MSG Interview: Stephen Wadley

MSG Interview: Stephen Wadley

Now that the last print issue of Saksaha has been released, MSG sat down (virtually) with its former editor, Stephen Wadley, Professor of Chinese at Portland State University, to learn about the history of the journal.  The is the first of many interviews to come, and we are especially thankful to Dr. Wadley for taking the time to thoughtfully respond to our rather eclectic set of questions.


MSG: What made you interested in the study of Manchu?

SW: I kind of fell into the study of Manchu.  When I was studying Chinese as an undergraduate, Stephen Durrant was one of my professors.  One of my classmates found out Prof. Durrant had studied Manchu as a graduate student and asked him if he would offer a class in it.  I knew nothing about Manchu but was wild about anything to do with China so when Prof. Durrant offered the class as an overload, I, together with a half dozen of my classmates, signed up for it.  The class quickly dwindled to two people and eventually just to me alone; I’m not sure why, since I found it incredibly interesting, something I had never encountered before. I was a naïve farmboy from the inner part of the Western U.S. with little exposure to the wider world.

When I graduated and went off to graduate school I ended up at the University of Washington, where Prof. Durrant had studied Manchu with Jerry Norman, so I continued in Manchu with Prof. Norman.  The University of Washington at that time had a fairly active program in Altaic languages.  In addition to Jerry Norman teaching Manchu and Classical Mongolian, Nicholas Poppe was still around and came out of retirement while I was there to teach a number of classes: Old Turkic, Chagatay, Kazakh, Tatar and a class on the history of Altaic Linguistics.  Ilse Cirtautas was there as well, teaching Modern Uzbek and there were native-speaker teaching assistants who offered classes in Uighur and Modern Mongolian.  Of course that has all essentially disappeared now.

MSG: Manjuristics is a surprisingly large field, which unites a large number of disparate disciplines. Nonetheless, the center of gravity seems to have been in linguistics. Now, history appears to be on the rise. Where do you see the future of Manjuristics?

SW: I think you are absolutely right: the future of Manchu studies in the United States resides in the historians of late imperial China.  There have been a number of historians of late, taught by Jim Bosson, Jerry Norman, and Joseph Fletcher who have made significant contributions to study in Qing history because they knew Manchu and were able to use some of the many Manchu documents from the Qing archives.  As the funding models change at US universities, all the languages that don’t attract relatively large numbers of students are being pushed out.  Manchu, as a moribund language, is doubly at risk.  As a language person, I find this distressing, but feel like there is a future for Manchu as a practical tool for historians.  The new Qing historians have already well demonstrated its value.

MSG: Why should historians, literary scholars, or anthropologists pay attention to Manchu linguistics?

SW: As I say, the new Qing historians I feel have shown the value of knowing Manchu when studying Qing history.  The same would be true for anthropologists studying cultures from northeastern China.  Beyond that, I feel we have a distorted view of the complexity of East Asian society if we only concentrate on the dominant language and culture.  The earlier generations of scholars understood the multi-ethnic nature of East Asian society and routinely learned several of the languages of the area.  I think we are in danger, not only of failing to further expand and enrich our understanding of this part of the world, but even of collectively forgetting the knowledge gained by our predecessors.  Manchu will obviously always be a small field in the United States, but it would be a great loss to have it disappear entirely.

MSG: Now that Saksaha will be flying to the east coast, what do you think were the journal’s major achievements?  

SW: Let me first tell you a little about the beginnings of Saksaha.  It was started at a meeting of the Western Branch of the American Oriental Society in the fall of 1996 in Berkeley.  Several of us had organized a Manchu panel for the meeting.   Because there were quite a few panels that year, they were held concurrently throughout the conference.  Our panel was held at the same time as a very popular panel on Chinese literature.  When we convened the panel, we discovered that besides the participants in the panel, there were only two people in the audience, both of whom actually quietly left after the papers began to be read and they realized what the topic of the panel was.  Though it was a little disconcerting to have no audience, the panel was one of the best I have ever attended.  We were all extremely interested in each other’s papers and were able to have a lively discussion after each.  As we sat there after all the papers were read, someone  — I believe it was Jerry Norman — suggested we ought to organize in some way so we could continue to learn about each other’s work and perhaps introduce others to the field.  The idea was floated to have a periodical produced, perhaps once a year, where we could put out work that was perhaps not quite ready for an established academic journal but could be read and commented on by the others and thereby be improved.  We could take turns in the responsibility of producing the periodical.  So Laura Hess, a promising junior scholar in Manchu at that time, offered to take on the business end of the enterprise.  I think because I was most excited by the prospect, they allowed me to be the first editor of the periodical, and the others — Jim Bosson, Jerry Norman and Mark Elliott — were on the editorial board.

We identified as many people as we could throughout the US and the other parts of the world who had an interest in Manchu and sent out a call for manuscripts.  The response was gratifying.  There apparently was a great need for something of this type, and scholars from all over responded enthusiastically.  Indeed, instead of how it originally was conceived, it became a vehicle for important papers in Manchu that were far from the rough drafts we had envisioned, but rather finished papers that could easily have been published in major academic journals.  Of course, I received a great deal of support from the others in the group, Mark Elliott, Jim Bosson and Jerry Norman, (Laura Hess unfortunately eventually left the field for other pursuits), otherwise it would never have been produced.  The problems encountered in producing the journal were not from lack of interest or support from subscribers, contributors and the editorial board, but rather the problems of producing a journal on a shoestring budget with hardly any institutional support.  I am very happy that it has found a new home and a cadre of scholars interested and enthusiastic about continuing it.


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