What drove you to specialize in History?
Well, it is quite an interesting story. Before I entered Peking University, History was my least favourite subject in high school. I think it was because of the old-fashioned way of teaching history back then – through the memorising of boring dates and events. I am sure this is a common experience among many students here too and it is no fun at all. I hated all of that and I never expected myself becoming a historian. Everything changed when I met Professor Deng Xiaonan, a charismatic Historian of Song-Dynasty China at Peking University. She totally changed my view and understanding of History and inspired me to become a History professor myself.
If I could provide a more personal take on what History means to me – I was once in a pretty similar situation as most freshman. I was a simple teenager who was not sure of what I wanted to do. Before meeting Professor Deng Xiaonan and learning history under her supervision, I had naïvely believed everything taught to me. In university, I came to realise that many of the things we learnt in schools were not true or not the way we thought they were. I was thus forced to get rid of the old knowledge I had. That, however, left me desperately searching for new ways to understand this complicated world. Eventually, I found history as one solution to it. History was something I wanted to learn not only to help myself become wiser but also to help me communicate with others more meaningfully.
Do you have any general advice for current freshmen, especially for those who might be unsure of pursuing History?
For university students, I believe that the most important thing is not the learning of one specific discipline but the learning of themselves: What kind of person are you? What do you want to do? What are you passionate about? What are your strengths? Many students forget that in the four years they invest, not only do they have abundant time to explore these fundamental questions, but also there is an army of professors who are ready to help them find these answers.
My advice for students is that while sampling different modules and trying out different disciplines, apply a bit of self-awareness. Use the learning process in modules as an avenue to learn about yourself. I often mention this to my students that you should be honest with yourself. What really fires you up? What motivates you to stay up all night to work on a project? You will come to realise your greatest strength and learn how to amplify that strength.
Sometimes, we have the idea of wanting a perfect match between our interests and our strengths. Yet sometimes, our interests do not match the career we want to pursue. Sometimes, you choose a career based on your parents’ expectations or what you hear in the job market. However, if the job does not match your strengths, it will only make your life thereafter miserable. It is a difficult question that everyone needs to figure out the answer to.
The answer cannot be found sitting in a room and forcing yourself to think about it. The answer is found while learning. That is why I emphasise learning with self-awareness. Do not take modules and learn passively, thinking ‘this is a module I just need to pass’. Forget about the grades. You will forget about the content in a few years, but through the learning process, you will realise that this module gives you structure and some empirical or concrete sense of what you want to do. When you apply that kind of learning, you will have a better vision and understanding of yourself.
How has your time in university influenced your research interests and how has it changed over time?
When I was pursuing a master’s degree in Peking University, one of my professors bought me a book from the United States. The book was one of the most famous books by renowned modern Chinese historian Jonathan Spence, The Death of Woman Wang. For me, the book was both an eye opener and mind blowing that history could be written in this way. The book describes a seemingly common case of a woman committing suicide in the 17th century in a northern Chinese village. The original source, however, was only one line from a local gazetteer.
Professor Spence skilfully applied various historical records to construct the social world that women had to live in that time. He invited us not only to understand why this woman died in this particular moment of time but also why she had to die given the social environment. It was a literary work telling a true story. It was totally different from how I had been trained in history, but it opened my eyes to historical research from a bottom up perspective.
She was not a prominent actor in History – her full name was never left in historical records. Yet her story became so reverberating that it became one of the most famous books on late imperial China. From then on, I shifted my interest quite fully to social and cultural History, trying to understand the bigger picture of History from everyday individuals – from seemingly unimportant persons, minority groups, periphery regions and border societies. That has been my main research interest.
Were there any research findings over the past few years that you have found interesting or unexpected?
All my exciting research findings have culminated in my first book, In the Wake of The Mongols: The Making of A New Social Order in North China, 1200-1600. This book is about how a northern Chinese society rebuilt itself after arguably one of the worst wartime destructions inflicted by the Mongol conquest in the 13th century.
Before I answer your question, I want you to imagine the society that it became after the Mongol conquest. Imagine a society where half of the population has been wiped out. Where the people were either killed by wars, died in plagues or from sickness, and majority of the community burned to ashes. Villages, towns, cities laid in waste and the worst part being numerous dead bodies exposed and rotting above the ground. Those who had thankfully survived had a difficult time and many of them became refugees.
Although the book deals with a specific moment and a specific society, the question is a universal one – how does society rebuild itself after wartime destruction? This is a question faced by numerous societies across both time and space and we are still witnessing it today in some parts of the world like the Middle East.
So now my answer to your question. The most exciting finding that really surprised me was how religious organisations (mainly Chinese Buddhist and Daoist organisations) played the most important roles after Mongol conquest. They brought together people from all walks of life in North China to rebuild the fragmented and destroyed community.
Many scholars tend to believe that religions were never as important in China as compared to their counterparts in the medieval world like Christianity in Europe or Islam in the Islamic world. If you have some knowledge about China, you will know that the mainstream school of thought in China was Confucianism. After the 11th century, Confucianism became the mainstream idea for the society and the state. As such, it was usually Confucian-educated scholars and their families that formed the backbone of society. They would often lead the social organising and rebuilding after wars and destruction. This episode of history, long ignored by historians, reveals two important things. One is the significance of religion in the making of the social fabric in some parts of China. The second is the importance of non-Chinese rule.
One of my overarching research interests is the Chinese society under non-Chinese rule. Although they came from Manchuria or the Mongolian steppe, they brought in significant political, social, and cultural elements that were later integrated into what we now acknowledge as Chinese culture.
Were there any difficulties you faced when doing this research?
I think many of you would face similar problems when you are writing a History paper. Having to navigate through all the various types of materials, make sense of them and then create a coherent story about it. In historical research, there are multiple steps and each step is not easy.
The most challenging step for me today remains in the writing. This is not only due to English being my second language. It is also because doing research and writing history are two totally different intellectual enterprises. When conducting research, you are trying to find answers for yourself. However, when writing, you are explaining the answers for others. As such, sometimes there is a need to change the way you frame the question or change the way you structure the whole story.
Overall, the writing of history requires the fundamental skill of effective communication. As such, I would say that what students really take away from History modules, even if they do not work in the discipline in future, is effective communication through the practice of good writing. Not only do you learn how to critically analyse material, but you also learn how to articulate your ideas while keeping your reader in mind. These critical writing and thinking skills, once you have mastered them, will become a lifelong asset.
What is your favourite book and who is your favourite author?
For academic books, my favourite author as I mentioned is Jonathan Spence. The Death of Woman Wang is my all-time model for history writing. I also like Joseph Eserick’s The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. The book shows me how to do cutting-edge social history research.
As for non-academic work, I enjoy reading detective novels. It is actually my favourite genre of literature. I particularly like reading those by Japanese writers. My favourite writer is Matsumoto Seichō. He is known by most Japanese, but is not as well-known outside of Japan. This is perhaps because he belongs to an older generation of writers. He weaves in the characteristics of Japanese society in the post WWII years into the stories he writes.
What is something you would put on your bucket list?
There are a few places I want to visit. One of the places is northern Europe. In my childhood, I watched a very popular Japanese animation at that time. It integrated a lot of stories from Greek mythology, gods and goddess from northern Europe. Somehow it became stuck in my mind and I would love to visit the place someday.
What is your favourite cartoon character?
I think it would be Chihiro from Spirited Away. I always liked this little girl for her independent, strong will in coping with difficult times. Especially for students interested in animation, you should check out. In my childhood, my favourite cartoon character was a monk called Yi-xiu. He is a smart little monk. It is a Japanese cartoon imported to China.
Which genres of music do you enjoy the most?
For a time, I loved country music a lot. But then again for every generation, we often like the music we listen to when we were young. Especially when you get older and you start to feel nostalgic about it. Now, sometimes I enjoy listening to pop music from the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of them by Hong Kong, Taiwanese and even Singaporean singers. You probably never heard of her name, but I like Xu Meijing. I think she is Singaporean. My favourite band is a Hong Kong band called Beyond. I love their music even though I cannot understand their Cantonese lyrics. Their songs are really awesome.
What is your least favourite beverage?
That is hard. Probably beer.
In one sentence, could you describe your personal motto?
I think I learnt this one from Kungfu Panda: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and today is a gift. That is why it is called the present”. I think I was somehow very impressed by it. It speaks to a belief I hold dearly and try to live up to – living in the moment.
Thank you so much for the interview.
Transcribed by Rozanne Low
*The interview has been edited for clarity