In the Loving Memory of Teacher Xue Baokun

Bao Zhenpei and Her Teacher Xue Baokun

Prof. Xue Baokun was a professor of Nankai University and a famous folk art theorist. He passed away this year on February 28th, at the age of 81. Professor Bao Zhenpei from Nankai University’s College of Chinese Language and Culture was Prof. Xue’s student, and she has also been the first student who graduated in the major of folk art. As a student of Prof. Xue, she sees Prof. Xue as her benefactor, because he laid the foundation for her lifelong career. Prof. Xue’s death broke her heart. Now, when she thinks about Prof. Xue’s teaching, she has a myriad of feelings.

Prof. Bao passed the examination of Nankai University’s School of Literature in 1980, and Prof. Xue guided her to the study of folk art. She recalled that, at that time, Prof. Xue’s class of folk literature was very popular in the School. “Prof. Xue’s classes were full of students, including those at the Department of Chinese Literature. He was always wearing Chinese cotton coats, and had a cup of tea, a cigarette, and a stack of script on his desk. Interestingly, when he was teaching, he never looked at his scripts but talked freely. He did not use pet phrases. Students were attracted by his coherent way of teaching.”   

In 1980s, influenced by Prof. Xue, many students of the School of Literature started to understand and fell in love with traditional folk art; some senior students even chose jobs related to folk art study after their graduation. “When he was teaching folk literature, he did not attract students using stories of mysterious customs and traditions, but using emotions. Once, he told a folk story titled ‘Smart Wife’, which was about how a smart wife taught her dumb husband to speak with her father decently, even if the husband continued to fail. These contents reflected folk’s humor and wisdom.” After Prof. Xue’s death, many alumni of all grades of the School of Literature sighed and mourned, sharing their memory of Prof. Xue’s classes. During Prof. Xue’s funeral, Zhou Yingyi, a student of the year 1978, sent an elegiac couplet: “Forever Lives Prof. Xue and His Folk Literature Class”. It showed the place Prof. Xue and his classes have in students’ hearts.  

Because of Prof. Xue’s attractive way of teaching, Prof. Bao had a craze interest in folk literature and chose it as her subject of study. “At that time, modern western literature was popular in the campus, and I read a lot books about it, so I was about to further my graduate study in Chinese-Western Comparative Literature.” Prof. Bao did not know how Prof. Xue heard about her decision. As a result, Prof. Xue searched her, and told her that he had seen her thesis on folk art. He saw some talent in the thesis, so he encouraged her to continue researching. “I remember he told me that folk art was the treasure of Chinese culture. However, in that period, folk art was ‘an uncultivated virgin land’; only few people studied it. So it has a huge potential.” Prof. Xue’s words were so persuasive that Prof. Bao decided to further her studies in folk art theory, and she did it for her whole life. 

As a student of Prof. Xue, Prof. Bao heard more encouragement than criticism during her three-year period of study. Due to the gap of professional level, at that time, most of the teachers were not keen to cooperate with students in writing books. But according to Prof. Bao’s memory, Prof. Xue was different. From her first year of study, Prof. Xue gave her researching tasks and helped her to choose different research perspectives. At that time, she had finished her research results (containing tens of thousands of words) and cooperated with Prof. Xue in publishing professional books. “Prof. Xue told me that girls should achieve more when they are still young, because when they get married, they will be busy.” 

Every time, Prof. Xue would carefully correct by hand Bao’s research results. “He never criticized me. Even when he could not understand my writing, he just used to ask me: ‘Did you write while you were sleeping?’ After that, he used to continue with his corrections of my ‘sleep talk’.”

During the three-year study period, Prof. Bao was busy every day, because these academic researches became a way to accumulate knowledge and improve her professional level. “Prof. Xue always took me to academic conferences. I felt I was too young compared to the experts who participated, and too shallow to speak during the conferences, but my teacher always encouraged me. After the conferences, he always said: ‘Good job. You should speak in other conferences like this one.’” As a folk art expert, Prof. Xue had good relationship with a lot of cross talk stars, but he always kept a low profile. “Prof. Xue was a good friend of Prof. Hou Baolin. He took me once to meet him. He also allow me to participate in festivals of folk art and cross talks. It was not for making friends, but to let me watch more performances. He never recommend any masters or stars of folk art or cross talk on purpose.”

In the 80s, Prof. Xue taught a PhD American student, Bai Zhuoshi. During the preparation of her final report, Prof. Bao accompanied her to visit many old artists in Tianjin and helped her to translate and collect the information. “Later, when Bai went back home, she still kept in touch with Prof. Xue and me. She thanked Prof. Xue for his assistance a lot. She wrote a book about Tianjin’s folk art, and donated the copyright to Nankai to encourage its students to study folk art” Bao said. Thirty years ago, Prof. Xue had already carried forward Tianjin’s folk art and initiated an international communication about folk art research.

In Prof. Bao’s memory, Prof. Xue was an erudite scholar. Even in his late years, he was still intelligent, diligent, and very humorous as well. During Bao’s student life, every time she went to her teacher’s home, she used to forget something unconsciously. Every time she went back to find her belongings, Prof. Xue would joke with her: “Look, Miss Careless is back again.” Once, Prof. Xue hid the forgotten item. “At first he said he did not see anything. Later, when he saw me worrying, he took it out. He made these well-intentioned jokes in order to fix my bad habit. Since then, I really changed a lot.”  

After her graduation, Prof. Bao would pay a visit to Prof. Xue during every holiday. Every time they met, they talked only about academic studies. In her eyes, Prof. Xue encouraged his students using his actual knowledge. “After his retirement, he did not relax. He published a lot, worked for folk art studies, and was even invited as judge of many folk art and cross talk competitions on radio and television.”

“After he passed away, I went to his home. I saw that all the things on his table were about his academic researches. I remember there were three pairs of glasses, a magnifying glass, various booklets about folk art, and the card of a CCTV reporter. That was the last working moment of his life. At that time, there was still so much for him to develop.” Talking about this, Prof. Bao’s expressed her sorrow.

After meeting for more than thirty years, the relationship between Prof. Xue and Prof. Bao was far beyond teacher and student. Prof. Xue treated her as a family member. “When I got married, he sent me a very big Tang San Cai (tri-coloured glazed pottery of the Tang Dynasty). Later, I moved several times. When he knew that I was about to move, he used to send me curtains, bed sheets, and so on. But every time I invited him for dinner, he refused.” Prof. Bao explained that it was because Mrs. Xue has been confined in bed for 25 years. Since the end of 1980s, Prof. Xue never ate outside for going back home earlier and taking care of his wife at home. “Prof. Xue was not only a model in academic studies, but also in life.” 

In fact, in his later years, he was haunted by illness. With LDH, ischialgia, and cataract, the fact of persisting in his academic studies seriously damaged his health. During the Spring Festival this year, Prof. Bao received the message that Prof. Xue was in hospital because of a severe illness. “During the treatments, he refused all the visitors politely. I think it was because he did not want anyone to see his weaknesses. Later, his son told me that, before his death, he called my name. Whenever I think about that scene, I’m heartbroken. After his death, every evening I pray to see him in my dreams because I want to know what did he want to tell me. I guess he must have had a lot of suggestions for further academic researches” said Prof. Bao. Prof. Xue loved flowers when he was alive. After his passing away, Prof. Bao asked Prof. Xue’s son to send her one of the plants Prof. Xue used to cultivate. “I will take care of it. In my heart, when I see the flowers, Prof. Xue comes to my mind.”

Reported by Xiao Mingshu

Translated by Shi Yuchen

Proofread by Letizia Vallini

Nankai University

No.38 Tongyan Road, Jinnan District, Tianjin , P.R. China 300350

No.94 Weijin Road,  Nankai District, Tianjin, P.R.China  300071