From late 2015 until August 2016 I worked on a Master’s thesis about historical Chinese documents and the world’s rarest ape, the Hainan gibbon. My project supervisor was Dr Samuel Turvey, author of a terrific book about people trying (or not) to save the baiji, also known as the Yangtze river dolphin. He is now working on gibbons in China—you may have heard him in the coverage of Skywalker gibbons just this past week. Excellent co-supervision also from Clare Duncan.

The chance to work with Dr Turvey was a driver for me, along with a couple more: I wanted to add new skills, rather than re-using my established interview or sound skills; and I wanted to take a responsible approach, doing no harm and potentially bringing some benefit. So we settled on a desk-based study, using the pre-modern Chinese of my undergraduate degree at SOAS, plus statistics and academic science approaches from my Master’s. I had to develop all of these in the process.
The course required the paper be written to the style of a particular academic journal, and was marked on the likelihood of that journal publishing it. This was perhaps the greatest challenge: for someone from a communications background, writing in the academic-science writing style is like wearing those goggles that appear to invert the world (illustrated QI-style in the video below).

A resulting challenge has been the question of producing other works inspired by the study. The deep-dive into the format followed by job-hunting left me with knowledge but no notes suitable for the trees of thoughts that might lead to a Radio 4 documentary or book on Robert Swinhoe, the podcast on Hainan gibbons, the Chinese-language interactive on the Hainan gibbon’s urgent needs, the video on the Bencao gangmu (working on that one for February!)…
Curiously the MSc put me on the other side of the equations of my previous roles, where I was busy trying to shift academics’ content into worthwhile radio or other non-academic outputs. To do so with work that I have been academically approaching, I now feel the need for creative collaborators.

What I do have, however, is a compromise academic-science article meeting a combination of journal and university submission requirements. If that floats your boat, here’s a PDF of one of the later versions, with slight reformatting and without the chunky data. If you’d like to see the collected text excerpts in a spreadsheet as simplified Chinese, get in touch and I’ll send them on.

The purpose was to find out how much work is necessary to get statistically reliable biological information from Hainan island’s Ming, Qing, and Republican era gazetteers. Academic-science caveats apply. Sinologists, this might make you go pop!