Roundtable: Bridging Cultural and Political Divides: Unique Challenges and Opportunities of Teaching Modern China As CHUS Historians in the Post-Pandemic World (Co-sponsored by CHUS and AHA)

Sunday, January 8, 2023: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Independence Ballroom I

Yi Sun, University of San Diego

Dan Du, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Patrick Fuliang Shan, Grand Valley State University
Yi Sun, University of San Diego
Guo Wu, Allegheny College
Qiong Zhang, Wake Forest University

Session Abstract:

The Covid-19 pandemic, first discovered in Wuhan, China in December 2019, has compounded the deterioration of Sino-American relations by exacerbating anti-Chinese sentiments, with some politicians and media outlets fanning the flame. The American public’s unprecedented negative perception of China is no doubt attributable to a multitude of factors, both domestic and international, but at least some of these are rooted in the lack of comprehensive understanding of China and its modern history.

Prompted by these urgent concerns of our time, this roundtable explores pedagogical issues related to the teaching of modern Chinese history, especially that of the People’s Republic of China (PRC, 1949-), in American colleges and universities. The five of us are members of Chinese Historians in the United States (CHUS), an AHA-affiliated society founded in 1987. Like the majority of CHUS membership, we are Chinese expatriates or naturalized US citizens. With firsthand experiences in many historical events of contemporary China, we have been trained, first and foremost, as professional historians here in the United States. Our distinctive identity lends itself to an ability to cover modern China in a multi-dimensional fashion that goes beyond headlines and soundbites. Simultaneously inhabiting two cultural and intellectual worlds, we feel compelled, and uniquely positioned, to launch a conversation on the current state of American education about China and Chinese history and share our perspectives on how we “CHUS historians” can help make a positive difference.

Our roundtable conversations focus on the following themes:

First, we will reflect on our pedagogical journeys teaching modern China and PRC history, focusing on the common epistemological challenges we face, which stem from our hyphenated identity, and our coping strategies as we strive to teach with professionalism and academic integrity. We will discuss questions such as how to incorporate our insiders’ experiences/knowledge/perspectives to empower our teaching and impart a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of a complex subject to our students without either slipping into the role of a China advocate or being perceived as such by our students. (Yi Sun and Guo Wu)

Second, we will share some examples of how our unique analytical lenses and advantages in gaining access to certain historical sources have enabled us to depoliticize and demystify the narratives about some of the key figures, events, or facets in modern Chinese history, correcting misunderstandings and biases that have been perpetuated in the standard Chinese as well as Western history textbooks. (Dan Du and Patrick Fuliang Shan)

Third, we find that the general curricular coverage on modern China and the history of PRC in American colleges and universities tends to be one-dimensional, featuring primarily the political arena and state leaders, an angle that may engender misperceptions of China as being inherently different from, hostile or inferior to, the US. This is where CHUS historians can do much by way of developing wide-angled (top-down and bottom up) curricula and excavating and translating teaching materials that allow our students a more authentic, richly textured, and balanced view of China and its history. (Wu Guo and Qiong Zhang)

Roundtable Participant Position Statements

  • Dan Du

Trained in the field of Capitalism Studies, I teach economic history with a transnational perspective. While scholars in this field have been revising the conventional understanding of capitalism, free market, and their relations with democracy, imperialism, and globalization, it is a challenge to help students, many of whom are more familiar with the Euro-centric narratives, to understand Chinese business culture and trading environment, such as the Canton Trade System and China’s model of economic development after its Open-Up policy from the 1970s.

  • Patrick Fuliang Shan

China’s historiography in the recent centuries has been politicized, because regime changes have impacted the assessment of historical figures and events. In particular, in the 20th century, a number of regime changes occurred, notably from the Qing Empire to Yuan Shikai’s Beijing government, to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nanjing regime, and to Mao Zedong’s Beijing government. After each change, the latecomer had habitually demonized the former regime by publishing a new revised history for its political maneuvers and purposes. Even for the same government, “internal regime changes” happened, as I myself experienced Mao Zedong’s totalitarianism and Deng Xiaoping’s reform. I first witnessed Mao as a demi-god but then I saw Mao being regarded as a disgraceful man. Consequently, depoliticizing the recent past has become an urgent mission, in particular for China’s expatriate historians (like me) who currently live in the United States. To be specific, I have tried to offer an objective assessment of modern China by fairly reevaluating a number of historical figures, for which I did research on Yuan Shikai, the Seven Gentlemen, Chen Yonggui, Xu Shiyou, and many others. For example, Yuan Shikai was condemned as a historical villain, a vicious dictator, and an obstinate reactionary after his death. Through my studies, I found that Yuan was a reformer, a talented official, and a progressive modernizer during the late Qing dynasty. Without a doubt, he committed serious mistakes. For this round table, I will discuss my efforts to depoliticize and demythologize the recent past, which have significantly enriched my teaching of Chinese history through my introduction of diverse perspectives.

  • Yi Sun

As a historian who grew up in China and received a graduate education in the U.S., and who has been teaching Modern China and U.S.-East Asia Relations at American institutions of higher learning for nearly three decades, I still find it necessary to navigate between my legal identity and cultural identity in the classroom, especially in recent years when the anti-China sentiment has been on the rise.  Students’ perception of an inherent, though unwarranted, partiality due to my Chinese heritage has prompted a strenuous effort to validate my professional integrity by going out of my way to be “objective” when covering China. 

While this uncomfortable reality at an individual level reflects broader societal issues concerning race and ethnicity, it is nonetheless immensely gratifying that, overall, my intimate knowledge and nuanced understanding of China, owing to my professional and personal ties to the country, have been an asset rather than liability in my teaching endeavors by enabling me to offer something that is authentic, unique, and constructive. 

  • Guo Wu

Scholars who grew up in China and teach about modern China in American colleges might not need to have a self-imposed pressure to pursue absolute “neutrality” and “detachment.” I will share my reflections on how I stick to my hybrid identities as both an “insider” of contemporary China with memories, experiences, and personal connections, or a “stake,” and an outsider: an observer and researcher of China based in the US often using Western conceptual frameworks to analyze Chinese history, and how students responded to my approach.  I argue that CHUS historians should be more assertive to provide alternative angles, source materials, and conceptual frameworks to guide the students and temper the narrative of some existing texts published in the US.  For instance, while looking at “conflict”, “control”,  “confrontation”, “oppression”, and “resistance”, or “nationalism”, we can also examine the dimensions and phenomena in contemporary Chinese politics and society that reflect “apathy” , “acquiesce”, “acceptance”,  “symbiosis”, and “(self-)empowerment”, especially among China’s Generation Z.

  • Qiong Zhang

History education plays a critical role in the training of a well-informed and free-thinking citizenry.  Yet the reality of American education about Chinese history seems to fall short of that ideal.  This is illustrated by the irony that while Western scholars and observers are keen to point out how standard history texts used in Chinese schools have withheld or effaced certain historical truths about the recent past that detract from the stature of the Chinese Communist Party, the mainstream American history curriculum on contemporary Chinese history is almost guilty of the reverse.  Typical coverage of the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC, 1949-) does not go much beyond major political campaigns, leaders, government policies and policy failures, and incidents of clashes between the state and society.  This exquisite focus on political and ideological issues and on China’s state actors deprives our students of the opportunity to understand China and its history in their full complexity.  What can CHUS historians do to help address this curricular imbalance?

Drawing on my personal experiences growing up in rural China and witnessing the phenomenal changes of village life both firsthand as I grew up and as an outsider and historian in several provinces where I conducted field research in recent years, I would like to discuss the ways in which a bottom-up perspective can zoom in on how the policies, and their failures thereof, were received and experienced by people in their lifeworld, and how ordinary villagers strived to shape their destinies and create meaning in their lives. I believe the combination of “master narratives” and real-life experiences and observations can help our students gain an authentic and multi-dimensional view of China as a developing country undergoing economic boom and social transformation.