Story posted October 25, 2012
I am an intellectual historian who studies pre-modern China. I am currently writing a book manuscript which examines the life and thought of a polymath, Shen Gua, who lived in eleventh-century China. My book purports to extrapolate the epistemological stance of an individual who managed to acquire skills in what modern people would perceive as a wide range of disparate fields of study, including “science.” The intellectual world of the eleventh century hovers between hope and anxiety. The dominant philosophy that defined the political and intellectual scene of late imperial China did not emerge until a century later. In the absence of an authoritarian, conclusive voice, the eleventh century fostered and celebrated possibilities. Through the lens of an individual like Mr. Shen, my work illuminates the endeavors of learned men to envision new systems in conceptualizing both the natural and the human worlds.
Recently I have started researching a selection of middle-period encyclopedias for the purpose of exploring historical taxonomies and epistemologies. On the side, I am writing an article on “number,” a concept that some middle-period thinkers chose to interpret the underlying reality of the phenomenal world. What first attracted me to the topic is the conundrum embedded in the definition of this term: If, according to the definition, the distinction between phenomenal reality and numerical constructs melts away, how should people grapple with sensible experience, which remains a taciturn presence and yet poses the inevitable test of verification?
What originally drew you to the discipline of history? What aspects of being a historian do you find most exciting or stimulating?
What originally drew me to the discipline of history? Let me relate my pre-college/academia experience: Sherlock Holmes and the Dream of the Red Chamber.
Towards the end of each Sherlock Holmes tale, the final revealing of the culprit can be as exciting as it is, but the winding journey, during which Mr. Holmes pursues observations, cracks cryptograms, scrutinizes minutiae, and effects connections, was deeply, and intellectually fascinating to me.; It delighted me, and still delights me, to watch thin sparks flickering in the jumble of random data, growing along the tracks of analytical cerebration, and, eventually, blazing, and illumining the unknown. It is, nonetheless, the endeavor to poise in the uncertainty fluttering between the scanty known and the vast unknown, rather than the alleged certainty arising from the science of deduction, that defines the resonance that a historian finds in Sherlock.
Dream of the Red Chamber is a novel that marks the apogee of traditional Chinese literature; less known is the fact it is an unfinished piece of work. Generations of scholars have devoted lifetimes of efforts in excavating clues hidden in the existing chapters, in the hopes of filling up the lacuna and completing the story. A fervent fan of this novel (at age sixteen), I tapped into this scholarly field to look for closure. This was the first time I had flipped open an academic book, and I found it, rather than abstruse, captivating. It was, first of all, an eye-opening demonstration of the craft of primary source reading. To an untutored eye like mine, the novel presented a smoothly running narrative which invited nothing but enjoyment. And yet the critical appraisal scrapes off the smoothness and reveals every crease, slit, and furrow that whispers the promise of untold stories. I closed the Dream of the Red Chamber with unbound admiration for the scholarly skills of detection, which, later, I have chose to exercise daily, as a historian, to approach what is not immediately apparent in the past.
What do you think are the most useful skills for a historian? What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in history?
Among all skills that we may practice in a history class, what I deem the most important is the capacity to switch between multiple, diverse perspectives. As a scholar of pre-modernity in a land as remote as China, I study and teach materials which may seem twice removed from the realities of our current world. When reading primary sources in class with my students, puzzling moments often arise when the intention of a historical actor seems too opaque to penetrate, or the utterance too antiquated to be relevant.
Wait. Slow down. Don’t rush to judgment.
These are precisely the moments we shall temporarily suspend our perspective, dissolve the tendency towards self-reference, and work toward historical empathy. It is more challenging than it sounds. To truly appreciate the stance of a historical figure we need to press a series of inquiries into his background, intentions, rhetorical strategies, the nature of the text, among many other factors that may affect our understanding of a source. An approach to historical inquiries may be conveniently parsed into bullet points in a textbook of methodology, but it remains, in my opinion, an organic whole, an art which a student of history earnestly lives with both skeptical and intuitive intelligence.
For those of you who are interested in studying or teaching history in the future, I hope you will enjoy this highly rewarding intellectual endeavor. Maintain an open mind so you are ready to embrace complications; keep your eyes shrewd so no meaningful fact would pass for a trifle.
The game is afoot!
An approach to historical inquiries may be conveniently parsed into bullet points in a textbook of methodology, but it remains, in my opinion, an organic whole, an art which a student of history earnestly lives with both skeptical and intuitive intelligence.
— Professor Leah Zuo