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Susan Brownell, Ph.D.

My Early Years

I grew up in Lexington, Virginia, and earned my B.A. at the University of Virginia, where I fell in love with anthropology in my second semester, and decided that I wanted to be a university professor like my father (who taught mathematics and engineering at Washington & Lee University). Victor Turner was then one of the most famous anthropologists alive, and I was fortunate to take part in the famous seminar held by him and his wife and partner, Edie, in their home. I revisited this experience in Experiential and Performative Anthropology in the Classroom (2020), co-edited with Pam Frese – a Ph.D. student of the Turners and my instructor in one of my undergraduate classes.

In addition, I am a member of the “Title IX generation." My mother was a huge fan of the Olympic Games and from the time that I watched Peggy Fleming win the Olympic gold in figure skating when I was eight, I wanted to be on an Olympic team. I didn’t really care in what sport. Although I rode and trained horses, my mother's passion, I spent a lot of my youth feeling angry at the lack of sports opportunities for girls. After the passage of Title IX, a group of students and their mothers pressured the school board to add girls’ sports at the local high school. I had to run on the boys’ indoor track team for four years, but we did get a girls’ outdoor track team. My event was the pentathlon and then, when two events were added in 1981, the heptathlon. I gained a college scholarship, was a six-time collegiate All-American, and was the best multi-event athlete on the East Coast, winning the inaugural pentathlon at the Penn Relays in 1980 and achieving a three-year streak of coveted Penn Relays watches. I was nationally-ranked in the top ten in the U.S. several times, and competed in the 1980 and 1984 Olympic trials.

Susan Brownell_Prague headshot.jpg
Susan_Penn Relays.jpg

My interest in China dates back to my grandmother’s stories about her family’s relationship with the Chinese community in the Mississippi Delta in the 1910s and 20s, when my great-grandfather, Earl Brewer, was invited by the Mississippi Chinese Association to represent them as their lawyer. He was a governor of the state and a prominent lawyer who won an appeal to the U.S Supreme Court in Brown v. Mississippi (1936), a pathbreaking decision opening the way to the Miranda Rights Act, which found that coerced confessions (in this case, of three black sharecroppers accused of murdering a white farmer) are unconstitutional.

Governor Earl Leroy Brewer
(Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

Research and Writing

I have conducted ethnographic research in China since 1985, and have taught at the University of Missouri-St. Louis since 1994. Throughout my career I have been committed to strengthening the understanding of China in other countries, and especially in the U.S. – since a peaceful relationship between China and the U.S. will be of paramount importance for a stable world order in the future. My specialty areas include international studies, East Asian studies, Chinese studies, gender studies, sports studies, medical anthropology, and ritual studies. I have also written about the debates about human rights in China that have surrounded China’s hosting of Olympic Games.

My first book, Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic (1995), was based on my experience as a college athlete representing Beijing City during my year of language study at Peking University. I won the heptathlon in China’s 1986 National College Games. The book focused on the significance of sports as a medium for expressing nationalism at the same time that they were an important channel for the introduction of global culture into China. Since the topic was under-researched and generally ignored in the West at the time, this work opened many doors for me early on, given the weight that the Chinese leadership has accorded to sports since the era of Ping-pong Diplomacy. Although fieldwork in China can be difficult, I began to build connections that subsequently granted me “insider access” in areas into which non-Chinese scholars are rarely allowed.

Susan_Trackside Beijing City Meet.jpg

I was the only non-Chinese scholar invited to serve on two high-profile Academic Experts’ Teams that worked with the staff of the organizing committees and government agencies who managed the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and Shanghai World Expo 2010. Those experiences led to Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China (2008); The Olympics in East Asia: Nationalism, Regionalism, and Globalism on the Center Stage of World Sports (co-edited with William Kelly, 2011); and a co-edited special issue of the British Journal of Sociology on “Olympic and World Sport: Making Transnational Society?” (2012).

I used a comparative civilizations approach to explore the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Olympics, organizing three international symposia and editing a volume titled From Athens to Beijing: West Meets East in the Olympic Games: Sport, the Body and Humanism in Ancient Greece and China (2013). Chinese Femininities/ Chinese Masculinities: A Reader (2002) has been used in undergraduate and graduate courses worldwide.

My co-authored book, The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Border, Biopolitics (2018), supplied an agenda-setting overview of a subfield that is finally gaining a critical mass of scholars. It was ranked number one in the category of “Sporting Life” in Choice’s 2019 Outstanding Academic Titles, and has been translated into Spanish, French, and Japanese. My edited volume about events surrounding the St. Louis World’s Fair, The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games: Sport, Race, and American Imperialism (2008), won the Best Anthology Award from the North American Society of Sport History. In 2015 I received the UM-St. Louis Chancellor’s Award for Research and Creativity.

I worked closely with China’s senior sports diplomat and his wife to translate his biography (written by her) into English, He Zhenliang and China’s Olympic Dream (2007)(511 pages). This credential led to my being invited to translate a number of official books and reports (listed in my CV), as well as the Shanghai Declaration, a document advocating sustainable urban development, issued in the name of 246 participating nations and organizations at the 2010 World Expo.


I have extensive leadership experience, including eight years as chair of a department that started as an anthropology department, and then merged with languages and sociology. I have served for nine years on the Faculty Senate and chaired three major committees: the Senate Tenure and Promotion Committee, the UM System Inter-Campus Faculty Council (IFC), and the IFC Task Force on Post-Tenure Review. In 2018, my effective management of these three committees, along with a complex department, was recognized by the University of Missouri President’s Award for Service – Citizenship and Leadership. I also served as Treasurer of the Society for East Asian Anthropology (2016-20), member of the Advisory Council of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (2012-16), and member of the Research Council/Postgraduate Grant Selection Committee of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne (2000-2008).

Public Engagement

My work appeals to diverse public and academic audiences. While in Beijing on a Fulbright Research Award during the year leading up to the 2008 Olympics, I gave interviews to 100 media outlets based in more than 20 countries, including the Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS, 60 Minutes on CBS, NBC, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera TV, China Central TV, Beijing TV, NPR, Beijing Radio, AP Press, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Apple Daily (Hong Kong), and Oriental Daily (Shanghai). During the games, I worked as an expert commentator for China Central TV’s English language channel. Since then, I have become a favorite media interview partner regarding Olympic Games in general and the politics of Chinese sports in particular. I write for online publications and mass media, and have been featured in multiple podcasts and documentaries. I am also regularly invited to give talks, guest lectures, and short courses, representing a wide range of disciplines, at universities worldwide.

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