vol.026 - An interview with research fellows visiting NIHU – PhD student Lance Pursey

An interview with research fellows visiting NIHU – PhD student Lance Pursey

We asked PhD student Lance Pursey, a 2017 International Placement Scheme (IPS) fellow of the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), his research interests and his fellowship experience at the National Museum of Ethnology (MINPAKU) in Osaka. Lance is now doing his final years of his PhD course in Medieval History at the University of Birmingham, UK.

Lance, what are your research interests and what projects you are working on now?

My research interests are social identities in medieval China and Northeast Asia. For my PhD research I focus on funerary inscriptions from the Liao period (907-1125CE), and incorporate not only their textual elements but also their archaeological context where available.

During my time in Japan I became interested in how Chinese history is studied and researched in Japan, which I hope to develop into a larger project in the future. 

How did you become interested in your research field?

My undergraduate degree was in Chinese and Japanese, and afterwards I became interested in classical Chinese. My original motivation was to read philosophical texts, but I became increasingly interested in the historical context of the texts I was reading, which inspired me to do an MA in Religious Studies, focusing on Daoism, at Sichuan University in China.

Nearing the end of my MA I was lucky enough to hear about an exciting PhD project that combined historical and archaeological methodologies. This was refreshing after spending several years looking at religious and speculative philosophical texts.

My interest in inscriptions comes from both my passion for textual analysis and my interest in the material and social contexts of texts. In contrast to other periods of Chinese dynastic history, there is a shortage of received historical material for the Liao, which means that the archaeological finds since the twentieth century have played a pivotal role in uncovering more detail about the lives of individuals from the period. 

A lot of scholarship combines both artefacts and texts to paint a comprehensive picture of the Liao. I am curious to see whether these two kinds of sources when looked at in isolation paint two different pictures of Liao society, allowing us to reflect on the limitations of historical source material and historical methodologies. 

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years? 10 years?

Five or ten years is a bit far ahead to really say for certain where I might be. My hope is that I will continue to read classical Chinese texts, and use the Asian language skills I have developed in my work. I hope to have the opportunity to share what I get out of them, be it through classroom teaching, publishing or other platforms. 

The IPS fellowship definitely opened up my eyes to possible future projects and opportunities internationally, and I am currently seriously considering pursuing postdoctoral study in Japan after completion of my PhD.

What was your most memorable moment during your IPS fellowship in Japan?

I would say my visit to the Toyo Bunko in Tokyo. It’s a wonderful library with very helpful, courteous and professional staff. On my visits I was able to handle and examine rubbings of Liao inscriptions made or purchased by Japanese archaeologists in the 1930s. Some of these fragile sheets of taped-together paper are some of the only material remains of stone inscriptions whose whereabouts has been unknown for the best part of a century. 

I then had the opportunity to run a workshop at Waseda University, and chose to read through these inscriptions with teachers and students, alerting them to the fact these rubbings were very accessible and they could go check them out for themselves.

That aside, the museums in Japan are great! The National Museum of Ethnology, where my placement was, gave me fresh perspectives for thinking about ethnic groups in the past and present and how to apply anthropological frameworks to my research. I was also very fortunate to catch many great exhibitions, some that directly fed into my research interests, like the Song ceramics exhibitions at the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, or the Tang tomb figurines exhibition at the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka. Other exhibitions expanded my interests beyond the immediate focus of my PhD, such as the Ninna-ji treasures on display at the Tokyo National Museum, the exhibition of Giga (Edo period manga) at the Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts, or the brilliant permanent displays at the Edo-Tokyo Museum

What is your advice for students or early career researchers considering to do research in a different country or culture?

Above all, go for it. You will learn things that you did not know there were to learn. If you do go on a placement, try your best to get out and meet people while you are there.

I originally set out thinking I was going to Japan to read the volumes and volumes of work done in Japanese on my period of research. However, at the beginning of my placement I was encouraged to actively reach out to the writers of the works I wanted to read and go along to their seminars. 

This allowed me to see how the practice of sinology and history is done in Japanese in person, rather than merely on the page. This helped to turn my research from something quite dead (I deal with tomb inscriptions, after all) into activities where I was engaging with living people and indeed the living traditional of Sinology in Japan.

PhD student Lance Pursey
Lance Pursey is enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Birmingham, UK to study Medieval History under the supervision of Professor Naomi Standen. Lance received his BA in Chinese studies with Japanese from Sheffield University, and an MA in Religious Studies, specialising in Tang period Daoist thought, from Sichuan University, China. 

Lance is also involved in the AHRC Research Project ‘Understanding cities in the premodern history of Northeast China, c. 200-1200’ as a project student. His PhD research topic is epigraphy, historical geography and urban society in the Liao period (907-1125 northeast Asia); it combines GIS, database design, archaeology and history. Lance will complete his PhD in 2019. From January to June 2018, he went on the AHRC IPS fellowship to the National Museum of Ethnology, Japan.

In the weekends and some evenings during his placement Lance often trained in Aikido. He also went on long walks and visited different smaller towns in the North of Osaka, like Takatsuki and Ibaraki. He was always on the lookout for small cafes that did good tea and cheesecake.