Dr. Pattberg publishes widely on global language and linguistic imperialism. He is a promoter of Confucianism, a former disciple of Ji Xianlin and Tu Weiming, and the author of ‘The East-West Dichotomy’ and ‘Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion’. He is an alumnus of Peking University, Tokyo University, and Harvard University, and now runs his own website.
It is (almost) impossible (for foreign nationals) to get into Harvard straight out of high school, but if you have the potential; you should always try your luck of course. I believe, however, that Harvard is a much better mid- or late career choice. Go there for a LLM, a MBA, a PhD, or as a visiting fellow and it’s far more rewarding. Here’s how to do it. If you don’t come from your country’s ruling class and if you are not the daughter of the president of China, you may want to start with small steps, get your first degree elsewhere (in your home country), establish a strong network, build your career, travel the world, be outstanding somehow, then call on Harvard, attend conferences at Harvard, and make friends with people at Harvard, read books about how to get into Harvard, contact Harvard professors, and meet with faculty members. Find out what they are looking for. Dream about Harvard. Attend schools that have exchange with Harvard. Most important is to never give up. Remember it’s a very exclusive club. Fortitude, but more so connection and recommendation, will eventually get you there. Beneath the brand surface, Harvard is run like a big business, so fees for international students are very high. Better to find a sponsor. Having said that, Harvard is really that rich and wonderful experience they say it is.
What program did you apply for at Harvard, and why?
I first applied for a PhD program in Sanskrit and Buddhist Studies. I wasn’t desperate for a degree because I was already three years into a doctoral program at Peking University. But it would have been a great combination. I needed to do research on hundreds of missionary texts, and I wanted to consult with experts in Oriental Studies such as Francis X. Clooney, Parimal G. Patil, and Michael Witzel (author of The Origins of the World’s Mythologies) to name but a few. Also, Harvard had its Tu Weiming and Ezra Vogel (author of Japan as Number One) whose works on China and Japan respectively I strongly admire. Besides, Peking University and Harvard University have excellent ties and cooperate on many levels. A former classmate and excellent Sanskrit scholar, Zhang Zhan, already studied at Harvard, and I even bumped into PKU’s lecturer of Tibetan, Saerji, during a conference at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. It’s a small world. I had also met Harvard people during my stay at Tokyo University the year before. So it wasn’t really that much of an imaginative stretch for me, but rather an obvious choice. I had visited Harvard the previous year but found that’s inconvenient without having at least fellowship status and thus free access to all library resources and other university privileges. In the end, my PhD application wasn’t successful, but I was kindly informed about an opening for a research fellowship, so I re-applied for that and got in.
Can you tell us more about your personal experience at Harvard?
I arrived in Cambridge with the personal mission to use every minute of my time for collecting materials and talk to experts. I wouldn’t be able to do anything else anyway, because I had such a tight budget. The Harvard Library System is amazing; I had easy access to most collections in the United States, could read any journal online and then had relevant pages sent to my email box. That was unheard of at that time in Peking University. In just a couple of weeks I had collected enough material for years of post-doctoral research. Harvard’s China Studies is world-class and I was able to put my gloved hands onto a 1691 copy of Intorcetta Prospero’s translation of the Confucian Analects. There were a couple of older books that I was the first person ever to check out. That’s usually the sign that you are going where no one else had gone before. Something like that.
What impressed you most and what could be improved?
What impressed me most was how beautiful Harvard people are. I have seen and experienced academic poverty with all its erratic, pitiful behaviors that goes with it, especially in China, a developing country. But here in Cambridge most students seemed to be above and beyond the usual hardships of life. Instead of thinking about naked survival, I heard people talking about Fulbright scholarships, investments, real estate, and holidays in Malaysia, private yoga teachers, trips to London, the next conference in St. Petersburg. Wow, I thought. Harvard students could afford to walk through life gracefully, privileged, full of positive energy. Especially the international students were superhumanly resourceful and brought a lot of unique experience, new insights, and brain power to Cambridge. There’s a strong Jewish and a German connection at Harvard, and many of Chinese diasporas.
Did you encounter any difficulties during your studies?
My research on Western translations of Confucian key terminologies was new territory even in China, so I had to persuade the Faculty of Arts that they would provide me with this opportunity. More and more we scholars need to activate our entrepreneurial spirit. The humanities in particular are especially ill-prepared to find sponsorship for long-term projects, as opposed to engineering and the sciences where you can see and touch the results. Shortly before I set off to the USA, I lost a scholarship opportunity, so that put down some financial restrains; otherwise I might have stayed even longer in Cambridge. In addition, some professors were worried that it could be of little interest to scholarship whether Confucius was called a philosopher, saint, sage, or any other name. For comparison, other research fellows come to Harvard to find a treatment for cancer, or invent ways to end global poverty. I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. You have to sell a ‘product’ whether you are a nuclear physicist, psychologist, or a philologist.
What extracurricular activities did you engage in while studying at Harvard?
I went to the ‘Harvard German Club’ and I also joined Chinese activities such as the ‘Harvard China Review’ – a prominent Sino-US think tank. Most individuals here are career driven and results oriented, largely also, I guess, because they paid a lot of money for their education: I surrendered to the Harvard spirit and concentrated on my research. “That’s all I have,” I told myself.
How did you write your CV and covering letter?
I wrote a concise but detailed proposal with the exact facilities that I planned to use, the names of the people I wanted to work with, and the activities I would participate in, for example, there were foreseeable conferences and lecture-series at the ‘Harvard-Yenching Institute’ and the ‘Fairbank Center’. (That’s where I, for the first time, met Tu Weiming, the renowned Confucian ethicist, who is now at Peking University). In other words, I was well prepared and organized. I met distinguished Harvard professors of Chinese studies such as William Kirby and Wilt Idema, the Professor of Chinese Literature. Then there was Mark Elliott, Professor of Chinese, who should later become the new Fairbank Center Director. It is far more gratifying to read a book after you’ve met the famous author. I was fortunate enough to get great advice from Roderick MacFarquhar, the political theorist and author of Mao’s Last Revolution, and I even got acquainted to Sebastian Heilmann, a German compatriot and political scientist who is very much in favor of reviving German sinology (a difficult task, since many German sinologists publish in English and/or practice abroad). Finally, I also attended lectures at the ‘Harvard Kennedy School’ and met the most famous linguist and political activist alive: Noam Chomsky, the MIT professor.
How did you choose your references?
I chose my referees from Peking University’s departments of South Asian Studies and Sanskrit, who were also the department’s chairs and my PhD supervisors. It’s an electronic application process, so the referees had to submit their recommendations via email.
What are the main differences between Harvard University and Peking University?
Harvard University feels small, provincial, but the clientele is wealthy and very international. Peking University on the other hand is the educational mother lode of the Chinese civilization. Comparing them is (almost) impossible. Better to have been to both of them.
What is the single most important advice you can give to someone who plans to go to Harvard?
Education is about privilege, not knowledge. You can read a good book everywhere in the world, or attend an online course, and you can compose the greatest works of art and philosophy from the solitary of your desk. But who is going to listen to what you have to say? Would we know about Hannah Arendt had she not studied under Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers? Let me be more specific, education is about the privilege of getting acquainted with the people who matter in your field. Not surprisingly, the people who matter tend to gather in certain places. That’s where we have to go. If you want to be at the forefront of your research, you have to meet the fordmakers.