How my interest in China developed 如何结缘于中国

This started out as a brief discussion of the roots of my interest in China in high school, but has expanded to include my pursuit of that interest in college, a reminisce about my time in Taipei and Beijing in the early 1990s that grows steadily longer, and some closing thoughts.

I wrote this because one of the questions I am asked most frequently when I am in China is, “How did you become interested in China?” I have a short answer which I usually give which makes the evolution of my interest seem fairly linear, logical, and coherent, but the reality is that the development of my interest was somewhat happenstance, and over the long-term, was very dependent on my good fortune in being presented with opportunities to pursue my interest in China that also played to my strengths and took advantage of my previous training. I decided to start writing this as a way of laying everything down, even all the pieces don’t quite line up.

I first developed an interest in China in high school as a result of conversations with my father’s Chinese graduate students and visiting scholars. This was in the early 1980s. At the time, my father was teaching computer science at the Illinois Institute of Technology.  He occasionally hosted visiting scholars from China who were mid-career professionals or academics in computer science who had been sent to the United States to update their knowledge and skills.  Most of them returned to China and resumed work there after completing their visit.  Since they were roughly the same age as my father, and had families back in China, he often invited them to our home.

These conversations left a deep impression on me. At the time, I was living in a small college town in the Midwest: Dekalb, Illinois. In retrospect it was in many ways a nice place to attend middle and high school, but it was not a place that offered high school students many opportunities for contact with people from other countries, or very different backgrounds. Conversations with my father’s visitors were accordingly eye-opening. They talked about their impressions of the United States, good and bad, as well as their own experiences back in China, as well as their family histories. They were all highly educated, and many were from families that had been of high status before 1949, so they had suffered terribly during the Cultural Revolution.

My father also visited China as a member of an academic delegation in 1983 and once more a year or two later.  I was a sophomore or junior in high school. On his return, my father suggested that I pay attention to China because based on what he saw during his visit, there was a great deal happening. He noted that there was a remarkable amount of construction going on. He was also impressed at the seriousness of the scholars he met with.

As a result of my father’s reports about his visit, and conversations with his visitors, I became interested in China. I began reading whatever I could find about China. I lived in a university town, Dekalb, Illinois, that had several used bookstores, so it was easy to find things. One of the first things I read was Ho Bing-ti’s Ladder of Success in Imperial China which was lying around the house because my dad had it read decades before and still had lying around. For better or worse, I also read Edgar Snow’s mostly fawning books about the years before and after the Revolution.

In retrospect, this haphazard, almost random path towards an interest in China seems a bit atypical. Many of the academics I run into in Chinese studies can trace the origin of their interest to something specific, like an interest in Chinese philosophy, religion, martial arts, poetry and/or art. Often, this developed out of initial exposure in college. Outside academics, interest in China, or Asia more generally, often seems to reflect a fascination with the exotic, sometimes in a very unsavory way, or a hope that Eastern philosophy or religion will offer answers that Western philosophy or religion will not.

To the extent that there was any one thing that motivated my fascination with China early on, it was wonderment over its scale and persistence. Especially as I continued my studies in college, I was particularly taken by the fact that the broad outlines of political, economic and family organization were remarkably similar right into the middle of the 19th century, and fairly consistent over an area larger than Europe. Obviously there were changes over time, and a historian will be able to summarize many differences between time periods and regions, but I would hazard a guess that someone frozen during the Han and thawed out in the early nineteenth century would recognize the world around him in a way that a Roman legionnaire frozen in the time of Augustus and thawed out in the early nineteenth century would not. This is not necessarily a good thing, but this continuity fascinated me.  I was also fascinated by the ability of the state to govern a large population and large area with a remarkably small bureaucracy, and when necessary mobilize resources, especially people, across long distances.

I did eventually read many of the major works of Chinese philosophy in translation and was impressed by the sophistication of the discussions of statecraft and governance, but I never connected to any of it on a personal level the way many people seem to, and never saw any of it as a source for inspiration or guidance. Then again, I haven’t come across anything in Western philosophy that I regard as a source of inspiration or guidance. I wasn’t particular interested in Eastern religion or martial arts. I do appreciate Chinese art and poetry, but that appreciation came later, after I had already been studying China.

As a result of all this, by my senior year in high school, I had decided that I wanted to double major in electrical engineering and history in college, the latter with an emphasis on China.


After high school, I ended up at Caltech. I have a rather long-winded reminisce and reflection about my time at Caltech which you are welcome to read. That explains how I ended up there. Importantly, during my senior year in high school, my father pointed out that if I was interested in studying history, at Caltech I would probably have the humanities and social sciences faculty largely to myself, whereas if I went to Berkeley or Stanford or some other place, I would be one of hundreds of undergraduates, many of them pre-law, who were clamoring for the attention of the historians and other humanities and social science faculty. In the fall of my senior year, I applied to Caltech and was accepted early decision, at which point I immediately withdrew my applications to other colleges.

In my sophomore year at Caltech, I began working as a research assistant for James Lee, who at the time was an Assistant Professor of History an Caltech. At the time, James needed someone with expertise in database programming to help manage the Daoyi household register data he was collecting for what became our book Fate and Fortune. This was an exciting opportunity for me because it allowed me to apply expertise I had developed in high school to work related to what at the time was a hobby interest, China.  My primary initial contribution was to redo most of the software for managing the household register data in dBase III+. Previously, all the software had been written in C, which was hardly conducive to reorganizing the data and creating new variables on the fly. Creation of variables and calculations had to be ‘hard-wired’ into the code. Creating new variables to measure household size and other contextual features was difficult. Once the software was rewritten in dBase III+, we could extend it as needed to create new variables. This made it possible to create variables measuring not only household size, but also the presence or absence of other kin. Rather than write code to carry out calculations ourselves, we exported everything to tab-delimited files to import into SPSS and later STATA for analysis.

My first trip to China came at the end of my sophomore year in summer 1987, when with support from a Caltech Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, I joined James on a research trip to Beijing and Shenyang.  In Beijing, we stayed at Shaoyuan (勺园) at Peking University and carried out research in the No. 1 Historical Archives. In Shenyang, we stayed at Liaoning University, and visited the Liaoning Provincial Archives as well as Daoyi. We hauled a massive Compaq ‘portable’ computer with us so we could conduct analysis. Again, this was an eye-opening experience. I wish I had taken more pictures. I have fond memories of meals. I have especially fond memories of visits to people’s homes.

By senior year, I decided to pursue a PhD in demography and sociology and eventually an academic career focused on the study of China. In consultation with James Lee and others, I decided that demography, and quantitative sociology more generally, offered the best opportunity to combine my technical training and expertise and training with my interest in China. Accordingly, I didn’t take the Power Electronics or senior year project classes required for an Electrical Engineering degree at Caltech, and graduated with a degree in Engineering and Applied Sciences. I actually applied somewhat halfheartedly to several graduate programs in electrical engineering, and was even accepted at Columbia. I still remember the silence at the other end of the phone line when a professor at Columbia called me to offer me a place and funding, and I explained that I had decided to pursue a PhD in the social sciences.

Had I not stumbled into an opportunity to make use of my training in programming while pursuing my interest in Chinese history, I doubt I would have continued to study China in graduate school. Hopefully I would have taken my engineering courses more seriously, and gone to graduate school. Perhaps in some parallel universe I ended up with some of my classmates at Apple, Microsoft, or some other successful startup, and am now retired, living in a mansion somewhere indulging my interest in China by donating money for academic research. I did take more traditional history courses in college, as well as a range of courses in economics and political science, and as interesting as they were, none of them held my interest the way that quantitative analysis of data we had collected ourselves did. The economics and political science classes that I took tended to be heavy on theory, and there was always someone in the class who was better than I was at the relevant derivations. The history and literature classes were interesting, but there was always someone else who was better at expressing themselves in writing. When it came to conducting analysis of historical microdata, however, I felt like I had the opportunity to do something that no one else was doing.

I do feel fortunate that I locked in on China as opposed to Japan or some other part of the world as a focus of my interest. Around the time I was finishing college, Japan was at the top of its game, and everyone seemed to think that Japan would run the world within a few decades. People were making movies like the silly Black Rain. Especially after June 1989, people wondered why I remained interested in China, since at the time the common opinion was that China’s development had been interrupted for years if not decades. I wish I could see that my decision to stick with studying China reflected some intuition or foresight that its economy would soon resume its rapid growth, but the mundane reality is that I simply liked studying China, and plowed forward without much regard for what was going on.

Taipei and Beijing

After my graduation from Caltech in June 1989, I spent six months studying Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University (国立台湾师范大学), and then six months at the Chinese Language Center (汉语中心) at Peking University (北大). I originally planned to go to Beijing immediately after I graduated from Caltech in June 1989 to study Chinese at Peking University, given what happened in early June in Beijing, it was no longer feasible. Accordingly, I changed my plans, so that I first went to Taipei, and moved on to Beijing in December 1989. In May and June 1990, I also visited Daoyi, Liaoning, which was the community covered by the Qing household registers James Lee and I analyzed in Fate and Fortune. During that year I was supported by fellowships from the Watson and Durfee Foundations.

I had a wonderful and productive time in Taipei in the last half of 1989. I had not studied Chinese at Caltech since at the time it wasn’t offered, thus when I landed in Taipei I didn’t speak a word of Chinese. Then as now, of course, Taiwan was about the friendliest and most welcoming place anywhere, and especially in the first month or two while I was getting my feet on the ground, there were always people helping me. I was also lucky enough to start my Chinese language studies at the National Taiwan Normal University (国立台湾师范大学) Mandarin Training Center, which offered small classes of 3 to 5 students each, and had very experienced and dedicated teachers. Tuition was very reasonable. My Chinese progressed rapidly, so that within a few months I could conduct a conversation. I made a number of friends, including some who started as language-exchange partners, and I remain close to some of them even now. One of the wonders of the internet is that I occasionally reconnect with other friends who I had lost touch with, often via LinkedIn or Facebook, sometimes because entirely by coincidence, they show up in my ‘people you may know’ feed.

1989 was an exciting time to be in Taiwan because politics, society, and the economy were all changing. With respect to politics, martial law had been lifted two years previously, in 1987, and Taiwan was in the earliest stages of what turned out to be a largely successful transition to the free and open democratic society it is now. At the time, people were still worried that the recent opening could be reversed, and rumors were rampant. There were still hints of the bad old days. On the bright side, the economy was still growing rapidly. And as I noted above, people were extremely friendly.

Taipei was also remarkable to me because it was so safe. It was a liberating experience to be in a large city where there was essentially no risk anywhere of being robbed or assaulted. This wasn’t because I had a special status as a foreigner, but rather because Taipei was a very safe place. There were burglaries and other forms of property crime, but violent crime against strangers seemed to be unheard of. For me, it was a new experience to be able to walk around a major city at 3AM without the slightest concern about safety. Going to college in Southern California, and having spent a lot of time in Chicago when I was going to high school in northern Illinois, I had been used to the idea that some level of situational awareness and vigilance was always in order in large American cities, even in areas that appeared to be safe. And when I was in graduate school in Philadelphia in the early nineties, vigilance and caution was necessary, and nt always enough.

Taiwan was also the easiest place in the world for me to gain weight. When I graduated from college, I was still fairly lean, mainly because the food service at Caltech at the time was pretty sub-par. Almost from the moment I landed in Taiwan, however, I was confronted with cheap, tasty, and somewhat exotic food. Every morning I went to the bakeries and loaded up on various pastries with rich fillings. For dinner, I often ate at the restaurants near the 师大夜市 that catered to students, serving large portions at low prices. For lunch, I tended to be more restrained. I usually had a bowl of noodles, dumplings, or a pork chop rice (排骨饭) box lunch. However, more often than I should have, I broke down and ate at McDonald’s. Then after dinner, there was often beer with my friends.

My time in Peking from December 1989 to May 1990 was fun and certainly memorable, but not as conducive to progress in Chinese. At the time, the Chinese language teaching at Peking University was somewhat haphazard. The tuition was as high as it had been in Taipei, but we were typically in classes of 20 to 30. We used textbooks written in the 1970s, or perhaps earlier, which emphasized vocabulary that might have been useful at that time, but not in the late 1980s. The teachers were very dedicated and hard-working and to this day I appreciate their efforts, but I think it is hard to develop conversational ability in that kind of an environment.  I did continue to make progress with reading, because I could do that with flash cards, without interacting. The weather was beautiful the entire time I was in Beijing. Whereas Taipei had been humid and smoggy, the air in Beijing was clean and dry. The skies were blue. Sometimes we skated on 未名湖 or even out at the lake at 圆明园.

The other reason my conversational Chinese made less progress when I was in Beijing in late 1989 is that at Peking University at that time, it was very hard to meet people who I could practice with. I did have some opportunity to spend time with some of the visitors who my father had hosted in Chicago a few years earlier, and also with some families that James Lee and others introduced me to, but it was almost impossible to meet students or other young people. Like almost all foreign students at Peking University, I lived in the foreign student dormitory Shaoyuan (勺园). Foreigners were not yet allowed to live off-campus. At the time, access to the Peking University campus was tightly controlled, and access by Chinese to the foreign student dormitory even more so. The environment on campus was intimidating for visitors. If I walked around campus with a Chinese friend, almost inevitably we were approached by stocky men with crew cuts who never wore glasses who claimed to be tourists and asked for directions, then tried to segue into questioning whoever I happened to be with about where they were from and what they were doing on campus. In such an environment, it was very difficult to make new friends the way I had in Taipei.

The one positive consequence of this isolation was that I did get to know my fellow international students quite well, and formed some friendships that endure to this day. At the time there were very few Americans, and most of the other international students were Japanese. I was especially fortunate to join a Lunar New Year student trip to Yunnan soon after I arrived. We took a 50 hour hard-sleeper train ride to Kunming and spend several days seeing the sights, and then took the train back. There were just two or three Americans on the trip. Most of the rest were Japanese, and a few were African. I ended up spending a great deal of time with the Japanese students during the trip and afterwards. We all spoke Chinese. I couldn’t speak Japanese. Meanwhile, while some Japanese friends could speak English quite well, others couldn’t, and out of difference to them and other international students who didn’t speak English, we stuck mainly to Chinese. I remain in touch with many of these friends many years later.

While earning my PhD in sociology and demography at the University of Pennsylvania, I spent fall 1992 and spring 1993 in Taipei studying Chinese intensively at the Inter-University Program in Chinese Language Studies at National Taiwan University (国立台湾大学), otherwise known as the Stanford Center. I was supported that year by an International Predissertation Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council. My Chinese made tremendous progress that year. The teachers at the IUP were fantastic, we had small classes, and the other students were all very focused. And as always, Taipei was a great place to be, with friendly, welcoming people and fantastic people. The pollution and traffic were pretty bad, but those problems have been dealt with fairly successfully. At the end of that year, my reading ability in Chinese was definitely at its peak, and it has been downhill ever since. I could read newspaper articles in traditional characters.

During that year in Taipei, that year I lived in a small room in an illegal structure (违章建筑) built on the roof of a five-story walk-up in the neighborhood near 师大夜市.  I was fortunate to have a corner room that had windows on two walls, so there was often a breeze. There was a shared bath, shower, washing machine, and clotheslines out on the deck. We also shared a plastic, coin-operated phone that sat on a small table in the hallway. My neighbors were an interesting assortment of students, office workers who had homes elsewhere in Taiwan to which they returned on weekends, and at least one mysterious gentleman with no discernible source of income who often the shared phone to make reservations at various entertainment establishments. Talking to him, I eventually learned that he was a sort of lobbyist who had been engaged by a company seeking government contracts to arrange forms of entertainment for the politicians who might have some influence on the awarding of the contracts in question. He provided a remarkably detailed explanation of how procurement worked in Taiwan at that time. On one occasion, I actually met some of his associates, who were clearly from the underworld.

One lingering regret about my time in Taiwan is that I didn’t have much opportunity to explore the island, and spent most of my time in Taipei. Especially when I was there in 1992 and 1993, I tended to be busy on weekends with various research projects. More generally, transportation outside Taipei was not very convenient. Once when we took a class trip to Keelung, the trip from Taipei to Kaohsiung took all night. At least that is the way I remember it. There were of course long-distance buses, but before the internet, it was difficult to get the information needed to plan a trip in advance. I should note that some of my classmates were much more successful at finding time to explore the island outside Taipei, but they often had help from friends in making plans and arrangements.

I spent the summer of 1993 in Beijing, carrying out research for my dissertation. I lived at Peking University, but spent most of my time at various libraries and archives around town. Beijing was much more relaxed than it had been in 1990. It is strange to say this now, but the weather was lovely. The skies were blue almost every day and the air was clean and dry, except that every afternoon there was a brief shower. By contrast, Taipei had been very polluted, and of course it was humid, so in this regard moving to Beijing was a pleasant change. I had a rented bicycle and my research assistant and I often rode to the libraries we were visiting. On a few occasions, I rode all the way downtown. Once I rode to the U.S. Embassy to add pages to the passport, and on some other occasions I rode elsewhere. It is strange to think now about how beautiful it was in Beijing that summer, given that the pollution has become so bad. I also wouldn’t contemplate riding my bicycle around Beijing these days.

Closing Thoughts

As an aside, an eternal frustration for me in studying Chinese has been tones. I never mastered them. I really tried. Especially when I was in Taipei, the teachers really tried to help me, and I spent time in the language labs listening to the tapes, and the problem I always had was that the tones all sounded the same to me, no matter how hard I tried. To this day, I don’t know what tones most characters are. To the extent that any of my tones are correct when I am talking, it was picked up unconsciously in the course of listening to others talk, and I couldn’t tell you what the tones were, even for characters I pronounced correctly. I always wonder if it has something to do with my inability when it comes to music. I love listening to music, but when I had music classes in elementary and middle school, I did miserably.

I feel fortunate that to this day, I have been able to continue working on historical China. I am excited that we have moved on from our early focus on family organization and demography using household registers, to begin looking at education and official careers using the 缙绅录 and other sources. Over the years I had opportunities to join projects doing research on contemporary China, but somehow involvement in a survey never held my interest the way that  finding and transcribing and analyzing novel historical data does. I’m lucky that the centers and departments where I have worked have allowed me to pursue this research and not pressured me to shift to contemporary or mainstream topics.

Partly this reflects my frank assessment of comparative advantage. There are lots of very smart, hard-working, knowledgeable and experienced people out there running important surveys that teach us a great deal about contemporary China. I’ve always felt that if I went in that direction, I would be just one of dozens of people in that area, and wouldn’t have anything to offer that would improve much on what was already being done. Along those lines, I would be just one of many people publishing on similar topics, and it would be much harder to find something novel and different to say. Doing something interest in a crowded field is difficult because all the low-hanging fruit has already been plucked.

When it comes to working with historical data, I think there is comparative advantage. I’ve always felt that almost everything we do has some value because so little is really known about the areas we work in, and everything we learn represents a discovery, albeit sometimes minor. To use an analogy that my collaborator James Lee is fond of, it as if we have developed a new telescope or detector, and have the opportunity to observe and measure phenomena that no one else has looked at before. Accordingly, unexpected patterns and relationships are worthwhile discoveries, even if we can’t explain them.

Something else that continued to motivate my pursuit of historical research was concern that if James Lee and I and others didn’t do the work we did, no one else would, and the quantitative study of Chinese historical micro-data would simply die out. Back in the 1990s and even 10 years ago, there were very few other projects. The most notable and important was of course the ongoing construction and analysis of databases based on Japanese era household registers in Taiwan carried out by researchers at the Academic Sinica in Taipei. Previously there had been a number of projects analyzing lineage genealogies, but by the 1990s most of those had gone dormant. I am much less concerned now because many more people from a wide variety of disciplines are constructing databases from Chinese historical sources and conducting quantitative analyses.