A great leap forward

Kenneth Pomeranz and the changing field of China studies.

When Kenneth Pomeranz began his graduate studies at Yale in 1980, an American’s ability to study Chinese history was limited. The only accessible archives for the long imperial period were from a partial set brought to Taiwan in 1949 or in Beijing, which was just being opened to outside scholars. Fieldwork was next to impossible, and even if a scholar could get permission to search provincial archives, there were few historians there equipped to help foreign researchers. There were published sources, but graduate students without access to a top university library had few subjects they could realistically investigate, which limited the number of institutions that produced aspiring historians of China.

Today the situation has changed, says Pomeranz, an expert on China who became University Professor of History this fall after serving on the faculty of the University of California, Irvine, since 1988. Now even many provincial and municipal archives in China are well staffed and organized. Historians there often are fluent in Western languages and methods of scholarship, and American graduate students have been studying Chinese since high school. Best of all, in the United States researchers now can find digitized records and widely circulated works on China. “There’s a pretty good range of things you can do at least a preliminary cut on as long as you have access to a decent library anywhere in the States,” Pomeranz says. “Twenty, even ten years ago, unless a student had been at a really top school, they had no experience looking at Chinese sources. Now there’s a reasonably good chance that a bright and motivated undergraduate at a midlevel state university may have written a paper or essay that used a significant amount of Chinese material. That makes all the difference,” he says, in preparing students for graduate study.

“Beijing has generally had the ability to lay down the law on a couple of things—and they do—but the implicit or explicit bargain has always been, ‘In return for conformity on that handful of things, we’re going to tolerate a heck of a lot of local diversity on everything else.’”

During this era of rapid change, Pomeranz has mostly studied the Qing Dynasty, which ruled from 1644 to 1912. His core interest combines socioeconomic and environmental history—“history from the bottom up,” as he puts it, investigating how ordinary people reacted to and shaped the societal changes of the period. His interests also cover the Chinese people’s engagement with the state, such as through taxation and conscription.

There’s a practical rationale for studying Chinese history, he says. Many parts of modern China are products of the Qing Dynasty, such as the country’s internal provincial boundaries and system of governorships, and as the nation grows in economic and geopolitical power, foreign diplomats and businesspeople want to understand its culture and history. For Pomeranz, that education sometimes takes the form of stamping out his students’ misconceptions, such as the common view of China as a highly centralized society. “It never has been,” he says. “Beijing has generally had the ability to lay down the law on a couple of things—and they do—but the implicit or explicit bargain has always been, ‘In return for conformity on that handful of things, we’re going to tolerate a heck of a lot of local diversity on everything else.’” 

He’s been working to place China in the context of world history—not only how China was buffeted by foreign colonial powers during the Qing Dynasty but also how it influenced the world around it. He’s conducted comparative studies of labor, family organization, and economic change in Europe and East Asia, as well as researching the origins of the world economy in works including The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present, cowritten in 1999 with Steven Topik. “China had cities, states, well-developed markets for a lot of things, and did a lot of things that the West sometimes likes to think are its specialties,” he says. “It’s a place that is radically different and yet similar enough in basic ways that historical comparisons can work.”

Pomeranz offers an illustration of its dissimilarity: early-19th-century ethnic riots in the southwestern province of Yunnan. None of the people arrested identified themselves as “Chinese” or even “Han,” the name used today for China’s dominant ethnic group. Instead, “They say, ‘I’m from Jiangxi’ or ‘I’m from Hunan.’ Sometimes they say, ‘I’m from the interior,’ which is an umbrella term for everything that isn’t this frontier place they live in. It’s not until well into the 19th century that a few of them—and only a few—start saying, ‘I’m Han Chinese.’” According to Pomeranz, modern concepts of ethnicity and nationality didn’t exist for most of these rioters.

Studying China’s environmental history was a fortuitous choice, he says, given the attention that the world now pays to China’s greenhouse-gas emissions and lax environmental practices. Through most of history, China has had about a quarter of the world’s population but only about 7 percent of the world’s arable land. And yet, Pomeranz says, “it has maintained material living standards at or above global average. The last couple of centuries where it’s been below that are an aberration and may well be coming to an end,” he says. “There are things to discover about how that’s done.” 

Just as Pomeranz has seen his field mature over the course of his career, he’s watched China become more urban, industrial, and educated. He recalls walking down a Beijing street in the summer of 2011, in an area he had been to many times, when he found himself drawn to a particular building. “There was something that bugged me about it,” he recalls. Finally, he realized why he found it familiar: “It was the only building still left from when I first got to that place in the late 1980s. Everything else was new.”


Executive decisions

Kenneth Pomeranz isn’t only one of Chicago’s newest University Professors—he’s also president-elect of the American Historical Association (AHA). It’s “a funny moment for scholarly societies,” he says, noting that the AHA’s traditional structure is inadequate for the new reality of its field. For example, the growing ranks of non-tenure-track faculty who teach history classes might require different services from the association. The same is true of many historians who work outside the academy, in museums, archives, local historical societies, and so on. There’s also the matter of paying to produce the American Historical Review, a coveted perk of joining the association. Today anybody at an institution with a JSTOR subscription has free access to the journal. So they, too, need to be persuaded that the other services the AHA offers justify their dues, or else provide new kinds of benefits.

Pomeranz doesn’t expect to find final answers to these issues in his term as president; they‘ve been building for years and will continue to evolve after he’s stepped down. But it’s important to confront them now rather than later. “Whatever it is the AHA will be in two decades, it’s probably not what it is now,” he says. “If we don’t take steps toward becoming whatever that new thing is, then maybe it becomes something we don’t like.”