Negotiating Intellectual Debt

The establishment of Chinese sociology was transnational from the very beginning. During the early decades of the twentieth century, Europe and Japan were two major sources of Chinese sociological knowledge, but starting from the 1920s, Chinese sociology developed a close affiliation with U.S. sociology because of the shared concern with social problems and the applied interest in social reform. This short essay traces the production of sociological knowledge about China and examines Chinese sociologists’ efforts of indigenization in the twentieth century. It asks what Chinese sociology owes for its very existence and how intellectual debt can be settled.
Before 1930, as sociologists Talcott Parsons and Leon Bramson point out, American sociology, unlike European sociology, took the broad outline of the society and its major values as given and unproblematic, and concerned itself with particular “social problems.” Sociology’s applied interests and ethical concerns, Parsons and Bramson argue, were manifested in a “reform ideology” that emphasized social work and that produced an overlapping role for professional sociologists and clergymen. [ref]Talcott Parsons, “Some Problems Confronting Sociology as a Profession,” in S. M. Lipset and N. Smelser (eds.), Sociology: The Progress of a Decade (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1961), pp. 14-30; and Leon Bramson, The Political Context of Sociology (Princeton University Press, 1967), pp. 73-95.[/ref]
The combination of sociology and social realities had a great bearing upon Chinese sociology. As sociologist Fei Xiaotong writes in retrospect, Chinese sociology “engage[d] in, with the support of foreign donations, social work… [and understood] social surveys and research from a viewpoint of social pathology.” [ref]Fei Xiaotong, “Shehuixue ying zenyang gaizao” (“How Sociology Should be Reconstructed”), New Construction, No. 2 (December 1950), pp. 20-3, quoted in King and Wang, “The Development and Death of Chinese Academic Sociology: A Chapter in the Sociology of Sociology,” p. 42[/ref]
U.S. sociologists played a critical role in the institutionalization of Chinese sociology. They taught sociology classes, set up sociology departments and organized the earliest empirical research in China. Particularly noticeable in the pre-1949 era was the role of U.S. missionary organizations that were enthusiastic initiators and promoters of Chinese sociology. In 1905, Arthur Monn offered courses in sociology at St. John’s University in Shanghai, the first ever in China. Sidney D. Gamble and John S. Burgess conducted China’s first social survey in Beijing in 1919. Prior to the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, seven out of the twelve missionary universities had full-fledged departments of sociology, one a department of ethnology, and one a combined department of history and sociology, a percentage much higher than the Chinese government universities. [ref]Francis Hsu, “Sociological Research in China,” quoted in King and Wang, “The Development and Death of Chinese Academic Sociology: A Chapter in the Sociology of Sociology,” p. 42.[/ref]
The other important players for the transnational production of Chinese sociology were the Chinese students who studied at sociology departments in the United States and upon their return staffed sociology departments, carrying out research projects all over China. From 1909 to 1911, 187 students took advantage of the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program and subsequently played a prominent role in introducing Western learning, including sociology, to China.[ref]See Sun Benwen, Contemporary Chinese Sociology (Chongqing: Victory Press, 1935).[/ref]
Successive waves of Chinese students–government-funded and self-supported–were on a steady increase until 1949.”[ref]See Ye Weili, Seeking Modernity in China’s Name: Chinese Students in the United States, 1920-1927 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).[/ref]
Almost all the well-known sociologists in Republican China had studied abroad, mostly in the United States and especially at Columbia and Chicago.[ref]Chen Xinhua, “Jindai Liumeisheng yu Xifang Shehuixue Dongjian” (U.S.-educated Students and the Introduction of Western Sociology to China) (Ph.D. dissertation, Nankai University, 2003), 36-59.[/ref]
Y. Y. Tsu graduated from Columbia in 1912 with a dissertation on “The Development of Chinese Philanthropy” and later taught at St John’s in Shanghai. Sun Benwen, who studied with William Fielding Ogburn at Columbia, published On Culture in Society in 1927, a study of American cultural anthropology of which his mentor was one of the major theorists. Chen Da, also a graduate of Columbia, taught at Tsinghua upon graduation and worked on population and labor problems. Wu Jingchao, who participated in the urban surveys organized by Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess at Chicago, contributed significantly to the development of urban sociology in China.
American sociologist Sidney Gamble’s sojourn in China is but one example of the trans-Pacific movements of people and ideas. He visited China four times from 1908 to 1932 and traveled throughout the country to survey and photograph urban and rural life. This photograph shows a Western scholar in action during fieldwork. Perched on a bamboo chair carried by four chair-coolies, Gamble looked ready to put down his notes on the typewriter resting on the stand beside his knees.
“The west needs to know more about China and Chinese life, and those who are living and working in the country need accurate information to wisely plan their work,” wrote Sidney D. Gamble and co-author John S. Burgess in 1921 in the preface to their book, Peking: A Social Survey, to explain why they had undertaken the project.[ref]Sidney D. Gamble and John S. Burgess, Peking: A Social Survey (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1921), xvi.[/ref]
Conducted under the auspices of the Princeton University Center in China and the Peking Young Men’s Christian Association, the survey was the first of its kind in China. Gamble and Burgess decided to use the survey method that “had been successful in American cities” to tackle the lack of “detail” concerning things Chinese. Knowing that they “personally would not be able to do any great amount of field work,” Gamble and Burgess secured C. H. Chen, an American returned student who had been in business in Beijing and familiar with the industrial life, and Liang Tsai Chih, a member of the local Board of Education and familiar with the educational life, as their chief field workers. They also enlisted help from Congregational church members, Peking Union University students, and foreigners studying the Chinese language preparatory to active mission work. Their collaboration was by no means smooth–oftentimes the field workers hovered over the terms of a questionnaire and disagreed on how to translate those into accurate Chinese, and Gamble and Sydney had to do all the tabulations and figure percentages as no one else was capable of doing so. Yet they managed to produce a survey that covered almost every aspect of present life in Beijing, including health, education, commercial life, recreation, “the social evil,” poverty and philanthropy, prisons, church and religious work.[ref]Ibid., xiii-xvii.[/ref]
In China’s transition to an industrial society in the early twentieth century, both American sociologists and their Chinese counterparts, most of whom U.S.-trained, valued sociology as a science that would help the country solve the problems of industrialism. In time, the small-scale urban survey in Beijing would grow into sociology projects that studied both urban and rural regions, employed methods of social survey and empirical study, and spread from the east coast to the western hinterlands.
Building on the earlier work of the missionary organizations, and aiming at a larger-scale social betterment and transformation in China than its existing programs in medicine, the Rockefeller Foundation founded the North China Council for Rural Reconstruction in 1936 and enlisted Yenching’s sociology department as one of the three participating programs for social engineering.
During the Sino-Japanese War, sociology departments of Tsinghua and Yenching relocated to southwest China and founded new research centers, among which were Tsinghua’s Institute of Census Research in Kunming (headed by Columbia alumnus Chen Da), the Yenching-Yunnan Station of Sociological Research in Kunming (headed by LSE alumnus Fei Xiaotong), and the Yenching-West China University Frontier Research Center in Chengdu (headed by UC Berkeley alumnus Li Anzhai and Harvard alumnus Lin Yaohua). Major Chinese sociology departments’ relocation from China’s industrial east to its southwest frontier, Chinese sociologists’ intellectual affinity with the Chicago school and Malinowski, and the declining influence of Columbia’s sociology department and the Rockefeller Foundation resulted in rising interest in society’s inner mechanism and a methodological shift from the Columbia social survey to the Chicago empirical study model.
American and Chinese sociologists crossed path, as teachers and students, as colleagues, and as collaborators. Yet despite the extensive transnational networks, scholars on Chinese sociology disagree about the intellectual and institutional indebtedness of the discipline to its American counterpart. Some argue that Chinese sociologists merely served as spokesmen of the respective foreign scientific schools where they had received their education.[ref]G.E. Guldin, ed., “The Anthropological Sciences in China: Defining the Discipline(s),” Chinese Sociology and Anthropology, 20 (4), 1988, p. 7.; Hu Sheng, Zao xia luncong (Beneath the Date Tree) (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1978).[/ref]
Some regard sociology as an area of American cultural imperialism, a shift from the more blatant military invasion as a way to control the indigenous population.[ref]See, for instance, Han Minghan, Zhongguo She Hui Xue Shi (History of Chinese Sociology) (Tianjin: Tianjin Renmin chubanshe, 1987).[/ref]
A team from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, on the other hand, quickly watered down foreign influence after returned Chinese students began to take up teaching positions and conduct field investigations. The indigenization of sociology, to the authors, came with staffing sociology departments with Chinese faculty and researching Chinese “special conditions.[ref]Li Hanlin, Fang Ming, Wang Ying, Sun Bingyao, and Qi Wang. “Chinese Sociology, 1898-1986.” Social Forces 65, no. 3 (March, 1987), pp. 612-640.[/ref]
Why, then, is there a tendency to disavow the intellectual indebtedness to American sociologists and sociological theories and methods? A closer look at the 1980s when scholars were preoccupied with making sociology Chinese throws light on this question. Sociology was discontinued on mainland China for three decades after the founding of the PRC because of its perceived bourgeois ideological underpinning. The discipline was slow to pick up in Hong Kong and Taiwan due to the uprooting of Chinese sociologists and the lack of institutional support. With the resurgence of sociology in the greater China region in the early 1980s, scholars on both sides of the Pacific, in Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, and the United States, met frequently to debate whether the methods and theories of Western, especially U.S., sociology could be applied to Chinese society, whether Chinese sociology should follow Western paths, what role sociology and sociologists could play in Chinese society, and how Chinese sociology and sociologists could contribute to international sociology.
The debates in the 1980s were partially fueled by economic modernization and political liberalization in the larger China region. However, if seen in a longer trajectory, the 1980s represents a continuity of contention and negotiation rather than a radical moment of indigenizing sociology. Similar efforts by Chinese sociologists had taken place in the 1930s. Fresh out of U.S. institutions, they were keen on producing scientific knowledge for the salvation of a war-torn country. To do this, they tried to build strong sociology departments and professional associations, carry out a variety of social surveys, and create theories that aimed at explaining indigenous issues.
In both the 1930s and the 1980s, there was a contention between the concept of sociology as a universal science and the practice of national sociology. I argue that an inherent contradiction of the two has been at work in the century-long history of Chinese sociology — an assumption of commonality at the time of cultural borrowing and a necessity of claiming cultural independence in the process of nation-building. When Chinese students studied with American missionary sociologists in China, migrated to Columbia and Chicago, or conducted urban and rural surveys with their American colleagues, they were drawn to American sociology’s problem-oriented outlook and hoped to find strategies that would save and modernize China. However, the nationalism of the 1930s and 1980s, rallied respectively around the crisis of the Sino-Japanese War and the modernization drive, shifted the balance of the intellectual debt and prompted Chinese sociologists to ask not only what sociology could do for China but also what China could do for sociology.
Intellectual solvency, it seems, builds a sovereign and strong nation. As a result, the complicated processes and networks of cultural borrowing are substituted with a clear-cut landscape of Chinese figures and things. This way of settling intellectual debt, I suggest, is parochial at best, especially in view of the continued movements of sociologists and sociological knowledge between China and the United States. The renunciation of the intellectual debt, by either wiping the slate clean or dismissing it as serving an ulterior motive, distorts the vibrant trans-Pacific interactions that the very existence of Chinese sociology hinges on.

hong liang