Section: Features

“Monks, Mongols, Manchus” caps off Ruth Dunnell’s career

“Monks, Mongols, Manchus” caps off Ruth Dunnell’s career

Before Associate Professor of History Nurten Kilic-Schubel, the director of the Asian and Middle Eastern studies program, had heard of Kenyon College, she knew about Ruth Dunnell, current James P. Storer professor of history and department chair.

“I was a graduate student in Turkey, reading her work,” Kilic-Schubel said. “When I tell other scholars I work at Kenyon, the first thing they ask me is if I know Ruth.”

Kilic-Schubel helped organize “Monks, Mongols, and Manchus,” a series of talks by scholars who had influenced and been influenced by Dunnell’s research. Last Saturday afternoon, staff, students and alumni attended the event.

Dunnell’s specialty is pre-modern inner Asian history, with a focus on the history of the Mongol empire. In 2009, she published a complete biography of Genghis Khan, and is one of the few living scholars who studies the Tangut people of western China. She has worked at the College since 1989 and will be teaching her last class next Spring.

When Dunnell was in high school, China underwent the Maoist Cultural Revolution, making it, like the Soviet Union, an enemy of the United States. Dunnell said that a desire to understand these “enemies” was at the root of her early academic work. She was one of two seniors at her high school who took the opportunity to enroll in a class at her local community college. She took an introductory class in Russian language. The other student enrolled in accounting. 

Dunnell enrolled at Middlebury College, where she continued her studies in Russian. “I had these romantic visions for my future,” Dunnell said. Her goal was to work as an interpreter for the United Nations, but in her sophomore year she took a class in Chinese history, fell in love with the subject and switched her major to history, passing up the opportunity to be a part of the first exchange program between the United States and the Soviet Union. Dunnell went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Washington, and a doctorate from Princeton University.

The topics on Saturday ranged from blood oaths in feudal Japan to mosques in contemporary China. Many of the speakers shared with the audience how Dunnell had assisted them in their lives and research. Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan Donald Lopez spoke on the semester that he spent with Dunnell in Ann Arbor, researching the Tibetan Panchen Lama’s visit to the Qing court in 1780. University of Pennsylvania Professor of History Christopher Atwood gave a presentation in which he analyzed a series of medieval Mongol population censuses. He acknowledged the obscurity of his topic, but admitted that there would be at least one person in the audience who would appreciate it, gesturing to Dunnell.

“I have always been scared of Ruth Dunnell,” University of Michigan Professor of History Hitomi Tonomura said before she began her presentation. “I hope she will continue to haunt me for a long time.”

“Everyone who we invited said ‘yes’ right away,” Kilic-Schubel said. “These are prominent scholars at a very busy time of the year, but they came for Ruth. Ruth is a respected scholar, and her scholarship has connected Kenyon to the rest of the academic world. In her time here, the history department has become globalized — we have Ruth to thank for that.”

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