to be daunted by it.
“I had studied both French and German, and neither were very much trouble, so I thought I was good at languages,” says Waltner, now U of M Professor of History. “It turns out that Chinese is quite a bit of trouble.”
Yet she found the language and the nation fascinating, so she persevered and became a historian of China. She has focused on 16th century China, the Ming dynasty. About 1550, changes in papermaking made moveable wood-block printing much easier, so that after a literate man died, his son or son-in-law might gather all his papers and have them printed. “In the mid 16th century, you get collected works that have dozens or sometimes hundreds and, in at least one case I know of, thousands of letters these guys wrote to each other,” Waltner says.
They included essays and poetry — and offered access to a world and a way of thinking. People of this time in China had an openness and a profound curiosity — a deep desire to know, she says. They were intrigued by Christian missionaries, who may have mistaken their interest for a yen for conversion.
“No, they really didn’t want to [convert],” Waltner says. “They’re perfectly happy with their own worldview, they just find you interesting and want to know more about why you think the way you do.”
Embracing the world, examining the family
Waltner reached out to compare the Chinese notion of family with that of the wider world with her colleague Mary Jo Maynes. She and Maynes taught a large history course on the world from 1550 to 1900. Their collaboration resulted in articles comparing family in China and Europe, which were noted by an editor from the Oxford University Press. The editor asked if they’d consider writing a book on the family in world history. Starting about 1550? they asked. “I think she said ‘We want you to start with primal slime,’” Waltner jokes — or at least to the very beginning of history.
She and Maynes greatly enjoyed the research for “The Family: A World History.” Waltner says: “It’s amazing what you can learn about gender from archeological sites.” They teach a course based on the book, from which students learn that families are not a natural construct, she says.
Responding to invitations
“The library is one of the best resources that we’ve got. And what the library has done to make it possible for people to continue doing research during the pandemic has been amazing.”
When the U’s Institute for Advanced Study was created, Waltner was encouraged by a number of people to apply, and she became its founding director. “It’s the best job on campus,” she says. “I loved it.” As with editing the Journal of Asian Studies, which she did for five years, Waltner was enthralled by diving into others’ research.
The Institute for Advanced Study chose people with “fabulous research topics,” she says, but also because she and her team thought they would contribute to a research community. “It’s actually fairly easy to tell by reading the way people write about their work if they’re interested in engaging you in conversation,” Waltner says. “If they write in a way that pulls you in, then you can figure they’ll talk in a way that pulls you in.”
Later, she was invited to develop materials to accompany the San Francisco Opera’s English-language production of “Dream of the Red Chamber,” a novel written in 18th century China. Waltner’s work was supported by the U’s Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World and has had more than 70,000 hits. And she became a “groupie for the opera,” taking quick trips to Hong Kong and later Beijing to see “Dream” performed before different audiences.
Another invitation came from ¡Sacabuche!, a baroque music group, who were doing a piece about the connections between Italy and Ming China by commemorating the 400th anniversary of Matteo Ricci’s death. The Libraries had recently gained the Ricci Map, which Waltner was very excited about. The group suggested a history lecture; instead, she proposed writing a script and they accepted. They performed this at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing.
She has continued to work with the group, including on a production about holy women in New France in Canada. Most recently, she collaborated on a piece that combined a young Canadian Indigenous woman’s family history of boarding school trauma with historical stories Waltner unearthed. “I think in some ways that’s one of the most important things I’ve done,” Waltner says — and it’s very distant from China.
Through the Friends of the Libraries, Waltner last summer connected with Rose McGee, founder of Sweet Potato Comfort Pies, who was then a fellow board member. McGee wanted to honor Katie Sample, who promotes education that focuses on African American boys. With another Friends board member, Amelious Whyte, Waltner and McGee attracted a number of sponsors and organized a Katie Sample Series. The series was a success and Waltner says they are talking about what’s next.
Along with appreciating connections made with other Friends board members, Waltner has kudos for the Libraries.
“The library is one of the best resources that we’ve got,” she says, “and what the library has done to make it possible for people to continue doing research during the pandemic has been amazing.”
With their willingness to support her and her students by mailing books and seeking e-books, the staff made their work easier. No wonder she’s a Friend.