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2006 The Year of the Dog

2006 - The Year of the Dog An Auspicious Time for the MAA's Study Tour to China

By Lisa Kolbe

For two weeks in June, nineteen MAA members embarked on a journey that highlighted the cultural gems and world renowned sites of China. The tour included talks at universities and personal tours of science museums across China. The weather was most cooperative, our flying within China seamless and on schedule, the people charming and hospitable, and the food a gastronomically exciting experience.

The tour began with a talk, "Traditional Chinese Mathematics up to the Tenth Century," given at the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences in the Chinese Academy, followed by a guided tour of the Forbidden City. The Imperial Observatory of Beijing, made by the Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest in 1670, was a favorite among the travelers, particularly Helmer Aslaksen of the National University of Singapore. An expert on cultural astronomy, Aslaksen, gave the group a extemporaneous lesson on heavenly mathematics.

Tina Straley and Yibao Xu (with badge) with the director of the Chinese Museum of Science and Technolgy on left.

The mathematics department of the Inner Mongolian Normal University in Hohhut hosted the MAA Group at an elegant luncheon celebrating our academic camaraderie. This followed two days of lectures, one of which was given by Distinguished Professor Li Di, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday and was Yibao Xu's thesis advisor. Xu, currently professor of mathematics at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, was responsible for the planning and organization of the academic component of this tour. The group was treated similarly throughout the journey.

The Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Warriors excavation site near Xi'an, the canals of Suzhou with its famous silk factory, cosmopolitan Shanghai, and bustling Hong Kong: these were among the enchanting sites that were enjoyed by the participants of the MAA Study Tour. Three members of the group have given brief reviews of their travel to China. If you should have any questions about these Study Tours, please contact Lisa Kolbe, Development Manager, at or 202-293-1170.

The tour group at the Great Wall. Front Row: Shirley Cropper, Carol Dotseth, Ruth Ross, Linda Haack, Ken Ross, Tina Straley, Brad Chin, Inez Hollander. Back Row: John Wilkins, Gregory Dotseth, Lisa Kolbe, Jessica Straley, Jennifer Perkins, Helmer Aslaksen, Beth Bennett, Ron Rosier, Jeff Bennett, Joel Haack

Brad Chin
West Valley College, Saratoga, CA

The reviews of previous MAA Study Tours established my expectation that the tour of China would address general interests. I thoroughly enjoyed the sightseeing, entertainment, culinary, and shopping highlights in each city. Among my favorites in each category were the Great Wall near Beijing, the acrobats in Shanghai, dumplings in Xi'an, and the silk factory in Suzhou.

Unique to the MAA tour were visits arranged by the tour historian, Yibao Xu, to universities and science institutes. These visits were significant for the MAA delegation and for our hosts. Our delegation learned about Chinese achievements in math and science through lectures and displays. I also spoke with friendly faculty and students about math and education. A fifth-generation-American of Chinese descent, I gained an appreciation for the Chinese people and their accomplishments. Our hosts received us as honored guests and showed us the highlights of their facilities. In fact, a lecture on the exchange of mathematicians between China and the United States included in our visit among the momentous events.

Brad Chin at the Terra Cotta Warriors Excavation Site in Xi'an.

The study tour was a momentous event for me as well. It facilitated my introduction to a country in which I had little previous interest but to which I envision returning. It expanded my knowledge and interest in the history of mathematics. In addition, I enjoyed talking with local people and fellow travelers. This year's experience makes next year's Euler tour even more attractive.

Jennifer Perkins
Atlantic Highlands, NJ

Traveling to China was my first jaunt outside North America. Traveling with a group of fun loving mathematicians made it all the more special as my trepidations about traveling with strangers were assuaged once I got to know everyone. I loved the itinerary, traveling to Beijing, Hohot, Xian, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, places one only reads about.

Each city was unique in its history, customs, and socioeconomics and I enjoyed learning about them from our knowledgeable local tour guides. Shanghai was by far the most exciting city with its futuristic skyscrapers and bustling economic activity and I loved dining at M on the Bund and viewing the Shanghai skyline. Xi'an had a certain elegance about it that was clearly noticeable. The architecture of its buildings, ancient and modern, displayed the influence of the Tang Dynasty, considered to be the golden age of Chinese history.

Jennifer Perkins at Victoria Peak, Hong Kong.

I enjoyed visiting the Chinese institutions of higher learning and science academies and listening to the lectures of its professors. The tour of the campuses and libraries were great, especially when I toured the home of a professor from Inner Mongolia Normal University and found that some of the volumes that adorned the shelves of his private library were identical to some of the volumes that adorned the shelves of mine. As an amateur mathematician, it did my heart good to see this.

Another exciting aspect of this journey was sampling new cuisine. One memorable meal occurred at a roadside restaurant en route to the Great Wall which served delicious barbecued lamb and fish. Seeing the Great Wall was breathtaking as well as the steep walk to reach it, so not only did I have a fantastic time viewing other landmark sites like the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, but I got a great workout as well.

Ron Rosier
Director of CBMS

Traveling with math people is fun - at least, traveling with those math people who go on the MAA study tours has been great fun. I have been on all four tours and the locations have been very appealing - Greece, England, Mayan Mexico, and China - but it is the people that have made the trips exciting. In addition to being bright and curious, math people are full of arcane knowledge. On these trips, it seems that for every attraction, and particularly every mathematical attraction, there is someone in the group who has taught or written about it and who can add to what the books and the local guides have to say. An old astronomical instrument at the Beijing observatory comes alive when one of your colleagues jumps inside it and enthusiastically shows how it works and explains why it was so important in its day. Have a question about that strange bird you just saw or that new electronic gadget in a shop, chances are good someone just read about it or has had a lifelong interest in studying just those things.

Ron Rosier with statue of Mao Zedong, East China Normal University, Shanghai.

Besides being adventurous in exploring new places, most of the travelers have also been adventurous eaters, and some of my favorite memories involve eating and drinking local delicacies with new friends in exotic settings. "Sheep's guts" (so identified on the buffet sign) as a breakfast dish in Inner Mongolia was perhaps pushing the limit, but those who tried it found it surprisingly tasty. I look forward to joining old friends, making new ones, and learning much from all of them, on the Euler tour next summer.