Thilly discusses research, new teaching role

Young and vigorous, the new Faculty Fellow in East Asian Studies and History Professor Peter Thilly always engages students in class. However, Thilly’s office tells a different story. A single book and a desktop computer are the only items on his desk, and the decoration of the wall is even simpler: two East-Asian-style posters with graceful Chinese women dressed in early-1900s style outfits.

Professor Thilly found his passion for studying East Asia after an academic exchange experience. Following a year in Thailand, Thilly went back to Madison, WI and decided to continue studying Thai. Due to his proximity to the University of Wisconsin, he was able to take a third-year Thai language course with other college students.

After beginning his undergraduate experience at Wesleyan University, Thilly took interest in another Asian country: China. He studied Chinese language, history,  and philosophy courses. Thilly became charmed by the subject and decided to focus on Chinese study.

Due to his various researching opportunities at several prestigious Chinese universities to his friendships with film and music industry practitioners in Beijing, the concentration and persistence of China in Thilly’s work is clear.

Thilly has work experience at the Number One Historical Archives in the Forbidden City, and has also had access to the League of Nations archives in Switzerland to search for evidence of cocaine trade in China during the early twentieth century. Due to the widespread distrust of foreign scholars in China, access to precious or important historical archives are difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, Thilly was granted access and has been conducting his research on these archives.

Thilly is currently working on a research project which he has named “Treacherous Waters: Drug Smuggling in Coastal Fujian, 1832-1938.” The research provides a new perspective on the opium trade of the 1800’s and early 1900’s. In China, many hold negative feelings about those who helped British merchants sell opium to Chinese citizens, calling them traitors. However, Thilly’s dissertation presents a different perspective about those involved: they had to work as middlemen because the opium trade was their only way to support their family. Thilly explains that, they when faced with such a difficult choice, they were only choosing to support their families instead of acting in the interest of the nation. It is the controversial nature of this issue that makes the research so engaging for Thilly.

Thilly admitted that he did feel some pressure when he first arrived on the Hill and realized that he was the one who would be responsible for students’ learning; it was an entirely different experience as he transitioned from pupil to professor. However, he said that it was reassuring to find that students have come to class highly engaged and ready to work, and he has enjoyed his teaching experience thus far.

At the end of the interview, Thilly said that his experiences in Thailand and China changed him in many ways. Most importantly, he now believes  that the human family is more important than any other form of family or nation, and that people should always be keen to empathize with different cultures and peoples.


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