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  • Knowing Society, Cultivating Citizens, and Making the State in Post-Imperial China
  • Robert Culp (bio)
Tong Lam . A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900-1949. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 280 pp. $60 (cloth).
Janet Y. Chen . Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. 320 pp. $45 (cloth/eBook).

Understanding society and building the national community were, in many ways, paired common goals for China's intellectuals and political leaders during the first half of the twentieth century. Complementary new books by Tong Lam and Janet Chen illuminate key dynamics of those processes. Lam's A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900-1949 tracks the development of the social survey movement (she-hui diaocha yundong) during the first half of the twentieth century. Chen's Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953 analyzes efforts to explain poverty, categorize the poor, and extend to the needy "active relief," which was meant to transform them from "parasites" into productive citizens. Together the books demonstrate how new systems of knowledge served to map the social field and how institutions of governance defined and reshaped social groups for the project of national mobilization, with Lam concentrating more on the development of modern technologies of knowledge and [End Page 171] Chen focusing more on the development of governmental institutions and the imposition of social discipline. Through their analyses these books help to explain the process whereby abstract academic fields and research methodologies, along with theories and techniques of social governance, had material effects that transformed millions of people's daily lives. They provide, in other words, striking examples of what Wen-hsin Yeh, Eddy U, and I have elsewhere characterized as "organized knowledge in action" (Culp, U, and Yeh n.d.).

At the same time, these books reconstruct the birth of the modern state during the last decade of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and track its continuous development over the first half of the twentieth century. They describe consistent efforts by the Chinese state, regardless of political formation or regime type, to constitute and mobilize the national people, a pattern that has continued through 1949 and up to the present. Such efforts at "political tutelage," to use Sun Yat-sen's term, served to rationalize and legitimize the modern bureaucratic state itself. Projects of organization and mobilization also effectively made the state by spawning new tiers of state functionaries— such as survey researchers, beat cops, and social bureaucrats— that became the face of institutions and agents of governance in local communities. As a result, Lam and Chen, who aim primarily to capture efforts by Chinese elites to characterize and cultivate society, also uncover and explain important dynamics of state making.

Tong Lam's A Passion for Facts focuses on the introduction of the social survey as a novel technology of knowledge that Chinese intellectuals expected to generate accurate facts about society, thus making it legible to the state and susceptible to new forms of management and organization. During the nineteenth century, foreign observers criticized Qing officials and scholars for lacking basic, verifiable knowledge about Chinese society. In a dynamic that is now familiar from studies of the introduction of Western conceptions of national character, hygiene, and civility, Chinese intellectuals' perception of deficiencies in indigenous forms of social knowledge drove their embrace of foreign social science methods starting in the first decade of the twentieth century.1 According to Lam, social surveys and statistics emerged as privileged methods for producing empirical knowledge about society and reenvisioning how it was constituted: "social surveys became a political necessity in this context not only because they produced empirical knowledge of the social world for the state, but also because they provided [End Page 172] new specifications for how individuals and groups should relate to the state and to one another" (49).

In the core chapters of the book, Lam assesses a succession of social survey projects undertaken during the first half of the twentieth century. First, and in many ways most interesting, is his thoughtful account of the late Qing...


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pp. 171-182
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2020
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