Preface to the Taiwanese edition of Art of Being Governed

I wrote a new preface for the Taiwanese edition of Art of Being Governed, to be published by Lianjing 聯經出版社 later in fall 2021.  Here is the English version:

Art of Being Governed

Preface to the Taiwan edition

Today, in 2021, thinking back on the period when I researched and wrote this book now seems to belong to a different historical era, or even a different world.  I have been very fortunate that my whole academic career has coincided with a time when two things were happening simultaneously.  The first was the revival and rediscovery of many aspects of traditional Chinese culture in the Chinese countryside; the second was the burgeoning of scholarly exchange between China and the rest of the world.  Today, the first trend is threatened by the rapid pace of urbanization and destruction of village society.  But I think there are still plentiful opportunities for further research before the last remnants of traditional village life are gone forever.  The second trend is threatened in the short term by the Covid pandemic, but in the longer term by alarming developments over which we seem to have no control: deteriorating conditions for scholarship in China, a deteriorating bilateral US-China relationship, and growing suspicion in both countries of those of us who seek to promote mutual understanding.  It seems that the latter half of my scholarly career will be devoted at least in part to countering this second trend.

One unexpected by-product of the situation in China and in US-China relations may well be the deepening of ties between US scholars and Taiwan that have attenuated in the last few decades.  I welcome this, but I will also do my best to build and maintain the ties with PRC scholars, many of whom I consider my friends.

I have also been very lucky that, through the help of my teacher David Faure, I was introduced to a remarkable group of Chinese scholars, who would subsequently come to be labelled the South China (Hua’nan) or Historical Anthropology school of Chinese history.  They welcomed me into their group, took me to visit their own field sites and taught me how to interpret the documentary and ritual tradition of rural society.  In the decades since, I have tried to repay that debt by introducing a new generation of my own students to their exciting methods, and I am proud that many of these students have now taken up research and teaching roles at universities in the United States, China and Taiwan.  Li Ren-yuan is one of those students, and I am very grateful for his support of this translation project and for the excellent preface that he has contributed.

The fieldwork that made this book possible may never be possible again.  The joy of talking about family and village history with local elders, of collecting and reading the documents that their ancestors produced and that they themselves preserve, of witnessing ancient rituals that celebrate and renew the community, of returning to the site where local history was made is truly one of the most treasured experiences of my life.  If nothing else, perhaps this book can be a record of what is possible through a respectful, historically grounded fieldwork.

The original English title of this book was poorly chosen.  The publisher and I were inspired by a hope to appeal to a broader English language audience.  I realize now that there are two weaknesses to the title.  First, the English language audience is only one of the groups I hope will read my book; it is equally important to me that the Chinese speaking world finds my work interesting, and that I can contribute to important historiographical debates that my colleagues in China and Taiwan are engaged in.  Second, the title is misleading in that contributing to a broader social science theoretical literature has never been my main concern.  Rather, my objective has always been to use microhistorical approaches to cast light on the enduring characteristics and historical changes in Chinese society, and to show that a history from the bottom-up is both possible and crucial in the study of China, even going back to the Ming dynasty.

I continue to be struck by the extraordinary sophistication of ordinary Chinese people of past times to solve their problems, both problems internal to their community and problems involving their interaction with the state and the world beyond the village.  Some of the most intractable problems they faced were also the most perennial, such as how to negotiate their relationship with the state.  This is a major theme in Art of Being Governed.  These themes continue to be a central part of my work, in my current research together with colleagues from Xianmen University, on the economic history of Yongtai, and the book project on which I am currently working, to write a modern history of rural China.  To seek to tell their stories, to rescue them from, as the English historian E.P. Thompson wrote, “the enormous condescension of posterity” continues to strike me as a very worthwhile goal. 


Michael Szonyi

Fairbank Center, Cambridge

September 2021.