I am a historian of China, the Qing empire, and environmental history. My current research focuses on two book-length projects. The first, entitled 103 Words, narrates a microhistory of five castaways—two of whom were likely enslaved Africans—who washed ashore on Jeju Island, off the Korean Peninsula, in 1801. A few years later, a Korean scholar would publish a 103-word dictionary of the castaways’ language. One wonders: What words served as common ground, and what might those words reveal about the castaways' lives? The shared lexicons we create speak to individual circumstances and to the broader contexts in which we live—and each word in the castaways’ dictionary, I argue, reveals something distinctive about both the specific case and the greater time period to which it belonged. For this environmental historian, two words in the text seemed particularly resonant: “rhinoceros” and “ivory.”
The second book project, The Ivory Archive, stems from the first; it investigates the history of Chinese ivory carvings, their circulation across borders, and the environmental history of elephants. The research draws not only on readings of historical texts, but on the study of ivory artworks, and on the telltale biochemical signatures one finds within them. Together with an interdisciplinary team, I am working to develop non-destructive methods to identify the provenance of ivory objects on the basis of these signatures, and so help reveal to historians what texts too often leave untold: the stories of elephants themselves.
My first book, A World Trimmed with Fur, used Chinese-, Manchu-, and Mongolian-language archives to explore Qing environmental history in the years 1750-1850, when unprecedented commercial expansion and a rush for natural resources was transforming the ecology of China and its borderlands. That boom, no less than today’s, had profound institutional, ideological, and environmental causes and consequences. Using the histories of the fur, pearl, and mushroom trades as case studies, the book documented how increasing scarcity and environmental pressure spurred the Qing court to create new zones of untouched nature in response to the mounting crisis. What might appear to be pristine wilderness in the Qing empire, then, was hardly an original state of nature; it reflected the nature of the Qing state.