UTalk | Yegor Grebnev: History study is boundless adventure into unknown

Published on 26 September 2023

A graduate of world-renowned universities. A multi-language user who masters Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, Russian and Ukrainian. A foreign scholar who has studied early Chinese history for nearly two decades.

These identities all belong to Dr Yegor Grebnev, now an assistant professor who teaches a Chinese Culture and Global Communication programme at UIC.

Overcoming complexity with simplicity is essential for teaching

Dr Grebnev gained his PhD in Oriental Studies from Oxford University, focusing on early Chinese history.

His university life laid a solid foundation for his language skills and knowledge of history. Growing up speaking Ukrainian, Russian and English, he learned Chinese, French and Japanese in college and continued to learn German to read more first-hand materials on Chinese history.

Dr Yegor Grebnev greets the audience in seven languages

A top performer in the Chinese language and other subjects, he embarked on an opportunity to go to Peking University for a year as an undergraduate. Though years had passed, he was still filled with joyful memories when recalling his time in Beijing.

"When I arrived in Beijing, the Summer Olympics had just finished. That was the first time I saw the city," he said. He also travelled to many places during that time, and the map of China was unfolded beneath his feet.

After returning from China, Dr Grebnev finished his bachelor's and master's studies, then headed to Oxford University for his doctoral degree.

As a PhD student, the study life in Oxford differed from what he had experienced. He could arrange his schedule and, more importantly, exchange ideas with people of various disciplines.

Dr Grevbev at Oxford with schoolmates

"I learned to explain complex ideas in simple language, because I talked not only to professionals in history, but also to people who had little understanding of my work, but still felt curious about it."

"It's easy to be difficult, for we naturally acquire this kind of difficulty in our academic training," he added. "But it's vital to speak plainly when talking with people who do not have the training you possess. Such skill is definitely useful in teaching."

Dr Grebnev's PhD viva at Oxford

Studying the past can make us more tolerant and objective

In Dr Grebnev's mind, no other region like ancient China will give scholars such an overwhelming amount of new information and unanswered questions.

"Native Chinese are familiar with their ancient stories, but we as outsiders are curious and we keep asking naïve questions, and they often bring out new research perspectives," he said. "Being a foreigner helps because you can acknowledge from the very beginning that you are ignorant. Ignorance is often an advantage."

Concentrating on early Chinese history, he managed to finish several publications and now is a member of the editorial board of a journal, Manuscript and Text Cultures, which encourages and disseminates innovative research in pre-modern manuscripts and epigraphic cultures.

Currently, he is a member of a team of scholars working on the complete English translation of the Tsinghua University Warring States Bamboo Manuscripts. The manuscripts can be dated back to the Warring States Period and were rescued and collected by Tsinghua University. The content contains early scriptures and histories that can be compared with the existing ancient books, and stories that were lost for 2,000 years and never seen before.

Dr Grebnev with a copy of the Tsinghua University Warring States Bamboo Manuscripts

When working on the manuscripts, he would spend around two hours every day decoding the wisdom left by the ancient Chinese, recognising the ancient words from the photographs of the sometimes badly preserved bamboo strips, putting them together and rendering them into modern English. He also meets with other teammates regularly to discuss and review each other's work to ensure the quality of the translation.

"When you reproduce an ancient text in an entirely different language, such as English, you feel a much stronger pressure to make sense of it," said Dr Grebnev.

He is passionate about comparative research in ancient Chinese history and texts. For him, the study of history should not be confined to certain nationalities or countries but extend to the experiences of entire humanity.

Dr Grebnev attending an academic seminar in Shenzhen in June 2023

Dr Grebnev regards historians as observers, recorders and disseminators of culture, and they must preserve and organise it to make it more accessible and convenient to be shared with other people and passed down.

He points out that as more and more artefacts are unearthed, the workload of historians grows with each passing day. "Being a historian requires more than curiosity, but also the persistence to spend enough time and energy to solve the unknown."

Working in GBA permits one abundant resource and freedom

Dr Grebnev chose the Greater Bay Area (GBA) when deciding to come to China, and for him, the advantage of working in the GBA is quite obvious.

"The advantage of the GBA is that it offers you a very good entry point into the academic community of Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, in addition to a smoother access to the international academic community," he said.

Dr Grebnev organising a workshop in April 2023 on Wailingding Island, Zhuhai

Teaching at UIC has also been an enjoyment for him, and he appreciated the College's arrangement for giving him freedom in teaching and research. "UIC enables me to focus on research and teaching without being too much overloaded with administrative routine."

Additionally, he mentioned that students at UIC are more confident in expressing themselves. "After three years of having taught in the mainland, I can now adjust to classes where students don't speak at all, but I don't think I'll ever feel fully comfortable about it," he said.

Dr Grebnev at UIC

"Fortunately, at UIC, students are comfortable expressing their opinions, and I think the specific student community here is perhaps more suitable for a person with a Western background like me."


Reporter: Cecilia Yu

Video: Li Bohan

Photos provided by the interviewee and Cecilia Yu

Editor: Deen He

Updated on 21 November 2023
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