In Conversation with Michael Nylan

Michael NylanMichael Nylan is Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. She is one of the foremost historians today working on early China and one of the world’s leading scholars of pre-modern China. Her interests span aesthetic theories and material culture, intellectual history and religious beliefs, with an emphasis on the sociopolitical context. Her recent publications include: Lives of Confucius, eight chapters plus an epilogue (co-authored with Thomas A. Wilson, Random House, 2010); Yang Xiong and the Pleasures of Reading and Classical Learning (The American Oriental Society, 2011); and Exemplary Figures: a complete translation of Yang Xiong’s Fayan (University of Washington Press, 2013). Her Chang’an 26 BCE: An Augustan Age in China? (University of Washington Press) will appear in 2014In June 2013, she delivered the 74th Morrison Lecture at the ANU. CIW Post-doctoral fellow Ying Qian conducted the following interview with Michael Nylan for the China Story Journal. —The Editors

Ying Qian: Professor Nylan, thank you for speaking with us. Could you tell us a bit about your intellectual journey? How did you become interested in Chinese studies and in early China? Many of our readers are university students who would benefit from hearing about your experience as they try to shape their own academic paths.

Michael Nylan: My first encounter with China was through Margaret Bailey Speer, the head of the Quaker boarding school I attended. Her parents had founded the YMCA and YWCA, and she herself had gone to China at a very early time to be first a teacher and then head of school at the Yenching University. When I went to boarding school we were still in the middle of the Cold War. Nixon had not gone to China. So while I really admired Ms. Speer, I wished she would quit talking about China, because I would never be able to go and I couldn’t care less about it.

I went to Stanford to pursue creative writing, but decided to transfer to Berkeley because the relatively isolated Stanford campus proved to be among the most boring places I had ever been. At the time, Berkeley didn’t have a major in creative writing. So I had to figure out what courses I was going to take, and on purpose, I took a far-ranging series of courses. And, as luck would have it, I happened to take the last class of Joseph Levenson.

Joseph Levenson was a wonderfully charismatic figure, but more to the point, someone who showed a great deal of personal courage. Berkeley campus was in the middle of protests about the Vietnam War, and he showed himself to be an extraordinary human being outside the classroom.

Unfortunately, Joseph Levenson died the next semester in a boating accident. I continued to take courses on Asia, but not exclusively on Asia. I never thought I would pursue it as a career, I was going to be a Montessori school teacher. Yet, through a curious series of circumstances, I was given a fellowship I hadn’t applied for to study at Cambridge for a year. It was given to me by people who had intended that I would finally start learning Chinese. When I got to Cambridge, suffice it to say, I fell in love with classical Chinese. It’s just the most beautiful language, and that was true from day one, even when I didn’t know anything. I really wanted to continue studying this language. That’s how I found myself taking Chinese studies seriously.

At Cambridge, I had a very broad training. I took the undergraduate tripos, and crammed four years’ worth of courses into the two years I ended up spending there. I studied the Tang dynasty. I took modern literature. I took archaeology from Cheng Te-k’un郑德坤. I undertook quite a varied course of study under the overall supervision of Michael Loewe, the great master of Han studies. But right then, the first publications about Mawangdui马王堆 were coming out. Incredibly beautiful objects and excavated texts of several different types were coming out of the ground at Mawangdui. It suddenly occurred to me that if you really wanted to make a huge contribution in Chinese Studies, one field you could make it in would be Han Studies. So by the end of my second year in Cambridge, I was pretty intent upon studying the Warring States, the Qin and Han, and moving slightly into the Six Dynasties, basically the fourth century BC to the fourth century AD.

Finally, I should say that my path into the study of early China had much to do with modern politics, and I have never given up that side. With three or four of the books I’ve published, the anonymous readers have said, well she’s an early China specialist, give up the chapter on the twentieth century, and I have absolutely refused to do that. To me, that is an extremely important part of what I do so now when I describe myself, I say I work on early China, and on twentieth and twenty-first century receptions of the past.

Example of Han lacquer

Example of Han lacquer

YQ: When you began to pursue your studies in early China, what questions motivated you? How did the questions change over time? Do you have a consistent methodological approach?

MN: I’m almost laughing because there’s no consistency in anything I’ve done. One reason I chose Han, besides these exciting new excavated materials, and besides having a very generous teacher in Michael Loewe, was that I was deeply persuaded by Joseph Levenson who talked about the amateur ideal. And I thought if you go into Ming, Qing, or even Southern Song or Northern Song, you must become a specialist because there are too many texts to master in a lifetime. But if you study Han, you can’t become a specialist because it’s prior to genre distinctions: people knew everything in their heads, and so you have to pull together in your head all kinds of different knowledge in order to read a Han dynasty text. I had no idea what I wanted to study except I didn’t want to be a specialist. After all, I didn’t expect to get a job in Chinese studies. First of all, there weren’t many women in the field, and second of all, in America there was no place to study early China except at Berkeley under David Keightley who does the Shang dynasty. So I knew I wasn’t going to get a job. There were no jobs, and I was studying this for myself. And I must say, that’s the best way to study a subject. I would read whatever I felt like reading; I read as much as I could. The only thing that all my teachers agreed upon was that to realize something like an amateur ideal, a person must read everything she could get her hands on.

At Princeton, where I ended up doing my PhD, I took archaeology as one field and history as a second field. That was straight history from the early times all the way through to Northern Song which I saw as a real divide. My third field was defined at the time as intellectual history, but it really was what we’d now call cultural geography. I was trying to coordinate these different things and over a period from the fourth century BC and earlier through to the Northern Song. None of my teachers was a specialist in early China, so if I wanted to learn about mural tombs, I needed to learn the history of painting, and if I wanted to figure out how best to read texts in the early empires, I had to read biji from the Yuan period.  I just decided to get as broad a training as I could, so that when I failed to find a job, I could keep reading avocationally, on my own.

YQ: I read your article on the politics of pleasure, which was published in 2001. You are completing your book project on pleasure.  How have your thoughts changed on this subject?

MN: When I started this project I knew that if it was done well, it could force us to rethink many standard presumptions in the field, not only in philosophy, but also in medical history, in art history, and in other fields. The article, ‘The Politics of Pleasure’, almost wrote itself.  It’s the quickest essay I’ve ever written, and the writing was immensely satisfying. But there have been aspects of the book project where I’ve had to spend six months to understand something before I could even begin to write a single sentence. I’ve been surprised by how demanding this topic is. I read a great book on Roman history which had a statement that totally took me aback. It said that the Romans didn’t see things differently from us; they simply saw different things. I think this is really what I am trying to do, to contrast and explain the differences between the ideas of antiquity and those of today. One of the challenges of the project is to really understand the different things the people in ancient China saw. If we start to simply import our presumptions about what is important and what goes together, it just won’t work.

YQ: What kinds of different things did they see?

MN: Well these are all the details, in a way, and they’re somewhat complicated to explain. The way they’re describing the body, for example, is completely different from our way. Modern notions of qi have almost nothing to do with Han dynasty notions. Wuxing五行, or the Five Phases, came in relatively late in Western Han, ca 40BCE, and before that time it meant something like the five planets or the five material resources. So I had to throw out a lot of my presuppositions in order to really understand what they meant when talking about pleasure and the physiology of it. When I began the project, I had also expected that pleasure and pain would be in contrast. Yet few thinkers in the early period expressed interest in the topic of pain, or the avoidance thereof. I had to stop assuming a Greek pleasure versus pain dichotomy.

YQ: In your article, you talked about security as a very important aspect of pleasure.  Pleasure has to last, otherwise there’s already sadness in expecting its end. Security is of course connected with politics. In your article, you wrote about the power holders in the society becoming anxious about losing what makes their life pleasurable.  They became anxious that the empire would not last long enough. How did you develop this connection of pleasure with politics and empire-building in the book?

MN: it’s great that you asked this question because at one point I thought that I’m losing my sense of the politics, despite being a political person, but as soon as I delved into the question of friendship, the politics came flooding back into the writing.  Friendship is a risky business even when it’s a good friendship, for all the obvious reasons. And in early China, friendship was even more risky, because if your friend got in trouble, you were often implicated in a crime with him, even if you had not participated. But friendship is also absolutely fundamental to becoming a human being. When people in the political texts talk about friendship, they regard friendship as the best indicator of who you are as a human being and whether you have the qualities it takes to be relied upon. People use ‘dignified sociality’ to talk about that sense of trust and security with a friend, that sense of knowing how this person will act in a given situation. So in this last chapter, I’m right back with politics again.

YQ: As the classical world moved from many kingdoms competing and contending yet also balancing each other, to the more centralised empire of the Qin-Han period, did the idea of friendship and the related idea of secure co-existence become more strained, as competition, expansion, war and empire-building became the political norm?

MN: This is interesting.  Recently, I’ve become more and more aware that although when people talk about the Qin and the Han, they say that China was ‘united’, it was united in some ways, but not in other ways. When Gaozu高祖came to the throne, two thirds of the empire was not in his hands. And as soon as his own family members got the empire, there were continual rebellions. I would also emphasize how local the communities were: almost all of the recommendations in the Han period were done by local communities. That’s how you came to be appointed as an official, not by a national exam. So it’s extremely important whom you have made friends with in the locality, who is your patron and who is not your patron, all of these things. One of the things I have also started arguing very strongly, based on my recent readings in late Western Han, is that when you talk about high level politics, you’re of course talking about factionalism. But it’s not the emperor versus his ministers. Instead, the emperor and his group of ministers were negotiating together. By the Warring States period, the dominant ideal for the emperor-minister relationship was that of two intimate friends. Although in late imperial China we see this relationship as a vertical one, dominated by the emperor, the ideal in early China was not like that.

A bird's eye view of Chang'an

A bird’s eye view of Chang’an

YQ: Just yesterday, when you were giving the Morrison Lecture, there was a motion in the Australian parliament. The factions in the Labour Party had changed the Prime Minister. It’s another example of how political authority does not reside in the leader but depends on a larger group and the friendships and hostilities among them. Yesterday you gave us a very vivid and detailed description of everyday life in Han dynasty Chang’an 长安. Could you speak a bit about the edited volume on Han Chang’an you’ve been working on, which will come out in 2014? How did you get into this subject? What were your collaborations with Chinese archaeologists like? What excitements and challenges did you encounter when working at a site where even now things are still continually being dug up?

MN: I’ll begin by saying that when I eventually became a professional in the field, I still thought that I would be reading the Shiji史记 (conventionally translated as Records of the Grand Historian), the records of the senior archivist, or the records of the historian, all day long. That would have been a supreme pleasure to me. But I was also trained in archaeology, so I’ve been keeping this part up too. I got to this particular project actually backwards. I was trying to find a project for a group of graduate students who did not necessarily plan to specialise in Han history. I wanted something that they could all participate in and find useful when they went out to carry out their own projects. I thought, well, if you’re interested in archaeology or excavated texts, or murals and pictorial stones, court life or religion, or whatever else, this is a project you could write a paper on for the course and give a report as graduate students do.

So I announced I was going to teach this class on Han Chang’an, but when I was gathering what I thought would be a nice selection of materials, I realised there was almost nothing. Of course, there were individual archaeological reports and there were the Shiji and the Hanshu 汉书 (History of the Former Han), but I was really stunned by how little work had been done on Han Chang’an. I then looked  at the work that had been done on Rome and discovered an incredible disparity. I thought I’d better start plugging this hole, so that others can continue to plug it.

I designed the project thinking I would not have cooperation from anybody in China. Yet I’ve been lucky to have the most extraordinary level of cooperation I’ve ever encountered on any project I’ve engaged in. Shaanxi Normal University (Shaanxi shifan daxue陕西师范大学) became a generous host to me time after time. People from Beijing University (Beijing daxue 北京大学) also came over to help me set up the project. The Research Institute of Archaeology in Xi’an has been extraordinarily generous and through their good graces I’ve gotten to see much more material than I ever would have been able to see on my own. That certainly has generated a sense of excitement about the project. The Chinese scholars are very excited to have a book in English about their town and so I’m also in negotiations – actually the negotiations are done, it took five minutes – to publish the book simultaneously in English and Chinese.

The book I’m working on will be published next year and is called Chang’an 26 BCE: An Augustan Age in China? There are so many parallels and then some startling discrepancies between Augustan and Hadrianic initiatives and what went on in the late Western Han court of the emperor Chengdi漢成帝 (33-37 BCE).

Actually, when I began to focus on Chengdi, I was simply following my interest in his library project. I’ve always been interested in the history of books. I thought that we don’t know enough about manuscript culture and so I’ll focus on that. Then when I began the book project, I wrote to a lot of people in China and some in Taiwan and Europe, saying, I want us to focus on the same time period as that of the library. I have no idea what we’ll find, and we’re all amateurs in this, so will you come to Berkeley on that basis? I knew none of the people I wrote to would have in their drawers anything they could use, and they all said, we find it so bizarre that you’re focusing on this period, but yes we’ll come, and we’ll find something to say. The Chinese scholars from Taiwan and the mainland said, we never thought we would find anything interesting, we were just humouring you. I wasn’t sure I wasn’t just humouring myself, because Chengdi is always dismissed as a total failure, and that’s because he gave up territory and because he had no sons and later legend implicates him in the murder of his legitimate heirs. I think that’s an extremely dubious account, but anyway he was actually a fairly amazing ruler, and that’s the big surprise that I encountered. And I must say all of the writers have had a great sense of excitement about this project.

We’re now finishing the first step, where we focus, in twenty-five essays, only on the twenty-six years of Chengdi’s reign.  I envision a second step and possibly even a third:  I am working on a Website that will provide a beginning guide to Han Chang’an for interested readers.  At the same time, I want to write a book where I employ material culture – the artifacts and sites – to explain everyday life in the city.  I’ve wanted to do this project on non-elites all along, but didn’t think it was possible until a year or so ago.

Quite recently, some Chinese archaeologists are beginning to publish these small to midsize tombs and their contents, so now…piecing things together.  In the case of Rome, scholars have had eighty years more of archaeology; also literally hundreds of thousands of inscription that they can mine, but it’s only been in the last five or six years that Roman historians have turned to consider the non-elites in Rome and their life in the city.

YQ: It’s interesting that Han Chengdi was discovered to be an emperor who had a very different conception of what empire should be. We were told in social history that we should move away from the emperors, but sometimes the emperors that were considered failures can tell us a lot.

MN: That’s right. Exactly! We can’t ignore the emperors. What we can’t assume anymore is that all courts were created equal and all emperors were the same kind of people and they all chose to exercise power in the same way.

YQ: From our perspective today, empires seem to be very fixed. But in the early periods, there were lots of different ideas about what an empire meant.

MN: In relation to this, I’ll simply mention one other thing that has taken me by surprise. A colleague of mine, distinguished Roman historian, Erich Gruen, wrote a book Rethinking the Other in Antiquity, where he points out that people have inappropriately taken modern nationalistic ideas that began in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as more recent ideas from subaltern studies, imposing them (and all of the language that these ideas entail) on the Roman empire. I have a student who is working on this very issue, on the supposed gulf between barbarian and Chinese, and in the early period, we do not find the same insistence on this dichotomy as in the modern period.

Han tomb

Han tomb

YQ: I want to ask about your teaching. You mentioned just now that you’re writing a textbook for undergraduates and that the whole project on Han China began as a course that you were preparing for graduate students. What are your pedagogical aims and expectations? What do you want students to get out of your courses?

MN: In America, early Chinese studies is a growth field. Many more positions are opening up. I have heard that in Australia there’s been a big push toward the very modern or contemporary, and that’s a shame because there are quite a number of things, including the idea of la guanxi (‘pulling on one’s connections’) that I think are much more easily understood if you have a basic understanding of the early period.

I guess what I care about, as a teacher, is that my students learn to read well, imaginatively and precisely. What I mean by that is that they understand when a text is being deliberately ambiguous, they understand whom the text was written for and why it was written. They look for ways to make sense of the text. Whether they go on to specialise in Chinese Studies or not, by doing this type of very close, contextualized reading, they acquire a real skill.

In the last two or three years, I have also tried to teach my student to be good listeners. I now mandate that my students don’t use computers in the classroom, not because I care if they’re doodling (I spent all my time doodling all over my notebooks when I was bored), but rather that this is an active skill that we’re losing. Many people are losing the ability to listen well, a skill that will also serve them well late in life. Students are totally taken aback by this mandate, and I tell them not to worry. ‘I will give you all a handout, and you don’t need to memorize anything. Just listen and ask questions, that’s much more useful to you’.

I’ve become much more proactive in that way, but mostly I teach to learn more myself because my students, including those at the undergraduate level, have asked me questions I’ve never thought of, that are incredibly important to think about. One time I had a student ask me what’s the difference between an empire, a dynasty, a state, a realm, and a kingdom. I’d never thought about that before. So my answer was I need to think, and I’ll get back to you next class with what I’ve thought about this. I think questions like those are really important to pay attention to.

YQ: You said that you saw yourself as an early China historian but one with an interest in twentieth century uses of history. What kind of perspective on today’s China do you think students could gain from studying early China?

MN: Well, I will leave China for a minute, but say something that really affected me, something I’ve learned from Bernard Williams, who’s a philosopher and scholar of ancient Greek books. He said that he wanted his students to study the ancients not only because they should be interested in their own past, but also because there were many things that the ancients did better. One thing he pointed to was this post-Hegelian break between morality and pragmatism. We see that all the time. The world says that University professors must be eggheads, because no one can be moral and pragmatic at the same time. Well, no person in the Han dynasty would consider moral and practical matters separately; they considered them together in the context-driven situation. I think that my students can learn from these texts what they cannot learn from modern life. And these are lessons for life I feel passionate about. That’s the most important thing I want them to get.

YQ: That’s great, thank you so much and now we can go see the kangaroos.

MN: and koalas.  That’s also very important.