Li-ling Hsiao, associate professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and associate dean for First-Year Curricula, sees teaching as the act of breaking down boundaries.
“I try to help my students to break down the conventional barriers and limitations they got during their education,” Hsiao said. “Don’t limit yourself. And at the same time, by using the ability to break down barriers, (students) can enrich their lives in a way.”
Hsiao’s passion for this academic approach stems from her upbringing. Her parents were both puppeteers, which was the family trade for generations before, she said. Hsiao draws inspiration from her understanding of their craft.
“They didn’t just do performance, my dad would carve the puppets and my mom would sew the costumes for the puppets,” Hsiao said. “Basically, their performance genre incorporated a lot of different aspects into it. Growing up in that environment, I knew that a person, in order to understand one cultural phenomenon better, needed to be a master in all different kinds of fields and genres.”
Shuguang Wang, a fifth-year doctoral student in the School of Education who has served as Hsiao's teaching assistant, said Hsiao's personal connection to her subject matter is apparent in her classes.
“I really appreciate the way she merged her vivid personal experiences into her teaching, and how she manages to present her classes in a very energetic manner,” Wang said in an email. “She has a standard and she always hopes the best for her students. I enjoyed working with her so much - she is a good instructor, an enthusiastic professor, and a kind friend.”
Students and colleagues alike noted Hsiao’s passion and dedication. Faith Virago, a recent UNC graduate who worked with Hsiao on their honors thesis about the experiences of Chinese women in China and the U.S., enjoyed working with Hsiao.
“She aptly prepared me for graduate school by treating me like a real researcher, instead of simply an undergraduate student,” Virago said. “Furthermore, Dr. Hsiao is truly an expert in her field and her diligence and extensive knowledge are evident. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to learn from her.”
Hsiao said over the course of her father’s career, he watched his audience move towards other mediums along with the rise of television. That realization pushed him and his wife to focus their resources on their children’s education. Three out of their four children ended up attaining university degrees, which Hsiao said was unusual.
She said she took advantage of her parents' enthusiasm for education and attained three separate degrees.
“I was the only Ph.D. kid among all the puppeteer families,” she said. “And in Taiwan, there were about a thousand of those families.”
Hsiao holds a bachelor's degree in library sciences from the National Taiwan University, a master's degree in art history from the Chinese Culture University and a doctorate degree in Chinese literature and art from Oxford University. Hsiao said she built on her passion for multidisciplinary study through her extensive education.
“I applied what I learned as a literary scholar back to paintings and illustrations,” she said. “It proved to be a very, very fruitful process for me, because all the famous Chinese artists are also famous scholars and famous poets. That’s how it got me to understand that we are limited by our own perception, our own education. They were not limited by the very clear division of disciplines. We were trying to impose that on them.”
At UNC, Hsiao’s approach to studies is evident in everything she does. She teaches classes ranging from the study of Kung Fu movies to a popular course on traditional Chinese opera.
Earlier this month, Hsiao was a recipient of the 2022 Schwab Academic Excellence Award for the Asian and Middle Eastern studies department. The award funds research and projects of the winner’s choosing. In the past, Hsiao’s research has combined literature and art, but she said she’s excited to also use music in her upcoming projects.
“When I teach, I need to break down those barriers, break down those conventions and re-establish a kind of cohesive and systematic way of thinking," Hsiao said. "I want them to see how the music and the dance and the text kind of integrate each other. Art itself calls for the breakdown of barriers to see the full meaning of a performance.”
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