When Peter K. Bol was in college, a revolution halfway around the world changed his life.
In 1966, Bol began to study modern China — the same year that the Cultural Revolution occurred. “All of a sudden, China went from being a very interesting and promising place to a very awful place. A place where people killed one another, where there was a cult of personality,” said Bol, Harvard’s vice provost for advances in learning and the Charles H. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, speaking at the Harvard Allston Education Portal (Ed Portal) earlier this month.
Choosing to focus on China’s history, Bol found a wealth of material that opened his eyes to the very foundations of the country. Among them were myths and legends, such as the “timeless Chinese love story” known simply as “Ying-Ying’s story.”
The love story between Ying-Ying, a young Chinese girl, and Zhang, a man who “held steadfastly to his personal principles,” dates to the Tang dynasty, about 600-900 A.D. In some ways, it is a tale as old as time — except that these star-crossed lovers do not elope, marry, or live happily ever after. Instead, after a tempestuous secret romance, they live moderately ever after, marrying other spouses and never seeing one another again.