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Meet East Asian Studies Postdoctoral Fellow Tristan Brown

Man sits under stone arch on college campus
Feb 28 2018

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Faculty
China, Inner Asia

Tristan Brown is a scholar of late imperial and modern Chinese History, who joined Stanford’s Center for East Asian Studies as a postdoctoral fellow for 2017–18.

Brown is interested in Chinese environmental and legal histories as well as the histories of East Asian frontiers. His first book project, Veins of the Earth: Environment, Law, and Cartography in Late Imperial China, uses a well-preserved county archive in western China to explore the ways in which the imperial state engaged with diverse cultural practices in administering property, which had great implications for the environment, statecraft, and religion. Building on his long-standing interest in the history of Islam in China, his second, ongoing project provides an ethnography of a local Muslim community through Chinese and Japanese archival sources. Tristan received his Ph.D. in History from Columbia University; he also received his M.A. from Columbia and his A.B. from Harvard College. He has also been elected as a Research Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

Below, Stanford Global Studies minor student Rachel Roberts (‘18) interviewed Brown about his experience at Stanford thus far.

You have studied both Asia and the Middle East in-depth. Can you discuss how you became interested in those regions of the world, and how your research interests have evolved over time?

I went to college planning to study Islamic history and Arabic literature — and I did. My grandfather was born in Damascus before emigrating with his father, first to Paris, then to London, and finally to Boston in the middle of the twentieth century. My family background drew me, at a very young age, to the Middle East’s rich cultural history. In college, I had the good fortune of meeting some amazing historians of China, such as Jonathan Lipman and Mark Elliott, who, each in their own way, encouraged me to intellectually traverse the “Silk Road” to China. As a freshman, I participated in an exchange program in Jinhua, Zhejiang Province, and became passionate about China’s long history, diverse local cultures, and amazing cuisine. After college, I pursued my doctoral studies in law and economic history at Columbia, where I had the privilege of writing my dissertation under the guidance of Madeleine Zelin, Eugenia Lean, Myron Cohen, and New York University’s Zvi Ben-Dor Benite.

What is your current research focus at Stanford, and what are some of the highlights of your experience so far?

Stanford has an amazing intellectual community and a wealth of resources for historical research. The David Rumsey Map Center is phenomenal. I have been struck by the great generosity of the faculty here and by the brilliance of the students. My highlight of this year so far has been teaching an East Asian environmental history course. The class has students from the undergraduate to the doctoral levels who all specialize in different fields, from botany to anthropology. I’ve learned a lot from them, and it’s been incredibly fun to design each week’s discussions around different topics and questions that could appeal to students at different stages of their academic pursuits. Last week we did a segment on the environmental history of the Second World War, and it was very exciting to discuss the various understudied roles of rivers, forests, and animals during the war.

Your first book, The Veins of the Earth: Environment, Law, and Cartography in Late Imperial China, uses sources from a well-preserved archive from Western China. Can you talk about your approach to primary sources in the research and writing process, and share any interesting facts you discovered in the archive?

The Nanbu Archive is a treasure trove of historical documents from a county in western China that has only recently begun being used by scholars. Scholars based in China, like Wu Peilin, have done some remarkable scholarship on the archive. Stanford’s own Matthew Sommer was one of the first U.S.-based scholars to make use of the archive, and I feel very fortunate to be here this year under his wing.

What I noticed during my research into the archive’s legal documents is that the way that people in the county talked about their connections to the land and the way in which the state mapped landscapes in dispute possessed logics that are not immediately obvious to people today. Many people in the county in the nineteenth century discussed their land and properties as “alive.” The state regularly mapped this “living earth” in order to gauge the merits of a legal claim arising from these concerns, which were often related to forest, water, and mineral resources. The monograph I am writing is the first study of this dimension of land for China’s history in English as well as one of the first studies to extensively use the archives of Nanbu County. My hope is that the book will be of interest to historians of the environment, law, science, and religion.

You speak Arabic and Chinese. Can you elaborate on the importance of language learning to your research? How do you maintain all those different languages?

My research is based in Chinese language sources, particularly handwritten lawsuits, but I also look to sources that reflect the great diversity of the country’s past and present. I used some Manchu-language materials for my first project. My second ongoing research project, which looks at Islam as a “local” religion in China and its transformations in the twentieth century under the communist state, incorporates Arabic materials. One way I like to maintain these languages is to travel to relevant regions regularly. This summer I’ll hopefully get to Meknès and Fez in Morocco and I’ll never turn down a visit to Hangzhou.

What are you hoping to accomplish through your research? Where do you see your field of research going in the next 5–10 years?

Land is really one of the most “classic” topics in modern China; it goes way back of course to the revolution and the many studies that sought to explain the nuances of the country’s traditional land tenure system and the inequalities therein. In my work, I’m taking a new approach to this traditional topic by asking the basic question: how did someone in a rural county understand the land and their connections to it? If we can get to that, then we can fill in a much broader picture than the one created by the “number games” of land surveys from the early twentieth century, as Joe Esherick once aptly termed it.

For my second project, by exploring the ways in which Islam was integrated along a highly diverse and dynamic social landscape in China, I hope to speak to scholars interested in the global history of Islam. This involves examining the ways in which Muslim communities participated in popular Chinese religion in the late imperial period and how Islam in China was greatly transformed under the communist state, which sought to make its domestic practice globally legible to both the communist and Muslim worlds.

In a broader sense, I think the great tradition of scholarship sometimes called New Qing History, which “centered the periphery,” has found a new center of gravity in environmental history: some fabulous books have published on the environmental history of Chinese borderlands and frontier regions and I think that’s a big trend in the field. At the same time, there is an ongoing wave of great scholarship on Chinese law, in part because we have access to many legal archives.

Can you offer any advice to younger scholars interested in Middle Eastern and/or East Asian Studies?

It is my impression that archival access for both of these regions will always be a big question for young scholars. I recommend going out to the field early in one’s doctoral studies to determine what archives are available and what is the state of their accessibility. While archives can be overwhelming at first, one strategy is getting used to reading one genre of document really well. When I first started my doctoral studies, I never even knew about the Nanbu Archive. I think if you keep your ears open during coursework and gravitate to where new sources are, you will find an interesting story to tell. It’s okay to not know at first, as those many small moments of epiphany are a joy of graduate study.

Meet more Stanford Global Studies students, staff, and faculty through our Global Perspectives blog