I am a historian of modern China, focusing on social history, media, changing political cultures, and responses to ecological crisis in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Little is still known about how China’s many thousands of rural communities conducted themselves during moments of crisis before the People’s Republic. My first 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 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.
Modern Erasures: Revolution, the Civilizing Mission, and the Shaping of China’s Past (April 2022) builds on this first book in various ways. If Famine Relief in Warlord China was a microhistory focusing on famine responses in China a century ago, the Modern Erasures is a social history of ideas, of how dominant perceptions were formed about the nature of Chinese—and particularly rural—communities in times of crisis. It is, most fundamentally, a history of modernist discourse and ideological practice, focusing on Maoism. The book revolves around earthquakes and drought in remote parts of China, such as eastern Gansu (today’s Ningxia), a year into the tumultuous May Fourth movement of 1919 and a year before the first meetings of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. In doing so, the book charts the pedigree of Maoist thought and practice over the half century between May Fourth and the CCP’s founding and the peak of the Cultural Revolution in 1969. It does this to shed light on the relationship between knowledge destruction and physical violence, book-burning and bloodletting, during China’s revolutions.
The book compares local cultural records on earthquake and famine-struck communities (what it calls communal memory recorded in gazetteers and, later, in Wenshi ziliao or Cultural and Historical Miscellany) with what it calls revolutionary memory of the recent Chinese past: the erasure of mutual aid and civic action in these same events in May Fourth and New Culture-era social surveys, the writings of missionaries and Western residents, including Nobel Prize laureates, liberal pedagogical texts, and Nationalist and Communist party doctrine. Through woodcuts, opera, and youth publications, the book then follows artistic, journalistic, and sociological work on rural life through the republican period into the campaigns of social reprogramming under Mao. Ultimately, Modern Erasures shows how the Maoist evocation of the “old society” earmarked for destruction was only the most extreme phase of a transnational, colonial-era conversation on the “backwardness” of rural communities.
Since graduating from the University of California, Irvine, with a PhD in History, I’ve taught at the University of Manchester from 2012-19, during which I created DisasterHistory.org, and at Monash University in Melbourne in 2020-21. I now teach and research at the Center for History at Sciences Po Paris.