Somewhere to hang my hat

I picked an obscure topic for my MPhil thesis (which is a Masters of Philosophy, for those of you unacquainted. Or, as I like to call it, a Truncated PhD: two years and 60,000 words).

In some ways, I am glad I did. In other ways, I regret it quite a bit.

See, I am convinced that my work matters. In this I am fortunate.

I also have the full complement of advantages and disadvantages of working in a very small field.

I work with classical Chinese texts in non-Chinese environments. (I won’t get started on the debatable nature of ‘China’ and ‘Chineseness’; although I do think that methodological nationalism is an important issue, and one not yet sufficiently discussed in relation to history and literature. If I am wrong, then please email me with articles you know of, or even your own thoughts on the subject, because I would dearly love to read them.) At the moment, I am working on a 16th century Joseon dynasty text. Both as a thesis topic and as a text it is unusual and obtuse.

Moreover, I am what I have seen termed elsewhere an academic orphan for several reasons:

1. I am a premodernist (and, currently, a Joseon dynasty-ist)

2. I am a classicist (if that is the right term)

3. Before or beneath all of these things I am a historian

With the combination of the above factors, one might expect me to fall somewhere between Chinese and Korean studies, but let me go through the factors one by one. As a premodernist and a Joseon dynasty-ist, I do not believe that the concept of the nation-state is relevant or helpful to my work. As a classicist, I am working with classical Chinese, which is perceived as a language of more than one hegemony: the ‘Chinese’ imperial sphere, for one, and the Joseon dynasty elite for another. Experts in classical Chinese are usually based in China studies, while studies of the Joseon are usually firmly fixed in Korean studies, and my access to Joseon dynasty specialists is restricted by my limited Korean language ability. Finally, the text I have chosen to translate is usually formulated as a work of Korean literature and evaluated in terms of its contribution to emergent Korean literature. So, in short, I am attempting to read ‘literature’ (an irritatingly vague term, like ‘intellectual’) as a historian, dealing with a dead language that was first rejected and then reincorporated into national literature discourse, and trying to review a text that has already been carefully incorporated into national literature discourse by extricating it and reading it in terms of its immediate historical context.

I have no idea where to hang my hat.

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3 comments

  1. Hi, I stumbled onto your blog via the “Classical Chinese” tag. I am a Classical Chinese hobbyist, and I too am interested in Classical Chinese texts written by Koreans (But also by Chinese). Having learned the old language through Korean, I’m mostly unaware of the academic writings on Classical Chinese in English. As for Korean nationalism and Classical Chinese, there is actually a fair amount written about it in Korean. I would like to note that there were many Korean independence activists (as well as Japanese collaborationists) that wrote in Classical Chinese. The language was used by Korean literati into the first half of the 20th century, so there is an abundance from texts from that period.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad the classical Chinese tag attracts visitors, as we are, to my knowledge, a fairly small community. I actually spent my first semester of my research program being enthusiastically distracted by the early 20th century material you’ve mentioned (at least, a small portion of it!). But I have deliberately steered clear of it since then, as it is incredibly distracting and a little bit tangential to my ACTUAL thesis…I’m hoping that when I get to my PhD I can begin to re-engage with it…!

      1. I used to be more interested in Confucian classics, but now I am more into Classical Chinese poetry as you might have been able to tell from my blog.

        I am trying to gather more information regarding the Classical Chinese community in the US, as most of my previous exposure to it has been through Korean sources. I have corresponded with quite a few other Classical Chinese hobbyists after founding my blog — even with those who can compose Classical Chinese poetry!

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