“I am interested in how one could study history beyond text” – 5in10 with Jing Zhu

Jing Zhu is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of History, University of Warwick, sponsored by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation from July 2018 to July 2020 and is a Research Fellow of Art Histories and Aesthetics Practices, a research program of Forum Transregionale Studien from October 2018 to July 2019. She received her PhD degree in History from the University of Edinburgh in 2018. Jing was a UK-China Rutherford Research Fellow at the Science Museum in London from March to July 2018, where she did research for their China collection. Drawing on Miao albums and Republican photography, her research focuses on the production and reproduction of visual knowledge of ethnography in late imperial and Republican China by exploring the intersections of gender, visuality and empire.

What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

As a child, one of my most vivid memories was hearing my grandmother telling stories and puzzles at bed time, or whilst she was doing her needle work on rainy days.  How I loved to hear the folk stories of the rural, tales of the old bridge, of treasure stored in mountain caves, or perhaps of the daughter of the dragon who lived in our mountain. My grandmother also told tales of her far-flung family who lived in the regions of the Yi minority. I was fascinated by how the order of everyday lives, relationships with the environment and structures of feelings could be conveyed and circulated orally through stories, daily objects, nature, entertainments, mystery, and imagination. Now, many years later, when, as it happens, my own research interests dwell on representational history, I am often reminded of the popular folk tales from my childhood.

How do you explain your current research project to your students?

Yan Ciping 嚴次平, Photograph of “Chen Yunchang zai Xinpian ‘Qin Liangyu’ Zhong 陳雲裳在新片“秦良玉”中 (Chen Yunchang in New Film, “Qin Liangyu”),” Qingqing Dianying 青青電影, 5, 4 (1940), 4.

I would probably start with the question of how one could study history beyond text. Images and material cultures are equally compelling and valuable materials for historical analysis. My research focuses on the visual representation of ethnic minorities in the Southwest of China from late imperial to Republican China; I am particularly interested in exploring how the daily lives of non-Han in the frontier were translated into images, and have examined the Miao album as a genre of ethnographic illustration which depicts the daily lives of non-Han people in late imperial China, as well as ethnographic photographs from Republican China. Moreover, these images epitomize imperial expansion and governance in the southwest borderlands.  My research has, necessarily, taken an interdisciplinary approach, assessing the intersection of visual and imperial regimes.

Gender is a useful and powerful tool for the understanding of the ways in which ethnic minorities were known to the Han Chinese and Manchu rulers. By casting fresh light on a spectrum of gendered themes, including femininity, masculinity, sexuality, love, the body and clothing within images, my research examines how power, constructed through gender, has helped to define, order, popularise, celebrate and imagine the possessions of empire. These discussions will feature in my forthcoming book, Visualising Ethnicity in the Southwest Borderlands: Gender and Representation in Late Imperial and Republican China, to be published by Brill.

More generally, I am interested in the history of knowledge. I am keen to explore and analyse the ways in which one culture is received by another through visual and material languages. Following a recent fellowship at the Science Museum in London, I have been undertaking research on how Chinese objects of science, technology and medicine have been collected and displayed in the UK in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I am now developing a new project on British material experiences and public engagement with Chinese sciences.

Anonymous, “Nüguan女官 (female government official),” in an album of Qiansheng Miaotu 黔省苗圖 (Miao Album of Guizhou), undated (approximately 18th or 19th century), Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?

I have greatly valued the teaching and generous help of many teachers and mentors at different stages of my studies. My PhD studies at the University of Edinburgh, under Dr. Stephen McDowall and Prof. Francesca Bray, were a significant part of my academic journey.  My supervisors shaped and continue to shape my methodological approaches to cultural history through their discussion of the primary sources that I found, their recommendations of relevant secondary reading, and their comments on draft chapters and my new articles.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

I love being stimulated by illuminating work. Over the last six or so months, I have read a number of publications which have addressed the visual in scientific and technical studies. These have included some wonderful works by STS scholars as well as by art historians and colleagues at Humboldt University, such as the edited volumes, Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited, and The Technical Image: A History of Styles in Scientific Imagery, and Lorraine Daston’s Objectivity.  It’s been very helpful to think of visual representations of the bodies of non-Han in southwest China by Chinese anthropologists in the 1930s and 1940s. The fragment bodies in impressionism discussed by Linda Nochlin had a particular resonance for me and forced me to consider the correlation of the body in pieces with Chinese modernity and ethnography. A recent reading of British anthropology and photography, including the article “Photographic Uncertainties: Between Evidence and Reassurance” by Elizabeth Edwards, helped me to reconsider the relationship between photography and evidence critically, and make better sense of the role of photography in frontier visual regimes in modern China. Although the history of China is my particular area of expertise, I find that reading work addressing European history and written from a European perspective is also very helpful. It lends a global slant to my understanding of Chinese history and strengthens the argument for China joining global debates and discussions on culture and history.

How is it to do research in Germany?

The Art Histories programme of Forum Transregional Studies has enabled me to make contact with scholars from multiple disciplines and institutions: apart from the engagement with our own fellows, I am also affiliated with the Art History department of Humboldt University. This has enriched my knowledge of Art History from several transregional areas, as well as of cutting-edge research by German art historians and visiting fellows. On occasions, I have attended research seminars at other research centres and institutions in Museum and Heritage Studies and the History of Science in Berlin. This has been of enormous help in terms of interdisciplinary thinking.

Our programme also took us for a two-week research excursion to Cambodia in March. The architecture, local gemstones, and jewellery in Cambodia brought to my mind the recently excavated jewellery of the king’s family of Ming China. After discussions with another Art Histories fellow of the Forum Transregionale Studien, Nachiket Chanchani, an art historian of India, we realised that jewelleries with similar styles could be found in Nepal and Tibet. As a result, I have been able to develop new research centred on artistic, technical and material exchanges in the manufacture of jewellery between China and South- and Southeast-Asian countries.

The fellowship in Germany has also provided me with a wonderful opportunity to explore Chinese collections in German museums. The curators of the Ethnological Museums in Berlin and Leipzig have helped me find useful materials for my research on the non-Han in China. I have very much appreciated this postdoctoral fellowship in Berlin and the valuable opportunities which it has created for me.


Citation: “I am interested in how one could study history beyond text” – 5in10 with Jing Zhu, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.07.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19206.


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