Carla Nappi

This project explores early modern Chinese relationships with borderland and minority medical and scientific cultures in an attempt to understand how the history and modern study of Chinese materia medica is shaped by the continuing reverberations of Chinese imperial expansion from ca. 1300-1800. It is simultaneously an examination of multilingualism in early modern Chinese  science and medicine.

On another level, this project localizes my wrestling with the problem of understanding what I call the “translated object” in history: I’m trying to understand the ontology of translated objecthood in terms of assemblages and dialogic practices.

The book is currently designed as a Cloud Atlas-esque series of linked chapters that treat Manchu, Mongolian, Chinese, Tibetan, and Uyghur translators of natural history and medical knowledge in Qing China. Telling a story that ranges from The Manchu Anatomythrough the Mdzes mtshar mig rgyen, the book develops a historical and theoretical understanding of the ways in which several media of knowledge exchange, including recipes, dictionaries, images, smells, and sounds shaped the study of natural objects and their uses in medicine in the context of Chinese imperial expansion.

By re-evaluating early modern Chinese medicine and natural history as colonial practices, and by simultaneously paying close attention to the ways that different textual genres, sensations, and linguistic technologies shaped those practices, I am tracing the roots of contemporary Chinese “ethnic minority” medicine in the Qing emergence of an idea of local peoples, natural objects, and medical traditions as natural resources. In a real sense, the empire became a pharmacy. At least, that’s what I think is going on.

This project is currently funded by a 3-year SSHRC Standard Research Grant (2010-2013).

This book project in progress, very loosely inspired by Calvino’s Invisible Cities, is devoted to understanding the institutional, textual, and social history of translation in China from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries (with a wee bit of a foray into the nineteenth as well). It’s also a space in which I’m trying to work on, and work through, practices of sameness in history. Put another way, can we glimpse in glossaries and phrasebooks (and in the practices of the men who made them) moments in a global history of selfhood, of the basic act of considering something as equal or identical to something else?

I am looking at the significance of early modern translation bureaus (especially the Siyi guan, or Translators’ College) and the manuals they produced, in an attempt to understand the institutional and social context of production, print history, and use of these texts, as well as the lives and work of the translators employed by the College. The project pays special attention to the significance of dictionaries and translation manuals in mediating knowledge exchange across Ming and Qing China.

Research time to work on this book has been generously provided by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Jan-June 2010) and the National Humanities Center (2012-2013).

The Monkey and the Inkpot introduces natural history in sixteenth century China through the iconic Bencao gangmu (Systematic materia medica) of Li Shizhen (1518–1593).

The encyclopedic Bencao gangmu is widely lauded as a classic embodiment of pre-modern Chinese medical thought. This first book-length study in English of Li’s text reveals a “cabinet of curiosities” of gems, beasts, and oddities whose author was devoted to using natural history to guide the application of natural and artificial objects as medical drugs. In this book I was particularly interested in the tools that a sixteenth century doctor has at his disposal to help him decide what to believe (and to encourage his readers to believe) about the natural world around him. A large part of this petite book, then, examines the making of facts and weighing of evidence in Li’s massive collection, where tales of wildmen and dragons were recorded alongside recipes for ginseng and peonies. The Monkey and the Inkpot also illuminates the modern fate of a book that continues to shape alternative healing practices, global pharmaceutical markets, and Chinese culture.

The title of the book was inspired by a short piece by Jorge Luis Borges that has been collected in Imaginary Beings.

This long-term project explores the history of scientific and medical exchange between China and the Islamic World. Based on research in Chinese, Arabic, and Persian texts, I am trying to understand the ways that human and non-human bodies were manipulated and translated in early modern scientific and medical exchanges across Central Eurasia, especially between Chinese and Islamic textual cultures in early modernity.

By focusing on the importance of itinerancy and the translation of scent, sound, feeling, and movement in texts about natural objects, this work seeks to understand how embodiment and sensory experience were translated in the context of exchange about the natural world and humanity’s place in it. How were human and nonhuman bodies (and ways to understand and manipulate them) negotiated among several medical and linguistic cultures across Central Eurasia? How were bodily experiences of time and space communicated in this context? This work engages the recent historiographical interest in the role of sensory experience in the writing of history especially with regard to the importance of scent and sound to the history of colonial and early modern scientific exchange.

Ultimately, this research will resolve itself into a book on medieval and early modern Chinese-Islamic knowledge exchange and its modern ramifications.

Glen Peterson

This research project is in its initial stages and builds upon my ongoing work on refugee movements into and out of China during the twentieth century. I am especially interested in understanding how the international refugee regime that was developed in interwar Europe was extended to Asia after the Second World War in the contexts of decolonization, revolution and Cold War. Preliminary results of this research have been published in a special issue of the Journal of Refugee Affairs (September 2012) on "The Refugee in the Postwar World."

This research project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) examines political, social and cultural aspects of the resettlement of tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese refugees from Southeast Asia (mainly Indonesia and Malaysia) on specially created "Overseas Chinese State Farms" in the People's Republic of China from the 1950s through the 1970s. This research for this project is ongoing and is expected to culminate in a major monograph.

This research project, funded by the UBC Hampton Research Fund, examines the social and political history of the "Straits Chinese" from the late nineteenth century until Malaya's independence in 1957. I am especially interested in understanding how leading members of the Straits Chinese community employed transnational expressions of philanthropy as a means of positioning themselves within colonial society and in relation to the rising demands of Chinese and Malay nationalisms. Preliminary results of this research will be published in a forthcoming special issue on "Transnational Philanthropy" in the Swiss-based journal Monde(s): Histoire, Espaces, Relations.

Henry Yu

This book project is aimed at re-telling the story of Canada as an engagement between trans-Pacific migrants with trans-Atlantic migrants and First Nations and aboriginal peoples. Moving away from founding myths that focus only on the arrival and spread of European migrants eastward across the continent, I argue that we need create a new common history that recognizes the intertwined histories of migrants with the aboriginal peoples upon whose land we still live. Supported by a SSHRC grant, this project is also drawn from my work as Co-Chair of the City of Vancouver's project Dialogues between First Nations, Urban Aboriginal, and Immigrant Communities and involvement with projects such as the film Cedar and Bamboo that detailed the long history of engagements between Chinese and aboriginal peoples.

Cedar & Bamboo (trailer promo) from johnny darrell on Vimeo.

This project focuses on the movement of Cantonese migrants over the last two centuries from eight counties in Guangdong province across and around the Pacific. In particular, I am interested in how these migrants shaped the rise of a Pacific world, both as the conveyors of knowledge and goods in multiple directions, as well as the catalysts for the shaping of national identities in white settler nations.  

This $1.17 million project is a collaboration between UBC, SFU, and 29 community groups across Canada. Featuring a web portal as well as resources for researchers and teachers. The object was to engage scholars with K-12 teachers and community groups to collaborative create new research and learning materials. New oral histories and resources were created and made accessible on the internet, as well as through mobile museum kiosks and accessible electronic teaching resources. Currently, the web portal has been completed, but the project team continues to work on a new project entitled "Hong Kong in the Making of Canada, 1962-2012."


This project uses the story of Tiger Woods to examine the fascination with interracial sex in North America. Using understandings of Woods' body as a mixture between "Caucasian," "Black," "Indian," and "Asian," I trace the histories of migration that produced categories of identity and belonging, focusing on the rise of white supremacy in created racial hierarchies, and how the commercialization of race and ethnicity remains a legacy of these histories.

Leo Shin

Cambridge University Press

In this innovative and well-crafted study of the relationships between the state and its borderlands, Leo Shin traces the roots of China's modern ethnic configurations to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Challenging the traditional view that China's expansion was primarily an exercise of incorporation and assimilation, the author argues that as the center extended its reach to the wild and inaccessible south, the political interests of the state, the economic needs of the settlers, and the imaginations of the cultural elites all facilitated the demarcation and categorization of the borderland "non-Chinese" populations. The story told here, however, extends beyond the imperial period. Just as Ming emperors considered it essential to reinforce a sense of universal order by demarcating the "non-Chinese," modern-day Chinese rulers also find it critical to maintain the myth of a unified multinational state by officially recognizing a total of fifty-six "nationalities."

To even the most casual observer of China, the images of Yue Fei (1103—1142) loom large on the historical horizon. As every child in China would learn, it was Yue Fei the heroic general who led the Song-dynasty (960—1276) armies to repel the Jurchens and to rescue China from obliteration in the hands of the northern “barbarians.” In so doing, Yue Fei is deemed to have embodied the highest quality of courage and tenacity. But as every student would discover as well, it was Yue Fei the tragically-flawed minister who, on the brink of victory, allowed himself to be recalled by an cowardly emperor, imprisoned, and executed on the basis of trumped-up charges. As such, Yue Fei is seen to have exemplified the fundamental paradox in the Confucian ideals of loyalty and legitimacy.

That the story of Yue Fei is more complex is well known to historians. Yue Fei’s heroic image, scholars have argued, has been carefully cultivated both by himself and by observers of later times. Throughout his life, as Hellmut Wilhelm pointed out in an early study, Yue Fei “constantly and consciously worked toward producing an image of himself as a hero of mythological proportions, rigidly patterning himself after the myths of the past.” In part following Yue Fei’s script, scholar-officials of the Ming dynasty (1368—1644), who were themselves constantly concerned with the threats posed by the Mongols from the north, not only led efforts to construct and renovate temples dedicated to the Song-dynasty general but also attributed (falsely) to him the stirring piece “Redness All Across the River,” in which the author, with great poetic finesse, expresses his desire “to eat the flesh of the nomads” in order to “recover our old rivers and mountains.” Even Qing-dynasty (1644—1912) emperors, who traced their ancestry to the Jurchens, deemed it desirable to let stand in the imperial capital a temple devoted to Yue Fei, the one person who would no doubt have been their mortal enemy.

But even though historians have long recognized the significance of the uses of Yue Fei, they have left unanswered two central questions: how had such uses transformed over time, and how did the changing uses of Yue Fei reflect the shifting structure and dynamics of later imperial China? Although scholars interested in the practice and process of cultural transmission have focused on one aspect or another of the changing images of Yue Fei, a more complete and satisfactory investigation, this study argues, would need to take into consideration more broadly the intersecting worlds of politics, religion, literature, and lineage organization. By tracing and analyzing the political, religious, literary, and socio-economic processes through which Yue Fei became a national icon, this study aims not only to offer the first systematic and multifaceted account of its development but also to contribute to the lively debate surrounding the creation and transmission of beliefs and practices in later imperial China. As such, this project should be of interest not only to scholars of Chinese studies but also to a wider audience interested in the relationships between history, memory, and cultural identity.


  • Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada) Standard Research Grant (2008-10)
  • Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange Research Grant (2007-09)
  • UBC-SSHRC Grant (2006)
  • Humanities and Social Sciences Large Research Grant (2005)
  • Humanities and Social Sciences Small Research Grant (2002)
  • Humanities and Social Sciences Grant to New Faculty, UBC (2001)
  • Harvard-Yenching LIbrary Travel Grant (2000)
  • President's Research Grant, Simon Fraser University (1999)

In the News

  • "Maxine & America vs The Chinese," The Frank Chin Blog (comment posted on 24 January 2008).
  • Anthony Kuhn, "Age-old Nationalist Hero Gets a Demotion in China," Los Angeles Times, 28 January 2003, p. A3. (pdf