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[Interview with new faculty member]Professor Olivia Milburn: At Home in the World

  • October 17, 2008
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Imagine a childhood spent in eight different countries, one of them in a home off of the breathtaking Golden Horn of Istanbul. Or having a family in which the average number of languages spoken (Chinese, Arabic, Danish, Portuguese, and Turkish, just to name a few) comes out to about two per capita, and rounding up the globally dispersed family members for a reunion is as complex as organizing an international academic conference. Such is the life of Professor Olivia Milburn, whose cosmopolitan upbringing has no doubt granted her the composure with which she now observes her still-empty office on campus. It is a testament to her experience with international travel and relocation that Professor Milburn remains relatively unfazed in the face of the fact that none of her books have arrived from London, even though classes started more than a month ago.

As a teenager, Professor Milburn first became enamored with Chinese literature upon reading David Hawkes` translation of the classic Chinese novel, Hongloumang, or The Story of the Stone. Spellbound by the intricate, multilayered portrayal of a life which she found both alien and utterly striking, Professor Milburn immediately embarked on a reading spree of all things Chinese on which she could lay her hands, and has not stopped since. These days, her area of focus is the development of Chinese historical fiction. She recently spent three months conducting field research on the literature of the Yuyue, an ancient ethnic minority in China`s northern Zhejiang region, and one of the last to join Imperial China during the Unification of 221 BC. Her latest work centers on the Gouwu people of the Jiangsu region. Although they were conquered in 473 BC, the Gouwu were once one of the biggest threats to Imperial China. Their visually striking traditions included such practices as tattoos and chiseling their teeth, and have made them a tourist attraction for two millennia. Even today, while being proud supporters of a rapidly growing modern China, the people of Jiangsu remain fiercely proud of their unique heritage and identity. It is this relationship between different identities in particular that has drawn Professor Milburn to the research of ethnic minorities in China, and how they have been historically remembered in literary texts.

Professor Milburn`s passion for and deep knowledge of China extends to more current affairs. In response to the controversies surrounding the Beijing Olympics, Professor Milburn points out the often ignored fact that the Olympics have a history of being held in controversial locations - Berlin during the Nazi dictatorship, and a barely democratic Seoul in the aftermath of a violent government crackdowns against civilians -"yet the uproar surrounding this year`s games is unprecedented." She believes that the West has always feared the potential might of China, and this is why the Western media often chooses to highlight only the problematic aspects of the Chinese government. She is particularly passionate when it comes to the devastation wreaked in China by the British during the Opium Wars, and the plethora of historical objects that were stolen at the time:"The Opium Wars that the West waged against China are a truly, truly appalling part of history, and the fact that they happened more than a century ago doesn?t make it any less horrific," she says. She finds the British Museum's notoriously controversial permanent collection of looted foreign artifacts particularly reprehensible, stressing that such practices"only allow the enrichment of thieves and their descendants." On the other hand, she has no problems with legitimately obtained artwork, such as the Percival David Foundation`s collection of Chinese ceramics (purchased through the open auction of items that were seized by the British government when China was unable to repay a governmental loan). Not only is Professor Milburn is highly critical of the West`s unapologetic position on its past imperial transgressions toward China and the rest of Asia, she also believes that unless Western politicians educate themselves on this bloody past and the impact it has had on Chinese foreign policy, China's stance as an international actor will remain defensive and aggressive..

China may be Professor Milburn's first love and life companion, but she is thrilled with her new life in Korea, and sees herself staying for several years to come. When she is not gleefully being"grilled" by her graduate students and in turn, challenging them to consider new perspectives and question creeds from previous education, Professor Milburn enjoys cooking her favorite spicy Schezuan red-cooked pork at home, and astounding Koreans when she stops them in the street to ask them for directions, not just in English, but with the aid of Chinese characters. Now, if only those books would come.

October 17, 2008
Written by Boram Kim, Student Editor
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