Interview with Postdoctoral Visiting Fellow Mimi Cheng

October 19, 2023

We recently sat down with Dr. Mimi Cheng, one of our new Visiting Fellows, to learn more about the research she has planned for her GHI fellowship.

Dr. Cheng joined the GHI as a Postdoctoral Visiting Fellow where she will be working on her project, “China on the Horizon: Art, Science, and Cartographies of Empire," which she began at the Freie Universität Berlin as a Max Kade Postdoctoral Fellow in 2022. Her research focuses mainly on the cultural history of the nineteenth century with research interests in three overlapping areas: transnational visual culture between Europe and East Asia, comparative histories of the built environment, and the relationship between knowledge and imperialism. Her research has been supported by the American Council for Learned Societies, Social Science Research Council, and the Forschungzentrum Gotha at the Universität Erfurt, among others. She received her PhD from the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester in 2022.

We are excited to give her a platform to share her perspectives on her research and her personal journey.

Can you tell us a little about your academic career prior to the GHI?

Mimi Cheng: I was actually trained as an artist in nearby Baltimore, at the Maryland Institute College of Art, before beginning my graduate studies at the University of Rochester. This background in making continues to inform the way I approach and analyze images and objects. I moved to Berlin in 2019. During this time, I was conducting research and writing my dissertation, which examined theconnections between imperialism, visuality, and technical knowledge in nineteenth-century Sino-western—and specifically, Sino-German—relations. Upon completion in 2022, I began the process of revising and expanding my dissertation into a book manuscript with the institutional support of the Freie Universität Berlin and the German Studies Association.

What made you apply to GHI?

MC: The GHI’s rich research networks and emphasis on transregional history and cross-disciplinary knowledge appealed to me. With the Institute as a homebase, I knew that I would also be able to visit other institutions on the East Coast that were important for my research.

What led you to specialize in transnational history and history of knowledge?

MC: I think a lot of my scholarly interests derive from my personal history. As someone who has lived on different continents, I’m interested in how conceptions of foreignness and familiarity shape the way we perceive and make sense of the world. I also wanted to use my academic career as a way to learn new languages and assimilate into different geographies. I feel quite fortunate in having been able to do that.

Could you give us a short overview on the topic of the transnational visual culture between Europe and East Asia?

MC: Perhaps the best way to address this question is through an example. In 1873, a German customs agent named Ernst Ohlmer created the first photographic accounts of the European Palaces [Xiyanglou], an eighteenth-century imperial complex located adjacent to the Garden of Perfect Clarity [Yuanmingyuan] in Beijing. Designed and constructed by Italian Jesuits alongside artisans and builders of the Qing court, the complex is testament to Qing imperial power and its westward gaze. French and British troops burned and looted the palaces and gardens as an act of retribution at the conclusion of the Second Opium War. On the one hand, Ohlmer’s photographs aid in architectural research and reconstruction of the storied site. On the other, they are also images in which discussions on the nature and uses of collective memory in modern China are grounded. This example reminds us not only of the entangled histories of China with the West, but how these histories are continually shaped by imperialism and national identity.

Could you tell us more about your GHI Research Project “China on the Horizon: Art, Science, and Cartographies of Empire”?

MC: This project is a continuation of my dissertation, which examined functional and vernacular artifacts, including European maps, atlases, photographs, and technical drawings, that gave visual form to “China" as both a place and an idea. This new research takes on a slightly different, albeit related, question—how did the Qing empire picture themselves and the world in the nineteenth century, an era characterized by both reform and eroding sovereignty? Maps are an ideal medium through which to explore this question because they funnel theories of empiricism, objectivity, and representation onto a flat and often reproducible surface. The maps I examine also challenge the boundaries between modern and traditional, foreign, and indigenous. For example, China has a long history of strategically incorporating Western cartographic customs and techniques into its own set of diverse mapping practices. Nineteenth-century maps of the Qing empire often overlaid the grid of longitude and latitude onto a Chinese rectilinear grid system, which can be found carved onto stone stele dating as far back as the early twelfth century. Taken together, this project examines narratives of comparability and commensurability that lie at the heart of modern transcultural studies.

What do you hope to achieve at the GHI?

MC: I will be spending the majority of my time locating and analyzing primary sources for China on the Horizon. In addition to the Geography and Maps collection and the Asian Division at the Library of Congress, I will be visiting Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard Yenching Library, and the MacLean Collection outside of Chicago. At the end of my fellowship term, I hope to have gathered the necessary materials to complete my book manuscript.

What challenges do you face in your research?

MC: One of the difficulties is how spread out my materials are. For example, there is no singular, comprehensive collection of Qing ‘world maps,’ though the Library of Congress has quite a few significant examples. They are instead held in institutions all over North America, Europe, and East Asia. On the other hand, it’s a great excuse to travel!

What are your plans after you leave the GHI?

MC: I look forward to sharing the research I will have conducted with the support of the GHI with a wide range of readers and audiences. Since travel restrictions in the past few years hindered me from completing my initial research agenda, I am also very much looking forward to going to Mainland China and Taiwan in the near future.