Interview with Shoufu Yin, Assistant Professor of Chinese History

“I excavate the intellectual worlds of many previously under-represented groups- peasant women who fought in wars, Mongol scribes who processed imperial documents, anonymous typesetters behind the production of books…”

Dr. Shoufu Yin will be joining the UBC History Department as Assistant Professor of History this July. With a PhD from UC Berkeley, he specializes in Chinese history from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries with an emphasis on Eurasian and global perspectives.

We spoke with him to learn more about his research, his teaching, and his outlook as a scholar.

Tell me about your field of study. What is your area of expertise?

I am a historian of political culture and thought. I specialize in Chinese history from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries with an emphasis on Eurasian and global perspectives.

I work extensively with official documents in different languages—Chinese, Manchu, Persian, and Latin, to name a few—to understand how ordinary individuals worked with the empire and theorized politics. I excavate the intellectual worlds of many previously under-represented groups, including peasant women who fought in wars, Mongol scribes who processed imperial documents, or anonymous typesetters behind the production of many books.

Ultimately, my passion lies in writing a new kind of history; a history of ideas and philosophy that foregrounds the contributions of these individuals.

What draws you to this field?

Today, we all work a lot with institutions of different kinds. We complete forms for taxes and visas; we craft applications for schools and jobs; and we submit letters of explanation to advance our positions. Sometimes, such experiences can definitely be frustrating.

But what if we seriously read, contextualized, and analyzed these seemingly formulaic documents? We might start to see how power works at the lower levels. Most importantly, we would hear the voices, aspirations, and struggles of everyday individuals.

For me, these documents can offer an ocean of creative ideas. The empires of “China” offer an interesting case study, because they have a really long and rich history of using official documents to do different things. It was not just “Chinese” elites and commoners who wrote memorials or petitions. Deities and demons also “sent” their applications for promotion and received imperial rescripts. During specific periods, individuals of different cultural backgrounds— Korean envoys, Japanese visitors, Persian merchants, European missionaries—filed petitions and advanced their arguments vis-à-vis the “Chinese” authorities.

Thus, the empires of “China” are a fascinating place to explore transcultural, trans-national, and global histories.

What are you currently working on? What excites you the most about your research and the work you do?

I recently submitted my doctoral dissertation, “The ‘Chinese’ Rhetorical Curriculum and a Transcultural History of Political Thought, ca. 1250–1650,” a history of an educational curriculum that trained millions of individuals in China, Korea, Vietnam, and beyond to write official documents.

Most of these individuals were marginal figures in their own societies, but I show that throughout their rhetorical training they came up with compelling theories. They conceptualized their rights vis-à-vis the throne, proposed governmental reforms in the context of environmental crises, and conceived counterfactual histories in search of what could have been possible.

Currently, I am finalizing two articles. One is on imperial documents that endowed official positions or ranks to non-human animals. This is a really productive area through which to look at the changing conceptualization of the human/animal relationship in the Chinese tradition. It broaches a series of philosophical questions: What kind of benefits or rights should human workers or employees enjoy? What about animals?

The other article focuses on a previously unknown manuscript in Manchu, which I date to the mid-seventeenth century. My study reveals how the Manchus, who originated in Manchuria and conquered China in 1644, understood “Chinese” statecraft. These projects offer a snapshot of my scholarship and passion for engaging contemporary theoretical issues through a lens of overlooked and/or multilingual sources.

What courses will you be teaching at UBC? Why should students be excited for these courses?

Next academic year, I’ll teach “History of Early China” and “Cultural History of Imperial China,” and an honours tutorial, “History with Animals.” In the long run, I would love to offer courses on Steppe empires, global histories of political culture/thought, and so on. If there is interest, I would be thrilled to offer an introductory workshop or reading group on research languages such as Middle Mongolian or Manchu.

I think of my classes as a large, real-time game—similar to Assassin’s Creed or World of Warcraft—in which we overcome difficulties together, gain new skills together, and ultimately level up together! I am a light PowerPoint user- I prefer to incorporate a great variety of activities in my courses: roleplaying different historical figures, hand-drawing maps of interest, visiting sites of significance, and exploring databases and interactive digital tools, to name a few. I want all my students to have fun as they learn. I really enjoy using the black/white board to showcase the marvellous ideas and threads that my students have raised.

I want each of my students to know that I value their contributions and insights, and I am always most excited when my students make their own discoveries. I try my best to make sure that each student knows that I care about their intellectual and career pursuits, and I strive to ensure that the training and exercises my classes offer are helpful for everyone.

What types of activities do you enjoy outside of work?

I am a fan of the board game Go (or weiqi) and playing the guqin, a stringed instrument- but I am not proficient at either! I used to practice fencing, and want to do more archery and kayaking if I have more time. I love history, novels, poetry, and especially epics. I enjoy reading historical studies in areas that I know little about, as well as learning ancient languages.

I translate sentences and passages that I like into Shanghainese, the local language of the city where I grew up, and to date have translated hundreds of lines of Virgil’s Aeneid from Latin to Shanghainese in the original dactylic hexameter. I do philosophy as a way of life.