Exploring China

Access to previously unexamined data is creating a new era of research in China

By Sarah Fister Gale

China’s research landscape is perhaps unlike anywhere else in the world. Decades of secrecy created reserves of political, social, and economic data not previously studied, and as those have become more accessible, opportunities for local and international researchers are emerging.

“Economic reform has opened up new opportunities for social scientists to study China and collaborate with Chinese scholars,” said Xi Song, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology. “More importantly, the whole field now emphasizes more than ever methodological rigor in data collection and analysis.”

Kenneth Pomeranz, University Professor of Modern Chinese History, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and in the College, notes that countries across the European Union, and the United States have been so closely studied that by the time his career began, researchers—especially beginning scholars -- often had to define very narrow subjects to do work that was deemed truly new.

“But in China, we were just starting to get access to a mountain of data,” he said – and that rush of newly available sources continues to this day. The country’s vast size, extensive history, and rapid economic and social evolution from agrarian society to global industry powerhouse make it an intriguing focus for faculty across the social sciences who are exploring a variety of social, economic, environmental and political issues.

“The University of Chicago has a long, strong tradition of studying social stratification and inequality,” Song said. “There are a lot of opportunities to study these issues in China today.”

While Song is digging into centuries-old data on changes in family structure and social mobility, other UChicago faculty are focused on more recent trends, including environmental issues and the consequences of the decentralization of power and resources in post- Mao China. “Many researchers are focused on China and its implications on the global economic system,” said Dali Yang, the William Claude Reavis professor in the Department of Political Science and the College. “It is possible now to understand how the government and society interacts on multiple dimensions.”

Pomeranz, Song, and Yang have each spent years studying various aspects of Chinese history and culture. Their work is helping to build a foundation of knowledge about the country's unique social and political transformation, and to establish UChicago as a center for groundbreaking research on the world’s second largest economy.

Pomeranz and the Great Divergence

Pomeranz, who was named a 2019 Dan David Prize Recipient in February, did not begin his academic career with a goal of studying China. He originally planned to pursue a PhD in German modern European history and had been accepted into the program at Yale University, when in his senior year of undergraduate studies, he realized he had learned precious little about the non-western world. To address the situation, he decided to take an advanced history class on either India or China – the two non-western history courses offered that semester.

Both had prerequisites that he hadn’t completed, but he asked the professors to let him in anyway. While the professor of the Indian history course turned him down, the professor of the Chinese history course gave him a chance, and the rest is history. “There was definitely some serendipity involved,” he said.

It was the early 1980s, just a few years after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms opened China to the outside world, and Pomeranz quickly recognized the incredible research opportunities it presented. “That first course grabbed me,” he said. “Things in China were radically different from the world I knew, but not so different that I couldn’t figure out how to make it relevant.”

He spent the next six months reading every book that his Chinese history professor recommended, then when he arrived at Yale, he presented himself to Jonathan Spence, who taught late imperial and modern Chinese history there, and explained his newfound interest. Spence allowed Pomeranz to take the only graduate-level class he taught that didn’t require knowledge of the language, and when Pomeranz proved he could keep up, Spence admitted him. Pomeranz spent the next summer studying Mandarin and continued taking classes along with his regular courses.

“By the end of the next year, I knew could start reading some research materials,” he said, “but it took another year before I could really do what I needed to do.”

After completing his PhD, Pomeranz spent 20 years teaching history at the University of California – Irvine and writing a number of books, articles and papers exploring important historical questions about modern China. “My research interests in China shifted back and forth over time,” he said. But his focus never strayed far from the country.

His first book, The Making of a Hinterland, published in 1993, was awarded the John K. Fairbank Prize in East Asian History for its exploration of the effects of new military rivalries and  China’s incorporation into the global economy  on one region of rural China in the 19th and 20th century. His second book, The Great Divergence, published in 2000, which was also awarded the Fairbank prize, tapped into his European history background by exploring similarities between advanced areas of Europe and East Asia in the early modern period, particularly why industrial growth took hold in Europe while East Asia's economy stagnated in the early 19th century.

In 2011, Pomeranz thought he’d probably spend the rest of his career at Irvine, but in 2012, he was offered a position at UChicago. “There were a lot things that attracted me to the university,” he said. While UC Irvine had small but strong programs in Chinese history and world history, there was no chance of further expansion, and he and his colleagues always had to fight for funding. He saw UChicago as an opportunity to build a world-class program and to work in a collaborative environment where students and faculty across disciplines were eager to work together. He was also attracted to the undergraduate culture here.

“Chicago has a particular kind of student body,” he said. “They are choosing learning opportunities because they are curious, not just because it feeds their career goals. That appealed to me.”

Pomeranz welcomes the opportunity to work with students from a variety of disciplines, who have included a divinity student studying Tibetan Buddhism and a musicology student studying how the Qing Dynasty’s practice of cataloging the music of the indigenous people they conquered forced them to re-think what “music” was. “It’s the sort of thing that happens at UChicago every day,” he remarked.

When he’s not teaching modern Chinese history, he is working on his most expansive book project to date: Why is China So Big. The book addresses, from various perspectives, how and why contemporary China's huge land mass and population have wound up forming a single political unit, he explains.

“Even when large-scale political units in China broke down, they eventually came back together, and over time, the polity grew rather than shrank.” He plans to take a research leave in academic year 2019- 2020 to complete the manuscript, and then turn to other projects. 

Yang explores China’s past and future

As a young man, Yang began his academic career studying industrial engineering at the University of Science and Technology in Beijing. At the time, it was his most logical career path, but during his studies he witnessed how the world was changing and began to imagine other possible options. “Opportunities opened up that had been unthinkable when I first entered college,” he said.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in engineering, Yang briefly taught English and served as an interpreter in Beijing. He then won a scholarship to study in the U.S. but a confluence of events, which would be a great story for a novel, intervened and prompted him to switch to political science. After a brief a stay in California and a stint in Portland, Oregon, he headed to Princeton where he completed a doctorate in political science in 1992. These were years of great upheaval around the world and he chose to specialize in international relations and comparative politics. He came to UChicago as a fellow in 1992 and has been a professor of political science and the College since 2004.

“At the time, much research was focused on economic development in China, and the implications of reform in the former Soviet Union and China on the global system,” he said. “The rise of China as an economic player was very interesting to me.”

Early on in his research career, Yang encountered challenges in finding data to support his projects. Even though the reforms launched in 1978 opened China to the world, it was at the time tricky to access archives and to find validated, non-biased information. He relished finding hidden patterns by making use of commonly accessible historical documents and data. “Today much of that data is accessible via the internet, but back then we were still using fax machines,” he notes.

In his nearly 27 years at UChicago, Yang has authored numerous books and scholarly articles on the politics and political economy of China, as well as social regulation and environmental governance, and social and political trust. “There is a lot of emphasis on how economic success is changing Chinese society in the eyes of the world,” he said. His work included the 2004 book, Remaking the Chinese Leviathan: Market Transition and the Politics of Governance in China (Stanford University Press), in which he examines how governance reforms spurred economic development in China, and how Chinese leaders struggled to construct new institutions to create regulatory order in the new economic landscape and to manage rampant corruption. Following on this work, he has looked at regulation in a variety of areas, including food, drug, and blood safety as well as environmental enforcement.

In his most recent book, China and Youth Well-being in China (Routledge, 2019), Yang and his co-authors turn their attention to more modern dilemmas facing youth culture in China. This book relies on data from the longitudinal Chinese Family Panel Studies survey, a biennial social survey documenting changes in Chinese society, economy, population, education, and health launched in 2010 by the Institute of Social Science Survey (ISSS) of Peking University. He and his co-authors use the data to assess the economic, physical, and social-emotional well-being of today’s youth and the significance of family and community.

“As a country evolves it is important to understand what the young people are up to,” he said. “They are the future of the society.” The book plays close attention to the tens of millions of China’s “left-behind children” whose parents travel to the cities for work, leaving them to be cared for in rural communities by extended family. “We need to understand the implications of these separations to children and to society,” he said.

He has also been conducting related research into online youth culture in China and has especially enjoyed working together with UChicago students on this project. In spite of censorship, China’s internet sector has flourished and has become fertile ground for China’s young people to explore and develop their generation’s personal identify separate from their parents.

“There is a significant generational gap online, not just from a sociological perspective, but in understanding issues related to the state and society.”

Going forward, Yang plans to wrap up his work on environmental regulations and regulation and risk regulation more generally as well as to better understand how policies inform innovation. Yang notes that President Xi Jinping is “truly an environment president,” and he believes the current leadership’s response to China’s pollution crisis will be a compelling lens through which to understand the future of the party.

Song’s studies span 12 generations

Song is newer to the University than Yang and Pomeranz, having joined UChicago in 2015 as an assistant professor of sociology after completing her PhD the same year at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Song has focused much of her academic career studying social stratification across multiple generations in China. Her research centers on genealogy data going back 12 generations – more than 300 years – to understand the lasting impact of wealth and poverty on social and economic mobility. “Many people believe that whether a family starts out rich or poor, they will eventually converge in the middle,” she said. Song is exploring historical data from both peasant and imperial families to test this hypothesis against extreme social hierarchies.

While this research is still in progress, Song has found ancestral influence in China to be so strong that wealthy families are able to preserve their advantage for much longer than previously thought. “Some families have remained prosperous for more than 10 generations,” she said. “If a family has even a remote ancestral connection to an emperor, they can often maintain that social advantage.”

Similarly, Chinese people who descend from slaves or peasants face an even harder battle to improve their social mobility from generation to generation. “Eventually they move to the middle, but it takes much longer than in some other cultures,” she said. 

Song has also found that ancestry plays a more important role in the upbringing and historical context of Chinese youth compared to other cultures. She believes this research holds important implications for current global trends in social inequality. “My research shows that it is not just the parents and grandparent’s status that matters,” she said. “We need to take into account the larger historical context of remote ancestry to identify the most disadvantaged children and to find ways to help them achieve upward mobility.”

Like her peers, Song strives to sort fact from fiction in data coming out of China, particularly as it relates to income inequality. “Economic inequality is a very sensitive topic in China,” she said noting that  all media – in particular state-owned print media – often experience both censorship and sensationalism in their reporting. Such obstacles are an inevitable part of the research process in China, she said.

Song translates much of her research experience to the classroom where she teaches students how to collect data for social science research, how to devise and test hypotheses, and how to write research papers.

“Most of my undergraduate students have no background in social science, so I want them to learn how to write for different audiences.”

Miles to go

While it’s been 40 years since China first became accessible to the rest of the world, there remains much unchartered research to cover – and pursuing those topics at UChicago is supported. “It is an extremely intellectually stimulating place to do this work,” Song said. She’s found the faculty to be very supportive of her research, and even helped her secure two Chinese speaking support staff to do 200 hours of data mining and visual data analysis for her project. “The University of Chicago is an environment where faculty collaborate across divisions,” she said. “When I need feedback, I know that I just need to ask.”

Yang, who was the Founding Faculty Director of the UChicago Center in Beijing from 2010 to 2016, has had a similar experience with the collaborative and supportive nature of the teaching environment at UChicago, and appreciates the many opportunities he’s had to work with visiting scholars from China. “Because of the University’s status as an intellectual community, we attract all kinds of interesting academics,” he said. “I can work with them, and my students can learn from them, which helps them understand issues of importance in the world.”

All three these faculty feel confident that their research efforts has the support needed to continue. “There is a strong tradition of world history research at this university,” Pomeranz said. “It’s in the DNA.”