Checking our “Facts”

The Rise of the “Fact” in Modern China: Reading Historical Evidence Against the Grain

My first interest in the question of the fact, especially the social fact, began with a graduate seminar. In the course my research, I came across a set of class settlement reports from two counties in the Shandong Province. These reports, which read like an expanded version of household registration forms, were generated in the context of the Four Cleanups Movement between 1963 and 1966. Also known as the Socialist Education Movement, the main purpose of the campaign was to eliminate the “reactionary” elements within the government. As part of the campaign, work teams were dispatched to the countryside to correct any erroneous or deviant practices at the lower level bureaucracy. These work teams were also instructed to encourage villagers to speak out about their grievances, including their dissatisfaction with their assigned class statues.

My initial interest was to understand how class categorization worked and what it meant for people who were being categorized. But what particularly caught my attention was the scrupulous statistical exactitude in these settlement reports. According to one record, for example, a given household of four owned two huts, two-and-a-half sheep, and half of a cow. Their neighbor owned one-and-a-half huts and three quarters of a cow. This strange accounting of dwelling spaces, animals, and tools existed  for practically each household in question. There was a certain obsession at play in which all the material possessions of these households were translated into legible, calculable, and manageable numerical facts.

It comes as no surprise that the new concept of the household or the so-called “natural” family did not correspond to the conventional familial structure of Chinese society. But a lot more can also be said about these records. As I looked deeper, it became clear that there was little correspondence between amounts of property each household owned and the class status to which each was assigned (i.e., poor peasant, middle peasant, upper middle peasant, and landlord). Instead, their recorded class statuses seemed to be determined by the narratives that documented each family’s political background during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). In one village with several dozen households, nearly a dozen individuals were listed as former supporters of the Guomindang (GMD) resistance forces. These same families were also given less preferable class labels in spite of their slim property holdings. Similarly, one head-of-household who had been classified as a “poor peasant” in the previous land reform movement was reclassified as a “bankrupt landlord” after the work team discovered that his relatives had extensive GMD connections.

My research could have stopped here for it seemed that I had unraveled the hidden rationale behind these classification and reclassification practices (at least in this specific local context). However, there remained something unsettling about this discovery. After all, why didn’t the regime simply punish these individuals and households based on their alleged political disloyalty in the past? Why did the regime bother to perform the whole ritual of data collection and statistical tabulation? Economic and material determinism aside, why was it so important for the regime to ground its ideological and political claims in numerical facts? And, what constituted the facticity of these facts?

Instead of studying the politics and implications of constructing new kinds of social and political inclusion and exclusion through the techniques of classification, my interest shifted to a more foundational question about the emergence in China of the modern fact itself. A study of the modern fact was a daunting task. While there were philosophical discussions on the question of empiricism among Chinese thinkers from the beginning of the twentieth century, my concern was not with the history of ideas, but rather the history of practices regarding the category of the fact. As such, there was no ready-made archival or documentary sources to help me answer thus a question. Instead, in this project, it was the archive itself that became an object of my investigation.

To make the project more feasible, I limited my research to the production of social facts by examining the practices of social survey research. Still, a historical ethnography of the production and circulation of social scientific knowledge requires an examination of a broad range of sites and their intertextual relationships. This is particularly true insofar as Chinese intellectuals and practitioners of social surveys themselves often expressed conflicting ideas about the very meaning of “social surveys” (shehui diaocha). Well-defined knowledge disciplines such as sociology and anthropology, as well as the academic organizations behind these, are the products rather than causes of this epistemological transformation. In that sense, a study focusing on academic disciplines or academic organizations would not be adequate to track the larger intellectual, cultural, political, and social processes associated with the rise of the modern fact in China. For example, although Fei Xiaotong has been regarded as the father of Chinese sociology and anthropology, he was hardly such an important figure within the Chinese social survey movement. By the time he became an active player in the Chinese social survey scene, the culture of fact and most of the key social science organizations were already well established.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of social science materials from the Republican period, including materials that have not yet been studied. For instance, although historians have written quite extensively about the leading Republican-era social scientists, typically based on their published books and articles, the even larger collection of BA and MA theses written by social science students from that period has not yet been adequately examined. Some good places to start were the archives and Special Collections at major universities, such as Tsinghua University, Peking University, and Nankai University. Still, the simple act of reading these social science textbooks, treatises, and articles was far from sufficient. For me, the most important and yet challenging part of the project was to examine the actual process whereby certain types of information were generated and elevated to the status of “admissible evidence” about society and the nation.

In order to get at the practices of social survey research, I relied on the field diaries and autobiographies of social investigators and fieldworkers. Fortunately, some of these materials have been preserved by institutional archives and libraries in China and Taiwan. Two of the most important collections are the archives of the Institute of History and Philology at the Academia Sinica, and Second Historical Archives of China in Nanjing. These sources provide useful insight on how researchers and fieldworkers presented their activities as scientific and objective, and why certain types of empirical facts came to be considered credible. However, anthropologists have long warned us about the performative aspect of their fieldwork and field diaries. Not surprisingly, in order to get at the practice of social survey research more deeply, one must go beyond the face value of statements made by the researchers and fieldworkers. Oftentimes, there is no significant difference between what was being ridiculed as “traditional scholarship” and what these researchers and fieldworkers called “science.” Rather, that distinction had to be constantly articulated and performed by means of hiring practices to data collection in the field. For example, field researchers had to constantly remind themselves and their supervisors that they were practicing science rather than traditional scholarship. At a certain level, they were performing rather than doing science, a symptom that was akin to the iconoclastic New Culture and May Fourth Movements in general.

As far as the history of the fact is concerned, I discovered that one of the most significant ruptures took place in the final years of the Qing, at a time when older meanings of truth and facticity, as expressed in the formula “seeking truth from facts,” were radically transformed to serve new political and administrative purposes. An excellent illustration is the empire-wide census, carried out by the Qing government between 1908 and 1911, that insisted on direct enumeration, exactitude, and comprehensiveness. Unfortunately, a lot of the material from the Minzhengbu (Ministry of Civil Affairs) that was responsible for the census has been inaccessible for many years without any clear explanation. To get around this evidentiary block, I dug into the records of other Qing government agencies that had routine correspondences with the Minzhengbu. For instance, just by using the archive of the Lifanbu (formerly known as Lifanyuan or the Ministry of Frontier Affairs) alone, I was able investigate how the census was carried out in the frontier regions.

After years of studying the history of the modern fact in China, I am all the more convince that much more work needs to be done in this area. So far, I have focused primarily on the history of the Chinese social survey movement, and I have barely touched upon the emergence of this culture of fact within literature, art, journalism, and other cultural sites. At the end of the day, reading against the grain of historical sources is what we should do as historians. A history of the fact and facticity is only one step in this direction. After all, to turn documents, archives, and facts themselves into objects of historical interrogation is not to deny or demote the importance of empirical evidence and archival research. Far from it, such a project requires one to undertake empirical research in an even more painstaking manner.

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  1. hello, I would love to contact the author of this blogpost. Is her author’s information available?

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