• Talking Rural Reconstruction, Books, and Blogs with Kate Merkel-Hess

    By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

    Prelude: The Birth of a Blog

    On a sunny day way back in the summer of 2007, when Kate Merkel-Hess was still a UC Irvine graduate student rather than a member of Penn State’s History Department, one of her professors posed an unexpected question to her.  Would Kate, he asked, consider joining him and her thesis adviser, Ken Pomeranz, in launching a digital publication aimed at trying to bridge the gap between the way journalists covered and academic analyzed China.  This could, he said, stumbling a bit over the word, be a sort of “blog.”  Perhaps she could be its lead editor, he proposed, as she was the only one of the three of them with any actual experience “blogging,” having launched a personal blog during her just concluded year doing research in Chinese archives.  He said that he and Ken had enjoyed reading her online commentaries, and this was part of what had inspired them to consider doing something similar, but with multiple contributors. Kate quickly said “yes,” and the rest, as they say, is history.  Meaning, in this case, the start of a four year run of a blog, plus the publication of a spinoff book, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, of which Kate was the lead editor.

    That is how the “China Beat” came into being—at least, I think I’ve got it right.  To be honest, it might have been Ken (now at the University of Chicago), rather than me (still at Irvine), who asked Kate if she’d join the project.  It might have been early in the fall, rather than summer, when one of us broached the subject to her.  And being a sensible person, Kate might have taken a day or two to think about whether to sign on.  It was no simple matter to juggle completing her dissertation—which in dramatically revised form is about to come out from the University of Chicago Press as a book—and playing a key role in a blog whose other co-founders seemed to have only a vague idea about what exactly the publication would be like.  Some day I’ll quiz Kate about what her memory is of the origins of China Beat (a venture whose final editor would be the China Blog’s own Maura Cunningham), but I didn’t think of asking her about that until we had concluded the following email interview, which took up other, perhaps more interesting questions, related to Kate’s work, her hobbies, and her hometown:

    Let’s begin with The Rural Modern: Reconstructing the Self and State in Republican China, your forthcoming book.  Can you tell our readers a bit about it?  Who are some of the main figures in it?  What’s the main thing you want readers to take away from reading it?

    In The Rural Modern I describe an incredibly vibrant effort to mobilize China’s rural people in the 1930s and 1940s, an effort that contested the state’s prioritization of urban areas. When I describe it this way, at least some people will assume I’m talking about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which built a revolution against the ruling Nationalist (Guomindang) Party in China’s rural areas at precisely this time. But the CCP wasn’t the only rural reform organization in China during this period. In fact, there were thousands of other rural reformers – urban intellectuals, government officials, missionaries, educators, public health workers, agricultural outreach specialists, committed social activists – who started hundreds of rural reform projects in rural China and experimented with efforts to reach out to rural people that look a lot like the rural outreach programs the CCP adopted. In the course of my research, I even found individuals who started in some of these neutral or Nationalist-affiliated programs who then took their expertise to the CCP base areas – very direct evidence of the connections between these two seemingly separate groups of rural activists. The Rural Modern tells the story of what I call the second most important rural reform movement of the period (second to the CCP, that is). Describing the breadth and depth of this undervalued movement complicates the notion that the CCP rural strategy “succeeded” and everyone else’s “failed” and places the CCP reforms within a much broader context of efforts to remake the countryside – the milieu in which the CCP actually functioned at the time and from which it drew a lot of ideas, personnel, and strategies of rural engagement.

    This is a story with fascinating, charismatic figures, like the Yale-educated literacy evangelist Yan Yangchu (known as James “Jimmy” Yen in the U.S.) who worked his Ivy League connections to fund his outreach project in Dingxian, southwest of Beijing, but also many others who have been forgotten or who barely register in the historical record. I laced my book with these stories, as best I could excavate them, because these largely forgotten people were the ones who were engaged in generating an agenda of rural reform that I argue prioritized a specific process of self-transformation. First, reformers believed that people needed to be literate. This was part of a bigger trend in late nineteenth and early twentieth century nationalism, where elites believed that being able to read profoundly changed the mind, made people more disciplined, and prepared them for civic participation. If many people learned to read, then reformers believed they would have the basis on which to draw together communities of reformed individuals who could collectively act for the social and economic good. Finally, these people would create self-governing communities that would be a part of but not completely subject to the nation. I want to emphasize how radical this idea was, particularly in comparison to some of the more hierarchical proposals for the construction of a nation that were floating around China at the time.

    These ideas didn’t emerge from nowhere. Reformers grounded some of them in the ideas of earlier Chinese thinkers, like the early nineteenth century intellectual Feng Guifen. They also, however, were influenced by a set of ideas coming from abroad that contested the headlong rush to prioritize urban modernization. The Chinese rural reforms of this period – which were often called “rural reconstruction” (乡村建设) – drew on a global “rural reconstruction” movement that I have traced back to efforts in Ireland in the first decade of the twentieth century, with iterations also appearing in South Africa and India, among other places. These global rural reconstruction movements, like the later Chinese one, argued for the importance of robust, self-governing rural communities. Their proponents, among them the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, believed that having lively rural communities mattered to the nation’s culture and identity, and they feared that corporate agriculture would wipe away that culture. Tagore, for instance, made the argument that such communities were proof that Britain had not eliminated a kind of native Indian spirit and tradition of self-reliance. Everywhere I have found it, rural reconstruction was about preserving rural communities and establishing them as a bulwark of localism against the state. It’s really important to make clear that these rural reconstructionists were not anti-modern. They embraced many elements of modernity. They were against a specific vision of modernity that prioritized urbanization and that made rural areas ancillary to some kind of center – whether it was colonial or national.

    But, of course, their vision of the countryside did not triumph. In the past fifteen years in China we have seen both an emptying out of the countryside and also some half-hearted government efforts to bolster rural communities. I hope that readers will take away from my book that this contestation over the countryside’s role in the Chinese polity (and the polity’s role in the countryside) – and the efforts to keep the balance from tipping to the cities – has been going on for a very long time. The debates of almost a hundred years ago about the future of rural people and their livelihoods and communities remain very salient.

    The book evolved out of your UCI dissertation.  What’s something interesting in the book that wasn’t in the thesis?

    The book is significantly different from the thesis and I added a lot of new material to further fill out the story I’m telling. My favorite new part traces the emergence in the Republican period of organizational charts. Much of the research for the book was based on popular publications meant for cheap and easy distribution, social science reports, government reports, and reports to funding agencies. Few of these were things created to be beautiful or aesthetically appealing. So when I saw images, I got really excited because they were very rare. But these were hardly ever reproductions of photographs. Instead, the images I ran across were rough charts and graphs. The ones that struck me most were the efforts by the rural reformers I was studying to sketch out their visions of a new society or a reformed person – and how they rendered that process of transformation into a two-dimensional image. I think how they depicted it tells us a lot about how that process of remaking society was conceived.

    What are you working on now?

    I’m now working on a book on the history of the warlords in early twentieth century China. Every time I teach the modern China course at Penn State, I get tripped up on the warlords week. It’s just a mish-mash moment that gets treated like an aberration – there’s the effort to establish the Republic of China, and then things go haywire for a decade of warlord mayhem, and then Chiang Kai-shek comes back and now, yay, we’re back to a narrative with a center. I wanted to see if the warlords could be part of the narrative of modern China. And they are all such fascinating figures. There are a lot of great stories to tell about them that haven’t been told.

    I’m particularly interested in the contributions the warlords made to shifting Chinese politics and political rhetoric in this nascent period of the Republic. Very quickly in my research, I realized this meant looking beyond the warlords as individual personalities and examining the people around them, particularly their families. For the first time, political wives were mobilized as public assets. They start to appear in pictorials and become engaged in philanthropy (particularly in the 1930s, as the war efforts kicks off). The networks of elite women who become acquainted through school and employment begin to matter to politics. When you use these descriptors, we all think of Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Song Meiling. But she wasn’t alone. I found a journal article from 1928 that mused on who the first lady of China would be: Song Meiling, Feng Yuxiang’s second wife Li Dequan, or the wife of Zhang Zuolin. They were presented as equal possibilities (each with her own distinct style). The warlords were part of a broader and more public political class than had existed in earlier periods, and they began to experiment with how to court the public that now sustained them and kept them in power.

    Are there thematic as well as chronological and geographical connections between this project and your first one or do you see it as a complete departure?

    There’s a very direct connection, which is that in the course of researching rural reform in the 1920s and 1930s I ran across a number of initiatives that were funded by various warlords – supporting adult literacy programs, educating women, trying to improve public health – and I was surprised that the warlords had been involved in such things. At that point I just thought of the warlords as military strongmen – glorified local bullies. Some of them were that. But most of them were much more complicated leaders, and they thought of themselves as a new kind of Chinese ruler, and attempted new models of political leadership. So that led me to look at them more closely.

    The other connection is my interest in localism and in narratives that disrupt our notion of the nation as real or coherent. During the warlord period the notion of a unified China breaks down – it continues to exist as a dream, but doesn’t exist in reality certainly from 1917 to 1927 and arguably is quite broken in important ways from 1911 to 1949. Many of the warlords put themselves forth as local or regional rulers. I track the polities they proposed in place of a unified China and what kind of political identities they mobilized to that end.

    Going in a totally different direction, I can’t resist asking what the deal is with China historian-blogger-editors and knitting.  I recently came across your 2014 interview with the American Historical Association, which somehow I hadn’t seen before, and you describe knitting as a great passion of yours.  Now, Maura Cunningham has been very public about her own interest in knitting, working it into her tweets and blogs posts.  Coincidence?  Or is there some reason that China, blogging, and knitting might go together?

    KM: Knitting, blogging, and learning Chinese are all rather fussy projects, requiring persistence and an attention to detail, so perhaps there’s that. In addition, knitting is a great pastime in China because there are so many knitters there and it’s easy to find cheap yarn in almost any market. For me, though, it was also a conversation starter – I could pull out my needles on any train or bus and middle-aged and older women would chat with me about it. Sometimes, they wanted to correct the way I held my needles (since I was taught to knit by “throwing” stitches in what’s called English style, whereas most Chinese knitters “pick” in continental style), or they wanted to know how I had learned. This felt like a very safe group of people for me, as a woman often traveling by herself, to chat with on public transportation. I also felt the activity humanized me for the people around me. It doesn’t really fit the Chinese stereotype of the kinds of things that foreigners do and it opened the door to talking not only about the project on the needles – what it was and where I’d bought the yarn and why was I doing this or that with it – but also about family, craft, and tradition.

    For the past few years, I’ve been collecting little bits of historical details about hand knitting in China. I’m curious about the origins of Chinese knitters’ reliance on continental style, as well as their preference for fine gauge knits (which I’m guessing probably has to do with the desire to replicate machine knit goods; but it’s still an interesting contrast to Western hand knitters, who tend to knit in a wider range of gauges). Maybe someday I’ll have enough to write something about it.

    I’m heading to Iowa soon to check out the holdings relating to the Boxer Uprising at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, and also to give a reading at Prairie Lights Bookstore on August 30 to help launch the American edition of The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, for which you and I co-wrote a chapter.  I can’t resist asking what I should be sure to see when I’m in your old stomping grounds of Iowa City.  Any thoughts?

    I’ll give a few historical recommendations – a reflection of the fact that I haven’t spent more than a few weeks or days at a time in Iowa City in twenty years and thus have no business recommending current restaurants or institutions.

    One of my favorite places in the whole world is Rochester Cemetery in Cedar County, Iowa – just a little further east from West Branch (where the Herbert Hoover Library is located, itself just a little east of Iowa City). There are very few remnants of original Iowa “oak savanna” prairie left, but Rochester Cemetery is one of them. It’s a beautiful place to walk around and look at Civil War era (and earlier, and later) graves, but also to get a sense of the Iowa landscape and ecology. A lot of people think Iowa is flat, but it is actually quite hilly, particularly in eastern Iowa. By late August, you will still get a feel for the abundance the rich Iowa soil makes possible – not just the raspy, hot rows of corn but the riotous biological diversity that made those rows of corn possible. (To read a great article about it, click here—and, if you do go, make sure you do a tick check after you walk around in the tall grasses!)

    Next, you could swing by Hamburg Inn No. 2 in downtown Iowa City – the famous home during caucus season of the coffee-bean caucus (where visitors get to vote for the candidates using coffee beans). If you are feeling brave, you can order a pie shake. It’s just what it sounds like. Iowans take their pie seriously … and in all other forms too.

    Last, there are lots of historic homes in Iowa City. For a short visit like yours, I’d recommend a drive-by of the “Bloom County” house – the one that Berkeley Breathed modeled the boarding house for Opus and the gang on. It’s at 935 East College Street, just off downtown and not far from the New Pioneer Coop, where you can grab a quick bite to eat. Now it’s an upscale market with a super deli – but I remember when it was just a dusty warehouse selling bulk whole grains and carob treats (a serious disappointment when you are five years old). They have better candy now. If you are there on a Saturday morning, you can walk kitty-corner to the farmer’s market and check out the local produce.

    You didn’t ask, but there’s a connection between Iowa and my research too – which is that though I grew up in Iowa City I remained throughout my childhood very connected to my mother’s laojia, her ancestral home (if there is such a thing in the US), in northeastern Iowa. I felt a great deal of affinity for the rural communities that I studied in China, which were so much like the little hamlet of Luxemburger Catholics that my mother’s family came from, and which has undergone some of the same dispersals and hollowing out that rural areas throughout the US have experienced since the 1980s (and really, of course, part of an ongoing process since the 1930s) and that Chinese villages have been experiencing over the past two decades. This is a global story, but for me also a personal one.