Research

GuoHandicraftToys

In my research as an historian of late imperial and modern China I explore archives, texts, images, and as often as possible dig through the dusty remnants of things, as one of my main interests is the interrelation of people, material objects, and the stories that they tell about them (and themselves.)

One broad topic I’ve explored in this light is the ways in which Chinese elites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century sought to gather, evaluate, and mobilize displays of diverse objects amid the industrial exhibitions and world’s fairs of their day. Here I’ve been particularly interested in the turn of the century embrace of new techniques of display mobilized in the name of national spectacle. Similarly, one also finds significant complexities in both the local and global encounters that occur amid the arrangements of objects and observers in the colonialist settings of these celebrated and loaded events. I’ve explored the participation of Chinese actors in these global arenas, their own appropriations of new techniques of exhibition, and the dynamics of spectacle in formulations of a global modernity at the turn of the twentieth century.

While I’ve investigated the display of objects on grand stages at the world’s fairs–the assembly of a nation’s material production, artistry, industry, and more–I’ve also explored the deceptively simple topic of one category of goods that generally people avoid thinking of as a commodity: toys. Here we have the mundane object, a plaything, a child’s trinket, which nevertheless emerged in the early twentieth century in China also, as I’ve suggested in my work, as an object of crisis for a nation. Chinese elites would associate toys with the apparent weaknesses of a Chinese culture, but also in redefining these objects, as things which might have the potential to save Chinese children and a national economy. Looking closer, one discovers that toys were also imagined as monsters and shape-shifters. Just as they were invoked as tools to create strong and healthy kids, toys were also seen as scary, misshapen objects that could deform and defile.  In my current research, I’m exploring related themes, digging into notions of subjectivity, material culture, and global modernity with work related to childhood and play in early 20th century China.

In addition to these projects, I also work in the realm of digital humanities. Most recently, as co-chair of the Digital Scholars Institute at the University of Mary Washington, I’ve been exploring the ways in which we can reinvent pedagogy and knowledge creation through mobilization of diverse technologies, redefining the means of authorship, enabling student empowerment, and also how we may build new communities in the process.

See also my CV.