I am interested in the changing experience of life and work among "ordinary" (i.e. non-elite) people throughout China's revolutionary twentieth century. Geographically, most of my work has focused on the countryside; in terms of time period, I am particularly interested in the transition to and from socialism, i.e. the 1950-60s and the 1980-90s. My first book, Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots, is a history/ethnography of a community of rural papermakers in a remote part of Sichuan. It describes the attempt by modernizing states (Qing, warlord, Guomindang, Maoist, and post-socialist) to map and catalogue the know-how of rural producers, to translate their knowledge into writing and to make it accessible to an audience of technocrats and planners--as well as the attempts of local people to resist this change.
I am currently working on a second book, tentatively titled Cotton, Work, and Gender in Revolutionary China. For centuries, women's work in China was normatively defined as textile work. Skilled textile work could be a source of great pride for many women, but it was often lonely work, carried out in the isolation of one's home. The socialist revolution sought to liberate women from the loom, so that they could perform "productive" work in agriculture, alongside men. It also promised rural people access to urban consumer goods. Yet for complex reason, the dream of modern clothes made from machine-made cloth remained elusive; well into the 1970s, millions of rural women continued to make, and millions of rural people continued to wear, homespun cloth. By looking at how women found the time and raw materials to clothe their families, I try to understand how socialist modernity interacted with deeply entrenched local norms and structures.
I have taught courses on "Conflict and Resistance in Contemporary China," "Everyday Life under Socialism," "Concepts of Property in Twentieth-Century China," "Class and Inequality in Contemporary China," and "China in Revolution, 1927-1976."
- Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots: The Social History of a Community of Handicraft Papermakers in Rural Sichuan, 1920-2000
- How China Works: Perspectives on the Twentieth-Century Industrial Workplace (edited volume, Routledge 2006)
- Rural Development in Transitional China (co-edited with Peter Ho and Eduard Vermeer, Frank Cass 2004)
- “De-Industrialization in the Chinese Countryside: Handicrafts and Development in Jiajiang (Sichuan), 1935-1978,” China Quarterly 173, March 2003.
- “How Not to Industrialize: Observations from a Village in Sichuan,&rdquot; The Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 30, no. 3-4 (April/July 2003), 75-92.