Two years of ‘This Week in China’s History’


James Carter, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and the author of one of the most widely-read columns that SupChina runs, talks about his experience writing This Week in China's History for the past two years.

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with James Carter.

Kaiser: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily, newly designed China Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China, from hundreds of different news sources, or check out all the original writing on our website at We’ve got reported stories, essays and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns and of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region to China’s travails as it wrestles with a surging wave of COVID-19. It’s a feast of business, political and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Each week in the intro to this show, I mention how SupChina has lots of original writing, including regular columns, and we’ve got some great ones.

Yangyang Cheng, alas, is not writing her excellent “Science in the Divide” column these days, but the ones she wrote up until last year are certainly worth revisiting. We’ve added a bunch of new columns recently, including Jeremy’s interview series called “Invited to Tea,” “A China Sports Column” by Gerry Harker, Andrew Methven’s “Phrase of the Week,” and great regular book reviews by Mike Cormack. All of this is, of course, in addition to stalwarts like Darren Byler’s often quite heartbreaking column on Xinjiang.

But if I had to pick my very favorite of our columns, I’d have to give the golden apple to Jay Carter who writes “This Week in China’s History.” So this week on Sinica, in observance of two full years of delivering us a great column every single week, I have asked Jay to join me to talk about his amazing contributions to SupChina and, more importantly, to popular understandings of Chinese history.

James Carter is professor of history at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and recently became Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences there. He is the author of the outstanding book, Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai, which Jeremy and I interviewed him about back in December of 2020, and of some other great books, including Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth Century Monk, and Creating a Chinese Harbin: Nationalism in an International City, 1916-1932. Jay Carter, welcome back to Sinica, man. Great to see you.

Jay: It is really my pleasure. I’m humbled and honored to be here, so looking forward to the conversation.

Kaiser: Oh yeah, it’s going to be a fun one. You know, Jay, I would put you in a category inhabited by a few other historians and other social scientists who work on China, people who kind of deliberately set out to address a non-specialist audience and to get their voice out there. Some of them do this work by engaging with the media frequently on topics that matter to them a lot. I think of Jim Millward on the topic of the repression of the Uyghurs, for example, or people like Maria Repnikova, who was recently on the show, who’s been writing quite a bit about China in the Ukraine war and publishing in really respectable, widely-cited mainstream outlets.

Others — I think everyone would immediately go right to Jeff Wasserstrom at UC Irvine or people like Rana Mitter at Oxford. They do this work through various media. They bring their historical expertise to the current popular discourse on China in really good nuanced ways. I’ve talked many times before how the National Committee has this Public Intellectuals Program, which is also all about the same mission, but your approach, Jay, is pretty unique by its very nature.

Your column, which is “This week in China’s History” — you’ve written about 100 of them now in the two years since you started — it has you covering a really huge swath of China’s history. It’s not just focused on any specific issue at all, and seems to have a broader, more general pedagogical goal. At the end of your very first column, actually you wrote about this, by way of introduction to the series to come. You wrote, “A lot of these stories will be the retelling of history for its own sake, human stories that simply demand to be remembered.”

And for sure, I really love those, “but at the same time,” you go on, “historians are always looking for ways the past can help make sense of the present. Perhaps business people, politicians, and voters around the world, all of whom will need to evolve their understanding of China in the years to come, will find perspective or instruction from China’s history, which includes more than a few phases of opening and closing to the world for alternatively opportunistic or defensive motives. It’s foolish” — this is you, still — “It’s foolish to think that history repeats itself, though sometimes there are clear lessons in the past to learn and apply to today’s world. More often the mistakes and successes of earlier times will give us ways to see our current world with a bit of perspective.”

I think that’s great. I mean, I think you sum it up really nicely, and it reminds me, of course, of something that’s deeply embedded in Chinese’s historiography: this idea of history as a mirror. You remember the Northern Song historian, Sīmǎ Guāng 司马光. He titled his most famous work, A Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government. And then there’s that famous saying by the great Tang emperor — I’ve got to go to the Tang, of course — Lǐ Shìmín 李世民, or Táng Tàizōng 唐太宗, commemorating the passing of his great historian, which goes something like, “With a bronze mirror, you can rectify your dress. With humanity as a mirror, you can discern right and wrong, and with history as a mirror, one can grasp the great patterns, or the vicissitudes, the rises and the falls of nations.” Now obviously this idea is not unique to Chinese historiography or to Chinese culture, but it does seem to be an idea that you embrace. Is that fair to say?

Jay: Yeah, it is. When I was first approached about maybe doing a column like this, which was a little over two years ago, we needed a name for it. And one of the names that I’ve thought about using was A Comprehensive Mirror. I was, I think, correctly advised out of that for reasons of clarity and also pretentiousness, that if I’m going to start comparing myself to Sima Guang, then I really have bigger problems than meeting my deadlines.

But yeah, for sure, I think that there’s a real need to understand the past and apply it to the present, and I’m sure we’ll talk about this. There are limits and limitations to how one does that and that’s something that I’ve really tried to grapple with. And I think that there’s a mixture of motivations. One of them is to use history as a mirror and hold it up to the present. I’m not above a little just entertainment and trying to… Now it can be told through columns once in a while.

But more often it’s about trying to apply what historians have learned and gleaned from their work in the archives, and sometimes from my own work in the archives, and trying to bring it out to the public in ways that I think are not simply for the sake of understanding a particular event in the past, but for understanding a particular event in the past so that we can better make sense of the fabulous times in which we find ourselves these days.

Kaiser: Yeah. No, I mean, I think that’s the mission and I think you do a fantastic job of that. And of course, I do like those — once in a while you take a break from the more overtly pedagogical stuff, and it’s just some fun stories from the past that, as you say, need to be retold.

Maybe it’s just that I tend to notice them more and maybe invite them onto my show more often, but my distinct sense is that the people who are working on this, this broader enterprise, who are trying to move away from ivory tower isolation and out into the more popular discourse, into media, into the conversation on China, we’re winning. I mean, it’s becoming more common. Is that your sense?

Jay: Well, we need to win something these days. I think it’s interesting this conversation’s happening this particular moment. The New York Times right now is embroiled in a war over their coverage about Haiti. There’s a story on the indemnity that France charged to Haiti for its independence.

Kaiser: Right. The double debt.

Jay: So there’s a big fight going on on Twitter, in particular, between historians and journalists, which I find really frustrating because I really think that, done well, history and journalism are trying to accomplish a lot of the same goals. They’re not identical, obviously, but a lot of the same goals. And somebody made the comment that I thought was insightful, and I can’t remember who it was so my apologies to you, whoever you are, is that “academics are likely to cite you, but not read you. And journalists are likely to read you, but not cite you.”

But whether that’s the case or not, I do think that the shared goal of trying to bring knowledge and insight to a broader public is something that both journalists and historians ought to embrace. And it’s certainly something that I find myself trying to do with this column. And you mentioned the National Committee. I think that that’s one of the real goals of the National Committees in the Public Intellectuals Program is trying to get responsible academics into conversation with journalists and policymakers and business folk and people who are making decisions so that we can make informed decisions about the economy and policy and defense and just everything that human beings do.

Kaiser: That’s right. The Haiti kerfuffle, of course, is not the first time that the New York Times has run something historical that’s caused a lot of historians to push back. The 1619 Project, Nicole Hannah-Jones and all of the criticism that she’s come under.

I hate to credit social media with anything, but I can’t help but think that, in some ways, it has definitely helped to bring academics into this broader discourse. And once in a while in that wretched place they call China Twitter, you see the same sorts of skirmishes breakout. But you’re the guy who’s always saying, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Jay: Maybe I’m just pathologically conflict-averse. I don’t know. No, I think that the opportunities for making connections on Twitter are its great virtue. I mean, yes, there are certainly trolls and pedants and things get ugly a lot of the time, but I’ve made a ton of connections with folks that it’s unlikely I ever would’ve met them, were it not for Twitter. And it has to do with China Twitter, but not just that. It’s across the range. And it’s part of the same impetus that I think drives the column, which is trying to share knowledge and to move things forward in ways that are productive for everyone.

Kaiser: Yeah. I don’t see you embroiled in a lot of controversy on Twitter. I don’t know what you’re doing right, but you’re doing something right. Let’s talk about how you actually keep this thing up. I mean, I’ve had columns before, monthly once, and it always feels like the deadline is already on me. You put something out like a 1,200 to 1,500-word piece every week and it covers just an enormous timescale. Do you have some kind of master timeline that allows you to just find events that correspond to a particular Gregorian calendar date? Because some of the stuff you pick is not exactly common knowledge, even to pretty well trained up China historians.

I mean, I know about stuff like the Wanggongchang Explosion, which was the topic of your most recent column, last week’s column. But I couldn’t have even told you the year that it took place. It was 1626. But I wouldn’t have known that. I might have gotten the decade right but not the month and the day. I mean, is this stuff that’s just sort of in your head already, or do you have this secret Jay Carter master timeline thing?

Jay: Yeah. I’ve never done any research at all. It just occurs to me that every day, this is what it is. No, first of all, dates are pretty arbitrary. I mean, things happen in the past and nevermind converting between the traditional Chinese dating system and dynastic dating Imperial reign titles into contemporary, Western-style solar dates and Gregorian Julian, converting all these things, never mind about that. The significance of one particular date, they’re pretty fudgeable, for the most part.

I mean, there are certain things that happened at a certain day that you can put them in. So in terms of process, it works something like this. I began with a few, I mean, beginning in the summer, 2020, completely, well, not as different, I guess, as we might have thought, but anyway, beginning in the summer of 2020, of course, there’s some obvious dates that you want to bring in. You might work around August 1st and the PLA or of course there’s May 4th and there’s June 4th and there’s Double 10. I mean, there’s obvious dates.

I kind of shied away from doing obvious dates as much as I could. Not because they weren’t important. In fact, the very first column was on June 4th of 2020. But I tried to get at things through the side door, maybe, because my goal really isn’t to say to people, “Here’s something that you never knew happened.” My goal was more often to say, “Here’s an interesting hook. And now let’s take that hook to hopefully entertain you a little bit with the events of the past.” But then connect them to the present in a way that can help us think about the present a little bit differently.

And I find that if I take a really obvious event or process or personality that everybody knows, they’re going to come to that with a lot of preconceived notions and that can make it more challenging to try and get a point across in 1,200 words. Now, it is true that sometimes I try, I mean, “myth-busting” is a terrible term, but sometimes I try to challenge the conventional wisdom on a particular event. But most often it’s trying to find an event that is going to allow me to hook it to a particular date. But as I just said, the date is arbitrary. It’s really about the events and the bigger themes and trying to find connections to them.

So anyway, I find those in a lot of different sources. I mean the internet, obviously you can just Google around looking for particular dates, but I’ve got, thumbing through books and textbooks, monographs, different chronologies. A lot of books have a chronology and they’re focused on different themes. So I just honestly spend just a lot of time thumbing through these books or browsing through webpages and jotting things down.

And then what happens is I put them into a spreadsheet and it’s not actually a spreadsheet because I’m not that sophisticated. It’s just a Word doc that has a table on it, which is terrible, and I need to change that. So then I find, once I’ve mapped things up and I put them into a grid, so I find out what the particular date’s going to be, or it’s a week, so it doesn’t have to be a precise date, so it’s almost within a week, then I put those down and I start to research them a little bit, and then it comes up. Is there a ton of stuff available or is there nothing available? If there’s nothing, I’m not likely to do that because I’m not in a position to do a lot of primary research on these, just enough.

Kaiser: But sometimes you are. I mean, sometimes there’s really not much stuff at all. I mean, I’m thinking of one column in particular that had, I remember it really well, it had me scratching my head thinking, “How the hell does Jay know this and how can he possibly keep this column going?” It was about a murderer that took place in 1870, of a Qing official named Mǎ Xīnyí 马新贻, who was a provincial governor, kind of a Lǐ Hóngzhāng 李鸿章 kind, or a Zēng Guófān 曾国藩 kind, fighting the Taipings, local elites, and he got knifed in 1870. And nobody exactly knows why, and there’s all sorts of fun speculation.

But I get to the end of the column thinking, why have I never read about this guy? And you end up at the end saying, there are very few English sources on him. There’s like a page on him in ECCP, in Eminent Chinese of the Qing Period, which is a great… Oh, by the way, I picked up a copy of that at the Panjiayuan market in 1997 or something like that. It’s one of my prized possessions. It was unbelievable. Anyway, how did you come to know about Ma? What kind of research did you… how did you source? Because what you’ve got in there is way beyond what’s in the ECCP.

Jay: Yeah. It’s funny you picked that one because that is one of the relatively few. There weren’t that many sources in English. The fun thing about that one is that it’s been made into a couple of movies. Most recently, one starring Jet Li (李连杰 Lǐliánjié) and Andy Lau (劉德華 Liú Déhuá Lau4 Dak1 Waa4). So I got to watching that.

Kaiser: I was going to ask, was that the inspiration for the column?

Jay: No, it was the other way around. I actually found out about it, and I said, “Oh, I can watch a movie!” And it worked together. That was one that, once I got a hold of the date and once I started looking, I mean, Googling around in Chinese with some of the… It’s one of the four great mysteries of the late Qing, which I think is a very funny little label for it.

Anyway, I was able to look through it and yes, there’s enough in Chinese that I could find and put it together into a story. So that was one where I did, it wasn’t really primary source research. I mean, it was secondary research, but it happened to be in Chinese. But that was, again, I’m not going into… When I say not primary research, I’m not going into archives for the most part. For the most part.

The other example of that would be like Emily Mokros book on the Peking Gazette. I came across that book when I was doing the column on the Hundred Days of 1898, and I used that to then go into the Peking Gazette and do a little research into how that newspaper, for lack of a better word, was used. So there are some cases where I’ve done some primary source research, but more often I’m trying to engage with secondary literature, partly because that’s more accessible to me to do things on a weekly schedule, but also because I can share that with readers as a means of getting them to understand more about the topic if they want to.

Kaiser: Oh yeah. Yeah. Amazing. Now you mentioned archives and it strikes me that once in a while you take on a column that has a kind of obvious moral object lesson in it, and the story itself isn’t necessarily important. But you use it to get at something you want to say about problems that we face in the world today. One of them that comes to mind immediately is about a fight between two neighbors that took place in 1720, a guy named Ruì Méishēng 芮梅生 and a guy named Ruì Miǎn 芮冕. It results in the rather ignominious death of the latter, Mr. Rui. It involves him getting clobbered with a beam from a collapsed outhouse that collapses during the fight. The whole thing is kind of slapstick, but tragic, but of no historical consequence, except that you make the point that the archives are getting harder to access, and this sort of thing is only accessible through these sorts of archival resources that a lot of researchers into Ming and Qing history used to have fairly easy access to, but aren’t now. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Jay: Yeah. So I did a top eight to commemorate having done this for two years and that was one of them I chose. And that’s for exactly the reason that you put forward. The process of that leads exactly to the point. There’s a book by Robert Hegel, who edited it, called True Crimes in Eighteenth-Century China. So it was truly a book that I just came across as I was realizing that… I mean, after about a month or two, it became clear that this is going to be a lot of work. If I want to keep this up, and I was enjoying writing it tremendously, so if I want to keep this up, I’m going to need an inventory of dates that I’m going to come up with.

So these True Crimes in Eighteenth-Century China, I just was able to go through them and I’ve used, I think, only one or two of them, but I’ve got more of them at the ready, as time goes on. But the point of that book is, and it’s terrific, with translations from some really well known and really excellent scholars, is that’s going into the Qing archives and bringing out these legal cases, and anybody who’s worked in Chinese history very much knows that the legal archives are remarkable sources for getting at the lives of people, not just in the legal system, but people who come into contact with the legal system.

That was how the book, which you may talk about later, The Death of Woman Wang by Jonathan Spence, really relies on the judicial system as a means of getting at the life and death of this poor woman in the Ming, or the early Qing. So anyway, back to the Crimes in the Eighteenth-Century, the point of that book, in a lot of ways, is the archives themselves. And that’s something that I’m just acutely aware. And in 2020, I became acutely aware of it. I was planning to go to China, like many of us, in the spring of 2020. That didn’t happen. I’ve not been back, and when I’m going to get back is really unclear.

But even before China had shut down for epidemiological reasons and travel just around the world had become infeasible, the archives in China had already started closing down and closing up so that people weren’t able to get access. That was particularly the case for foreign scholars, but not only for foreign scholars. Chinese scholars are having a lot of the same challenges.

So the point of that column was I could titillate a little bit with the outhouse murder and somebody killing his neighbor because the location of his outhouse was stinking up the entrance to his house, but that’s obviously kind of trivial in the grand scheme of things. But the more profound story is the one about the loss of access to those kinds of stories and the kinds of information that scholars use to study and understand the past.

Kaiser: Yeah. I was looking at the way we titled that, and I think you should have pushed back a little bit. I think it made it sound like the archives are being erased. Access to them is being restricted. They’re not actually being erased. Often, they’re being digitized, which ideally is going to make them more accessible in the future.

Jay: Ideally. That’s a whole other conversation. In fact, I think there’s probably been a show on that. The challenges of the digital archives is yes, they’re much more accessible. I can access stuff in New Jersey that I would’ve had to go to Beijing before, or to Nanjing or someplace else, but also it is definitely the case that there are people who did work in the physical archive and then years later, they go back to look at the digitized archive and what they had consulted in the past is no longer there. There’s no indication that it’s gone. It’s just not simply there anymore. Now, you can choose whether that’s malice or incompetence, but it’s not a one-to-one correspondence.

Kaiser: Right. Yeah. Just now you mentioned Jonathan Spence’s book, The Death of Woman Wang. Spence, who passed away I think it was in December, yeah, it was on Christmas Day of 2021, and whose life you actually commemorated in one of, what I thought was one of your best columns, “The Death of Woman Wang and the Life of Jonathan Spence.” You studied under Spence. I’d love to hear you talk about his impact on you, but I’m also curious to know your thoughts about those aspects of Spence that are more controversial. Things like his insertion of imagination, his sort of, I mean, as you talk about in the column, in The Death of Woman Wang, there are a number of pages where he sort of puts himself into… he channels her. He speaks in her voice. He does the same thing for a whole book in the first person, Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi, which I think is one of his best, but it’s controversial. And maybe we can circle back after we talk about those things, too.

The other sort of access points that Spence uses in putting together The Death of Woman Wang that he recommends to us as historians who are looking for ways in. He talked about markets, for example, the records of markets which bring people together from different strata, from different villages and different communities a few times a week, sometimes in busier places. And he talked about the legal system, which of course he draws on very heavily for The Death of Woman Wang, but also famine, records of famine, which also play into that book because there is a famine in the part of Shandong, where she lives in the years before the book’s events take place. So yeah, riff on Spence for me.

Jay: Well, studying with Jonathan Spence was just a privilege that I’ve tried to be very aware of, the privilege that that was, and it was tremendous. One of the things that I think we all, all the people who studied with him learned from him was really the value in following your sense of curiosity, to try to find a story that was worth telling. And I think that that’s something that the people who, Peter Carroll, who’s at Northwestern, Ruth Rogaski at Vanderbilt, Stephen Platt up in Massachusetts. I don’t want to give too many of a list because then I’ll leave somebody out and the group is tremendous. So I think that studying with Jonathan was something that we all really enjoyed, that freedom to explore our curiosity. That could be frustrating at times, because in some programs there’s a particular approach and therefore you could really take a deep dive into that particular approach and you could get very specific guidance on how to accomplish these particular goals.

With Spence, we were all kind of on our own to some extent, because we all went off in different directions, thematically, chronologically, geographically, to do what we were doing. I’d say what I took from, I mean, the reason that I wanted to study with him and I was not disappointed, was that the ability to translate, to communicate from the academic enterprise, into the public square. And obviously, no one can aspire to do what he did. I mean, he was such a tremendous writer and had tremendous opportunity at a particular time. We’re not at that moment anymore.

It’s very difficult for one person to kind of be the China specialist, in a sense, because we, because we’ve done better, the United States has done better as a society in training more people to study it. But he certainly had that ability to reach a tremendous audience. So I’m trying to model a little bit of that in trying to reach a broader audience and simply my peers in the academy. And just, let’s be clear, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, I studied with Jonathan Spence. I knew Jonathan Spence. I am no Jonathan Spence. But I am trying to follow some of what I think he would have approved of is trying to take the academic enterprise and reach a broad audience in ways that are responsible.

Kaiser: Well, I think you’d be proud of what you’re doing. I mean, it’s great. Jay, your column tends to skew toward the 19th and 20th centuries, which is natural, given your training. One question I often get is along lines of, “Yeah, I get that history is important and that it still informs Chinese thinking and behavior, but do I really have to study the Wang Anshi Reforms or the An Lushan Rebellion or the Northern Wei dynasty or Neo-Confucian teachings of Zhū Xī 朱熹 and Wáng Yángmíng 王阳明 to understand China in the 21st century? Isn’t it enough to maybe start where Spence starts, with his seminal The Search For Modern China in the late Ming? Isn’t it enough to know that Imperial China at its apogee and then study its fall and subsequent rise?” How do you answer that?

Jay: I answer that in two ways. One, I really strive for some diversity in the column because I think that gives a fuller portrait of China’s history. And that includes chronology. It also includes geography. It includes theme. So I try to make sure that I don’t simply focus on the elite or on the military or on the political process. I’m trying to bring in diplomacy. I’m trying to bring in questions to do with gender and social history, cultural history, so I try to bring in these different approaches. In terms of chronology, there’s simply more material that I can access on the 19th and 20th century. And that’s also my training so I know better how to get to those sources.

I try to get stuff from earlier on because I think it’s richer if we have a mixture of things from a broader chronological yeah. But certainly more of the lessons to bring in are easier to make when you’re in more recent times. On the other hand, talking about coups in the Tang dynasty and battles in the Northern Song. I mean, those are always good stories to tell but I think it’s easier to tell stories that have a contemporary relevance, if they’re drawn from time periods that have, frankly, more in common with the present than further back.

Kaiser: The Tang dynasty coup that you’re talking about was a great one. I think I had the privilege of reading that one. We used to sort of fight with me and the other people who read. Now, your column is sort of monopolized by John D. Van Fleet, who’s one of our best readers. He’s got this nice rich baritone. Are you enjoying those readings that we’re doing for China Stories?

Jay: I am. And he leans into the presentation in a way I really admire. I mean, I read a couple of them, and I think I’m more self-conscious reading my own words probably. But I’m really glad to hear other people reading them. I’ve heard you read a few, I’ve heard Elyse Ribbons read at least one. And then John. As far as I know, he’s read all of them for the past several months, at least.

Kaiser: He’s doing it for free. We’ve got to reward him with something. Like I said, yours is sort of the prestige one to read. It’s just the right length. It’s always interesting. It’s just so fun to read those. I know that you mentioned it, but you only flicked at it and you kind of glossed over it but I think it’s really important that we should drill down a little bit on this. You do approach all of these topics from a bunch of different angles. You take on a diverse set of lenses, like you said, military or diplomatic or political or economic, but also a lot of social history, a lot of feminist history. I’m thinking about the Táng Qúnyīng 唐群英 column that you did about the suffrage activists in the immediate aftermath of the Republican Revolution. You’ve done the history told from subaltern perspectives. Can you talk a little bit more about that approach? Do you approach an event, maybe like a golfer looking where the ball lies and then picking the right club out of his bag, or do you set out with a particular flavor of history already in mind and then sort of, I’m going to do a feminist or I’m going to do a kind of subaltern history and then find the right thing? I feel like asking the songwriter about, “Do you write the lyrics first or the melodies or the chord progressions?”

Jay: That’s a sensitive subject because I really wish that I could write songs. Okay. So again, this notion of diversity comes up quite a bit. Because if I find that, three weeks out of four, I’ve written about a battle, then I’m like, okay, we got to get out of war for a little bit, so try to find a different theme. And that can be a challenge because even though I said earlier that dates are kind of arbitrary, there are certain dates that are there. You can’t simply make something up.

So it may be that I’m looking at a particular date, and I’ve got four choices and they’re all treaties or battles or politicians like that. Then sometimes I need to dig a little deeper on those. But in terms of how to approach it with a theme. The one that you mentioned, and then one I would bring in, so for instance, the one on suffrage, that one, I really wanted to bring that in because I feel like there’s a conceit in The West, capital T, capital W, in the West that these issues, kind of more progressive issues and franchising women, are things that the West has done better than other places.

And I think that, first of all, it’s not true. And second of all, I think you can find the evidence of it. And so the idea that in 1912 that you had women protesting, many of them armed, taking over the Republican parliament in Nanjing, where they’re trying to make the new constitution for the Republic because they’d been promised, or they had been, depending who you talked to, but certainly suffrage for women was on the platform. And then it got removed because people felt that, some of the male politicians, male leaders, felt that this is going to compromise their message. It was going to be too radical, to use today’s terminology.

And so they took it out and this protest came in. And I think that’s something that I don’t think that a lot of Western readers think of in this case, not only that women’s suffrage was being debated in China in 1912. I mean, historians and people who are familiar with the story, know this, but I think the broader readers don’t, but also that I think this notion of protest in that context, isn’t something that… I think the popular imagination in the West, I think, assigns less agency to Chinese actors.

And I think the notion that when this came down that women weren’t going to have the right to vote, that people literally took up arms and charged the parliament to try and change it. I think that’s a story that feels very modern and very Western. And yet it’s from 1912 in Nanjing. So I think that’s the way I got to that one. When it’s related-

Kaiser: You said there was another one you wanted to-

Jay: Yeah, the subaltern approach. One of the very early ones I did was on Matteo Ricci. And teaching at a Jesuit university, Matteo Ricci gets a lot of play. And I think Matteo Ricci’s a really fascinating character, but as I started researching that one, one of the things I found was the involvement of the Jesuits and the Catholic Church in the slave trade. And Macau was one of the real centers of the slave trade, so I wound up writing that one. Again, this is one of these episodes where a lot of people are familiar with Matteo Ricci.

He goes to Beijing right around 1600 and he is one of the people who establishes the Jesuit mission in China, but the role of the church in the slave trade at a time when race was so much at the center of the public discussion in the United States, I was pleased that I was able to tie these things together in a way that could be topical, in the sense that it was a theme that was on the minds, it was likely to be on the minds of many readers, but it was also adding something historical to the debate that people might not have been familiar with before.

Kaiser: That was a particularly good one, I thought. Another thing that I really love about your column is that you’ll often highlight the work of a particular scholar, sometimes more than one, on a given topic or an era or an event. It’s really generous and also super useful. And I love that you started to include kind of a little bibliography or sources at the end. Again, this is another one of those songwriting questions. Is it the book first, then the column, or do you start the column then go to your stacks and find the right books or how does that work?

Jay: It’s both. It’s both. And it depends. I mean, sometimes there’s an event that I will find and then I need to go find books about it. And ideally, probably the hardest… We’ve talked about this in the other context. The May 4th column might have been the hardest one to write, because I mean, I could sit down and write a lecture on the May 4th Movement pretty easily. And I have, in fact, many times. But it wouldn’t be that useful as a column.

I think the way to do it would be to bring in some angle. And so trying to bring scholarship into it, or a particular way of looking at the events that add to what we already know. So in those cases, there’s an event and I go and I find scholarship on it. In other cases, a book comes across my desk, either literally or metaphorically, and I say, “This is something I need to write about.” And those are the most fun columns for me to do.

If I get a book that is important or interesting to me or both, and I’ll just thumb through it, looking for a date, looking for something that happens on a particular date, and if it’s something that can be described in an entertaining paragraph, then I’ll usually pick that as the hook for the column and then build out of it in that way. So sometimes I start with a book and build out of it and other times I start with an event and look for scholarship.

Kaiser: Jay, do you ever feel limited by the need to pin the topic to a date? I mean, it makes it hard to talk about bigger, longer-term historical shifts taking place across decades or even centuries. I mean, we’re all aware, for example, of the Naito hypothesis about the real importance of the Tang to Song transition, starting the mid 8th century, all the way into the 11th century, about China sliding from medieval into early modern, as he argued, but that’s not something you could pin a date on, or not even a decade on. It would be impossible. Let alone a single week, like you’re charged to do. Do you sometimes find it limiting that you’re unable to drift too far from where you’ve dropped your anchor over a specific event, you’re tethered to that?

Jay: Not usually. Because the big theme you’re talking about, and I remember first talking about this in graduate school, talking about the Northern strand in China’s history. So the idea that conventional Chinese, traditional Chinese historiography talks about China and once in a while these Northern barbarians would drop down and conquer it, but looked at from a different perspective, the anomaly was when you had a dynasty like the Ming, that was in fact, for the most part, Han Chinese dynasty. So that’s a big interesting historiographical shift and theme that I can talk about. All I need to do is find a particular date, an event that happens that illustrates, for instance, something with the Jin or with the Liao, and one of the several sieges of Kaifeng you can always write down.

Kaiser: Yeah, you did one of those on the 1125 siege of Kaifeng.

Jay: And I think also there’s a 1226, I want to say, but the siege of Kaifeng has come up a couple of times.

Kaiser: That’s the Mongol siege of Kaifeng, is in the 1220s, right?

Jay: Yes. They both come up in columns, sieges of Kaifeng.

Kaiser: Kaifeng’s a very useful city to use.

Jay: It is.

Kaiser: You can pin all sorts of stuff on that one. My dad was born there.

Jay: Yeah. So usually there’s a hook. Usually you can find a hook to enable you to get into a bigger theme if you want to, if I want to.

Kaiser: Yeah. No, that makes a ton of sense. And I think you’ve done a really, really good job of doing that. You were an academic historian. You still are. I don’t know how much you’re teaching now, but you’ve got an administrative load. I mean, does this column still sort of add some… keep you anchored, in a sense, to your academic identity?

Jay: I’m really outing myself as an administrator, coming on the show. I think that when I started writing this, I was… So Champions Day, it was just coming out. It was either a couple of weeks before or a couple weeks after the official publication date. I was looking for a way to engage with the public as a means of promoting the book and I had done some public writing in different forums, so when I got asked to do this, it felt very familiar because it was something that I’d been doing. And frankly, it was a different skill set than doing academic writing, where I would sit down, I would pour through a lot of documents and then put it together and I would write in a language that was accessible to my peers, but wasn’t necessarily as accessible to the general public.

Since that time, I got appointed as an interim dean and now I’m just a regular old dean, so I’m not teaching. I may teach a class in modern China next spring, but I’m not teaching and I’m not really getting much chance to do academic writing. So this is now the most intellectual thing that I do. I spend more time with the teaching loads and managing stipends and evaluating assessment tools. I make time to do this because I enjoy it so much. And what I’ve said from the start is this was both more work than I thought it would be. And also a lot more rewarding than I thought it would be, so I don’t want to give it up for that reason.

Kaiser: Yeah. No, we certainly don’t want you to give it up. I don’t know if you know this, but yours is one of the most-read things every damned week on SupChina. So don’t ask for more money, but…

Jay: Well, it’s a pleasure. And I hear from people who read the column and once in a while with either corrections or challenges, oftentimes with congratulations and thanks. And other times just kind of wanting to know more information about it, and even sometimes with suggestions, for ideas, for future columns. That’s really rewarding. I mean, people who are listening, who are academics, will know that when you put something out there, the idea that someone reads it is always a little bit mind-blowing. So the idea that there are more than five people reading it is a little intimidating, but very gratifying when I hear from them.

Kaiser: Well, Jay, I saved what I think is really the big question for last and it’s something we flicked at really early on, but it’s the question of how much history actually matters to our understanding of China’s behavior as a state actor or even to our understanding of the mental furniture of ordinary Chinese folks or of Chinese elites. This is part of an even bigger question, you might say, which is probably my very favorite topic of conversation with anyone in the field, which is, how much does all that stuff matter? The language, the myths and metaphors, the social structures, the political institutions, even pedagogical traditions or toilet training or socialization.

This stuff has all been written about in different contexts. The geography, the climate, agricultural practices, I mean, you could go on and on and on, but just sticking with history, your column often, not always, but often makes kind of an explicit connection from the past to the present, as we’ve talked about. And sometimes it’s a quite distant past to the present. To some extent, as you probably well know, I mean, it’s kind of a parlor game that anyone who’s kind of had training in Chinese history likes to pull out, where you just show them how this is actually just old wine in new bottles or new wine in old bottles or whatever. You invoke some clever historical analogies. We always do this. We draw our attention to the historical rhymes or to the… Howard French used a really good… cultural reflexes or historical reflexes is what he called it in one of his books.

I’ve said this before on this program many times, on the one hand, it’s just blindingly obvious that there’s something to it, that the history does matter, that it’s relevant, that it’s a clear factor in shaping whatever the thing in the present that we’re observing and commenting on, but we’ve seen people take it way too far. And we’ve certainly seen that when the mystic knowledge stuff or the stuff that people who see it as cyclical or whatever. But on the other hand, if you lard it up with too much throat clearing and too many caveats, you end up sapping a good analogy of all its force. So how would you describe the approach that you take in trying to thread this needle, in trying to steer in this kind of treacherous straight between the essentialism, on the one hand, and just sort of ahistoricism on the other? Do you have a rule of thumb?

Jay: Yeah. I tried to think of some rules of thumb, and it was difficult. You brought up a couple of things in what you were just asking. One, in terms of why history matters or how much history matters. I mean, I remember, and this is something that will resonate with a lot of listeners. When I was doing dissertation research, so in the mid ’90s, and my advisor, this is in Harbin, and we were talking about Taiwan and trying to make the point, they said, “Well, how important is it? Why is it so important what happens in Taiwan? Why is that such a big deal to people in China, on the mainland?” And he said, “Well, you have to understand that, as an American, you’re living in a country, that for the last couple of hundred years, has kept on getting bigger. And in China, we lived in a country that for a couple of hundred years, has kept getting smaller, and so it represents a threat that is psychologically really powerful and has a big impact.”

Now, this isn’t to say what he’s saying is true or false, it was that the history mattered. So in some sense, understanding these stories from the past informs how people think about the present. And that’s why I think that any historian who’s really trying to communicate about their field will say that history and the past are not the same thing. The past happened. History is how we write about it. So that’s one thing about why history matters, it influences how people think about the present.

Your other question, though, about how I approach applying historical lessons to the present and kind of historical analogy. It is really fraught, because I think you need to do two things and if you go in either… Well, you need to avoid two pitfalls. And if you veer off the course, you’ll fall into one of two traps. And there’s probably other traps but I’ll start with those two. One is that you try to be overly specific. Things fall apart very quickly. So people will talk about Xi Jinping as being the same as Mao. And they’ll point to something that’s going on and people say, “No, it’s different than Mao because obviously Mao had different policies than Xi Jinping does.”

So if you try to apply the very specific examples in historical analogy, it breaks down because it’s overly specific and doesn’t apply to the present. On the other hand, if you say, “Well, Xi Jinping is the same as Mao because he’s the leader of China and he’s really powerful and influential,” it’s like, well, that’s so vague as to be completely uninteresting. So trying to steer in between being overly specific in a way that’s grounded to a particular time and place and therefore is not relevant to the present, or trying to be too vague in a way that every single thing that happened in the past has some relevance to the present because I’m a human being and I breathe and eat and drink.

That’s also that I’m not the same as the other human beings who have done those things. So I think that the best way that I can, and this is a little bit of a cop-out, but the best way that I can try to navigate between those pitfalls is kind of to present some information, make some observations about it, but stop short of driving home the nail all the way, because that leaves the reader some latitude to make some inferences and make some of their own decisions.

And frankly, I’m writing the column, but I don’t have all the answers and my experience and my understanding is going to differ from the experience and context and understanding of readers. There’s lots of readers who are… Many of the readers are Americans, but many of them are not and so they’re coming from a different… Many are younger than I am. Many are older than I am. They’re coming from different experience of social context. And they’re going to come to a different conclusion about what I’ve said than I might try to. So I think, by trying not to put too fine a point on it, I think it becomes more accessible to more people.

Kaiser: Yeah. I think that’s really well put. I think when it comes right down to it’s just about the accretion of experience and intuition, I suppose, and even, dare I say, wisdom, right?

Jay: I don’t know if I’ll cop to wisdom.

Kaiser: Well, Jay, my God, what an amazing two years and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your contributions to SupChina. I look forward to reading your column every single week and it always manages to surprise me. It’s great.

Jay: Well, it’s a cliche to say the pleasure is mine, but it really is. I really have enjoyed the opportunity, and I’m surprised myself a little bit. I didn’t know how long I thought this would keep up, but I look forward to writing it and I look forward to surprising you some more.

Kaiser: All right. I can’t wait. Let’s move on to recommendations. But first I want to remind everyone that the Sinica podcast is powered by SupChina. And if you like the work that we do with Sinica and with the other shows in the network, the very best thing that you can do to support us is subscribe to SupChina. Subscribe to our Access newsletter. It’s really, really great stuff. It’s affordable and deeply informative, a very high-quality product that I am very proud of. Anyway, Jay, onto recommendations. What do you have for us this week?

Jay: This is a bit of a cop-out, but my recommendation, and this comes with lots of caveats, because everybody’s in a different situation and has different situation and different priorities. But if you’re able, my recommendation is to go to see the performing arts in person because it is truly… Zoom is terrific, but it is something that I’m just reminded of. Two specific recommendations within that would be Hadestown. And we talked about this a little bit. That is such a terrific show. And I was able to see it –

Kaiser: I love that show so much.

Jay: … on Broadway, but also I know the touring company, I know people who saw it in Philadelphia and some other places and apparently the touring company was just as good and, in some instances, better.

Kaiser: Wow.

Jay: So Hadestown is my one recommendation. The other recommendation and maybe this will surprise you, but if you’re in the Greater New York City area, get to the New York City Ballet because they do some really fabulous work, and unlike many of the high arts, it’s not expensive. I mean, you can pay a lot for a ticket, but you can get into Lincoln Center to see the ballet for $20 or $30. They do tremendous, tremendous work. All these groups are struggling to get back on their feet as the pandemic ebbs and flows. But those are my recommendations.

Kaiser: Those are great recommendations. I think I mentioned to you that my little brother, his little production company, they were one of the producers of Hadestown so I have a particular connection to that show. I’ve seen it three times now. I love it. I absolutely love that show. I think I had actually recommended it before on this show, the music of Anaïs Mitchell, who was the composer of it, who wrote this as just sort of a singer songwriter, wrote the original concept album out of which Hadestown was produced. She’s amazing. She’s an amazing voice and she’s a really talented lyricist, just the whole package is great.

Jay: The other thing that I see and I’ll say, at the ballet, you see the choreography and the music from Balanchine and Stravinsky, which is now 50, 60, 70 years old and feels just so unbelievably contemporary. It’s remarkable.

Kaiser: Well, I mean, I always tell people that Stravinsky is progressive rock or metal. I mean, the Rite of Spring is about the most metal thing that existed prior to 1915.

Jay: Absolutely.

Kaiser: It’s amazing. So I want to recommend, for my recommendation, that listeners sign up for an upcoming SupChina event that’s also, like your work, about bridging academia and journalism, the inaugural Sinologia Conference, which is really a workshop that’s put on by a terrific group of students. You’ll meet the two main organizers, where we’ll hear five papers given by young scholars who are working in political science or in applied history. They were selected out of quite a good stack of submissions. The theme of this year is, and we’re going to do this every year, is on history and memory in contemporary China. So it also connects very much with your work, Jay. I will be moderating this thing. I’ll be the discussant. It’s this Friday so as soon as you’re done listening to this podcast, hopefully on Thursday night, sign up right away. But if you don’t hear it in time, no big deal, it will be available for you to watch later online. It will feature a keynote from Cheng Li of Brookings. Go to to sign up. It starts at 8:50 AM, Eastern Daylight Time on Friday the 10th and ends about three and a half hours later. I was really, really, really impressed with the papers. The quality of work that these young people have produced is really very, very good. So check it out. It was very, very thought-provoking. I’m looking forward to their presentations immensely.

All right, Jay. Wow, what a pleasure.

Jay: This is great. The pleasure was all mine

Kaiser: Again, right. You said that already, man. No, really it is so fun to talk to you about this stuff.

Jay: All right. This was a chore. Don’t make me come on again.

Kaiser: Jay, enjoy the rest of your weekend man, and it was really great to talk to you. The Sinica podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at or just give us a rating and a review on Apple podcasts, as this really does help people discover this show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews and be sure to check out all the shows at the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week. Take care.