In this edition of LRCCS Faculty Spotlight, we interviewed Professor Miranda Brown, Professor of Chinese Studies, and Asian Languages and Culture Director of Undergraduate Studies. She is also editor of Fragments, a journal aiming to generate new, integrated ways of thinking about the premodern past.
LRCCS: Thanks for joining us today. First, tell us a little about your background. Where do you call home? How did you start studying China?
Prof Brown: I grew up in San Francisco. As for the China question, I needed general ed credits my freshman year, so I thought, “China’s a big place, I might as well start there.” It kind of happened on accident. My mother was Chinese but that didn’t really have anything to do with me choosing to study China. I took my first class with David Keightley, who’s famous, which I didn’t know at the time because I was 17. He gave me a B+, which was the lowest grade I ever got, so I just kept going.
LRCCS: How did you become interested in the premodern period?
Prof Brown: Since Keightley was one of my first professors, I ended up being mostly involved in premodern history. But I don’t think of myself as a period person, the time period I study just depends on what projects I’m working on, based off my interest in that moment.
For me, it’s important to think critically about the premodern world, which is often relegated to “the dead past.” But I don’t think it’s dead, I think it’s still around. My focus is to demonstrate the relevance of the premodern period and making a case to the public – not only for undergraduates, but also professors. I think there’s an over-valuation of the modern period; people think everything is new and forget about the historical perspective – it’s a very myopic approach.
LRCCS: What projects are you currently working on?
Prof Brown: I’ve got a few projects. I’m working on four papers. One is about the beginning of pharmacology in China; there’s a lot of new material on the beginnings of the Chinese medical tradition thanks to archaeology, so that’s exciting.
I like to cook, and I like to talk about food and drink. I teach an Asian Food and Drink class, and I’m planning to write a more popular book about that topic which also serves as an Asian cook book.
LRCCS: If I ask you what your favorite food and drink is, what’s the first thing that comes to your mi-
Prof Brown: Coffee! Is definitely my favorite drink. When I think of food, I think the more fusion the better.
LRCCS: You’ve done a lot of work around traditional Chinese philosophy. What do you think about what some people are calling “Corporate Zen” and other modern day applications of ancient Chinese traditions?
Prof Brown: Well, I would take the same approach I take to food. Chinese food today is nothing like it was a thousand years ago. All traditions are evolving – culinary, medical, philosophical, etc. I think a lot about the popular applications of these ancient things – for example, Art of War. Now, some might say that’s a bastardization of an ancient text. But you know a body of wisdom is useful, interesting, and alive, when people are doing things to it that the authors did not intend. These things tend to have a life of their own, and I find that fascinating.
LRCCS: To what extent do you believe in the value of Chinese medicine as a legitimate medical practice?
Prof Brown: That’s a hard question. I teach a class on acupuncture and one of the things we do is look at the clinical studies about acupuncture. We also take a critical look at what constitutes proof of effectiveness for treatment, looking not only at Chinese medicine but also conventional medicine. Acupuncture seems effective for low back pain. But am I going to forego my epidural when I give birth in favor of an acupuncturist? That’s another question.
Thanks for reading this edition of the LRCCS Faculty Spotlight. Stay tuned for more faculty interviews!