I come from a shopkeeping background and was the first in my family to go to university. I am a beneficiary of state-funded higher education, without which I would have had to leave university and would not have done a doctorate.
My BA is in early medieval European history, but I got interested in China along the way, and studied modern and classical Chinese in Taiwan in order to do my PhD.
I held a Junior Research Fellowship at St John’s College, Oxford, where I had my first child, then worked for two years at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, a small, public, liberal arts college, which gave me a crash course in teaching and in engaged scholarship, and where I had my second child
In 2000 I participated in a 6-month research group at the Institute for Advanced Study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, before returning to the UK to take up a lectureship in Chinese history at Newcastle. There I helped to embed World History and to develop East Asian history within the History programme, and to build East Asian Studies across the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. I became senior lecturer in 2007.
I came to Birmingham as Professor of Medieval History in 2011, the first non-Europeanist to be appointed to a post of this title (though not the first to hold one).
- Borderlands of Inner Asia and China in the Tang-Song transition period (c. 750-1050), and especially the Liao (907-1125) and Five Dynasties (907-960)
- Frontiers/borders/boundaries: formation and maintenance, particularly in relation to identity and loyalty, and military matters
- Prosopographical approaches (Leverhulme project (2007-8)): non-kin networks, China Biographical Database
- Combining textual and archaeological approaches: non-elites, state formation, ceramic sequences, urban sites in context – AHRC project (2014-18): Understanding cities in the premodern history of northeast Asia, c. 200-1200
- AHRC project (2010-11): Continental Asia and subtropical China, 600-1400
- Global Middle Ages (AHRC network 2012-14)
- Representations: historiography, museums
- Comparative frontier studies
My research started from a fascination with the ground-level functioning of borderlands, especially in the Liao (907-1125), and from there has expanded in both time and space to the Silk Roads and the neighbours of the Liao on all sides – although I am no longer at ease with the concept of borders.
My goal is to learn more about the everyday interactions, negotiations, conflicts and compromises of ‘borderland’ regions: to understand the choices that people living in these places made, and the frameworks, motivations and imperatives that shaped those decisions. My work seeks more complex understandings of ‘China’, its peoples and its neighbours, which opens up these groupings and their relationships to rigorous comparative analysis.
The evolution of these interests has led me to collaboration with archaeologists and to investigations of how to write histories of the ‘global Middle Ages’, both of which cross-fertilise with my current writing project, which is a rethink of eastern Eurasian geography and history c. 600-1350 that aims to relocate religious, political and practice communities in their global contexts.