Professor Sulmaan Khan Brings Chinese Expertise to Fletcher
hat ultimately attracted me to The Fletcher School was the multidisciplinary approach to global issues,” says Sulmaan Khan, a new professor in China studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. “I enjoyed meeting prospective candidates and current students from all different backgrounds. A multidisciplinary approach is crucial to understanding international relations.” Khan joins the Fletcher family from Yale University, where he completed his Ph.D. in history in 2012. His dissertation, Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy: China’s Cold War and the Tibetan Borderlands, 1959–1962, draws principally on newly declassified sources from Beijing and Taiwan, and shows how the Tibetan frontier and the non-state actors who moved across it played a crucial— and hitherto unrecognized—role in defining the foreign policy and nature of modern China. His current projects include an exploration of the role of rivers in Chinese relations with other Asian countries, from the earliest times until the present, along with a study of how various countries—from Algeria to Cuba—sought to adapt the Chinese land reform model to suit their own needs. Khan began his research on this project in Beijing last summer. He traveled to Turkey to learn more about Turkish Maoism and to practice the language. At The Fletcher School this fall, Khan will be teaching a survey course called Foreign Relations of Modern China, 1644 to the present. He has designed the course to provide a comprehensive background to China’s relationship with the West and with other major world powers. This course will outline and include extensive discussion of China’s military, political, trade, and cultural history. He says that he is excited to teach anyone interested in the subject, and that this survey course may be interesting to many types of students, even those not traditionally studying history or China. Khan’s light attitude yet dedication to his subject show the face of a professor who is truly invested in the learning value of his students and who wants to introduce anyone to his exciting subject. Like many from The Fletcher School, Khan says that he “stumbled into” his work. He spent part of his undergraduate degree backpacking in China, where he picked up much of the language.
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After receiving his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Yale University, he lived in China for three years, where he worked as a journalist and editor. At the time, the Foreign Ministry Archives in China opened up, which highly interested Khan, as he was trained as a historian. This, in addition to his work in journalism, led him to pursue more historical research, and eventually to pursue a Ph.D. in Chinese history. Traveling in China was an eye-opening experience for Khan. He spent his time mostly in places that were far from “central China.” “When traveling the Tibetan Plateau and the border with Burma,” he says, “it is different than the China you will encounter in Beijing. You receive a sense of foreign relations on the ground, different than what diplomats say.” Khan stresses the importance of interdisciplinary study to understanding international issues, especially those of modernday China. Khan says, “As a journalist, you get to talk to people. As a historian, you mostly work with documents. These are similar skill sets and each is helpful for the other.” Journalism also spurred his extensive travel. “I got a good sense of geography,” Khan says. His unique perspective of bridging China’s history of foreign relations to modern-day politics and policies guide him to think differently about Chinese-global relations and to have a deeper understanding of Chinese foreign relations today. After meeting with students during his last visit to The Fletcher School, Khan was excited to work closely with current Fletcher students and alumni. He was impressed by their intuition, curiosity, dedication to learning, and passion and drive to make a difference in the world. Khan hopes to bring “a sense of fun and a sense of joy in learning” to his classes. He wants his students to truly enjoy the subject and to learn for the sake of learning. Khan’s research of underrepresented populations related to China, including Tibet and Burma, will provide an excellent opportunity for Fletcher students to learn from a true expert and rising scholar in the field. Khan’s approach is a close fit with that of The Fletcher School, as he aims to foster students to think critically about the issues at hand and how foreign policy is affected by history. His wealth of experience in China is similar to many Fletcher school students who have traveled in Asia, and his class will attract both those who have experience in China and those who are looking to learn something new. Khan is excited to begin his teaching career at The Fletcher School and looks forward to meeting the students and becoming a part of the Fletcher community. —Samantha Lakin, MALD 2014