When I was seventeen, I made an ill-conceived plan to study Chinese. I loved language and languages, and I wanted to be a useful person, but one who lived as far from home as possible. Fortunately, I found a home in the excellent East Asian program at Connecticut College, where I broadened my mind in the liberal arts curriculum and learned discipline through language study. A year abroad in the frozen wastes of Harbin inspired a persistent curiosity about cultural contact and the Inner Asian borderlands.
That translated into my MA in Linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I dove into language documentation, phonological theory, and the problem of contact and creolization in Qinghai and Xinjiang. My research interests narrowed to minority languages in western China, not just as objects of linguistic analysis, but as social entities and objects of political contestation. In order to learn these languages properly, I went to Indiana University – Bloomington and the Department of Central Eurasian Studies. There my MA coursework in social and critical theory turned me from a Chomskyist linguist into a historian engaged with the politics of translation.
Harvard’s program in History and East Asian Languages accepted me in 2010, and in 2016 I defended my dissertation, “The Muslim Emperor of China: Everyday Politics in Colonial Xinjiang, 1877-1933.” The project was motivated by a simple question: how did Muslims and Chinese handle living together after the violence of the mid-nineteenth century and then under Qing and Republican rule? For years, I resisted bringing the analytical framework of comparative colonialism to bear on the project, as I was wary of over-determining its content and arguments. Nevertheless, when I put the Central Asian manuscript tradition into dialogue with local Chinese archives and relevant strains of intellectual history, something emerged that looked too much like colonialism to ignore.
The dissertation covered a series of issues: 1. the emergence of a distinct colonial ideology from Hunanese statecraft (經世) thought in the nineteenth century, specifically in the translocation of statecraft to Xinjiang, 2. how the Hunan Army’s attempts to transform Turkic Muslims into Confucians led to the emergence of a powerful translator class, 3. how their efforts to put Turkic Muslims into normative Chinese families instead created a new politics of inter-ethnic sexualities, 4. how discourses of trauma and identification played out on the topos of human remains (see Meyer-Fong’s What Remains), 5. how a politics of deities and sacred spaces acted as a primary channel for expressing and negotiating belonging and territoriality, 6. the ways in which Turkic Muslims construed Qing power in terms of a post-Mongol discourse of “justice,” and 7. the transformations in Islamic sacred history brought about by the experience of Qing and Chinese rule.
As you can imagine, the whole thing weighed in 460 pages. Right now, I am dividing this behemoth into two books: Everyday Politics in Colonial Xinjiang, 1877-1911 makes the argument that a variety of specifically Hunanese statecraft colonialism emerged and had the social and cultural effects outlined in chapters 2, 3, and 5. It adds a chapter on the Tianjin merchants who followed the Hunan Army westward and became indispensable to Hunanese rule through the early 20th century. In many ways, Everyday Politics is based more heavily on the Chinese archive.
The second book, When the World Fell Apart, operates more on the level of cultural history and brings the broader Islamic manuscript corpus to bear on the archival testimonies and memoirs of Muslims and others. This book will include the insights of chapters 4, 6, and 7, as well as significant new material that has since come to light, the Manchu-Sibe experience in Ili, and a discussion of these phenomena’s place in post-Mongol Islamicate culture.
I joined the faculty of the University of Montana in August 2016 as an Assistant Professor of History and Political Science. In common parlance, I am the “China guy.” Shortly after my arrival, they also made me the Director of the Program in East Asian Studies at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center! I thought this would be overwhelming, but the fact is, it gives me an opportunity to work even more closely with my students and to rally support for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean studies here in Missoula. I teach courses on modern and pre-modern China, including Spring 2017’s “Revolution and Reform in Modern China” and “Chinese Political and Social Thought.”
I can never keep still, of course, so there are three other projects in progress:
An Introduction to Chaghatay is the first textbook for the study of the Chaghatay language in English in a century. I composed it during a semester of teaching Chaghatay at Harvard in Spring 2016. The draft is complete. It is part of a broader effort to create learning and reference tools, including the Eastern Turki Glossary.
The Empire Within takes insights from the Xinjiang project and tests them across Chinese space over a span of two centuries. It is a geospatial and legal-historical exploration of geographies of exception and the persistence of political violence from the 1750s through the 1950s (and possibly beyond). Right now, I am continuing to enter archival findings from the First Historical Archive in Beijing and the National Palace Museum in Taipei into a database. Stay tuned.
The Kashgar Islamic Court is what is says on the package. I haven’t found a clever name for this yet. It will be a history of Islamic legal institutions in Kashgaria centered on the transformation of the main court in Kashgar under Qing and Republican rule. Records from the court are exceptionally difficult to find, but I’ve identified some very tantalizing scraps, including a legal manual from the court, a case file, missionary records discussing it, and a whole range of scattered manuscript documents.