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  • A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900–1949 by Tong Lam
  • Liu Wennan
A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900–1949. By Tong Lam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 280pp. $63.00 (cloth and e-book).

Tong Lam examines the transformation from a dynastic empire to a nation-state from a unique perspective: social surveys. He argues that Chinese politicians and intellectuals accepted the Western perception of Chinese factual deficiencies as the reason for China’s national decline, so they internalized the culture of facts developed in the West and devoted themselves to social survey movements. According to him, the social survey movement in China in the first half of the twentieth century not only produced knowledge about the society for the state to govern its population, but also helped construct new understanding of the aggregate social body during this process of knowledge production. Social surveys in various forms, such as population censuses, ethnography, sociological surveys, land surveys, and investigations of superstition, thus constituted the foundation of modern governance and provided new sources of political authority and legitimacy for the nascent nation-state of China.

Lam positions his research on the social survey movement in modern China against five interrelated conceptual frameworks. First, the studies by Mary Poovey, Theodore Porter, and Timothy Mitchell on the important roles that social sciences, statistics, and ethnography played in the practice of social engineering, and more generally governmentality, lead him to think about how social facts as a new source of truth helped China transform into a modern nation-state. Second, Steven Shapin and Ann Laura Stoler inspire him to pay more attention to the role of sentiments in knowledge production so as to understand why modern Chinese intellectuals were so passionate about finding objective social facts. Third, learning from the recent scholarship on European and American social history, he highlights how empirical research on the social field also shaped society by guiding political programs of social engineering. Fourth, he puts China in a global colonial context to illustrate “colonial modernity” in the Chinese historical [End Page 913] experience and compares China with other colonial regimes such as India to show the multiplicity of colonial experience. Fifth, informed by Bruno Latour’s theory on knowledge production in laboratory process, he intends to break up the black box that produced social knowledge in modern China and examine how knowledge turned into truth to shape citizens and serve the state. These five conceptual frameworks, whose scope goes far beyond specific Chinese history, illustrate Lam’s global view, comparative methodology, and interest in universal issues of social sciences transcending national boundaries.

Based on the above five conceptual frameworks, Lam relies on two major clusters of empirical evidence to explore political, social, and intellectual meanings of social surveys in modern China. One is the nationwide population census launched by the Qing government in the last few years of its reign, and the other is about the social surveys in the Nanjing decade of the Republican period (1927–1937). He points out that the population census was an integral part of the New Policy reform of the Qing government to transform itself into a modern nation-state. By enumerating each person in this census, the state claimed a direct rule of the homogeneous population disregarding difference in ethnicity, culture, and geography based on its knowledge of the social body, and thus symbolically broke down the traditional hierarchical order of imperial rule based on the supernatural mandate of heaven. Lam also examines the anti-census riots among some rural people and ethnical minorities to illustrate the political meanings of the riots as resisting aggressive penetration of the state power into local society and as anxiety about the change of people’s daily lives caused by Western technology and imperialist power. Social surveys in the Nanjing decade shared the same intention to build a modern nation-state as the late Qing census. By examining the self-narration of researchers who conducted the surveys, Lam shows that these researchers claimed they were using scientific methods to produce objective knowledge, but they actually held...


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