Thoughts on Theses: Yi Lu
Issue   |   Wed, 05/07/2014 - 04:21

Yi Lu is a senior double majoring in French and history. His senior thesis focuses on the labor history of the Kunming-Haiphong Railway. His thesis advisor is Professor Jerry Dennerline of the History and Asian Languages and Civilizations Departments.

Q: What is your thesis about?
My thesis, titled “Constructing the Republican Line,” examines the labor history of the Kunming-Haiphong Railway, a French colonial line running between Southwestern China and then Indochina. First conceded to the Third Republic in 1898 and completed a decade later in 1910, just a year before the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the railway traverses a tumultuous terrain and time period. Using archival materials in French, English and Chinese languages, my thesis focuses on the ordinary lives implicated in this imperial and national drama: namely, the more than 60,000 Chinese and European workers who collectively constructed the railway.

Q: Why did you choose this topic?
While railways typically evoke motion and mobility, I came across my thesis topic in a most sedentary fashion: I was watching a travel show on ARTE, a Franco-German TV channel, last October and the Kunming-Haiphong Railway happened to be the feature story. I was immediately intrigued. Though born and raised in China, I had never heard about the railway, let alone know its critical role in the French imperial design in Southeast Asia and the later contribution to the Chinese Republican Revolution of 1911. After some preliminary research, which yielded no scholarly works in English, I knew I had my topic: not only does the topic cohere perfectly with my language skills, it also allows me to combine my scholarly interest in imperial history with a topic that was closer to home. It was truly a eureka moment.

Q: What have been some of the best parts of writing a thesis?
A: As any historian working could testify, there’s something about archives -- be it the heft of volumes, the smell of papers, or the touch of binding -- that evokes a sense of awe and wonder. The past is, literally, in your hands to behold. For my thesis, I traveled to five archives in three countries -- two in France, two in China and one in England -- over the span of six months, trying to uncover the workers’ experiences.

Q: What have been some of the most challenging parts?
A: From a personal point of view, the most challenging moments of my thesis -- as were its best -- involved solitude. As much as my friends and family and professors and librarians kept me company, the bulk of the work -- reading, thinking, writing -- must be done alone. As Kafka said, “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself,” and for historians who work long hours in the archives, such dictum could take a particular emotional toll.
But apart from this inherent challenge of pursuing an independent project, I also confronted, during the initial stage of my research, a logistical problem: how can I read, organize and process hundreds of archival files and scholarly materials? In the end, I invested in a database software -- it’s better to throw money than time at a problem, I later decided -- and found a digital workflow that worked for me. The end process varies, of course, for different writers, but it will invariably take some time to figure out.

In terms of actual research, I am challenged by a basic question that confronts all subaltern historians: namely, how do we restore the agency of those who left few written traces of their life? Most of the writings on the railway workers were produced by people who held power over them -- colonial consuls, company bureaucrats and Qing officials -- and a key issue with my sources is how to treat their inherent biases and prejudices with care. Wherever possible, I try to bring in Chinese voices and read them along and against the grain of imperial registers, paying close attention to how different sources tell the same event differently.

Q: Do you have any advice for students who are considering writing a thesis?
A: Start early -- earlier than you think you should. Even though I began my research in the spring semester of my junior year, my progress was slowed down by a multitude factors -- workload from three other classes, graduate school applications and not least the very difficulty of writing itself. In fact, the graded copy I submitted to my committee was also my first complete draft -- it was not the best product I could have produced. In retrospect, I wish I had committed to reading and writing daily for my thesis; cliché as it sounds, slow and steady does win the race.

My second piece of advice involves advisor relationships: as much as a thesis remains an independent project, your advisor plays a critical role throughout the process. Whether it’s the overall direction of research or issues with particular arguments and sources, he or she will guide you through the process and help you avoid significant pitfalls. Treat them with courtesy like a colleague -- and always communicate when you have to miss a meeting or deadline.

Third, and it might be the hardest to do: enjoy your thesis work! Instead of going to bed feeling overwhelmed by the work you have yet to do, take time to recognize what you’ve accomplished and tell it to your friends and family. It will keep them involved, and help you through difficult periods that will invariably at some points during your work.

Q: When you have finished your thesis, what will you do with it?
A: While my thesis is now officially out of my hands -- the final copy was handed in to the Registrar on Monday -- it will be in my mind for quite some time to come: I will be attending a doctoral program in history in the fall and hope to pivot my study from the railway to the borderland region between Southwestern China, French Indochina and British Burma. I look forward to my next intellectual journey.

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