Knowing Society, Cultivating Citizens, and Making the State in Post-Imperial China

Robert Culp, Bard College

Janet Y. Chen. Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. 320 pp. $45 (cloth or e-book).

Tong Lam. A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900-1949. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011. 280 pp. $60 (cloth).

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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 (shehui 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 Chen focusing more on the development of governmental institutions and the imposition of social discipline...