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Interview with Schwarzman Scholarship Recipient, Yuyang Wang

Image of EALC PhD Student Yuyang Wang

The Schwarzman Scholars Program is one of the most prestigious graduate leadership programs in the world. With over 3,600 worldwide applicants, only 154 scholars were carefully selected to participate in a year of immersive study and cultural enrichment through a core curriculum that focuses on three pillars: China, leadership, and global affairs. Of the noteworthy Stanford students is Yuyang Wang, a doctoral candidate from Beijing, China. Wang is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in archaeology and focuses his research on the archaeology of Neolithic China. His research spans a vast range of interests encompassing ancient migration, craft production, technological advancements, burial practices, and petrographic analysis of Neolithic China. EALC caught up with Wang and asked him to reflect on winning the Schwarzman Scholarship and his academic journey. This interview is slightly edited for brevity and clarity.


What inspired you to apply for the Schwarzman Scholars Program? How does the Schwarzman Scholarship align with your goals?

I got to know the Schwarzman Scholars Program through a friend- she was in the Schwarzman Scholars program a year or two ago. Another friend of mine, who was a Chinese teacher in China, had a student that applied and also got in. So, I got to know about the Schwarzman Scholars Program from two friends. The Schwarzman Scholars Program is a leadership and global affairs program. I study archaeology and I feel that archaeology is a global affair because we all use archaeology to tell our cultural stories. Archaeology is about our past- like past human connections. I work on migration, specifically Neolithic migration, which involves the movement of people, things, and ideas. It’s a huge phenomenon that happens all the time. So, from today’s perspective, we are looking at global affairs and globalization sort of like a new thing that we are always talking about. For example, we are always talking about building relations with other countries and the history of those relations. I just feel like we are constantly referencing archaeology. I feel like for the Western audience, archaeology is more about Greek and Egyptian enrollment because Western cultural heritage comes from that. I’m Chinese, and we always refer back to a few thousand years ago where there were states, settlements, and all of that in China. I also know that people do the same thing in Japan, Southeast Asia, India, and really everywhere- they just reference archaeology for the topics they are discussing in today’s current events. Because of this, I feel like archaeology is a global affair. Archaeology is sort of like a philosophy where we can reflect, and get inspiration and ideas. I want people to know this because I feel like archaeology is sort of tainted by popular culture such as Indiana Jones and all that, but that is not what archaeology really is. I feel like its power has not been explored to the fullest. I feel that if we view archaeology as a global affair, there is much more that we can learn.

Do you foresee the field of archaeology changing in that way in the near future?

Yeah, I think so. First of all, I think people are becoming more interested in cultures other than their own. I think that a lot of Western audiences are really interested in East Asian archaeology now. East Asian archaeologists are also trying to learn about other countries and this sort of communication and mutual learning is sort of intensifying- it’s becoming increasingly popular. In academia, it is already changing and it has been changing for quite awhile. On a popular culture level, archaeology will change and maybe it will come soon.

Your research is very interesting. Your research focuses on Neolithic China with interests in craft production, burial customs, and petrographic analysis. What influenced you to focus your research in this specific field? Also, your excavation sites are very unique. What inspired you to conduct your research in Germany; Philadelphia; Shandong, Gansu, China; and Northern Israel?

I have always been interested in archaeology and ancient artifacts, including burials, people's ways of life, work practices, and everything related to the past. In my undergrad, I went to a small school in Ohio and we didn’t have an archaeology program at the time. So, I majored in art history. But, in my art history classes, we mainly focused on material culture. I didn't study much modern art; instead, I focused on studying and learning about ancient artifacts and archaeology in general. Then, I went to graduate school in Philadelphia, I went to the University of Pennsylvania, and we had a huge museum there and a lot of labs. With each class I took, I pushed my research interests back like a thousand years or so. I really loved the Neolithic period- it’s just fascinating because we don’t have much to work with. Then when you are working with the material, you really have to think about human decisions and human actions because we don’t have anything like written records or anything to reference- you’re really focusing on archaeology. I feel like that is what archaeology is all about- you are studying past human behaviors. So at the time, I worked on a lot of findings from the burial contexts and that was really interesting. After I came to Stanford, we also had some artifacts from burial contexts. A major project our lab works on is ancient alcohol. Some of the alcohol residue that we took were from pots from burials. It’s very interesting how humans move because I feel that maybe it’s human nature to move, to be curious, and to go explore. I was really interested in how humans move. Recently, we have been trying to understand population movement through different burial cultures. Because burial customs can move with people, we want to study how burial traditions move with people and maybe how they also change when people settle in a new place after a while-  I am very interested in that too.

I have excavated in China, in Shandong and in Gansu, and in Northern Israel. Excavating in Israel was really fun because we worked on a site of the Early Bronze Age. It's definitely different from how we excavate in China because everything varies significantly and I was there with the team from the Penn Museum- I loved it! I feel like I learned so much. I feel that if you want to be a good archaeologist, you’ll probably have to excavate in different places just to learn different techniques, feel different soil, and see how different people collaborate on different work- that was really great!

Through your research, have you found any artifacts that you found very interesting or surprising? If so, how have those findings altered the direction of your research especially now with the opportunity of the Schwarzman Scholars Program?

Unfortunately, I haven’t been back to the site since 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic so I haven’t been able to work on any of my materials. But I hope I can resume my work in the very near future. Because of this pause, I haven’t found anything that exciting yet. But, I feel like human migration is such a huge topic- it’s crazy! I feel that one of the most significant challenges for archaeologists is making their projects relevant to the public by explaining the importance of their findings and how they relate to our society today. I believe that ancient and modern migration share many parallels, and there is a lot they can learn from one another. With regard to Neolithic migration, maybe we can take models of recent migration events and see how people are migrating, examine the problems that they are encountering, and draw inspiration to the study. For example, we can study recent migration issues and study how Neolithic people handled similar problems. At the same time, I feel like a lot of the issues migrants experienced probably remained the same over the course of thousands of years. I feel that we should explore the inspiration we can draw from Neolithic Migration and find ways to incorporate those insights into more recent issues.

You mentioned that you plan to use your archaeological findings to tackle current issues. Can you elaborate? How do you plan to address present day issues using your research?

I feel like archaeology could be a great source for people to draw inspiration. I took a couple of archaeology classes at Stanford that all tackle more recent issues. For example, I took a gender and sexuality course in archaeology.  Some of the material we read reveals that throughout history, there have been numerous diverse ideas about gender and sexuality that challenge the binary dichotomy that we see today. Because of archaeological references that demonstrate the existence of other genders, we are able to debunk the idea that we live in a male and female binary society and we can conclude that gender is a socially constructed idea. Although I don't yet know how to use archaeology to help solve current issues, I think that is a great example. I hope in the future when people are talking about these issues, they can reference archaeology and say, “hey I have information from archaeologists and not just everywhere else.” 

Also, archaeology constantly draws inspiration from various fields such as anthropology, sociology, and art history. By studying human behaviors through these lenses, we gain valuable insights that we can apply to the study of ancient civilizations. With the Schwarzman Scholars Program next year, the majority of the scholars are not going to be archaeologists- I am probably the only archaeologist in the cohort. It is a leadership program, so a lot of the scholars in my cohort come from either business, political science, or tech and innovation backgrounds- but I think that is great! I think I can learn so much from other people about their information processes, thought processes, and how they deal with social issues. I feel like they are all very eager to learn from each other and to express their thoughts. The leadership program is a global affairs program; so in combination with archaeology, I believe this is a great opportunity for me to see how to make archaeology practical- like take concepts and turn them into something practical. So I think this will be a great opportunity!

Do you have any plans regarding the future of your research and where you plan to take your research in the future?

I definitely want to expand my research because I am working on the Neolithic Period and there is a pretty big gap between that and ethnographic data that has been recorded within the last 100 years. I definitely love this project so much! I think it is really, really interesting! In the future, if I can, I would like to expand this project and study whether or not migration traditions persisted in various ways from the Neolithic period to the Bronze Age and into the historical era.

Do you have any advice for students that are interested in pursuing an M.A. or Ph. D. in Archaeology?

Yeah- definitely do it! I love archaeology very, very much. I think it is such an interesting field and it is a field that combines humanities and science very tightly- it’s multidisciplinary. In archaeology, you will get to exercise all sorts of skills. Not only do you learn about lab work and scientific processes, but also you learn philosophy, human behavior, and explore the dynamics of shifting and drifting elements. I definitely encourage people to apply for archaeology degrees. It sounds very difficult, but it is really not if you have the passion. Although I went on my first excavation in my undergrad, I learned a lot more about traditional archaeological techniques during my time in graduate school. Before, I was kind of scared because a lot of the undergrads were doing so well with scientific techniques, but I had just started. However, it was really, really interesting. The interest alone drew me into working in the lab for 20 hours a week- so it was great. I feel like if you are interested, as soon as you get into archaeology, it is just very easy- you will be motivated by your own passion and curiosity. I definitely recommend pursuing a degree in archaeology.