JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Michael Nylan

October 15, 2021 by Michael Nylan & Sonja Johnston

Michael Nylan (Jane K. Sather History Chair, University of California-Berkeley) is a truly interdisciplinary scholar. Her single goal is to know as well as possible the extant texts and artifacts that her historical subjects knew during the early empires in China. This goal has meant delving into multiple forms of historical inquiry (including gender studies and the social practices of manuscript culture), as well as archaeology and comparative research on Rome, Greece, and early China, the assorted technical arts, rhetoric, and philosophy. Her research interests include seven centuries of Warring States through A.D. 316, with an emphasis on sociopolitical context; aesthetic theories and material culture; cosmological beliefs; gender history; and the history of such emotions as “daring” and “salutary fear” (aka prudential caution). She also studies the "use and abuse" of history since 1840 in the Sinosphere.

Recently, the Jackman Humanities Institute (JHI) was privileged to welcome Michael Nylan as our 2021-22 Distinguished Visiting Faculty Fellow for our theme year, Pleasure. During her visit she gave a public book reading (The Chinese Book of Pleasure), a public lecture (On Pleasure, Looking Back), led a lunch discussion with the Circle of Fellows, lectured at the UTM Department of Historical Studies and offered a workshop (A Guided Reading of Zhuangzi) for graduate students in the departments of Comparative Literature, East Asian Studies, History, Philosophy, and Religion. If you missed the public events, we’ve added them to YouTube.

Before she left, I asked Michael to be the first participant in this year’s JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight, a series where we highlight each Fellow, their interests, and their research so that you can get to know them a little better.

JHI: What are your main research interests?

MN: My main research interests keep evolving. I have no "career arc" to speak of, partly because I get involved in the research interests of friends and students, inevitably, and find each and every topic elicits my curiosity and is manifestly "good to think with." I have been variously identified as a feminist historian, a Confucian (not really), a comparativist (mainly Rome-Han or Classical Greece-China), but mostly these days I'm just a historian of the early empires in China, with a strong interest in cross-chronology or the reception histories of truisms, who, of necessity, finds herself writing ever more often of institutions and the ideas of the common good.

JHI: What led you to your interest in Chinese history?

MN: Two chief influences led me to Chinese history. First, the headmistress of my boarding school, "The Shipley School for Girls" in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, had once been head of Yenching Women's College in Beijing. She often talked of life in China and people she had known there (including the famous writer Bing Xin) before she was interned by the Japanese. And while I thought at the time, "Who cares about China? I'll never get to go there!" apparently some of it sunk in. Second, an early influence upon me was Joseph Levenson, my teacher, whom I admired as a scholar (as the only scholar of his generation to try to assess the psychological costs for rapid modernization), and as a man of courage, as someone who helped to facilitate scholarly exchange with the FBI breathing down his neck the whole time, as I learned from reading his archives.

JHI: What research project(s) are you working on now?

MN: I have just begun a new project on the politics of the common good in early China, designed to address the question of why the governing elite in early China was so much less focused on top-down control than those administering late imperial China and more modern nation-states.

JHI: What experiences were you hoping for during your JHI/Toronto visit?

MN: Due to the pandemic, what I was desperate for was person-to-person exchanges with stimulating people. In Berkeley, the libraries have been closed, and visits between students and teachers and colleagues are strictly limited. I could not access my own office, and half of my books were there, rather than at home. What I got at the Jackman Humanities Institute was good talk, fine food, unfailingly courteous and knowledgeable staff, and a convivial atmosphere, despite being still in semi-lockdown. I cannot imagine what the Institute is like when it's running at full capacity. Pure pleasure (this year's theme). I feel immensely privileged to have had this experience, and I will carry these relations forward into my thinking about my current topic.

JHI: What have you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by?

MN: While in Toronto, I read Linda Feng's new book, Swimming Back to Trout River, recalling events in the late Mao and post-Mao eras. This is a book so full of humanity that I recommend it to all.

JHI: What is a fun fact about you?

MN: I grew up in Kentucky and in Mexico, and so have always been swimming through disparate cultures characterized mainly by mutual incomprehension. I am a swimmer, quite literally but also metaphorically, who has learnt to trust to the waters.

Public Lecture: On Pleasure, Looking Back

This profile is part of the JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight, a series where we highlight each Fellow, their interests, and their research so that you can get to know them a little better.