Haiyuan, Ningxia, 2017

I am a historian of modern China with a focus on social history, changing political cultures, and ecological crisis in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

My book Famine Relief in Warlord China captures everyday life in Chinese villages, towns and cities a century ago by examining the varied responses to drought famine on the North China plain. One of the book’s main aims is to shed light on what Chinese communities actually did and did not do when millions of destitute neighbors or compatriots faced starvation due to spiraling grain prices over the winter of 1920-21. In doing so, the book seeks to shift academic attention away from international and institutional relief interventions in modern Chinese disasters towards activity occurring along indigenous social networks. It does this for what it reveals about everyday values and social relations in an under-studied period between the fall of the Qing in 1911 and the rise of the Communist and Nationalist parties over the course of the 1920s.

My current project, tentatively titled Modern Erasures: Revolutionary Memory and the Shaping of the Chinese Past, builds on this first monograph in various ways. If the first was a social history of severe subsistence crises, the second is a social history of ideas, of how dominant perceptions were formed about the nature of Chinese (and particularly rural) communities in these same events. The book focuses on the great Haiyuan earthquake, which struck Gansu (today’s Ningxia) in December 1920, a remote part of China’s northwest a year and a half into the May Fourth Movement. It compares local cultural records on earthquake and famine-struck communities (what it calls “communal memory” recorded in gazetteers and, later, in Cultural and Historical Miscellany) with what the book terms “revolutionary memory” of the recent Chinese past: May Fourth and New Culture-era social surveys, the writings of missionaries and Western residents, including Nobel Prize laureates, liberal/progressive pedagogical texts, Nationalist and Communist party doctrine, woodcut prints, and party-sponsored village opera. The book explores the common portrayals of rural Chinese social ethics and practice across these dominant forms of cultural production over the course of the 1920s to 1940s, and, later on, their political uses in justifying radical social transformation in the Maoist movements of the PRC.

I hold a PhD in Chinese history from the University of California, Irvine, and taught East Asian history in the History Department of the University of Manchester in the UK from 2012-19 during which I created DisasterHistory.org. I teach in the History Department at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.