Global Learning from Grinnell to Dunhuang

A research project in China was just the beginning of this student’s educational journey.

April 01, 2019

Maggie Coleman ’20 had never studied Chinese and spoke not a single word of the language. But, confident that her Grinnell experience had prepared her to thrive in any setting around the world, the third-year student majoring in art history and physics decided to conduct independent research that involved traveling for 6 weeks across China, through the cities of Beijing, Datong, Luoyang, Xi'an, Dunhuang, and Shanghai, and through the Gobi Desert.

With a growing interest in Buddhist grottoes and a couple courses under her belt that delved into the issues surrounding them, Coleman applied for a Lan-Chang Fellowship Grant from the Institute for Global Engagement to conduct her own research on the grottoes up close and in person.

Each year, one or two Grinnell students may be awarded Lan-Chang grants, which do not have to be repaid, to help cover the cost of traveling to and from China and living there for 6–8 weeks during the summer. These fellowships promote cultural understanding of mainland China through students who undertake projects in China and share these experiences upon returning to campus. Speaking the language is not a grant requirement.

“It was a challenge,” she says. “But I did learn enough of the language to vary my diet up a bit toward the end of the trip. And I learned the word for water, which proved very helpful.”

tourists in front of ancient building

Expanding Boundaries

The basic language skills Coleman acquired, while practical, were only a small part of the knowledge she gained on the trip. Through her research and travels she also developed greater cultural awareness and a respect for the people of China.

“There are grottoes in Datong, Luoyang, and Dunhuang,” she explains. “These were the most important places I visited. I had two classes prior to this trip in which we discussed these particular grottoes so getting to see them in person was really meaningful.”

Many of these grottoes date from the 6th to 14th century CE and were unknown to Western civilization for most of that time.

Coleman’s research focused specifically on the removal of ancient manuscripts from these sites by a western explorer in 1904, the impact this has had on the sites, and what action if any should be taken to return the manuscripts to their original location.

This issue goes to the heart of museum politics and controversy — where historic pieces come from, how they were acquired, and whether they should be kept in situ or placed in museums where scholars can more easily access and study them.

In Dunhuang, she met with representatives from the Dunhuang Research Academy, the organization charged with protecting the grottoes. Neil Schmid, a foreign professor working with the organization, spent time with Coleman, sharing his insights and opinions on the grottoes and the question of the manuscripts.

“He believes they should be returned to the sites,” she says. “Chinese scholars have only transcripts and facsimiles of the manuscripts to work from and study, and they deserve access to the original materials as well. I agree that some should be returned, but I also believe there is good reason to keep the manuscripts where they are easily accessible to a wide range of researchers.”

Experiences that Open Doors

Gobi Desert

As her first foray into independent research, the experience proved especially insightful for Coleman and created even more opportunities for research, as well as career preparation.

Coleman will head to Greece this spring to study the Elgin Marbles, originally part of the temple of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. Researchers studying there face many of the same issue as those studying the Buddhist grottoes — the question of whether historic resources should be moved from their original location. This class will explore the issues surrounding this practice and engage in debate at the end of the trip, taking both sides of the issue and exploring the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Course-embedded travel such as this course allows students to study for a semester as well as travel for a period of 7–14 days, both under the guidance of expert faculty. These courses have an international perspective, which is bolstered by traveling to a particular site, either in the United States or abroad, during a period of academic recess.

“The trip to China was definitely beneficial in terms of preparing me for a career,” Coleman says. “The research, the writing, the presentation of ideas will all be extremely valuable if I choose to go into academia as a professor. I’m also interested in museum curatorial work, and dealing with issues like this are crucial in that role.”

Coleman will travel to San Diego in April to present her complete findings at the East Asia Network Conference, and will also present her work at the Student Research Symposium at Grinnell later this year.

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