Chinese Historian Tenured

After a worldwide search for a candidate to fill Harvard’s new professorship in Chinese social history, former Associate Professor Michael Szonyi was selected to assume the post on July 1, 2009.

Szonyi is a social historian who, in addition to reading historical texts, seeks to challenge historical accounts by speaking with village elders, collecting documents from villagers, and observing lineage and temple rituals in order to see history from a local perspective, he said.

“It takes a very different skill set than the one we usually associate with history,” Szonyi said about his method. “Together with Chinese colleagues, we are hoping to write a very different version of Chinese history than the one told by official government sources and the writings of the literati elite.”

Szonyi will now be able to recruit graduate students from Asia and the United States and train them in his method of study. He said he also hopes to establish a summer program that will encourage students to travel to China to examine history in a similar way.

“Szonyi helps to prepare undergraduates learn about Chinese culture first hand,” said East Asian Languages and Civilizations Professor Peter K. Bol, who teaches a course with Szonyi at the College.

Szonyi is currently studying the social history of the Ming Dynasty military. He has traced local cults from the Ming Dynasty and has found that some of these cults continue to exist. Their traditions can help historians better understand the role of religion in establishing local social orders, Szonyi said.

But Szonyi said his interests do not lie exclusively with the fourteenth century Ming Dynasty. He is also currently investigating Chinese social history during the Cold War.

“It is unusual to move across time periods as easily as Michael does,” said Chinese Studies Professor William C. Kirby.

“Quite by accident,” Szonyi became interested in the Quemoy archipelago, which was a point of conflict between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan during the Cold War. This confrontation almost led the United States to use nuclear force against China on two separate occasions.

Szonyi is currently working on a book that compares villagers’ perspectives in Quemoy with villagers in mainland China who live in the area across from the islands. His most recent trip to China yielded interviews with villagers in the mainland who told stories similar to those of the villagers in Quemoy, showing that despite their different ideologies, the villagers were impacted in a similar way, he said.

“I’ve just been attending a conference where several speakers mentioned the leading role of Harvard in the study of Chinese history,” Szonyi said. “It’s humbling to think that in my new position I’m expected to contribute to that tradition.”

—Staff writer Ellie M. Reilly can be reached at