Dr Esther Klein

Dr Esther Klein

Through her study of ancient texts, Dr Esther Klein is uncovering knowledge of China’s classical past and thereby offering deeper insight into its present traditions.

My research involves close reading of classical Chinese texts from different time periods and coming up with big-picture interpretations, preferably ones that challenge or complicate dominant paradigms.

I have published one major and one minor article, and have given a number of conference presentations. I have a chapter in an edited volume under review and a large book manuscript in the final stages of revision.

I tend to measure research outcomes in terms of slow shifts of attitude. There are two key attitude shifts I am hoping to see. Firstly, I’d like people outside China to better understand how important the ancient Chinese past is in shaping Chinese responses toward events.

Secondly, I want people inside China to understand that Chinese traditions offer many diverse strands of thought and interpretation, and that some of these have the potential to challenge the dominant ones that are often (and unfortunately) taken for granted.

Recently I have been working on a project studying the Sanxingdui Museum outside Chengdu in Sichuan province and how it constructs and interprets the cultural identity of the ancient culture whose artefacts it showcases. Ultimately, this project might help to raise the profile of the museum in the international community, but my larger hope is that it will encourage interested people both inside and outside China to think in a more careful and nuanced way about the whole idea of cultural identity – what it is and how it is constructed.

Connecting with colleagues

The China Studies Centre is responsible for negotiating my being hired here, which has naturally been a tremendous benefit. I have also benefitted from the centre’s support in terms of the feeling of collegiality and community it creates, making connections with other China scholars in different departments, and having opportunities to hear about various types of research being done on China here at the University of Sydney.

In terms of my research on Chinese historiography, it is valuable to be able to discuss this work with colleagues. Occasionally we organise reading groups to put our heads together and talk about primary texts, especially ones that are particularly difficult to interpret.

Crossing the bridges

A cross-disciplinary approach is essential to students, whether they are from China or from other countries. It is my impression that Chinese universities tend not to be very open to cross-disciplinary studies, thus Chinese students from that background will benefit from a broader perspective that would not necessarily be available to them in China.

As for non-Chinese students, studying China is a different project from studying, say, Australian literature. They did not grow up in China, and there are all kinds of background and contextual information that they will be lacking and may need in order to do their research properly.

In short, to do research on China, one also needs an intensive crash course in all aspects of what it means to be Chinese, as well as various approaches to studying China as a non-Chinese person. This is impossible without a cross-disciplinary approach.

I believe the cross-disciplinary PhD will be extremely helpful in helping students get access to all the China expertise across the university, reducing the likelihood that they will have to reinvent the wheel. It will give them more opportunities for interaction with a variety of potential mentors, and give them the backing of a diverse and supportive community on which they can rely for present goals and future connections.

Escaping the textbook version of history

I am excited to be at a place that recognises the importance of China, and also to work with people who realise that understanding Chinese history is important to understanding China today. I am also excited to be able to teach classical Chinese language and other classes that use primary texts in the original classical Chinese.

These are great opportunities to help students see China in a different way, give them glimpses of the humour and profundity of the less mainstream classical sources, and help them escape the textbook version of history.

Finally, I am excited by the chance to supervise postgraduate students. In my field, there are not many universities where it is possible to do that, so I feel lucky to be at one of them.

Dr Esther Klein is a lecturer in the Department of Chinese Studies at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Within the China Studies Centre, she is a member of the Executive Committee and Education Committee, and Convenor of the History Academic Group.