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.