Friday, June 10, 2005

Mediating the Yao/Chinese Encounter: Writing, Daoism, and Politico-Religious Legitimation on the Imperial Frontier

Because next week is my dissertation defense--the final rite of passage in my graduate career--the moment of transformation after which I will no longer be referred to as a student--I will spend the rest of this week writing more specifically about my research, at the risk of losing one or two of my three readers.

It is not easy to capture in a few soundbites, or even in a twenty minute talk (which I will have to do next week) exactly what I spent the last five years working on. It is like capturing an unwieldy beast; first I have to catch a glimpse of the dragon; then I must track it down and tame it. Kind of like that Zen sequence of the boy chasing the ox. First, he spends all of his time chasing the wild animal, searching far and wide. He sees it from time to time, but then it is nowhere in site. That is the search for enlightenment, but in my case it was the struggle to write a book--the whole time I had to figure out what I was trying to understand. Then the boy captures the animal, but it is still wild. I have completed my manuscript, but it is still beyond simple expression. I mean, I can hone in on specific points I made and describe them, but it is harder to convey the whole. Finally, the boy is seen riding the tamed animal. Well I am hardly saying that I attained enlightenment in the process. I wish! Well, not really. Not really looking for that anymore.

There are a few reasons why it is difficult to describe:

For one, I didn't just try to write about a single period, historical figure, or specific text. Believe me, it would have been better if I had. I always had a problem focusing. I guess I am more interested in the big picture, and how what seem to be isolated events or phenomena are actually part of that picture. Perhaps I am looking for a unified theory of Chinese history.

Moreover, at different points in the process of writing I was dealing with different issues; different questions came to mind; different texts appeared before me that opened up new paths on which to proceed. Frequently months of intertia would divide one period of progress from another. During these months I didn't know how to proceed, or was just lazy, or had my mind on other things. It was also during this period that I was turned on to American politics. See, for instance, my post below on the Perfect Storm.

At some point this past January I was going through all of my many fragments of writing--some large, some small--and I decided to put them all together in one file. Not everything. What a surprise! Now, some people write 300, 400, dissertations. For me, considering it was my first time--and still is--writing a book, I was always shooting for 200. And there before my eyes, lo and behold, 160 pages. They still needed a lot of editing and revision, and I hadn't yet written an introduction, but there it was, the bulk of my dissertation. Believe me when I say this, it is so much easier when you already have something written to then hone and polish it, then it is to accumulate pages. Staring at the blank page can be a nightmare. Blogging and emails are, for some reason, different. Please someone explain to me why. I think I know.

Maybe this is a good time to stop. Consider this an introduction to a weeklong enterprise (less) in which I attempt to target my talking points for the defense--kind of like a press conference. I give a statement and then I am asked questions, except instead of reporters there will be professors.

Stay Tuned....


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