Where's my check?

A lot of discussion of who China scholars in the U.S. -really- work for. (Hint, it’s not Cleo) One thread of the discussion, from Far Eastern Economic Review, via Cliopatria, asks if China Scholars have been bought off by the CCP. This focuses more on general research on contemporary China, but the point of the piece is that China scholars have become adept and not asking the type of questions that might annoy the state, and are thus complicit, at one remove perhaps, in what it does.

Another thread started on the H-Asia discussion list. Yang Bin and Thomas Dubois brought up the question of why Chinese scholars are “under-represented” in the field. Qin Shao refined the question by pointing out that Mainland Chinese scholars who got Ph.D.s in the US have often found work at smaller schools but almost none of them are in the Ivies. Andrew Field tenatively suggested that this might be the impact of the Cold War origins of China studies in the U.S., i.e. that “Mainland Chinese historians, schooled in the rigors of Marxist (Maoist?) historicism and sympathetic to the Chinese revolution of 1949, might constitute a threat to the anti-Communist agenda of the US government.” (I think he is trying to make the point less crudely than that.)

Most of the people involved in this discussion are quick to deny that they are interested in casting aspersions on anyone or creating flaky conspiracy theories. In reading all this stuff not quite implying that there is something wrong with the field I am reminded of Orwell’s observation that if the British Trotskyites really -were- in the pay of Hitler, or anyone else, they would at least occasionally have some money. Sadly, I suspect that nobody in Washington cares enough about China scholarship to do much about it.

Even more sadly I suspect that there is some truth to the suggestion that Western academics are so timid they would avoid topics for fear of annoying Beijing, even if Beijing is not actually saying anything. As China becomes a more and more ‘normal’ state and is less and less interested in controlling scholarship on a lot of topics this may not matter.

In part I think there is no problem to be explained. As Robert Hymes pointed out in the H-Asia discussion, most of the people who teach history in American universities in any field are Americans. Still, I think it is likely that part of the reason is that there really is a national, or at least regional character to academia. (I’m a native speaker of English and I find the British university system incomprehensible.) Chinese and American academics in China and America are quite different, ask different question and answer them in different ways, value different sorts of publications, teach differently and are supported by the state and society differently. Thus it seems unlikely that it would be easy to move back and forth between the two worlds, and in fact few people do. (The Japan/Non-Japan Japanese studies gap is a good example I think, as there you have two different worlds and there is no reason to think it is temporary.)

Is this parochialism? Is it good or acceptable if it is? Is it fixable or worth fixing? Is focusing on the Ivies a good way to ask this quesiton?


  1. The FEER piece was infuriating: the only way I can excuse it’s “possible, therefore a problem” logic is that the author was in Hong Kong, where Party pressure is considerably more noticable than elsewhere outside of China. Otherwise, it’s a hit piece, mixing guilt by association with a kind of faux empiricism.

    Focusing on the Ivies is the only way to start asking the question, because there are so few schools with the kind of critical mass of scholars worth examining.

    But it’s a terrible place to stop. Take the “Japan/Non-Japan” question: I teach at a medium-sized state institution with a small history department, and my duties include both China and Japan (and world, and I’d like to add Korea….) and I spend pretty much equal time on each country.

    I was in grad school with Erika Evasdottir; I guess it’s time to take her book on Chinese archaeolgists — Obedient Autonomy — off the shelf and see what happens when you actually take the time to research the question.

  2. How does 1949 onwards affect the history of China from 3000BC upto 1949?

    Could one say WW2 had an impact on the American War of Independence?

  3. If one thinks the revolution is a good thing, one is inclined to view traditional China in a certain way (i.e. stagnant feudal economy in need of massive structural changes that only the CCP, not the KMT, could effect).

    I for one welcome more PRC-trained historians teaching Chinese history in the West. They are more likely to present a realistic view of China’s 5000 year old history and our many great achievements, including the Great Wall which can be seen from outer space.

  4. How does 1949 onwards affect the history of China from 3000BC upto 1949?

    Changes in the present frequently affect our interpretation of the past, particularly when totalizing ideologies like Marx-Lenin-Stalin-Mao-Deng-ism are involved. Marx’s theories rest on an historical interpretation, and his loyalists have been refining and revising it ever since, even when it doesn’t fit the history involved at all. Add to that the shifting economic and social theories of the PRC’s government, which they seem to expect scholars will reflect in their work, and you have real issues.

    I can think of ways in which WWII affects people’s interpretations of the American Revolution: Holocaust v. gun ownership rights, for example; role of divine providence in American development and dominance; etc….

  5. Jonathan,
    I was not clear in the original post on Japan Non-Japan. My point was that there is a real difference in the way Japanese history is studied in Japan and the way it is studied the the U.S. This I know more second-hand, but I have been told that in the Japan field, just like in the China field, you usually can’t just take a Japanese article, translate it and send it to an English language journal. The types of questions and arguments are not entirely different, but also not entirely the same. In the case of Japan studies you can’t really argue that this is a temporary thing that we can hope will change soon.

    Or maybe I’m completely wrong about this.

  6. I also did not see the FEER piece as a hack job, although it was brief and under-supported by academic standards, as one might expect from a magazine. He is mostly talking about contemporary research, and I don’t know as much about that as I should, but a lot of what I do see on China looks different than what (little) I read about U.S. social science research. Speaking truth to power is a pose that American academics seem to like at home but not to like as much in China.

  7. Thus 1949 and beyond does not (and cannot) change history upto 1949, but rather the ‘interpretation of history’ depend on when the interpreter of history existed, and I would also add that not only does ‘interpretation of history’ depend on the time but also on space, for it would depend on which country the interpreter of history found himself in. In such an approach there is essentially no difference between true history and fictitious history or alternative history. This sounds more like political studies (with its various forms of propaganda) than history. If one adopted such an ethereal approach to the study of ‘history’ as an intellectual subject, then by comparing with, say, ‘modern day chemistry’ with ‘alchemy’, what you call ‘history’ here should perhaps be renamed ‘alhistry’.

  8. In such an approach there is essentially no difference between true history and fictitious history or alternative history.

    This is a common conclusion of people who are just beginning to realize that history is not just about “facts” but about causality which requires judicious weighing and interpretation of the relative importance of sometimes ambiguous, incorrect or misleading sources. But there are reasonably clear standards of evidence by which we judge the material and adherence to those standards is one of the most critical components of evaluating the scholarship of others. It’s not at all “ethereal”: actually, it’s based on considerable weight, and the evaluation not of single pieces of evidence but of evidence in groups and in relation to each other, and the more evidence you have, the more reliable your evaluation of it.

    There are scholars whose ideological approach to history is closer to alchemy — both Marxists and neo-Cons, among others — but the mainstream of the Western academy is practicing something much closer to a social science than a literary art.

  9. IMHO more effort needs to go into translations of Chinese historical documents because there is a lot of bias in secondary sources.

    What amazes me about Chinese history over long stretches of time are the great number of Socrates-like ministers at the imperial court who essentially drank their cups of hemlock
    rather than cave in to political pressure, and maybe this challenging of orthodox norms has probably gone in long historical cycles, maybe there is not a lot of this nowadays. The complicity of the PRC government in the production and uncritical suppport of the Gavin Menzies Ming history and Geoff Wade’s critique of it, is one example. Anyway foreign scholars, like De Toqueville for American history, will always play a role in making Chinese history more multi-faceted and nuanced, and that includes non-PRC, and ethnically Chinese historians, and scholars working in the histories of adjacent territories, peoples, ethnic groups, e.g. Vietnamese, Mongolian, Burmese, Zhuang, Tai histories, that share a common history, that paradoxically often reads entirely differently depending on which side of the border you’re reading it.

  10. Yan Xichan, according to this website, which is devoted to debunking myths, the “Great Wall of China” cannot be seen from outer space. see: http://www.snopes.com/science/greatwal.htm Of course, not having gone up and looked myself, I can confirm neither hypothesis. I’ve also seen sites which take serious contention with “China’s 5000 years of history”. More to the point of the post, I found the FEER’s question to be an important one. While my own degrees are from modest, regional universities, I do believe that the Ivies are important. They are (presumably) best positioned to recruit the very best Chinese scholars, particularly those who have made a name for themselves internationally, and to fund the publication of works important to Asian historical studies. Like it or not, there is a recognized pyramid of educational institutions, and the Ivies are at or nearest the top. It does not surprise that most Asia academics in the U.S. are American. I would hope that they were selected on the basis of their scholarship, and not on the basis of a patronym or ethnic classification. That said, any Asian scholar worth their salt will possess the required language skills. This does not mean that they must be native or near-native in skills. Indeed, my experience with native speakers is that they often come with cultural biases which color, at best, or blind their capability for independent, detached analysis. But Asian scholars must have the minimum language skills required to conduct and confirm their research.

  11. Jonathan Dresner,

    Should I assume then that you are in disagreement with Hart-Landsberg, who does take a Marxist approach?

    Less dramatically than the FEER article, I can only say that from some years experience in Latin America, more than methodological bias can be present. We should struggle to avoid such yet, in some cases, it assists in offsetting overstatements that have been taken into commonplace. ‘Centrisms’ and unreasonable reason seem all too plentiful throughout modern academia.

  12. The name doesn’t ring a bell, actually, and — though I can understand where you got the idea — I actually don’t believe that all Marxist-oriented or -derived scholarship is necessarily bunk.

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