Faculty Spring 2023: David G. Atwill

The Yunnan Chronicles: A Field Guide to Yunnan’s Past

Professor of History

The history of distant places is often told from the center. My project looks at one such borderland, the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. Situated between the Himalayan Tibetan plateau and Southeast Asian highlands, Yunnan has often been characterized as part of China’s “wild west,” a place that it is said to be, by turns, dangerous, exotic and alluring. Indeed, Yunnan is a place already familiar to many Chinese with more than 439 million Chinese tourists visiting the province in just the first half of 2022. Thus, this project should be understood less as another case study of a remote and undiscovered region of China, and more as a deliberate attempt to introduce a place most Chinese believe they already know quite well. A bilingual field guide that will serve as an alluring vantage point from which to recover and amplify Yunnan’s place in the history of China and Asia.

The Yunnan Chronicles, seeks to upend outdated interpretations by writing a history of Yunnan through the eyes of its own residents, local food, ethnic heroes, and material culture. From the ancient bronzes of the Dian Kingdom (279 BCE–109 BCE) to Kunming’s oldest noodle house, this study seeks out topics of Yunnan’s submerged indigenous history to highlight its unique positioning in China, Asia and the world. Interweaving the voices of regional experts and local elders into tightly crafted individualized narratives, The Yunnan Chronicles will humanize Yunnan’s and China’s past in new and empirically sophisticated ways.  People, places and spaces that tell many stories rather than bear witness to one single event or idea. Co-authored with a Chinese scholar it will be a collaborative endeavor, a collective effort, and result in a shared outcome.