Religion, Health, and Public Life: A Conversation with Becky Yang Hsu

By: Becky Yang Hsu

August 2, 2022

In June 2022, Becky Yang Hsu joined the Berkley Center as a senior fellow. Hsu is an associate professor of sociology at Georgetown University, and she is also affiliated with the Asian Studies Program and the Graduate School’s M.S. in Health and the Public Interest Program. She is currently directing a research group on the topic of Culture and Society as part of Georgetown’s Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues

The Berkley Forum sat down with Hsu to discuss the work of her research group, the scope of her academic interests, and relevant issues at the intersections of religion, health, and public life. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How did you first conceive and develop your Research Group on Culture and Society with the Georgetown University Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues? What kind of work has it done thus far, and how does it contribute to research on human flourishing in a globalized world?

In my years of research on China, I’ve seen that the way people talk about China in the United States and vice versa has increasingly been antagonistic. When I first started doing field work and research in China in 2004, it was not actually like that, but in the past 10 to 15 years, it’s really changed. And I think this Culture and Society group really came out of this sense that actually there’s stuff that we have in common.

There are some common problems that people all around the world have, like universal human problems, but there are others that have to do with the global moment and how the economic and political waves are going.

I’m writing with a group of five authors, and we’re each looking at a problem that is shared among ordinary people in China and ordinary people in the United States, and then looking at an interesting way that people in China are solving it. There’s one really interesting chapter about internet addiction in children and adults, and another about a recent boom in interest in psychotherapy. My chapter is about a universal issue that everybody has to deal with, which is knowing that you’re going to die one day. I found in my fieldwork that there are some people in China who actually prepare their own burial clothes and coffins well ahead of time, when they’re totally healthy. There are variations in this tradition, in that some people like to show them to their friends and families with a kind of party or celebration. I actually think there’s something about that that helps people face this reality more gradually. 

We’re close to done on the project; there’s just one more chapter getting edited. I’m really hoping to be sending it to a press by September, and then it might come out maybe a year or so from now, depending on how it’s reviewed.

What are your primary research interests? What are your goals for nurturing and expanding these pursuits while in your new role as a senior fellow?

Right now I’m working on a project on happiness in China. I collected three different kinds of data: ethnography, which is like hanging out and participating in things; interviews; and a big national survey. Out of the project, one of the most interesting things, to me, that pertained to people’s well-being was the way that people approach or interface with death. I think people in China may do something that is really helpful. In the survey, we found that 78% of the people in China go grave sweeping, where they go with their families to visit the graves of deceased grandparents and other relatives. I think what it does is that it familiarizes and makes death sort of less horrifying or scary. The book is going to be called Serenity: Happiness and Death in China, and it explains why I think this ritual is so helpful for people’s well-being. After I’ve finished the book, I’m hoping that it will be useful for college students and other young people that have to grapple with grief, especially during the pandemic. 

I think that even though what I’m looking at or what I’m interested in might not fit into current understandings of religion, they are super relevant to people who are interested in religion. There’s a little bit of the meaning of life, rituals, the problem of suffering, and other issues.

And so I see my role at the Berkley Center as situated in the areas of religion and public life, looking at the things that are relevant to religion and public life, but maybe are not so obvious. I’m also excited to bring some knowledge of and interest in China to the center, since it’s such a big part of the world.

Where do you see overlap and synergy between your work in the Sociology, Asian Studies, and Graduate Health and Public Interest programs and current initiatives at the Berkley Center?

I think there is a natural connection between my affiliation with Asian Studies and the Berkley Center, being interested in world affairs. In terms of religion and health, that’s an interesting topic. My work in bereavement and grief and mourning has a lot to do with well-being. Those things often are influenced by religion or spiritual activities or rituals. I think it does make sense that the Berkley Center, being interested in religion, also overlaps with these things that are related to health and public interest. And sociology is how people organize themselves; it could be almost anything. But I see these topics as very much all about what people do with one another, how they relate to one another, and how they structure their time.

How do you understand the relationship between social sciences and humanities as it applies to sociology, religion, and your other academic fields of study? Has COVID-19 shifted the paradigm, and in what ways?

I don’t see them as very different. I see all of it as an interest in studying people and understanding what people are about. I think the humanities tend to be more about ancient languages and literatures and things like that, while the social sciences are focused on empirical measurement and data. But they’re both really important. The paper that I’m totally immersed in right now is looking at one of the three great Confucian philosophers in Chinese history, a guy now called Xunzi. I’m using his ancient text to understand contemporary empirical data. So it’s a blend of both the humanities and social sciences. I think we need them both to understand people and what people need.

I don’t know about the whole field, but COVID-19 has definitely impacted things for me. I started the project on happiness in China in 2013. After I came back from doing fieldwork, I was already interested in the grave sweeping and bereavement and stuff like that, but I had a hard time explaining to people why that had anything to do with happiness. I think that, unfortunately, it’s become clear, or clearer, how important it is to know how to grieve. After the pandemic, after this huge world crisis, I am a little worried actually about American society because here we’re sort of expected to just get over it. But in reality, when somebody dies it might take a few years of more intense grief or even a lifetime to process everything. And so in the years and the decades ahead, people might be looking for some guidance on how to grieve.

So I hope that my research will give people something to think about, and hopefully they may feel less alone when they are grieving.

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