Sarah Kile, assistant professor of East Asian studies, knew she wanted to pursue graduate work in Chinese literature when, in her senior year of college, she fell in love with Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, a five-volume work of fiction written in the mid-18th century during the Qing Dynasty and published in 1790.
“It was just a world unto itself,” she says, recalling the impression Cao Xueqin’s novel first made on her. “I didn’t know very much about 18th-century Chinese culture and society, and it colored in what I had been missing in my history classes.” Considered a masterpiece of Chinese and world literature, the novel chronicles the vicissitudes of a family much like the author’s, offering detailed observations of aristocratic life during the Ming dynasty.
Kile went on to specialize in Ming-Qing drama and fiction at Columbia University, where she earned her doctorate in May 2012. Her dissertation, Toward an Extraordinary Everyday: Li Yu’s Vision, Writing, and Practice, considers the work of the 17th-century playwright, novelist, and publisher Li Yu in the context of the economic, social, and cultural conditions following the fall of the Ming dynasty.
During the Ming, literary pursuits were the exclusive province of elite literati, but with the demise of the dynasty and emergence of a market economy, a growing merchant class began writing with an eye to selling their products, Kile said. “Li Yu took advantage of this moment to become a cultural entrepreneur, changing what constituted cultural capital and who had rights to it.”
At the heart of her study is Li Yu’s magnum opus, Leisure Notes, a curious collection of hundreds of essays on topics ranging from playwriting to heating, choosing a concubine to designing a balustrade, the art of walking to the art of cultivating pomegranates. “Li Yu’s work reveals the limitations of grand narratives of the day — such as Confucian morality — by elevating the status of everyday individual experience,” Kile said.
In another innovation, Li Yu foregrounded the vernacular dialogue in his plays, emphasizing the spoken language of the alleyways rather than sung arias in classical Chinese, Kile said. He soon fell out of favor with elite scholars, however, and his example did not catch on until the 20th century, when modern scholars studied his writing in a push to vernacularize Chinese literature.
Kile hopes soon to publish her dissertation as a monograph and is working on a second book project on the literary representation of silver and commodities in China from 1550-1750. She recently presented a paper on this topic at a conference in Macao, China.
Kile appreciates the collaboration across departments that Brown encourages. She hopes to work with the Cogut Center for the Humanities to organize a conference on comparative opera. Musically inclined, Kile studied the performance methods and music of Kunqu, a type of Chinese opera, as a Fulbright-Hays visiting scholar at Nanjing University.
Kile is eager to work with colleagues at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women and to participate in the Nanjing-Brown Joint Program in Gender Studies and the Humanities. She recently presented a paper at a conference organized by the program in Nanjing. Her essay on transgender performance in early modern China appeared in the June issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies.
Passionate about teaching as well as research, Kile will teach a course on the circulation and reception of classical Chinese poetry, drama, and fiction, bringing students’ attention to translation issues by looking at the history of translation during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In the spring, she will teach an upper-level course on classical Chinese, as well as a course she is tentatively calling “Page, Stage, and Screen: The Many Faces of Chinese Opera,” which traces variations in this performance art form from the 16th century to the present.
To Kile, Brown feels like a unique combination of what she loved best about Columbia, a large research institution, and Beloit College in Wisconsin, the small liberal arts college she attended (graduating summa cum laude and as a Phi Beta Kappa society member, a Presidential Scholar, and winner of the Lucius Porter Prize for Asian Studies). Kile is a native of Illinois.
“People really do care about teaching here, and the small classroom environment makes it possible to attend to students closely. I love that Brown faculty are committed to supporting undergraduate independent research.”