Yun Zou credits History Professor for Success 

By: Emily Jodway 

Yun Zou, a Ph.D. student studying history at Michigan State University, credits her advisor as one of her greatest sources of support while she navigated the world of earning a Ph.D. as a Chinese student. 

Zou clicked early on with her advisor, Dr. Aminda Smith, an associate professor in the history department. Smith specializes in modern Chinese history and Chinese communism, interwoven with research on gender, sexuality, and the history of the global left. Zou, who has chosen a very similar path for her own studies, knew that Dr. Smith would be the perfect mentor.  

“I have a very strong interest in gender, and I’m involved in the public discussion of gender issues in China; I care a lot about gender equality,” Zou explained. “There aren’t a lot of professors doing both Chinese studies and gender studies. I found when I was applying [at MSU] that I really liked her research and projects.” 

Zou completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees in History and knew that for her Ph.D. program, she wanted to continue along the path of studying history with a focus on gender studies and social justice. It’s been a literal trip around the world for Zou, as she did her first year of study at MSU virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic, before coming to the United States for the first time to live on campus. Right now, she is back in China doing fieldwork related to a new project.  

As she learned English as a second language, Zou describes the readings for her Ph.D. program as more intense and difficult than classes she’d previously encountered. She also had to contend with joining online lectures taking place during the day in East Lansing while it might have been 3 or 4 a.m. in China. She credits Dr. Smith for supporting and encouraging her throughout the process.  

“I’ve never had any experience studying in an American institution before now, and it’s also my first time studying for a Ph.D.,” Zou explained. “But Dr. Smith gave me a lot of encouragement and assured me that I was doing okay. If I ever have any questions, she’s always there for me.” 

“Yun is a highly skilled historian, but what really sets her apart is the empathy she has for the people she studies,” Dr. Smith added. “She is doing cutting-edge research that spans the fields of women’s and gender studies, environmental history, and modern Chinese history. The oral histories she is collecting highlight the historical experiences of rural women whose voices rarely appear in official archives but whose efforts were crucial to the way China developed in the 20th century.” 

Zou found an interest in gender issues in China around the time of the #MeToo movement, an awareness movement surrounding sexual harassment and sexual abuse of women that grew to prominence in 2017, after news of American film producer Harvey Weinstein engaging in this behavior went public. 

#MeToo has highlighted and made a lot of gender issues very visible. It started in the U.S. and now it’s starting up in China,” she said. “I feel for it very deeply. I know many women who have suffered sexual harassment. And during this period, for the first time, there are a lot of women sharing their stories and feelings. That got me even more interested in gender issues.” 

For now, Zou has pivoted her research toward a newfound interest she encountered during her Ph.D. program at Michigan State. She has taken her previous research on gender studies and woven it in with environmental history in China. She has been visiting several construction sites led and built by women during Mao Zedong’s reign in China, a period in which women worked in accordance with Mao’s ideals of gender on several state labor projects. Mao believed that women were an untapped resource of labor power which should be used in the interests of the country.  

“My current project looks at the relationships between gender, nature, and culture,” Zou said. “There were several women-led environmental transformation projects going on in China in Mao’s era. Basically, anything you can imagine them doing labor-wise, they did. It wasn’t even about men and women working together to build a dam; I’m talking about a dam that was built almost entirely out of female labor.” 

Zou will return to Michigan State after this semester of field work back in her home country. In the face of several new cultural differences and adjustments, Zou has found East Lansing to be a welcoming home away from home.  

“I quite like East Lansing for the environment. There are not too many people here. Where I come from, there are always many, many people. I can basically always find a spot on the bus here, which is great!”