BU Humanists at Work: Petrus Liu, Associate Professor of Chinese & Comparative Literature and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies

Petrus Liu, Associate Professor of Chinese & Comparative Literature and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies

Associate Professor of Chinese & Comparative Literature and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Petrus Liu can’t imagine studying literature in just one language. Over the course of his career, Liu has picked up German, Latin, Thai, and Japanese in addition to Chinese and English, and each has proved itself “full of wonders.” Liu encourages his students to explore literature outside their native languages and cultures, as he did while studying German literature, Comparative Literature, and East Asian languages as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. “Some literary conventions and linguistic choices are unique to a given culture or a period, while others are universal and transhistorical,” notes Liu, “but you wouldn’t know the difference unless you have some knowledge of how other literary cultures developed in the world.” Liu was so fascinated by the unique elements and approaches offered by the field of Comparative Literature that he continued his studies at UC Berkeley, going on to earn both his master’s and doctorate in Comparative Literature.

Since arriving at BU in 2017, Liu has found spaces and people at BU that push him to interrogate and expand his ways of thinking. Liu says the World Languages & Literatures department (WLL) has inspired his intellectual development. “I have learned new things from conversations with people working on projects ranging from Arab-Russian literary relations to Japanese haiku, and every time that happens it feels like a treat,” says Liu of his colleagues in WLL. “I feel like I am in a genuinely global and comparative department where cross-cultural conversations happen every day.” Liu also identified the Women’s Gender, & Sexuality Studies program, and especially the GenSex reading group, as one of his “most important sources of intellectual sustenance and community.”

Liu hopes to encourage those same kinds of cross-cultural conversations in studies of gender and Marxist theories, emphasizing the ways encountering the unknown can lend itself to more expansive, complex definitions and discourses about literature. All literature is written by and for people, and Liu stresses that literature from unfamiliar cultures can offer new models of how identity is formed  and “open your mind to possibilities that you did not even know existed.” If literary theory is a way of making sense of the world, Liu hopes to broaden the boundaries of that world, and his most recent book proves that even the theory that people think they know contains a multitude of different perspectives that may open up new understandings of identity, economy, and culture. 

Liu’s latest book, The Specter of Materialism: Queer Theory and Marxism in the Age of the Beijing Consensus, was published by Duke University Press earlier in 2023 and supported by a subvention from the BU Center for the Humanities. Borrowing the concept of the “Beijing Consensus”—the idea that China seems to have economically surpassed the United States in many areas—from the field of international relations, Liu interrogates the assumption that Marxist theory and queer theory are Western inventions. “Societies outside of Europe and North America have also produced their own queer theories and Marxisms,” says Liu. In decentering Western conceptions of Marxist and gender theories, Liu explores how changes to capitalism originating from shifting economic and cultural relations between East and West also necessitate changes to the way academics approach these theories. Liu explains that China’s Marxism and queer theories show us that “what we believed to be the natural connections between capitalism and sexuality based on the singular example of the United States need to be rethought.”

Next semester, Liu will offer a seminar on Marxist cultural criticism that engages in that rethinking. The course  examines the transformation of concepts in classical Marxism into contemporary debates about race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, modernity, and language, which promises to challenge students to construct new understandings and make new connections. A recipient of BU’s 2023 Gitner Award for Distinguished Teaching, Liu strives to create a student-centered classroom that pushes students to interrogate relationships between texts, cultures, and theoretical approaches. Liu sets clear goals for his classes, allowing students to gradually build up their skills through interactive learning, a tactic Liu finds especially helpful in courses like his “Global Modernist Fiction” seminar that pushes students to build connections between texts as the semester progresses. While Liu’s general approach to learning rests on these principles, he also recognizes that every group of students is different. “Something that worked really well in the classroom a couple of years ago may not work now, because people have different values, perspectives, and life experiences,” says Liu. “I am constantly delighted and surprised by [my] students.”

As Liu works to expand his students’ horizons and broaden the scope of key theories that impact modes of creative expression, he also finds himself eager to broaden his own thinking and approach new challenges and questions. “Learning how to teach what I thought I already knew is a daily challenge and one of my greatest joys at BU,” says Liu. In addition to a seminar on Marxist cultural criticism, undergraduates interested in exploring new theories and questions with Liu have the opportunity to enroll in  his spring ‘24 course on modern Chinese literature and cinema since the May Fourth Movement. For those students who, like Liu, can’t imagine studying literature from just one culture or language, these courses will surely provide them with a chance to develop  global perspectives.