Clayton Ashton

Ph.D. Student
Early Chinese history

Clayton Ashton for website (1 of 2)

Tell us a little about yourself, your background and how you became interested in Asian Studies?

The most common question I get when people find out what I study is a baffled: “How did you end up interested in that?”  Despite being asked this all the time, I still don’t have a straight-forward answer.  My interest in Asian Studies was unexpected and came about slowly.  I grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a place whose name doesn’t immediately conjure up images of Asian culture in most people’s minds.  But like so many cities in Canada, it had its own small Chinatown and I spent a big chunk of my youth hanging out there.  As a result, Chinese culture and language (particularly Cantonese) always felt like an important part of the cultural mosaic of my hometown.   Because I knew so much less about the history of China and Chinese immigrants than I knew about the history of Europe and its immigrants to Canada, I was naturally curious to learn more.  As soon as I was exposed to Chinese history during my undergraduate education, I found it such a rich and fascinating subject that I couldn’t resist wanting to know more.  Some time spent travelling and living in Asia only deepened this interest.

Why did you choose the Asian Studies program at UBC? Was there an aspect of the program or location that was particularly attractive to you compared to other programs in Canada or internationally?

When I decided to study for a Master’s degree, I knew I wanted to stay in Canada.  Once I had made this decision, UBC was an obvious choice.  Vancouver was appealing to me because I have family here and also (I have to admit) because of the weather. But the main selling point was the impressive faculty, including some names I had heard of even before I was considering graduate school. The Asian Studies program also seemed to have the most to offer in terms of language training and resources, and I felt that this was fundamental to any meaningful study of Asia.

I couldn’t have known this at the time, but it turned out that this was a very good decision in the long-term because I’ve only seen the department become stronger in the last number of years.  After completing my Master’s degree, I decided that UBC’s Asian Studies program still remained the strongest available for me, and I stayed on to study for my PhD, which is what I’m doing now.

Could you explain to a non-expert what you are researching and why it is important?

Very broadly, I study the political and intellectual history of early China.  My dissertation is focused on the period of about 300 BCE.  An important development in the study of this period has been the discovery of numerous archaeological texts – works written mainly on bamboo strips that were sealed away in tombs, and many of which had never been seen until their recent discovery.  These texts have been revolutionizing our understanding of Chinese history.

What I’m doing in my dissertation is trying to understand what these texts can tell us about how thinkers at the time were theorizing about government and administration.  This was a period of history when people were beginning to ask some fascinating and original questions about some big topics that we’re still struggling with today: how to organize a state, how to balance individual desires with collective needs, and what it means to be ethical during a period of upheaval.  So-called human “civilization” is actually much younger than we tend to think of it, and learning how to live together in large numbers in cities and states has been a difficult and complicated process that we’re still trying to figure out how to do well.  One of the advantages of learning about ancient history is that it lets you take a step back and see our current social and ethical challenges from a much broader perspective.  Our lives today are only one small part of the much longer story of human history, and adding the voices from these lost texts of early China can only help to enrich our understanding of this story.

As a graduate student, what are your main activities?

My main activities have actually changed a lot from year to year during my time in graduate school.  There might be a year where most of my time is spent with my nose buried in books, or a year where I’m mostly taking graduate seminars and engaging in conversation with other graduate students or with professors in the department.  I’ve also spent time abroad for language training and research.  Right now, most of my time is spent writing and teaching.  Looking back, it’s really been a dynamic period of my life and every year has been different.

What has been the most memorable or impactful moment of your graduate experience?  

I don’t think I can pick out one specific moment that has stood out.  Because my experiences have changed so much from year to year, there is a lot to choose from.  But most recently, my opportunities to teach undergraduate courses have been by far the most fulfilling moments. I get to develop ideas and topics that I’m excited about, and I enjoy the challenge of boiling these ideas down to their essence to present them in a way that’s going to be compelling to a broad audience.  But the real fun comes when students are given the room to explore these topics from their own perspectives.  The students who sign up for our department’s courses come from a variety of backgrounds, and the questions and insights they bring into the classroom always lead to unexpected and lively conversations.  I always leave class with new ideas about my research.  There’s something unique about the university classroom that can’t be replicated anywhere else.

What are your goals (career or academic) once you’ve completed the program? And how is our program helping you achieve them?

My ultimate goal is to continue my academic research and teaching.  The Asian Studies department has given me a number of opportunities to build a teaching portfolio, and the professors in the department have been incredibly generous with their time and advice.  There’s a strong feeling of community in the department, and everyone is invested in making sure that graduate students are able to pursue their goals and get the assistance they need to do so.

Can you give any advice to new students in our program or for students considering applying to it?

The one piece of advice that I would offer new students in the program is to make the most of your time while here.  There is always so much going on in our department: public talks, graduate seminars, teaching opportunities, visiting luminaries, conferences, and public engagement with Vancouver’s Asian communities.  With so much to offer, the graduate students in our department have a unique opportunity to make almost anything they want of their graduate school experience.  I’ve seen people take very different approaches to their time here, depending on their career goals and interests.  Finishing your degree and leaving with a diploma is an amazing achievement, but what will really matter the most is what you did while you were here earning that piece of paper: the connections you make, the experience you gain and the languages and topics you study.