Yu-kung Kao, professor emeritus of East Asian studies, died Oct. 29, 2016.
Thank you, Professor Tsu-lin Mei and Professor Andrew Plaks! Professor Kao lived an intense life of mind, which I inferred mainly from his style of teaching and which I try to explain in a separate reflection on my experience as one of his students at Princeton. I would like to add here that Professor Kao retained his dynamic interest in a broad range of topics to the end. Even deep in his years of retirement, he would answer my varied questions on Marcel Proust, on a gifted Chinese poet who was a hero in Chinese Republic Revolution but a failed politician, or on some Chinese public or intellectual figures who studied in Fance in the early twentieth century, for a few examples.
It is hard to believe that he is gone. He will be sorely missed.
I took Chinese literature with Prof. Kao to fulfill the requirements of my East Asian Studies certificate. He was certainly brilliant but I most remember him for his kindness and big heart. I ran out of diapers one day during a family emergency and he was the one who brought some over. He cared for those in mourning and did his best to cheer them up. What a magnificent person he was. We will miss him dearly but his example will live on with us.
In the last year or two, Professor Yu-Kung had grown weaker, sometimes unable to leave his bed, worrying people a great deal. But every time I called him to chat, he was always as cheerful and witty as always. Last year on Christmas Eve, I expressed concerns over his everyday life, fearing that something would happen to him as he lived alone. But he comforted me with quotes from the Daoist Zhuangzi and then said: “At my age life and death do not matter anymore.” This is because, as he explained, the changes of all living things cannot be stopped. On the phone, apart from expressing my respect, what could I say? After I hung up, while reviewing his words again, I took his life philosophy and wisdom even more to heart, understanding it more thoroughly. It had been nearly forty years since I had graduated from Princeton University, but to me, Professor Yu-Kung was a lifelong mentor: the unruffled attitude with which he dealt with everything always inspired my respect.
I was shocked to hear about Professor Kao’s demise. Somehow I always think that “when I retire I would go back to Princeton and visit the Motes, Chen Ta-Tuen and Kao Yu-Kung, Mrs Kuhn, J. J. Conroy at Dillon and perhaps even find Scott MacGarghie who interviewed me for admission to Princeton.”
I somehow had not known about Prof. Mote’s passing and have continue to work hard in an all consuming field. When I was contacted by Kang-I, and eventually Chiang Ching, I thought it was time for me to catch up with time, and Princeton.
I met Kao Yu-Kung at Princeton through a Chinese Poetry course he gave sometime in my Junior or Sophomore Spring, the course having been recommended by the late Professor Fritz Mote, whom I greatly admired. I think that year Professor Mei Tzu-lin might have also been in residence at Princeton, and I remember visually the two of them speaking on TuFu’s imagery, now almost half a century ago.
Before Princeton I had already enrolled at the Martha Graham School, and before that, a Fencing school weekends in Yorkville. At Princeton I was on the Freshman Fencing team and competed in Epée. I took ballet classes at the Princeton Ballet School, where I found out that Professor Kao had been an ardent admirer of Ballet. That might have been the first time I heard of Professor Kao before meeting Professor Mote at a Wilson College supper.
Professor Kao might have been active in supporting the Princeton Modern Dance Club, which held Cunningham technique classes taught by Jeff Slayton. My senior year at Princeton I became president of the Modern Dance Club, which had 3 students and $500 in its purse. $500 in those days was about one fourth’s of our yearly tuition, so was a sizable pot, which had been anonymously donated. Looking back it would have to have been donated by Professor Kao, or John Black ’68, who had been the previous president. With the funds I was able to buy mirrors from Woolworth’s, a record player, and dance music records, and order several portable ballet barres, and hire dance teachers. A music graduate student, Gerald Warfield, was one of the 3 students, brought in an old piano and played for class. I then got Athletics Director J.J. Conroy at the Dillon to allow dance to be credited for Freshman sports requirement, and Mrs. Kuhn, who ran Creative Arts at 185 Nassau, to give us a sunny, bright studio on the second floor for dance classes. The initial classes at Dodge-Murray had 80 students out of 800 Frosh to show up. A former Saddlers-Wells ballerina, and another modern dance teacher, lost at least 30 students. So I decided to teach the class myself, alternating ballet with modern, but mostly getting the boys to jump, hop, leap, turn and fall, and kept them in the air as long as possible. All I had to do was give J.J. Conroy a list of the students’ names every quarter. Professor Kao did refer students to me. We did not discuss dance so much since he was interested in Cunningham and ballet and my background at that time was Graham, though years later I was to be in a dance choreographed by Cunningham’s dance partner Carolyn Brown where the technique was indeed Cunningham’s.
After leaving Princeton I was busily getting settled into graduate work at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Later on I found out that Ze’eva Cohen, whom I had heard much of from the late Hudson Dance Theater first artistic director James Waring, had been hired to teach dance at Princeton. In the ’90s my manager at that time made contact with Ms. Cohen, who brought my company of dancers to perform at 185 Nassau Street, in the original studio which had been transformed into a performing space. At the 250th Anniversary of Princeton Ze’eva organized and curated eight Princeton Alumni who were active in dance to perform “The Best of Princeton” at the McCarter Theater. At the reception afterwards Professor Kao was there and we spoke. He looked very well at that time and mentioned to me that he had moved to live in Jersey City.
Here I just want to point out how Prof Kao quietly advocated and supported an effort to put dance on some sort of map. I doubt that without seeing any sign of dance on campus I might have done what I did, and without those initial funds it would have been difficult to initiate those public and well attended classes. At that time there were angry letters from Alumni in the Alumni Weekly decrying the decline of Princeton’s moral standard in allowing Princetonians “in pantyhose.”
Ms Cohen would speak to Professor Kao’s contribution to dance after I departed.
Another occasion I had contact with Professor Kao was when he asked me to introduce Ms. Chiang Ching to Anna Kisselgoff at the New York Times, whom I had met on Jacob’s Pillow as Assistant to the PR Director Sally Jeter, and House Manager under Ted Shawn before Shawn passed away. As we all know, Professor Kao had a warm heart and did many things for many different people from different walks of life. I met several Princetonians who were in other departments who came to take my classes recommended by Professor Kao.
I look forward to catching up with people I have known as well as those who have been part of Professor Kao’s life in scholarship, quietly in dance, and in life, on March 11 as we all gather to mourn his passing and to celebrate his colorful life through the decades of varying fields and diasporas.
I can be reached at Michael@MICHAELMAODANCE.ORG.
After Kang-I and I had moved to Connecticut in 1982, we continued to visit Prof. Kao in New York City. Whenever we met, either in Starbucks or a restaurant, he was always cheerful and inspiring. He often gave us books after he finished reading them. Once we became greedy and got all the copies from his Shakespearean collection. He then became worried that we wouldn’t be able to carry the books all the way to New Haven, so he accompanied us to the local post office to have the books shipped to our home. In recent years, we noticed his physical condition became weaker and weaker, but he was always sharp and alert.
I still cannot believe that Prof. Kao has left us. I will miss him forever and will think of him as living in the hearts of those he touched.
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