Faculty Spotlight: Fang Zhiyuan, IES Abroad Beijing

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Kiah Zellner-Smith
October 15, 2015

Students who study in Beijing unconsciously experience the fast-paced, mega-capital city as it continues to evolve with modern times. The question then becomes how to take a step back and appreciate the vast amount of history and culture available around every hutong. At IES Abroad Beijing, the answer is simple: leave it to a teacher who doesn’t just know history—he has lived it.

Fang Zhiyuan, or Fang “Laoshi” (Teacher) as he is known among students and staff, has been a faculty member at the IES Abroad Beijing Center for more than 16 years. Each semester he introduces students to Chinese fine arts, such as calligraphy and traditional stage performance. However, Fang Zhiyuan’s life before his time with IES Abroad is anything but routine.

As a descendant of the imperial line of the Qing Dynasty, Fang Zhiyuan was born one year before the communist-ruling People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949. During the formative years of the PRC and into the early 90’s, indulging in the study of fine arts and humanities was considered anti-revolutionary among all classes. However, Fang Zhiyuan’s grandfather made a risky and meaningful decision to hire the former royal teacher of Puyi, known to many as the “last emperor,” to home school him in the subjects of painting, calligraphy, and Chinese history and culture. Fang Zhiyuan’s skills developed over the next decade, and by age 16, he was selected to study abroad in the Soviet Union. However, this dream was shattered as the Cultural Revolution tore through the PRC, and he was sentenced to five years in jail for having royal blood.

In 1971, after the PRC spent years without promotion of scholarly study or humanities, Premier Zhou Enlai finally persuaded the government of the importance of arts education. Immediately following this development, Fang Zhiyuan completed two Masters Degrees in French Art History and Development and Italian Art History and Painting and began teaching at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1979. For a decade he taught both undergraduate and graduate students of various levels and was even chosen to be a visiting scholar to Japan in 1982. Unfortunately, in 1989, another major political movement ended his career. Fang Zhiyuan was charged with supporting reactionaries in the Tian’anmen Student Movement and was forced to resign from his teacher career. It was later, in 1999, that he was introduced to IES Abroad Beijing and immediately fell in love with the environment of academic freedom. 

Fang Zhiyuan’s desire to increase students’ academic and artistic capacities is evident in many ways, one of which materialized in a 50-meter-long compilation of the evolution of Chinese characters he donated to the IES Abroad Beijing library. Our Beijing students are also able to feel a deep connection to China beyond the walls of the classroom. “When Fang Zhiyuan takes students on trips to Beijing’s Summer Palace and the Forbidden City, he is able to share personal stories of his family, who served in the imperial court, in the exact places they served,” said Dr. Michael Steinberg, Executive Vice President for Academic Programs, during his speech awarding Fang Zhiyuan IES Abroad Instructor of the Year in 2012. Besides calligraphy, Fang Zhiyuan also served as the head instructor of an advanced Chinese language Theater Performance Workshop, where students work to perfect their pronunciation, mood, and delivery in a traditional stage setting. 

IES Abroad is proud to continue partnerships with world-class faculty like Fang Zhiyuan and many more. Unique and meaningful experiences await you at IES Abroad Beijing!

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Kiah Zellner-Smith

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