Meet the Medallists: Cherry Zheng and Isabella Ostini

17th February 2022

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Completing an award at ANU is a significant academic achievement and is rightly celebrated at the University's prestigious Conferring of Awards ceremonies. Conferring of Awards ceremonies are inspiring events that have both formal and symbolic significance.

CHL proudly looked on as two of its gems were each conferred with a University Medal. Cherry Zheng did a brilliant Honours thesis last year and has now been picked up as an intern by Singapore's International Institute for Strategic Studies. Meanwhile, Pacific Studies Honours student Isabella Ostini wrote an excellent thesis on the Australian media and Pacific climate change narratives, which also earned her a University medal.

We spoke to both of them separately about their ANU journeys, their studies and their plans and aspirations for the future.

Tell us about your journey at ANU from the beginnings to becoming a university medal recipient. What has the experience been like and how has this journey evolved?

Cherry: It has been a long ride since 2016! I have seen the university grow and change from the old Union Court and Bruce Hall to the pop-up, SA5, and KAMBRI. In my first year, I met someone who had spent half their degree abroad, and that became a goal for my own. Luckily, CAP was so supportive, so I was able to do coursework in South Korea, Indonesia, and China, supported by either government or university funding.

I was actually in China when the pandemic began. It was one of the most stressful experiences of my life, being on my own abroad while the borders closed up, flights and accommodation were cancelled, and I wasn't sure when and where to go next. When I made it back, my life felt like it was in disarray. That forced me to slow down, and I learnt to appreciate the experiences to be had from staying still in Canberra. I was finally able to focus in the lead-up to Honours and create something I could not have imagined a year ago.

Isabella: I came to University without precisely knowing what I wanted to do, except that I found politics interesting and I wanted to learn how to think clearly about political issues. Of course, moving from regional Southeast Queensland to the national capital was an exciting aspect of that—I felt dreadfully close to ‘where it all happened.’ It took a while and many conversations with friends, to work out what I was really interested in— exploring the nexus between storytelling and policymaking, especially in the context of problems facing Australia now.

I’m also very motivated by exploring how people relate to their places, in ways that I keep discovering are more diverse than I thought! Since then, my studies have been a process of nibbling around the edges of political science, as I realised that the questions I have need answers incorporating history, literary studies, anthropology, Pacific studies… and that many clues to political puzzles arise from places other than this centre of power we get to live in.

Tell us more about your Honours thesis – how did the idea originate for you, and what motivated you to work on this theme/subject?

Cherry: At Peking University, there was a single general elective course offered by the military department: a reading course on the Art of War by the ancient military general Sunzi (often romanised as Sun Tzu). For the final paper, we had to write a paper on the relevance or application of the text to any area of our choosing. That was how I encountered a niche Chinese academic literature dedicated to the study of the personage, text, and its contemporary significance. I wondered why I had never heard of these Chinese scholars in my English research. This question became the starting point for my thesis.

For Honours, you want a project that is small enough to tackle in a year but big enough to bring your accumulated knowledge and skills to bear. A contemporary intellectual history of the Art of War was just the right fit for me. I was already familiar with the text (the Peking lecturers had us memorise it) and knew an inkling of relevant scholarship. And the project challenged my Chinese language and archival trail-seeking/interpretation skills. As someone who hadn’t enjoyed History in high school, I came full circle to re-learning history with historians (though many hesitate in relation to the label) in my Honours year. With the guidance of my supervisors, I could have fun with the project without feeling the pressure to claim anything too grand about China or strategic studies. Of course, what at first seemed like a modest question grew and grew. There is much more to explore in the world of Sunzi studies!

Isabella: I didn’t intend on doing Pacific studies Honours, actually. I also didn’t come to the honours programs with one clear question that I wanted answered. In fact, I first wrote to my then-to-be supervisor (Katerina Teaiwa) asking for advice on navigating disciplines and finding a supervisor who could help me write about culture, rurality and media in Australia. But then I came to see that Pacific Studies was a really exciting and productive space to do the kind of thinking I wanted to: transdisciplinary, self-aware, politically motivated (with a strong anticolonial bent), and fundamentally interested in how people connect across difference.

What do you think set you and your work apart from others with equally unique and interesting theses?

Cherry: Every thesis is unique—even if two people start with the same research question, the resulting works will not be the same. It's an alchemy of individual curiosity, epiphany, and collaboration. What sets my thesis apart is that it is the first English study of the putative discipline of 'Sunzi studies'. It looks not at the Art of War directly, but at how Chinese scholars formed an academic discipline around it in post-Mao China. So it has something to say about how knowledge is created—how symbols gain authority and come to represent truth for a group, even a ‘nation’. For Chinese intellectual history, it raises new subject matter for the recurring theme of juxtaposing historical figures with their ahistorical legacies, from Confucius to Mao.

My work is interesting because it bridges divides. Many people have heard of the Art of War and they know of Sunzi as a military genius, business guru, and/or Oriental icon. I investigate some of the intellectual drivers of these popular portrayals. The scholars in question originated in the Chinese military—so just how much water does their work hold intellectually, and what drives their production? My answer draws on both Chinese intellectual history and strategic studies, as reflected in the expertise of my two supervisors.

Beneath the dense academic questions, my favourite thing about my research is its myriad little stories. The earliest contemporary Sunzi scholar reportedly began writing about ancient military texts under Mao's instruction in 1938, in order to propagandise the CCP’s Nationalist compatriots into seeking Chinese unity against Japanese invasion. The very first Sunzi studies conference took place decades later, under the shadow of the Tiananmen protests in 1989. Around this time, counties of Shandong province began competing to stake their claims on Sunzi, a contest fought with statues, tourist sites, and Sunzi institutions. Then there is the sole tale in the Shiji about Sunzi himself—his biography is shady enough to suggest that he may not have existed at all. Sunzi studies sounds niche, but actually deals with a broad and ever-changing subject matter as its scholars try to remain relevant to the contemporary world.

Isabella: My supervisor Professor Katerina Teaiwa really helped me learn to write from where I am, in a way that’s rigorous but also intellectually honest. I think I produce my best work when I allow my voice into the writing: as someone who cares about the issues I discuss, is unafraid to be a bit political, but is also real about the fact that I am still learning.

Most importantly, though, is a willingness to learn from those who haven’t always been amplified in academic work—such as grassroots Pacific Islander activists; Australian First Nations teachers; poets and artists; Australians outside the educated middle class... I’m indebted to a range of scholars for pushing me to take this lesson to heart: Katerina, but also Brenda Croft, Lawrence Bamblett, Yasmine Musharbash, Julieanne Lamond, Jill Sheppard, and even E.P. Thompson in a met-him-in-a-book kind of way. It takes more effort to think through other perspectives, without jamming them into my own pre-existing frameworks, but I’ve learned so much from taking the time to sit with those voices. I hope, in the end, that my work is also more useful and respectful for this effort.

What are your plans for Singapore's International Institute for Strategic Studies?

Cherry: I'm interning in the Southeast Asian Politics and Foreign Policy Programme. Specifically, it will be a project to do with Myanmar as we enter the second year of the military coup against the democratically elected government. I regret that I didn't go to Myanmar while I had the chance, and I look forward to learning more about it in the coming months.

IISS also holds the Shangri-La Dialogue, the high-level summit where Asia's defence ministers, security experts and other leaders meet to discuss the region's challenges. It has been on a two-year hiatus due to COVID and I am really excited that I might get to see it in person from behind the scenes.

What are your plans for the future?

Cherry: I don't know, and I mean that optimistically. Pre-COVID, I was hungry for a career where I was able to travel. I don't mind the idea of staying put so much now, but I still want to be constantly learning. I have matured a lot in the last five years, and it feels like I have only just grown into my skin. So I can't wait to explore further. After Singapore, I’ll see if I enjoy the APS and go from there. In the next five years? COVID loves to wreck plans, so in terms of things I can control, I want to be more well-read, more fluent in Chinese, and more fearless!

Isabella: I’d like to keep reading, listening, and telling stories…not in academia, and probably not a tidy public service career either. So, hopefully, in the next five years I’ll explore options, follow my nose, and get to learn more about how people in their own communities—whether in Dalby or Suva—are facing big problems like climate change, economic inequalities, changing social relations. My overarching ambition is to tell stories about the world we live in, in ways that open up even a tiny crack for people to re-think how we work together and face problems. I really believe that well-told stories can help more just, less colonial, more creative and more flexible ideas to emerge!

Tell us more about you the person and not the student—do you have any hidden talents, hobbies, and secret ambitions?

Cherry: As much as I enjoyed Honours, my favourite kind of writing is speculative fiction. I have short pieces published, but a novel is the big goal. I don't have anything that profound to say yet, so I want my first book to be fun—a book my younger self would have devoured.

After the first COVID wave I got really into pole dancing. It is a creative and challenging art form that is entangled in the politics of bodies, from sex to race. I've met some amazing people through it, and I have never been more fit in my entire life. So in terms of hidden talents, I can say it’s hanging upside down from a pole while doing the splits! I'm so excited to try some of the studios in Singapore!

Isabella: I suppose the most fundamental thing about “the person Isabella” is that I’m a Christian. It’s really impossible to untangle all the stuff I’ve discussed so far from my faith, and that faith underpins all the other aspects of my life too. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy: I am very alert to the webs of history and trauma I’m implicated in, as a European-Australian, Christian, yet still a firmly anticolonial thinker. But I trust a God who’s trustworthy, and who’s making all things right, and that brings a beauty and hope to all the little, flawed ways I try to walk this planet with decency.

I would like to add this as well, in case there are others in the same boat and feeling bad about it: I’ve been in Canberra for five years, and I still get homesick for the place I grew up in!

And on a completely different note, I love the Coombs Building! It’s a great building, and nobody will convince me otherwise. I was smitten the first time I saw the little iridescent, greenish tiles lining a stairwell!

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster