| in Community

Petrus Liu, professor of Chinese & comparative literature and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, focuses his research at the intersection of queer theory and Marxist cultural criticism, which he explores through publications and courses on modern Chinese and comparative literature, digital media, capitalism and the novel, and new social movements in the global South. As a mark of his renowned teaching, Liu was awarded the 2023 Gitner Award for Distinguished Teaching, which is given to one CAS faculty member each year in recognition of their deep and broad commitment, skill, effectiveness, impact, and leadership in teaching.

The primary goal of Liu’s work became bridging the gap between queer theory and Asian studies by making their dialogue more critical and engaging. His three books — Stateless Subjects: Chinese Martial Arts Literature and Postcolonial History, Queer Marxism in Two Chinas, and The Specter of Materialism: Queer Theory and Marxism in the Age of the Beijing Consensus — discuss intersecting topics of queer theory and Chinese literature in conversation with Marxism. 

Do you have a favorite class to teach? 

Without a doubt it’s this course called Queer Theory. My favorite moment is when people get inspired and take a completely different course with me – and that has happened quite a few times. After taking that one class with me, either they ended up taking a different class with me on Chinese literature, which is not something they would have thought about or wanted to take at BU, and the opposite has also happened. The classes are wildly different because my goal has always been about breaking down boundaries and barriers of learning. I see that happening in my own experience in teaching and that has been really satisfying. The queer theory course is my personal favorite for I think a number of reasons. One is that this is the kind of class where I feel like I’m not just teaching but I’m also learning from my students.  Every generation, every class, every classroom brings its own kind of unique combination of perspectives and life experiences. My students love to talk. It’s the kind of class where the discussion is easy.

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a scholar of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, Chinese language and Chinese culture as well?

It was not a conscious decision. I just kind of became one. For the literature part, I was very privileged, I was very lucky. I just never wanted to do anything else. I had a really good first semester at Berkeley. I took a lot of science classes and AP classes in high school. So by the time I started college, I had already completed my general education requirements. I was just taking classes that interested me. There were many classes that interested me. They were all fantastic. The second week of my freshman year, I was like, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life.’

How did the idea for your most recent book come about?

This is my third book. My first book was about a particular genre of Chinese literature called martial arts, film and fiction. When I was working on that book, I also did some analysis of gender, but it was primarily a literary study. From there, I moved on to a completely different topic which is about gender and sexuality. There’s a lot of continuity between the two books. My new book is a sequel to my second book. After I published my second book, I got a lot of reviews, and a lot of responses from people who were interested in the project. So just in the course of addressing these concerns, I basically wrote another book. That’s how this happened. 

Are there any gaps in your fields that you think still need to be bridged? Is there any one particular topic that you want to tackle?

I’m working in multiple fields. It’s not about what is lacking or underdeveloped in each particular field, but rather, it’s about how they are not talking to each other. I think literature and philosophy and critical theory, generally, is too Eurocentric. We’re all educated in the history of the Western canon, in western civilization. Everybody knows a thing or two about Plato, Rousseau and all the giants of the pillars. But we don’t know anything about the rest of the world, even though the rest of the world also shaped human civilizations and gave us critical tools that we can use in a variety of contexts. We’re trying to counter the Eurocentric kind of tendency, or orientation of critical theory and philosophy in general. I want to continue to write about queer theory. But I want to bring knowledge from and about other regions and languages into the conversation. That is the most important kind of gap that I’m trying to use to fill and rectify. 

If there was one thing all students, even those who don’t become scholars, could get out of your class, what do you hope that would be?

The most important lesson that my students are learning is from their peers, and not from me directly and not from any kind of my elucidation of the texts. This theory, that theory – these are just tools. The most important lesson happens in the classroom, where we are working on the same text, which is challenging and demanding. It’s the experience of working with people on a very challenging project every week, and then disagreeing with each other, and working out your frustrations with a text, with each other, with yourself, with your family. It’s that group experience that’s going to be transformative.

There is a syllabus, which is very diverse. That’s important because it sets the tone. But that’s no substitution for actual diversity. It’s very easy to have a diverse syllabus, that’s not really hard. But to have a diverse conversation, where different perspectives and values can all be included in the classroom? That’s magic. 

So I think the queer theory course is ideal for that, because people always disagree with each other. It’s the fact that we disagree and that we still work together. That is the takeaway in the whole course – it’s about how to work with people who think differently, who have different values and different experiences. At the end of the day, we are still a community. We can work through our differences and form solidarity.

Interview by Kelly Broder (COM’27)