The civilizations that existed during ancient times are often thought of as large and powerful but rather isolated, with little influence from the outside. Through her research on ancient Chinese literature, Tamara Chin seeks to change that misconception.
“In looking at China’s ancient period, there was a lot of interchange between cultures. Most people think that that was a modern phenomenon. I’m interested in looking at moments of openness to different kinds of cultural and aesthetic forms and recovering those histories.”
Chin, whose primary focus is the Silk Road era, joins the Brown faculty this fall as associate professor of comparative literature. She comes to Brown from the faculty of the University of Chicago.
Thinking about the ways in which ancient cultures interacted, Chin also focuses her literary research on retracing and revising the histories of the ancient world that she says have been “fabricated” in the modern era.
“Often we think that the origins of Western civilization go back to the ancient Greeks alone or that the origins of Chinese civilization go back to ancient Chinese alone. I’m interested in how those sorts of mythologies, as I like to think of them, were shaped and re-shaped over several centuries, as well as in early cultural interactions.”
Chin’s new book, Savage Exchange: Han Imperialism, Chinese Literary Style, and the Economic Imagination, takes an in-depth look at these ideas. Narrowing in on the second century B.C., a time generally considered to be the beginning of the Silk Road era and China’s political interaction with Central Asia, Chin examines how that intercultural contact transformed literary and aesthetic practices of the time, using classical texts, noncanonical works, and various found objects such as coins and excavated texts.
Chin’s book chronicles the way the politics of the time influenced literature. During a period of imperialist expansion, new, more experimental literary forms began to emerge. Traditionalists railed against the changes and fought to return to the more classical, ritual texts that had once dominated. Chin argues that these debates helped to shape Chinese literature going forward and our perception of different genres today.
The book comes at a time when recent archaeological discoveries are revealing new insights about China’s global interconnectivity in ancient times.
“Objects from Persia and Southeast Asia that people hadn’t imagined entered China at that time have recently been found. This cultural history is changing the way we narrate what Chinese literature looked like.”
Chin is at work on a second book about the modern idea of the Silk Road within the context of economic history and literary theory.
“Most people don’t know that the term ‘Silk Road’ was coined in 1877 by a German geographer of China. In this new book, I’m investigating the kinds of debates and different disciplines through which an idea of a connected antiquity became something interesting and important at a time when most people were more interested in looking at antiquity as a sort of linguistic and racialized past. It looks at the Silk Road as one of many models of a connected antiquity.”
Chin will teach three courses this year, beginning with a fall semester comparative literature course on notions of empire — Chinese empire — in literature and film. In the spring, Chin will lead a class on Silk Road narratives and another called “Soil” that examines environmental approaches to literature. She said she’s very much looking forward to the start of classes.
“I think Brown has a reputation for openness and rigor and for adventurous, smart students and amazing faculty. I’m very honored to be coming here.”