Dynasties of war, revolution, and imperial rule fill the records of China’s past. Historians, both in this country and abroad, examine how the legacy of these events influenced subsequent culture. Scholars based in China tend to view that history through its relationship with their own traditions.

However, the three China historians at UC Santa Cruz are all outsiders to the culture. Through unique blends of scholarship and collaboration, they connect ideas from other social sciences and branches of history to big events in Chinese history. These cross-cultural perspectives help them reveal history that is often more complex than it first appears, and their collaborations continue to create new opportunities for research.

For these UCSC historians, outside perspective comes from their own life experiences, as well as conversations and collaborations with scholars from other fields.

Displaced youth

In 1979, Emily Honig spent two years in Shanghai, working on her dissertation research at Fudan University and studying the lives of women workers in the city. “I was interested in social networks and where people came from and how that impacted their experience,” she said.

Today, Honig is a professor of history at UCSC, and she’s working on a project conceived during those dissertation days. Her book-in-progress explores the “sent-down youth” movement, a program that Communist leaders envisioned as a way to “re-educate” urban youth in the traditional ways of life. Not coincidentally, her collaborator is Xiaojian Zhao, a former next-door neighbor from the Fudan student dormitories. Now a professor of Asian-American history at UC Santa Barbara, Zhao was one of the millions of urban teenagers sent to live with peasants in the countryside during the 1960s.

About five years ago, the women traveled to the rural village where Zhao lived during her teenage years. The two visited the county’s archive, and archives from other areas that hosted urban youth. There they found a wealth of information that hadn’t been described in any other books or journals.

In particular, some records revealed unexpected associations. Honig said she and Zhao kept finding lists of items like tires, tractors, electrical wire, broadcast cable, and high-pressure water pumps. At first, the researchers ignored these records, thinking they were irrelevant to their questions. But the sheer abundance of these lists forced the researchers to take a closer look. The women then realized that the county offices of the “sent-down youth” movement were requesting material goods from the city offices.

“There was this whole behind-the-scenes economic exchange between major industrial cities like Shanghai and Beijing and remote areas, even though state policy basically said that local villages can’t acquire equipment from anywhere,” Honig said. “But because of the ‘sent-down youth’ movement, unbelievable amounts of material goods were sent to the countryside.”

She thinks it was a way for Shanghai families to send goods to the towns where their children were living, hopefully enabling the villages to establish factories where the kids could work instead of the fields. Stories of riding tractors or transporting equipment from the cities could seem too mundane to arise during interviews or in memoirs. But once asked about it, people who were transplanted during their youth can tell plenty of stories about equipment, Honig said.

The collaboration with Honig is useful, said Zhao, because they each bring different scholarly and personal perspectives to the topic. She and Honig have presented their work at international conferences, and Zhao said their book is already anticipated by Chinese-speaking scholars.

Rural voices

Working with someone closely connected to an issue was also critical for Gail Hershatter, a distinguished professor of history at UCSC and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, when she researched her most recent book. Published in 2011, The Gender of Memory: Rural Women in China’s Collective Past, presents rural women’s perspectives about their lives during the country’s transition to socialism.

Hershatter gathered material for her book with Gao Xiaoxian, a researcher involved with rural development projects in her home province of Shaanxi, about 900 miles west-northwest of Shanghai. The two women met at a conference in 1992, and they shared an interest in learning about the life in the countryside during the revolution. Hershatter feels that her collaborator was essential to the research process. Gao Xiaoxian worked in the countryside and was already accepted by many villagers. That meant it took less time for the women to accept Hershatter into their community and feel comfortable enough to share personal stories.

As Hershatter inquired about rural life, she discovered the written and oral record of the countryside was bursting with stories that people were eager to tell, yet no one had asked about. Even today, research in the countryside is challenging; the area is large and there is little infrastructure.

From 1996 to 2006, Hershatter and Gao interviewed 72 women, and a few men, from villages in central and southern Shaanxi province. Rural women were not shy about complaining about their lives. Once you asked, Hershatter said, “you’d better have four or five hours because all these pent up stories would come pouring out.” The women talked of the physical labor of working in the fields, travails of raising children, the constant work of sewing clothes, and attending party meetings in the village.

The two collaborators also searched regional archives, looking for materials that revealed govern-mental goals for building socialism. These materials also reported problems that occurred while ending arranged marriages, reorganizing ownership of farm fields, and increasing agricultural production.

From the state’s perspective, the new policies created a new era of freedom for women. But from the women’s perspective, socialism did little to ease daily hardships. Men left the villages for paid work nearby. Women took over the agricultural duties, working in the fields during the day to maximize grain production. At night, they also cooked, cared for the children, and sewed clothes and shoes. Some women reported basically not sleeping for years.
“If you look at the state trying to do this big modernization project by drawing on peasant labor, women are the center of it because their paid and their unpaid [domestic] labor is underwriting the whole project,” Hershatter said.

Reviewers of her book noted that it provides the first personal accounts of major government campaigns of the 1950s. “[T]his is one of the rare books that transform our understanding of the Chinese revolution and, at the same time, makes us think about the way we practice history,” wrote Jacob Eyferth, an East Asian historian at the University of Chicago, in the May 2014 issue of The PRC History Review.

Hershatter expects more scholarship about rural China and the revolution to emerge in the future. Since starting this project, she’s noticed that graduate students in history programs at some Chinese universities are being encouraged to interview their aging grandparents before their stories are lost.

Intellectual evolution

Sometimes perspectives disappear over centuries of cultural change. Dai Zhen was an influential 18th-century Chinese intellectual who assimilated European knowledge of mathematics and astronomy into Chinese culture. Dai also challenged the imperial hierarchy with talk of individualism. His cultural influence wavered during the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. But in the 20th century, Dai reappeared as a revered figure. Some of his humanitarian and individualistic philosophy was used as a slogan during the Cultural Revolution.

However, historians studying the impact of Dai’s work tend to focus either on his scientific knowledge or his philosophical legacy. Minghui Hu, an associate professor of history at UCSC, wanted to investigate Dai as both a scientist and philosopher, and then follow the way both aspects of Dai’s ideas percolated through Chinese culture.

In his new book, Hu recounts how Dai absorbed the latest astronomical knowledge from Jesuit missionaries who arrived in China during the 17th century. That knowledge also fueled Dai’s social criticism and philosophical legacy. Hu’s book, China’s Transition to Modernity: The New Classical Vision of Dai Zhen, will be published in June. “As a historian, I wrote this book intending to restore what [Dai] was doing back to its time,” he said.

Even though he grew up in Taiwan and memorized classical Chinese texts during school, Hu considers himself an outsider to Chinese culture. He came to the United States at the age of 25, to attend graduate school in science and technology studies, a field that uses history, sociology, and philosophy to examine the intersection of science and culture. He went on to obtain his doctorate in the history of science, and Hu’s adviser recommended that he combine his science background with his ability to read classical Chinese texts to study the history of Chinese science.

Hu notes that a trio of China historians in one department is rare at universities today, and that concentration of scholars bolsters the impact of their research. All three—Hershatter, Honig, and Hu—have collaborated with scholars in, or from, China. They also incorporate theories from the humanities and social sciences into their historical inquiries. That depth and breadth of experience has attracted graduate students from all over the world, many of whom are now professors at other universities and colleges. Of their efforts, Hu said: “We are trying to become a major center of China history in the UC system, and in the country.”