AHA Member Spotlight: Vincent Leung
Vincent Leung is an associate professor of early Chinese history at Lingnan University. He lives in Hong Kong, and has been a member since 2010.
Alma maters: BA (Chinese language and literature)/BS (mathematics and economics), University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2000; MA (East Asian studies), Harvard University, 2002; PhD (East Asian languages and civilizations), Harvard University, 2011
Fields of interest: early China, ancient Eurasia, imperialism and historiography
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? I entered college wishing that I would be a mathematician. I found the apparent precision and exactitude of mathematical science very alluring as a young man. But then I stumbled upon courses on East Asian history, and I was instantly hooked. I was initially troubled by the seeming lack of precision in the historical discipline—i.e., there is hardly ever a “correct” answer—but it was exhilarating roaming in the expansive landscape of the East Asian past, and discovering a whole world that was at once familiar and strange. I determined, then, to learn all that I can about that endlessly fascinating bygone world.
Two years as a master’s student at Harvard cemented my conviction to become a historian. For my doctorate, I decided to focus on early Chinese history, a thriving field with a wealth of sources both transmitted and recently excavated. Then, upon graduation, I was very fortunate to have started my career at the University of Pittsburgh as an assistant professor of history. About a year ago, I left Pittsburgh and joined Lingnan University in Hong Kong as an associate professor of Chinese history.
What do you like the most about where you live and work? I love Hong Kong. I grew up here until I was a young teenager when it was still a British colony before I immigrated to Boston in the early 1990s. Returning to work here was an unexpected turn of events. As a postcolonial city, still officially autonomous from the People’s Republic of China, it has a complex, ambivalent relationship to the history of China. In my previous city Pittsburgh, I often found myself serving as a cultural ambassador, introducing the history and culture of China to a largely uninitiated audience. In Hong Kong, it is a much more complex affair. To which nation and history does this city belong? What is local identity and how does it relate—or not relate—to the colonial past and the very idea of “China” past and present? I found all these questions stimulating and productive for thinking through the relevance of early Chinese history.
What projects are you currently working on? I started a new book project on the history of economic imagination in early China. How did the rise of empires in early China remake the world of things? How did people conceptualize the idea of commodities and their circulations? How did the state relate itself to nature and all its material resources? These are some of the questions I hope to pursue.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how? My graduate training was squarely focused on ancient China. Since then, I have become more and more interested in the broader history of early Eurasia and the challenge of constructing meaningful comparative framework for Eurasian antiquity.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? Isn’t it interesting, that in both ancient Greece and early China, most of the surviving literature are the ones that were critical of the socio-political status quo of their time? Critical voices were the ones that compelled historical preservation.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members? Burton Watson’s translation of the Analects of Confucius (Columbia Univ. Press, 2007). Forget about its canonical status! It is a surprisingly approachable work, with a very intimate voice, that is immensely rewarding.
What do you value most about the history discipline? History is incredibly effective at defamiliarizing and demystifying relations of power that present themselves as natural. It is really one of the best instruments for the work of social and political critique.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? The AHA membership gives institutional structure to my sense of belonging to the collective of professional historians. With it, I learn about our great diversity in background and interests but also structural issues of the field that we all face.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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