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Researching China: An Interview with Michael Szonyi

Researching China: An Interview with Michael Szonyi

Welcome to the "Rhodes Scholars & China" interview series, where our Chinese Scholars interview Scholar alumni with work or life ties to China, including leaders in academia, journalism, business, medicine, law, and many more fields.

In this first instalment, Xiaorui Zhou (China & Pembroke 2020) interviews Michael Szonyi (Ontario & Merton 1990). Michael Szonyi is Director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and Frank Wen-hsiung Wu Memorial Professor of Chinese History at Harvard University. He is a social historian of late imperial and modern China who studies local society in southeast China using a combination of traditional textual sources and ethnographic-style fieldwork. A frequent commentator on Chinese affairs, Szonyi is a Fellow of the Public Intellectual Program of the National Committee on US-China Relations. Read Szonyi's full biography.

A Chinese version of this interview, translated by Xiaorui Zhou, is available here. For more Chinese-language content, follow Rhodes China on WeChat (ID: RhodesChina) and Weibo.


Xiaorui Zhou (XZ): You enrolled in the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Oriental Studies as a DPhil student in 1990, on the Rhodes Scholarship. Why did you apply for the Rhodes Scholarship and how was the selection process like back then?

Michael Szonyi (MS): In 1990, I was living in Taiwan, and studying at National Taiwan University. I had already decided that I wanted to pursue a post-graduate degree (and perhaps also an academic career), and the question was where. It was a fascinating time to be in Taiwan, which was undergoing huge political and social changes, so I thought about completing my degree there. I also considered applying to an American university. While I was deciding what to do next, an old friend from my undergraduate days suggested that my profile fit the Rhodes criteria well. He even mailed me the application to encourage me – hard to imagine that there was no internet then. I applied, made it to the interview stage, flew back to Canada and to my surprise was selected.

My sense is that in Canada at that time the scholarships were in the midst of a transition. They had always been considered a mark of accomplishment – a kind of reward for young people who embodied certain values. But I felt that at the time of my election, the committee was equally interested in how the Scholarship, and study at Oxford, could be an opportunity for further development. It certainly was in my case. At the cocktail party the night before the interviews, I was in awe of the other candidates. On paper they certainly looked more impressive than me. But I think I made a convincing explanation for why the opportunity to study at Oxford was the right step in my future development, and was able to link that explanation to my previous experiences, and that was probably the reason I was chosen.

Michael Szonyi at Huazhong Institute of Technology (currently Huazhong University of Science and Technology) in Wuhan, China, 1984.

XZ: What was your most memorable experience at the University of Oxford?

MS: Well, the entire period was a memorable time in my life. Graduate studies can be a lonely and challenging time, especially in the UK.  Unlike in the US or China, there are no shared classes that can generate a strong sense of being part of a cohort.  One of the wonderful things for me about Oxford was that it was always possible to deal with those challenges by taking a break from them, through sport – though not a very athletic person, I rowed for my college, learned to play rugby, and took up fencing and basketball – and through social and service activities. The college Middle Common Room (MCR) was a refuge where one could always find an interesting conversation (Though I am of course romanticizing that part of my Oxford life. I also wasted a lot of time in the MCR watching movies, reading magazines and drinking beer).

Perhaps my most memorable experience was a reading party with fellow Rhodes Scholars, organized by Warden Anthony Kenny, at a chalet in the Swiss Alps. We spent mornings reading and afternoons hiking and climbing, then reconvening in the evening for structured conversations.  It was a magical few weeks, and it confirmed for me that my intention to become a scholar was the right choice for me.

Probably my most important intellectual experience during my time at Oxford actually happened not at Oxford but in China, where I went to gather materials for my dissertation. I lived for a couple of months in a small village in Fujian, outside the provincial capital. Rural life revealed for me aspects of Chinese history that I could never have learned in a book – the daily struggles that rural people faced, their dignity in the face of a system in which the odds seemed stacked against them. Obviously, this was only a very brief encounter, but it profoundly shaped my thinking ever since.

Michael Szonyi during fieldwork in China.

XZ: How have your experiences at Oxford on the Rhodes shaped your career thus far?

MS: Soon after I arrived at Oxford, my adviser David Faure suggested that it made no sense to study Chinese history just in the UK, and therefore I should make plans to study in China. I don’t know if this was deliberate, but it was a hugely consequential suggestion. It meant that from the very beginning of my graduate studies, I was consciously engaging not only with Euro-American scholarship on China but also the best Chinese scholarship on China. Thinking about how the two schools compare in terms of methodologies, in terms of the significant questions to ask, in terms of the relationship between academic research and contemporary society and politics, has been one of the most fruitful parts of my career. As I’ve written elsewhere, I see serving as a bridge between these distinct (though overlapping) approaches as one of the main contributions I can make. I certainly try to inculcate it into all my students.

We used to complain sometimes about David Faure’s hands-off approach to supervision. But then there was a brief period when three of his DPhil advisees were all teaching at Harvard – Henrietta Harrison, Elisabeth Köll (another Rhodes Scholar) and me. So he must have been doing something right!

XZ: While there are quite a number of scholars focusing on either late imperial China (Ming-Qing history) or early modern and modern China (late Qing to present-day China), your research timeframe, which combines the two, might strike readers as unusual. Could you tell us how you have become interested in both Ming China and modern China? What, in your opinion, unites these two periods?

MS: This was not a deliberate choice, but simply a consequence of following my own interests – and of course, having the luxury of a full-time academic position that enabled me to do so. I never set out to be a Ming specialist, and I still don’t know nearly enough about Ming. I went looking for the historical origins of lineage organizations in Fujian, and found that the Ming was a critical period. This is probably the most significant finding in my first book – that aspects of Chinese society that are thought to be ancient or even eternal turn out to have a relatively recent history. Similarly, when I wrote my book about Jinmen in the 1950s-70s, I was led there by a fascinating historical episode rather than a conscious desire to work on a modern topic.

That said, there are some fascinating parallels between the two periods. I’m less interested in the parallels themselves and more interested in how Chinese people think about them. As I wrote in an essay on the recent “Ming fever”, I think that our image of the Ming as a time when the Chinese people emerged through their own efforts out of an era of authoritarian restrictions and into a time of prosperity and open-ness is one that resonates with Chinese people today. One of the messages of my most recent book, The Art of Being Governed, is that even in Ming, that image may not be entirely accurate. The policies of Zhu Yuanzhang at the beginning of the Ming had a profound and lasting impact on the everyday life of ordinary Chinese people, even long after the policies themselves were gone.

I should also mention the influence of my first teacher of Chinese history, Professor Tim Brook, who seemingly effortlessly united the study of pre-modern and contemporary China. I never consciously set out to follow his example, but obviously it was a very powerful one.

Szonyi, Michael. The Art of Being Governed: Everyday Politics in Late Imperial China. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017.

XZ: In many of your interviews, you have elaborated on your position as a “華南學派” (Southern China Studies) scholar and your experiences in conducting fieldwork in Southern China. Could you describe your research process? How does an average work day of yours look like?

MS: The basic position of most of the scholars of the 华南学派 (huanan xuepai), a group I am honored to be included in, is that the history of China looks very different if we tell it from the perspective of ordinary people. Luckily for us, a rich trove of research materials, including written sources like lineage genealogies but also popular ritual practices and popular memory, survive to help us recover that perspective. So my research process is actually very simple – I look for a historical phenomenon and ask: how did this phenomenon appear from the perspective not of elites and government archives but from that of ordinary people and their everyday experience? How do they operate within larger historical structures that shape but do not define their experience? How do their actions and their perspectives reshape that same phenomenon? To put this in a more abstract and generalized language, I try to recover micro-historical experience in order to explore macro-historical questions.

When I am working in the field, this means spending time in villages in China, getting to know villagers and hoping that they will share their records with me, traveling to temples to record stone inscriptions and more ephemeral material and to observe rituals, and just talking to people about their history. Then back in my office I relate what I have learned in the field to the more conventional version of history that one can read in elite or official sources. I have much more to say about these questions of methodology and research process in the introductions to my books, and also in a forthcoming volume of essays by younger scholars that I have co-edited with Zhao Shiyu of Peking University.

Michael Szonyi during fieldwork in China

Unfortunately, I don’t get to spend nearly as much time in the field or on research as I would like. So a more typical work day is spent at Harvard, teaching classes, meeting with students, and trying to squeeze some time to read and think about materials I’ve collected in China.

For the past five years, I’ve also been Director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard. I have a lot less time for my own research, but the compensation is a fascinating and varied work life. On any given day, besides teaching and research, I might have any number of the following experiences: hosting or attending a lecture or seminar on some aspect of China Studies – we currently running nine separate seminar series ranging from Ezra Vogel’s "Critical Issues Confronting China" to the "Environment in Asia" series led by Ling Zhang, a brilliant colleague at Boston College; receiving a delegation of visiting scholars from a Chinese university or scholars of China from another part of the world – one memorable recent delegation was a group of China analysts from Kazakhstan; working with colleagues and the Harvard leadership on some aspect of Harvard’s engagement with China; reviewing the selection process for a research grant to faculty or students; an interview with media on some aspect of US-China relations, or a conversation with a government official about US-China policy.

And of course, for the last few months, my work day has been very different from anything I’ve ever experienced. I don’t need to describe for you the details of a life held on Zoom and Voov (and sometimes both – this can be a real challenge if I need to attend a workshop in China – on Chinese time – and also keep to my regular work day in the US – on US time). These days a lot of my time is spent trying to help Harvard students whose plans have been disrupted – in terms of travel, funding, or access to materials. I’m meeting regularly with a group of China historians around the world to discuss how we can help our graduate students adjust to the new situation. I hope for everyone’s sake that life will get back to normal soon.

Michael Szonyi at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, where he has served as Director since 2016.

XZ: Apart from your profession as a historian, you are also a public intellectual negotiating between the Anglophone world and China. For instance, both of your more recent works, The Art of Being Governed (2017) and The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power (2018; co-edited with Jennifer Rudolph), have attracted attention beyond academia and the Anglophone world (see, for example, the reviews of your work on Douban, a Chinese social networking platform allowing users to review books). Could you tell us a bit more about the choice of your intended audience? In addition, why are you invested in having this dialogue about Chinese history with an audience who are probably not professional historians or Sinologists?

MS: I’ve tried to straddle the worlds of both academe and popular discourse, which may explain why I’m not as successful in either as I would like to be. I’ve also worked for many years as an adviser on China policy, first to the Canadian and later to the US government. Though I’ve now put that work behind me, I think producing and disseminating knowledge about China in a world where China is increasingly important and there is so much misinformation, both outright falsehood as well as analysis derived from a partisan political position, is part of my responsibility as an intellectual, and part of where I can contribute. Academic specialists have an important role to play in countering oversimplifications of complex issues, of drawing attention to the nuances that are often forgotten in popular media. This is an issue I have thought about a lot in my role as a fellow of the Public Intellectuals Program of the National Committee on US-China relations. My friend and colleague Ezra Vogel is a mentor in this program and a model to me for how to communicate to diverse audiences. I’ve written many times before that the US-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in our world. Unless that relationship is healthy, we will never be able to effectively confront serious global challenges that affect not just our two countries but the fate of the planet. So seeking to contribute to mutual understanding by communicating with audiences large and small strikes me as a worthy goal.

XZ: We last heard about your research project on a history of modern China from the perspectives of rural people back in 2018. If it’s possible, could you tell us a little bit about this upcoming research project?

MS: I am really excited about my next book, which is tentatively titled Village China: A Modern History. The population of China was predominantly rural for virtually the whole of its history until a few years ago, so the question of how the people of rural China experienced the tumultuous changes of the last century is a topic that is waiting to be written about.
In this book I want to challenge the notion that rural Chinese people were bystanders to their own history, that they were simply acted upon by larger political and social forces. I also want to challenge the notion that these larger political forces such as revolution and reform constituted the totality of peasant experience. Adding the perspective, the experiences, and the agency of rural people not only has the potential to produce a more complete understanding of modern history but, perhaps even more important, challenges some of our basic ideas about Chinese history. Looking at the long sweep of rural history rather than dividing it up according to conventional periodization schemes into pre-1949, Maoist and reform eras will, I think, yield some interesting new ideas about contemporary issues in Chinese rural society. Finally, urbanization and the end of traditional rural life has been a very widespread phenomenon around the world. Isolating the rural experience in China’s history will, I hope, yield new insights into what was and was not distinctive about China in modern global history.

For Chinese readers, who may be more familiar with the broad outlines of that history, I expect the most startling argument will be the degree to which the whole of modern Chinese history since the 1940s if not earlier has involved, and relied on, extraction from rural areas and the people who lived there: extraction of labor during wartime through conscription; extraction of surplus through the pricing system of the Maoist era; extraction of labor again during reform, through migrant labor, and, most serious today, extraction of wealth through the sale of property rights to finance local government. The current rural crisis in China appears in a new light when we situate it in this longer history.

I will be devoting much of the next year to this project, as well as to another project using a remarkable collection of documents from a small village in Yongtai, near my old research site of Fuzhou. I had hoped to spend much of that time in China. That’s obviously in doubt. But I’ll adapt somehow.

Michael Szonyi during fieldwork in China

XZ: What advice do you have for Chinese college seniors or recent graduates starting out on researching and understanding China?

MS: I am sure you did not intend for this to be a difficult or sensitive question, but at this moment in history it is one. Like any society, China is enormously complex and fascinating. There are limitless possibilities for what one might try to research, and many different possible research approaches. That hasn’t changed. But what has changed, I feel, is that those of who study China today have no choice but to confront the moral dimensions of our professional careers. What that means for me, as a Canadian citizen researching and teaching about China in the United States, is very different for what it means for Chinese seniors and graduates. I need to ask myself questions about how my work can best support my colleagues in China who are facing adversity, about how to respond to the rising tide of anti-Asian racism in the United States, about how to deal with aspects of contemporary China that I find troubling. These are not necessarily the questions that would-be scholars of China in China face. But in the face of narrowing space for intellectual discourse and a challenging intellectual climate, I think there are similar questions that young scholars also need to ask.

XZ: Similarly, what advice do you have for Chinese college seniors or recent graduates who are thinking of applying for the Rhodes Scholarships?

MS: My main advice is not to make decisions for the sake of enhancing your application. You should do things that interest and excite you – both academically and extra-curricularly. You should have adventures – the opportunity cost of adventures will never again be as low as it is now. What kinds of adventures you end up having is really secondary, and in all likelihood the adventures you set out to have will be quite different from what actually transpires. This may well be very bad advice in terms of enhancing one’s chances of winning the scholarship, but I think it’s still pretty good advice.

Xiaorui Zhou recently graduated with highest honours in History from the NUS-Sciences Po Dual B.A. Programme. She received the NTUC gold medal for top student in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Sung Kah Kay Memorial Prize for student best exemplifing scholarship in the University Scholars' Programme. Her thesis, 'Homebound Women', received the Wong Lin Ken Memorial Medal for best thesis. She aspires to be a scholar and writer of modern China, with much to tell the world.

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