I met a guy last week that does research in early Chinese excavated texts. You know, really old stuff. Just when I though I had figured out what I wanted to do in grad school, this guy comes along and screws it all up.
For a long time I had been trying to figure out whether I wanted to study Early China, specifically pre-Han philology/paleography, or Late Imperial China, specifically the Qing Dynasty (and Manchu texts). I finally settled on late imperial history because I felt like it would be more relevant (whatever that means), and, probably mostly, so I could learn Manchu, because holy crap.
But then this guy comes along who’s working on his PhD, and he’s doing this research that’s a ridiculous kind of awesome. Because holy crap. And I realize I have so much more knowledge about this stuff than I do about late period history, because he talks to me about his research, and I can follow him and even participate in the conversation, since I’ve read a lot about it for a layperson. And I’m getting really excited about this stuff again, which I tend to do about this sort of esoteric topic anyway, but haven’t done about this particular field in a while (it gets lonely).
So now I’m second guessing myself. Above, I said that I had “settled” on Qing history. And that’s really what it was. I’m not thrilled by any particular aspect of Qing history (though there is some very interesting stuff), other than Manchu. I can learn Manchu without doing my dissertation on the Qing Dynasty. And it really is paleography that gets me excited, especially when it comes to old forms of the writing system. I have more contacts in this field at universities back in the US, in Europe, and even here in Taiwan. And of course I’ll need to read Qing-era scholarship on some of these texts, and the scholarship of the Qing Dynasty was always what interested me the most about that period (aside from Manchu). So, 一舉兩得, right?
So maybe it’s Early China after all. A homecoming of sorts for me, I guess. Now that I have someone to geek out with over this stuff, I’m pretty excited. And he’s suggesting books for me to read once my Chinese is up to the task (hopefully not much longer) so I can get my feet wet in the Chinese-language scholarship in the field. Really exciting titles, like “基礎音韻學” and “戰國楚簡語法研究”. And I’m wishing I had read books like Shaughnessy’s Rewriting Early Chinese Texts more earnestly when I had them in my hands. But there will be time for that later.
The most important thing, as one leading professor in this field told me before I moved here, is to get as much language and cultural training as I can while I’m here. The other stuff can come later.